Zeroing In

I’m finally zeroing in on my ambergris perfume. I worked my way through my aroma chemicals and naturals to see what reminded me of ambergris, the sea, the beach, and anything related to the ocean. I rounded up such goodies as nonyl alcohol, seaweed absolute, calone and about a dozen other things.

After acquiring “the egg,” a 50-gram piece of white ambergris, I had to ask myself whether I’m trying to duplicate the aroma of an ambergris tincture or a chunk of ambergris itself (they smell very different). Naturally, the tincture is going to be present, but the question is whether to draw it out or bend it in a raw ambergris direction.  I’ve decided to emulate the aroma of the egg. It has a peculiar marine quality that makes me think immediately of konbu, the seaweed used to make dashi, the basic broth that’s almost universal in Japanese and Korean cooking. However, it’s more complex than konbu and has a distinct animal quality which, of course, is what makes it so compelling.

When blending, I started with a 10% solution of ambroxan since I like the molecule and figured it would be a good background and would lend basic support. I added grisalva to reinforce the ambergris notes. Cyclamen aldehyde contributes substantially to the effect I’m going after and asserts a dry sea-like note. And then, of course, I add the ambergris—enough to get it to be clearly present. I tied together some of the notes with barely a trace of celery seed.

This morning I worked on making my creation better—more complex and projecting more.  I put 20 drops in each of eight test tubes and added a drop of various ingredients to each tube. I tried vetiveryl acetate for lift and it, in fact, did add a certain welcome lightness. In search of a green note, I added too much (one drop of 10% solution) galbanum and had to go back and make a 1% solution to work with. The galbanum did add an almost undetectable sparkle. I added a drop of my musk perfume to one of the test tubes and immediately smelt that I had added too much. I’m going to add the barest trace—enough to add an animal note, but not enough to be recognized; if blended carefully, there remains an aroma that could be mistaken for natural musk. Some grades of ambergris do indeed smell this way.

While the egg expresses no woody notes, I’ve encountered plenty of chunks of ambergris that do. I added a drop of 1% Laotian oud. It creates an effect—I get a sort of light headedness—without necessarily being strong enough to smell through everything else. My sense is that it’s being detected by the pineal gland, our atrophied second nose. I decided to keep it. I then added a drop of 28-year old cedar and got a subtle and intriguing wood note identifiable as cedar but not in any domineering way. Added that. I’m also including a bit of beeswax absolute for a delicate honey note. The honey note goes well with the added musk.

The top note is a bit confusing. When first applied, authentic ambergris tincture smells like isopropyl alcohol, giving the impression of rubbing alcohol—very delightful rubbing alcohol. This quickly subsides and transmutes into the classic ambergris aroma. I’d like to retain this as the authentic top note, but I fear people’s reactions. I’m certainly not going to add a top note outside of the ambergris paradigm. Citrus would be ridiculous. In fact, I don’t want to do anything that interferes with the authentic ambergris aroma.  

There, of course, remains the question of how much ambergris tincture to add and at what concentration. Most of my tinctures are 10% which is high for ambergris. Three percent is traditional. In classic perfumes, about 1% of a 3% solution is typical. What I find interesting, and need to explore, is that some solutions are better at lower concentrations. I’m going to make some 3% tincture and see how that works. I have to keep in mind that an ambergris perfume is almost unheard of—ambergris is used to heighten the expression of other ingredients while staying resolutely in the background. So, if I can get a 3% solution to project almost as much as a 10% solution, I can use more. I would like half the perfume to be tincture and the other half my chemical construction.

All this tincturing takes time—at least three months in the sun for a tincture to mature—and I need to predict how much to make. My 50-gram egg will make 500 ml. of 10% tincture or 1.65 liters of 3%. Enough for Brooklyn Perfume Company to make a lot of perfume.


Ambergris again and again

I’m making progress with Brooklyn Perfume Company. Next week, Ricky (dear friend and current “sales representative”), is presenting the perfumes to several boutiques and, at the least, will be leaving off samples. It feels like we’re entering a new phase. I’m also encouraged that my ambergris perfume now lasts longer. It projects well, but not well enough. I’m going to put each of its components on smelling strips and see what projects the best and perhaps bring that ingredient more up front. In any case, those few who have smelt it have been enthusiastic. I want to bring it to market. My horde of tincture will allow me to make a good number of bottles and with the “egg” (see photo), a good number of bottles more.

The problem of course, is that ambergris tincture must age for at least three months and usually longer before it can be used. Because it’s expensive, it’s important not to tie up too much cash in inventory, but trying to predict so far out is really a stab in the dark.

Anyway, these circumstances led me to justify another purchase—a 50-gram piece. A beautiful thing—egg-shaped and smelling of the sea, of cheese rind (the kind you smell only in France), and the horse-drawn carriages wrangling tourists next to Central Park. It’s so lovely, I hate to tincture it.

To obtain this piece, I contacted my friend Patrick in Ireland who, in turn, put me in touch with his brother Jim. Jim showed up yesterday with a basket or gorgeous chunks and let me examine and sniff them all. They look very much like truffles, white ones at least.

Jim showed us pictures of his dog Dash who does the heavy lifting when it comes to combing beaches from France to New Zealand. Jim brought along a good dozen chunks of white ambergris. Jim explained that while white ambergris is most valued in the West (it’s the stuff they sell to the big expensive perfume houses), in the Middle East and in India they prefer what western perfumers would consider inferior grades—darker with funky fecal notes. There’s something to be said for these latter as they often evolve into something more complex and animalic than the ethereal quality of tinctures made from the white.

Jim also brought along some tinctures he had made from chunks of different ages (ambergris gets lighter as it ages) and colors. (I showed him my pink ambergris tincture.) I was surprised that they had none of the isopropyl alcohol thing I associate with mature tinctures and, in fact, seemed to have little odor at all. He tinctures in the dark. I tincture in the sunlight only because it seems logical to me, given that light is what causes ambergris to mature in the first place. My own tinctures are virtually odorless—I can’t even smell the alcohol--when they’ve had no time in the light. As the tinctures matures, it first begins to smell of ethanol. When I first noticed this, I thought that maybe my alcohol was more odoriferous than I had originally thought. But when I compared the smell of the tincture with that of pure ethanol, the smell of ethanol in the tincture was far more pronounced. As a chef, I have often seen (or, rather, tasted) that truffles make things taste more of themselves. The smell of a truffle is inviting and intriguing, but not necessarily mouth-watering. Any chicken or egg or oyster or any sauce with a lot of butter in it, is transformed by the presence of truffles. They’re a sort of pheremonic MSG.

As the tincture continues to evolve, the isopropanol starts to show up. If I smell the rim of the stopper (mine are glass) I get the alcohol smell for sure, but I also get a marine thing and a kind of animal complexity. As is so with other pheremonic things, I can’t stop smelling it.


Starting My Own Business: Brooklyn Perfume Company

Yes, I knew it would be expensive and that I would panic about money. There would be mistakes, some onerous (such as pricy or smelly), and there would even be unpleasant people to deal with. What I didn’t expect? The enormous number of small and large tasks to take something from a critical success amongst a few colleagues and pleased customers, to a viable business. There’s all the legal stuff, of course, but then there’s bookkeeping (and hiring someone part-time), there is every sort of label in its own little envelope, labels for big samples and small samples. Deciding what to print on the inkjet and what to send out… Should we stain the boxes for the samples?

While any of this going wrong can be upsetting, none of it induces the same degree of angst as does a concern about the actual product—such as putting on one of of my perfumes in the afternoon and an hour later going into a panic—“it’s shot, there’s no tenacity, I can’t smell it!”—before realizing I had just washed my hands. Some of this angst is heightened by knowing I’m undereducated and haven’t spent the last 10 years working with masters in Grasse. I don’t know much about perfumes later than the 1970s and have nothing to stand on except my experience with cuisine and wine. The smells must stand on their own.

I do have a vision. It is inspired by the smell of my mother’s perfumes when she wore them in the 1950s. (One thing about getting older is that you get to have tasted and smelled a lot of good vintage stuff.) As I plod through my olfactory analyses of naturals and chemicals and of any accords I might have fallen on, I make links with those ancient perfumes (Joy, Vol de Nuit, Shalamar, Chanel 5, Chanel 19 were a few) Some of these smells are now no-no’s. Natural musk will hold you by the hand and walk you into a sacred garden, but forget it—it comes from killing a small and endangered Himalayan deer. A drop of civet pulls together disparate notes—especially florals—into a sophisticated bouquet. We’re out of luck on this one too because it comes from a civet cat. I have no inherent problem with this—we exploit cows, don’t we?—but some producers torment the civets by caging them and poking them with sticks so they’ll release more of their anal scent paste. I have cybershopped all over Ethiopia looking for a humane version (one producer claims to keep the civets in an enclosure, but not a pen, and let them wipe their anuses on poles posted around for this purpose). If this is true, I could justify it, but I can’t take the chance that someone’s just screwing around with me. On my next trip to Ethiopia, I’ll drop by. 

Other smells, less taboo, strike me—the smell of natural florals, supported on a beautifully structured artificial base or a whiff of ambergris associated somehow with bergamot or vetiver. It’s an accumulation of little things that I use to express the vision. 

As I spend more time designing labels, worrying about hiring, keeping my head in the sand about money, the joy of olfactory exploration can easily get shunted to a small corner of a busy schedule. When I work, I need privacy and freedom from distraction (no phone) and an open-ended amount of time.

Lately I’ve been working on recreating the smell of flowers with basic perfume chemicals. I’m cheating, necessarily, by having memorized most of the ingredients that go into each flower. The game is to figure out how much to use of each compound. I’ve come up with some really revolting stuff. (One friend, straining to be diplomatic, described my jasmin as good for toilet bowl cleaner.) I do think I could elevate some of my experiments by integrating naturals.

Of course it’s taken much longer than we had hoped to get BPC out there. We are “out there” now, in that our perfumes are available on our website, but we’ve yet to do much in the way of promotion. That is to come. 


Pheromones: Sex, Scent, and Attraction

Much has been made of a perfume’s ability to induce sexual feelings and even to draw us to the person wearing it. While these claims have been made, few people I’ve spoken with seem to share this view and perfumes, while they can be delightful, are rarely thought of as true aphrodisiacs. In fact, it is often said, real aphrodisiacs don’t exist.

If asked a few years ago, I would have concurred. But I started to notice funny things. When I was working on my amber perfume, I came up with a precursor—something I thought might work as a base. When I met my best friend and his girlfriend for lunch, I brought along a vial of it for them to check out. When I passed it around the table, I sensed something--they were whispering to each other and nuzzling in a distinctive way that let me know they were getting aroused.  Being close enough friends, they were very frank about what they were feeling. They wanted to return to their hotel room—afternoon plans were scrapped—and spend some time together.

Amazed, I returned to the lab to figure out what I had just come up with. The central components of the base were (are: I still use it) patchouli, tobacco, and castoreum, typical leathery notes. When I combined these three ingredients, while intriguing, the aphrodisiac quality seemed to have disappeared. I delved deeper into the formula and noted that part of it was composed of another complex made with sandalwood, burnt amber, castoreum, vanilla, and oud. I experimented some more and realized that the oud, tobacco, castoreum and burnt amber formed an accord. On one hand suave, the perfume also had an assertive animal quality which seemed to come less from the castoreum than the oud, tobacco and amber.

Many are confused by the word “amber.” Some think it is ambergris which it is not (in old books, ambergris is sometimes called “ambra”) and many assume it’s an accord based on labdanum, vanilla, bergamot and other ingredients. These “ambers” can be delightful and are often used as bases for finished perfume. I use a third amber, burnt amber, which is a distillation of the same amber we wear for jewelry. While the smell is acrid, there’s something irresistible about it. It’s smoky and phenolic and has a bit of a funk. When combined with tobacco, castoreum and oud, it becomes savage. A funkiness is present that some people might describe as smelling like a barn. There’s even something mildly repulsive about it. But the real give-away is finding you can’t take your nose away. Ambergris is like this. It smells underwhelming but those who smell just keep smelling it.

I’ve determined that it is funk that makes a perfume an aphrodisiac. After all, it’s the (sometimes) funky body smells which draw us. Studies have shown that arm pits, the crotch area, the anus, and the hair on one’s head all create a pheremonic response. Of course we don’t want to be aware of these smells except perhaps in love making. They must be used beneath the level of consciousness. All my eaux de parfums, except the sandalwood, have this quality. My oud perfume has enough oud such that the aroma of the oud contributes considerable animal dissonance. One perfumer on (an online forum for perfumers) declared that there were two aphrodisiacs in his life: the smell of his wife and Brooklyn Perfume Company’s oud.

Brooklyn Perfume Company’s musk is another example. In theory, an artificial musk emulates natural deer musk, not used for decades. Natural musk, taken from the deer’s anal gland, is one of the most compelling of all aromas. Some are revolted by its funk (the musk from each animal is different) while others, like myself, can’t get enough. Which brings us to the musk perfumes currently on the market. As far as I can tell, they’re all rather smooth and funkless. Wondering why, it occurred to me that most people today (including perfumers) have never smelled the real thing. They don’t know what they’re trying to emulate. Giving away my age, I remember how my mother smelled when she got home late from a party and her perfume had mostly worn off. She stunk of pure natural musk. 

When I set out to make a musk for Brooklyn Perfume Company, I wanted something a little funky and very sexy. I made a blend of artificial musks, but then accented it with various animal-like synthetics. It has a definite funk, but one that seems to blend in with the skin as the perfume wears off. Is it an aphrodisiac? I suspect yes. A couple of weeks ago I was in a car with a dear friend who was wearing my musk. His ex-wife, who was sitting next to him, started touching him and rubbing him. She looked at him and asked “Are you wearing some kind of attractant?” My 94-year old mother-in-law wears it and says that it’s not really a perfume per se, but something that makes her skin smell more like itself.

More about pheromones in an up-coming post. 

Florals (again)

Perfumers forever state that a well-made perfume has a synthetic frame, ultimately fleshed out with essentials, absolutes, and enfleurages, each derived from natural ingredients. I have nothing against aroma chemicals since most of the time they are the same compounds that occur in the flowers anyway. (This isn’t completely true; some molecules are mirror-images of their natural counterparts.) The agreed wisdom is that aroma chemicals persist more on the skin (they do this best when they form accords) than do naturals. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If the chemicals are the same compounds found in the naturals, one would assume they’d last the same amount of time. Empirically, however, it does seem to be true—to make most perfumes persistent enough, you need isolated compounds, synthetic or otherwise.

            To go about learning how to make this chemical frame, I’m using charts from one of my favorite perfume books, by Stephan Jellinek and Robert Calkin from the early 1990s. In one section of the book (which I’ve copied to avoid wearing the book out) there is a list of “compounding notes” for certain well-known flowers. For example, under rose, in a left column is a list under “Basic Formula.” Listed on the right column are “Selected Variants and Modifiers.” While this sounds like giving away the game, keep in mind that no quantities are given. You must smell your way through the array until you get to a rose.

            The first chemical listed is phenylethyl alcohol. This isn’t surprising since phenylethyl alcohol smells just like roses. (not really; if you hold it next to a real rose, it smells “chemical” and flat and has no complexity). So, I start with a base of 30 drops of that (why not?). The next chemical is citronellol.  I added about 10 drops of that until it came into balance with the phenylethyl alcohol. I never would have thought of citronellol as being part of a rose’s fragrance—it’s used to repel mosquitos. Geranyl acetate, another nuance, is added next. I continued in this way, until I had put together 12 aroma chemicals. The result did, in fact, smell like a rose, if rather a clumsy one. It was a bit too green and sour. The two are separate in my mind. Green is of green things like crisp sugar snap peas snapped open (galbanum and violet leaf smell this way) and instantly sniffed. Sour is something tangy like clary sage.

            After establishing the basic (clumsy) rose, I moved on to the variants and modifiers. Next to phenylethyl alcohol, Jellinek recommends pheylethyl acetate, “phenylethyl esters,” and phenoxyethyl isobutyrate. Keep in mind that an ester is the result of an alcohol combining with a carboxylic acid. For example, ethyl alcohol and acetic acid, when combined under the right conditions, form ethyl acetate, which has an aroma all its own. It’s good to keep this in mind when trying to figure out which aroma compound might work. If you’re working with linalool, for example, try linalool acetate. It has a freshness and a naturalness that augments and balances linalool itself.  

            Under “Other rose chemicals,” we find “damascones.” There is more than one, each with its own nuances, but the gist is fruitiness. They’re beautiful molecules that add a lovely freshness to a blend, provided they are used very discretely. A drop too much can ruin an experiment.

            I tried something else. I added naturals to back up some of the compounds. I added geranium to geraniol, neroli to nerol, clove to eugenol, and orris (iris root) to ionone alpha (a violet-like compound) to give complexity and nuance.

            At the very bottom of the list is an array of recommended naturals. Many are surprising in a rose: two kinds of chamomile, palmarosa (which smells like tarragon), carrot seed, guaiacwood, sandalwood, iris (orris), mimosa and benzoin siam.  By adding a drop here or there, the rose moves in one direction or the other. Carrot seed is surprisingly effective in bringing out “rosiness.”

            I did find it surprising that Jellinek doesn’t mention animal ingredients as he does for the other flowers. Perhaps it is because they distract from the rose itself, but I would certainly like to experiment with civet, ambergris, and musk.

            Finally, I added a drop of 10-percent red rose otto. Since I was working with 10-percent tinctures, this seemed an appropriate starting point to add to a solution of about 200 drops. I figured I’d work up to four percent rose otto since this was the percentage typically used in perfumes up through the 1950s. Wrong. Very wrong. Rose otto is far more powerful than an absolute. My one drop transformed the whole thing. My clumsy rose, which now contained almost 40 ingredients, sparkled with subtle nuance. While no masterpiece, it had become a real perfume. It lasted on the skin at least a little while (an hour?); rose otto just evaporates. 

            Working with this list has familiarized me with more aroma chemicals and has given me insight into the relationships between them. I want to remember enough of them so I can think in them and construct my own florals, either duplications of natural flowers or fantasies of non-existent things.


From Perfumery: Practice and Principles by Robert R. Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek, published by John Wiley




Basic Formula                                                 Selected Variants and Modifiers

Phenylethyl alcohol and esters

            Phenylethyl alcohol                             Phenylethyl acetate

                                                                        Phenylethyl esters

                                                                        Phenoxyethyl isobutyrate

Rose alcohols and esters

            Citronellol                                           Rhodinol         



            Geranyl acetate                                  Geranyl esters

                                                                        Citronellyl esters



Other rose chemicals                                     

            Rose oxides



                                                                        Orthomethoxy benzyl ethyl ether

Floral modifiers

            Ionone alpha                                       Beta ionone




Green notes

            Phenylacetaldehyde                            Phenylacetaldehyde dimethyl acetal

                                                                        Methyl heptine carbonate

                                                                        Violet leaf absolute




                                                                        Methyl cyclo citrone


Aldehydic notes

            Aldehyde C11 undecylenic                  Aldehyde C8

                                                                        Aldehyde C9


                                                                        Alcohol C10

                                                                        Muguet aldehydes

Citrus notes


                                                                        Geranyl nitrile


Spicy notes





Carbinols and their esters

            Rosatol                                                Phenylethyl dimethyl carbinol

                                                                        Dimethyl benzyl carbinyl acetate

                                                                        Dimethyl benzyl carbonyl butyrate

Honey notes

            Ethyl phenylacetate                            Methyl phenylacetate

                                                                        Citronellyl phenylacetate

                                                                        Eugenyl phenylacetate

                                                                        Phenyletheyl phenylacetate

                                                                        Phenylacetic acid

                                                                        Cire d’abeille absolute

Additional base notes

                                                                        Diphenyl oxide



                                                                        Musk T



            Geranium                                            Camomile bleue

                                                                        Camomile Roman


                                                                        Carrot seed



                                                                        Iris concete

                                                                        Mimosa absolute

                                                                        Benzoin Siam





Scent Memory: Wine, Scent, and Perfume

I’ve got an old nose. I’m sure it isn’t what it was during the 1970s when I was training it on bottles of old Lafitte, but it’s still there and working. I worry, that as I get even older, I’ll lose more of it. While this isn’t something I relish, working with wine and perfume is about memory, at least as much about memory as the smells themselves. (One could argue that there is no such thing as “the smells themselves.” The objective smells are only those we all agree are there.)

During my 20s, I had to walk along a hundred-yard weed-strewn stretch of trolley tracks to get to the restaurant where I worked. I played a game. I recognized and categorized as many aromas as I could during that short trip through the alley. After doing this for several weeks, I had over two hundred aromas I could name.

I’m convinced that training our sense of smell is more about the brain than it is the nose. The more we smell, consciously and with intention, areas of the brain that may well have atrophied, stir back to life. When I first started smelling perfume ingredients, there were many I couldn’t detect. I couldn’t smell sandalwood or vetiver. But I persisted for several months and now I can’t imagine working with so many ingredients I couldn’t perceive. I now not only recognize sandalwood, but can usually tell where it’s from. I don’t think that I necessarily rejuvenated actual olfactory cells, but more likely activated the part of the brain that handles them.

I’ve been with a lot of people when they taste a particular wine or smell a particular perfume for the first time. Often, the first impression is vivid, usually of a memory of a long-forgotten place with no real understanding of how these associations came to be. Everyone first assumes these memories or associations are “wrong” and that these aromas and smells are have an objective identity more important than our own impressions.

Rule number one. There is no right answer.

The trick to better understanding wines and perfumes, is to group our impressions and label them in such a way that they make sense to others and make it easier for us to impart what it is we’re trying to say. For example, a glass of Corton may be reminiscent of berries, mushrooms, truffles, all layered together in a transcendent structure. For practical purposes, this is all we need. But as we gain experience, we clump together certain perceptions to allow us to better negotiate with others when discussing wine or perfume. The berry and mushroom combination may be enough to declare the wine as Burgundy. Other more subtle nuances—a trace of mint or spearmint for example—might signal we’re at the more southern part of the iconic Côte de Nuit. If we have an effective roster of other aromas (and, for wine, flavors and textures) in our heads, we may be able to recognize Corton. If we really know this region, we’re likely to be able to pinpoint the maker.

So, the training of the nose is more about memory than simply giving your nose a workout. It is the accumulation over time of olfactory memory that allows us to identify nuances and subtle accords. These memories don’t have to sound good. You’ll identify the old Corton or pick apart the ingredients in your mother’s Quelques Fleurs, by using your aroma memories as reference points. I sometimes recognize Burgundy by a note of what reminds me of Clorox; I can nail down certain vintages by whether they have an elusive dog feces aspect. What you smell doesn’t have to be a “pleasant” association. Half the time truffles remind me of mildew. 

Ambergris again and again

In an earlier entry, I made a mistake. I described the Medicine Flower “ambergris” as being ambergris when in fact, I think it’s civet. I emailed them and said that perhaps it had been mislabeled since it seemed to be civet. They denied selling civet (which is true) and reminded me that I had ordered the “ambergris” before with no problem. They’re right about that. It took me being away for a while and getting a little objectivity before I realized the civet thing. In any case, whatever it is, I tinctured it and have it maturing in the refrigerator. Whether it’s civet or not, I don’t know, but it does tincture nicely and I would use it as civet. It may, in fact, end up being a good source. It is, however, expensive.

            My obsession with ambergris has inspired me to make an ambergris perfume that contains real ambergris and not just a token amount—an amount that will make a real difference.

            Since each ball of ambergris seems to have a different character, I like to blend them. Brown ambergris creates a funkier (and I think more persistent) aroma than white. White ambergris has that classic isopropanol thing going on. It’s beautiful and opens the perfume with this rubbing alcohol note—but this rubbing alcohol is to rubbing alcohol in a bottle what dried cod is to beluga.

            Phase one of the ambergris perfume is to gather every ingredient, synthetic or natural, that reminds me of the sea in some way. White and brown ambergris tinctures will both be used to create the right balance. Other things such as seaweed absolute, helional, ambroxan, mushroom absolute, and dozens of weird ocean things.

            My morning subway ride is my daily reminder of what people are wearing out there and I smell a lot of ambroxan. People want the smell of ambergris and that slightly off animal smell. 

Oud again

My oud source has again run out—there seems to be no more aku akira—so I’ve had to reformulate using new ouds. I ordered 14 different oud samples and tested them all for balance and longevity. I’m now using Malaysian oud, a Hindi, and another one of uncertain origin.

            If nothing else, this whole process is teaching me about oud. Hindis seem to be the funky ones and I consider funkiness an essential element. (Roquefort cheese, not just any banal blue cheese, is an often-recognized component.) I also want there to be that ethereal thing that seems to float on top. This set of aromas is transcendental, meaning, in my own parlance, that it takes me somewhere else and evokes images and memories, some of which are completely inexplicable. In wine, I call this terroir.

            But I’ve been getting frustrated. When I smelled my original oud (the first edition), I noticed a balsamic sweetness. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It wasn’t vanilla or balsam or benzoin, but something unidentifiable. Then, all of a sudden, I realized what was going on. The first edition includes a miraculous kind of frankincense.

            To be frank (no pun intended), I’ve never really liked frankincense since it reminds me of lemon furniture polish.

            When I first started my adventures in perfumery, I ordered 17 different frankincense oils from all over the world, including very expensive wild harvested, green Oman, and every exotic and expensive thing I could find. The all disappointed me except one. I had ordered it from Singapore and it was divine, unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. I used it in my original oud.

A year ago, the frankincense from the same supplier came in with the balsamic thing and the lemon polish thing in about equal parts. It’s still the best frankincense out there.

I’ve since ordered more, and it’s pure furniture polish. I’ve asked them about the original and they said they have a little from several years ago. Their minimum order is 5 kilos. That’s an enormous amount for me, but I would do it without hesitation if it’s the old stuff.

This all makes me wonder if the frankincense described in the bible and in other sources that go on about it, isn’t the balsamic oud. The furniture polish thing is perhaps something new?

The new oud contains little frankincense and is a little bit harder and austere than the first and second editions. It also contains new exotic woods to round it out and provide a woody top note. This being said, I believe it to be the best expression of oud of all three editions

Ambergris again

I'm finally at the in-depth experimentation phase. I worked through my aroma chemicals and came across a few that I think will work in my blend. I've been taking paper smelling strips, dipping one in ambergris and the other in an aroma chemical. I then compare them.

As I was pondering my ambergris experiments yesterday, I made a somewhat obvious realization.  I don't have the experience or sense memory to construct a perfume, in my mind, completely with synthetics; I'm continuing to learn them. Instead, I work through my chemicals and naturals and find things that go along with my blend. I then start comparing on paper strips and eventually start blending the ingredients. I have found that this system also provides for happy accident, for it has always been accident--carefully tamed accident--that has led me to my various concoctions. I once came up with a perfect gardenia but somehow lost track of what I was doing. I never was able to reproduce it again. I discovered my musk by accident too. I was visiting a friend and had brought some musk experiments with me. We spent the afternoon smelling them, comparing etc. but none seemed to stand out. The next morning the strips were sitting on a tray. I, without thinking, picked one up and gave it a sniff. I immediately knew that that was the one. I'm hoping that what I lack in experience can be compensated by the "vision" I have of my mother's antique perfumes. While no always certain how to achieve it, I at least have a clear idea of what I want to achieve. 


I've long wanted to create an ambergris perfume. I have plenty of ambergris tincture but am confronted with the fact that ambergris tincture has to age in the light for several months before it develops its aroma. Each piece of ambergris has a different aroma profile.

I've found that the "higher end" more expensive ambergris produces a more fleeting aroma, reminiscent of isopropanol, but one so luxurious and alluring that there's really no comparison. One smells harsh and chemically and the other luxurious with a gentle underlying animal character. This animal character is present in all my perfumes as I find that dissonance and a little funk do wonders for perfume, light citrus eaux de toilette excepted. Unfortunately, the more expensive ambergris is the least persistent. Less expensive pieces contain a little more of the barnyard character. It is a combination of these facets upon which I want to base my perfume.

I realize, however, that an ambergris perfume is a lot more complicated than one might think. If you use ambergris alone, you have to use too much and the perfume gets too expensive. So, it's important to build a base that the ambergris can stand on. This involves chemicals such as ambroxan which mimics the aroma of the real deal. 

The current stage involves working through my aroma chemicals and naturals (I have about 300 of each) and seeing (smelling) which might work with ambergris. I've already discovered seaweed absolute which is definitely going into the blend. 

Anyway, experimentation continues. I would like to release the perfume in a month or so.  


I've made a most curious discovery. On the White Lotus website, they offer what they call ruh(s). They have about 5 of them among which are the best known jasmines (grandiflorum, sambac, etc.). I ordered a small bottle of the jasmine grandiflorum and was completely blown away.

From what I can deduce from the website, ruhs are made like rose otto except with jasmine. The jasmine petals are distilled with water and the (very sparse) oil that floats to the top is the ruh. In fact, a ruh is an essential oil, analogous to rose otto, but with jasmine.

When my jasmine ruh arrived, I was amazed by the fragrance which seemed to be the most accurate interpretation of jasmine I had ever encountered. I put it on a strip and put my various absolutes on other strips. The absolutes seemed rather coarse compared to the ruh. Also, amazingly, the ruh (ruh chameli, ruh juhi, and ruh motia) remained on the strip much longer than my various absolutes.

When I ordered the other "flavors" of jasmine and was able, better than with absolutes, to appreciate the nuances and difference between the various ruhs. Of course, the ruhs are expensive but they're so intense and so accurately represent the flower that I find them worth it. 

Basenotes and bragging is an on-line network of perfume aficionados. As far as I know, it's the premier site for perfumers, including "do it yourselfers." In any case, I've received a number of reviews, most of which have been superlative. To see the site, go to I'd also like to mention that I have a profile in a prestigious perfume blog,

More about ambergris

This whole perfumery thing has led to financial corruption. When I read about a new source of ambergris—a guy in Ireland sells it—I jumped on it and spent a rather shocking amount of cash. But to me, ambergris is money and is worth money. Anyway, it arrived yesterday—I had ordered 53 grams—in six rather large balls. The largest is the size of a golf ball and the smallest about twice the size of a hazelnut. They all smell similar—much like the seaweed the Japanese use (konbu) for making dashi, the base for their soups and stews.

Strangely, I’ve found that the funkiest ambergris yields the most interesting tincture. About a year ago, I sent away to Medicine Flower to buy a 10-gram piece, but because of some misunderstanding, I received a bottle of liquid “ambergris.” Suspicious, I called the company and spoke to a woman who wasn’t terribly pleased when I questioned her about the liquid. She spoke about it being C02 distilled, etc. etc. leaving me more suspicious than ever. (The stuff wasn’t too expensive. If it really were distilled ambergris, it would be extremely dear.) So, I decided to tincture it to 6%. It has matured very nicely and its original funky nature (much funkier than any ambergris I’ve ever smelled) has transmuted into a marine complexity that I find very appealing.

Since the new ambergris is in large balls, I almost hate to tincture it, yet as far as I can tell, ambergris has no value in itself—it must be tinctured to be useful. My own experience of tincturing is somewhat idiosyncratic. I tincture a given weight of ambergris in a given weight of alcohol—this is simple enough; I just dissolve the ambergris in ethanol at room temperature. When the ambergris has dissolved, insoluble components will have precipitated to the bottom of the test tube. Once these are weighed (I tare the test tube) I then subtract them from the original weight of the ambergris chunk. This gives me an exact read by weight. My earlier tinctures were closer to estimates but since they were tinctured by volume, they are actually a bit stronger when calculated by weight.

My new ambergris tinctures now sit in the sun in the window. There are five, getting darker in ascending order from pale yellow to a deep caramel-like red. They are in glass-stoppered bottles (I prefer these for their look if nothing else) and as I'm planning on waiting the requisite three months before I give them a sniff. Of course I'm dying to cheat.

My latest experiments II

Since I've launched Brooklyn Perfume Company, I've made three perfumes based on woods or resins, and one musk. I'm eager to create my first floral perfume. Easier said than done. I don't really have the skill to make a completely synthetic aroma but I have been able to get by using Jellinek, one of my favorite perfume authors. I've also been playing around with flower "absolutes" from Shiva. Shiva's products are far less expensive than the equivalent found at other places and are surprisingly good. So, I'm using the Shiva stuff to make the "frame" for the perfume, giving it substance and plenty of floral power without breaking the bank. But the final coup de grace (I'm mixing my metaphors) is the addition of jasmin enfleurage.

While this is redundant for most of you perfumers out there, for those of you who don't know what the enfleurage process is, here's a synopsis: Up until World War II, the aroma of most flowers was extracted by placing the flowers on sheets of cold rendered fat spread out on trays. As the flowers released their aroma into the fat, they were removed and replaced with fresh flowers. This process was repeated until the fat was saturated with aroma. The fat was then extracted with alcohol and the alcohol evaporated without heating. The modern process of making absolutes involves extracting the flowers with hexane (essentially gasoline), getting the hexane to evaporate, and then extracting the resulting "concrete" with alcohol.

I only have two enfleurage-processed aromas: tuberose and jasmine. They are both treated in the same way except that the fat, instead of being suet, is hydrogenated palm oil. In this way, no animal products are used in the preparation of the enfleurage. As how they compare in aroma? I can only say that the enfleurage-processed tuberose and jasmine have a rich, almost jammy, quality compared to the standard absolutes. Those that I own (purchased from Enfleurage in New York) have an intensity that my other florals lack. Alas, they don't do this with more flowers. And needless to say, the enfleurage stuff isn't cheap although it may still be worth it because it's so powerful.

In any case, I experimented today with combining floral absolutes (including the Shiva stuff) with large amounts of my musk. I also added a drop of 2% cire d'abeilles (beeswax) absolute to reinforce the animal nature of the musk and to give it a little bit of earthiness. I then added a floral mixture I made with all naturals, including the enfleurage. What surprised me was the tolerance of the florals to the musk without the musk taking over. The mixtures I played with actually reminded me of my mother's old perfumes (from the 40s and 50s) because, I think, of the large amount of musk. Of course her's were backed up with natural musk and mine with my own artificial musk which, to be frank, is what I consider the most animalic musk I can find out there. Of course the dry-down leaves only the musk. But as I remember, my mother's perfumes left her smelling of nothing but musk too.

In any case, I was able to make a mixture using about 10 parts musk to 2 parts Shiva jasmine and one part jasmine enfleurage. While the mixture smelled beautiful, the usual problem reared its ugly head--getting the stuff to last longer. I've thought of using Hedione but Hedione, to me, turns everything a bit abstract. But truth be told I don't really know how to use Hedione as it's difficult for me to discern its effects.

My latest experiments IV

I continue my research on how to make an oud that has all the power and finesse of the real deal. I’ve been pretty excited and, at the risk of sounding conceited, have always thought mine the best oud out there. Now, I know in principle I shouldn’t be promoting the competition, but it is my nature to be open about such things. I was at the Twisted Lily (my favorite Brooklyn niche perfume store) yesterday, sniffing around, being discontent and literally turning up my nose at most of the bottles. The ouds didn’t smell like ouds, the sandalwoods didn’t smell like sandalwood, and the list goes on. I found many of the perfumes distinctly artificial. I will say, that modern perfumes have a smoothness in the top notes that I’ve never been able to replicate. 

This continued until I came across Kirkdjian’s Oud Cashmere. While I should have jumped with delight at finding something so reminiscent of oud itself, to tell the truth, I was rather annoyed. The oud is tight and woody without being soft or spread out, if that makes any sense. Most ouds that contain authentic oud have a cheesy component. This is because only the more expensive ouds lack (or contain less of) that barnyard aspect. So, an honest oud, containing plenty of oud itself, tends to have a little (or a lot of) funk. To make an oud perfume with a higher end oud (and I’m talking about at $200/ml.) is just about impossible without the oud costing even more of a fortune.  (Although there are those who would say that the Kirkdjian Oud Cashmere already costs a fortune at $370 for 70 ml.)

So, I continue working on improving my oud. I’ve tried switching the oud itself from Oud Assam, which has a mild cheesy component, to Borneo Gold which is almost free of the barnyard thing. While Borneo Gold is not as expensive as the highest end ouds, it is powerful and complex and by no means cheap. However, I find that the Borneo Gold is less powerful and projects less of an oud aroma. I’ve tried nagarmotha (cypriol), but I consider this cheating. It also has a weird dry-down.

I may have made my oud too soft by including vanillin (only about .1%, but still). My oud also has a balsamic quality which is very pleasant but distracts from the pure note of the oud. I've also added a ridiculous amount of sandalwood, but I don’t find sandalwood soft in the way I’m describing. My oud also includes some frankincense, the best of which has a balsamic aspect. 

The structure of the perfume is based on a wood complex (lots of sandalwood, cedar, kephalis, castoreum, methyl laitone, etc.) and a tobacco complex (tobacco, patchouli, castoreum, etc.) finished with the oud. 

I’m very fond of my oud—I think it’s one of the best available--but am concerned it’s a bit too soft and balsamic. It has plenty of oud character, but of a different style than the Kirkdjian. 

I would love to hear comments comparing mine with the Kirkdjian Oud Cashmere.


Unfortunately most of us have never smelled civet. I, in an earlier phase of my experimentation, knew it came from an animal, but not a tormented one. 

Most of us who know just a bit about civet think it comes from cats and is a form of cat spray. However, it is not derived from cats, but rather civet cats, an unrelated species. Civet, like musk, is an excretion of the anal gland. In the wild, the civet cat wipes this material on trees to signal its presence to potential partners. 

It would be fine to harvest this material from trees in the wild, but the problem begins with human intervention. The cats are caged and teased with sticks. This "teasing" is said to get them to excrete more of the anal "paste." The paradox, is that many more of us would buy and use civet if the anal paste was harvested in a humane way. 

I did hear of a guy in China who was doing exactly that. After much searching I found his website where he claims to raise the civet cats in large enclosures and refrain from tormenting them. I immediately contacted him, but he told me that the civet is used for Chinese medicine, not in perfumes. Bummer. While using civet these days is unethical, I don' suppose a little white lie would be as I develop an intense fascination with Chinese medicine. 

Civet comes as a revolting smelling army-green paste. When kept tightly sealed, it is said to remain intact for many years. It is important to keep it well sealed or it will stink up the whole lab. But like ambergris, civet paste has no value until it's tinctured.





My civet collection

Occasionally, civet is sold as an absolute. While strong and easily tinctured, the absolute shows none of the beauty or finesse of the tincture made directly from the paste. The tincture from the absolute remains stinky and unpleasant even after several months. The tincture made from the paste, however, develops a subtly and delicacy that is intriguing, if a bit urinous. It's one of those things, like ambergris, that you can't stop smelling.

Civet does wonderful things in perfumes, especially florals, which it brings to the forefront. It is (or was) very popular in French perfumes because the French prefer a little funk. Americans want their perfumes to smell like clean laundry. Very little civet is needed to produce this funky effect. One percent of a three percent tincture is usually enough. 

Attempts have been made to produce synthetic musks. The only one I've smelt is Civetone and, to be blunt, it is a compound I would never use. It just smells aggressively sticky instead of almost  fruity like natural musk. 

I bought my civet from a perfume supplier in Italy who presumably gets it from Ethiopia. If he and others applied pressure to raise civet cats in an ethical manner, we could all use the stuff. I've found , however, that suppliers get very prickly when you start talking about sustainable harvesting. But if we could convince them of the value of this, we could all have our civet. How marvelous.


Oud perfumes have become so popular as to be almost cliches. In my own experience, many contain facets of oud that are quite fascinating, but only part of the whole picture. I've tried many experiments using various substances but they either haven't smelt right or were as expensive as oud itself (osmanthus absolute comes to mind). My only solution, in the end, was to add a lot of oud and not cheap oud (as though there is such a thing) at that. 

While many of you know what oud is, for those of you who don't, the oil is extracted (distilled) from an agarwood tree. Ideally, the agarwood tree should be wild and at least 60 years old. To complicate matters the tree must be attacked by a particular kind of fungus. The fungus turns the wood black and makes it so dense that it sinks. 

Unfortunately, there are very few wild agarwood trees left and much of the oud we encounter has been extracted from cultivated trees. While these cultivated ouds can be quite lovely, they never match the ethereal hypnotic aroma of the wild trees. Discovering an agarwood tree these days (they come from India, Southeast Asia, Borneo, and a few other places I forget) is an event as a single tree can easily be worth six figures. Once a tree is discovered, a trail is hacked to the tree through the jungle with a machete. These trails can be almost 100 miles long. Once the tree is reached, it is felled, and checked for the fungus. (Only about 30% of the trees have the fungus.)  The tree is then cut up into logs and shipped out on people's backs. It is then turned over to the distiller. There are many kinds of stills (copper, stainless steel, etc.), each one imparting its own nuances to the final oil. 

The main problem I have with ouds is my tendency to collect them. Once a sample arrives from one of my favorite suppliers, I'm immediately seduced, especially by the very expensive barnyard-free ouds. Many are available in vintages. (I read somewhere that Mohammed insisted that people spend a third (or abouts) of their income on scent--justification for wild spending.)

While oud is frightfully expensive and those of us who collect it border on financial ruin, I compare it to wine. Forty years ago, when I first started drinking wine seriously, we--my hippie friends and I--could drink old vintages from famous vineyards for not that much money. Now, these same wines appear at Sotheby's, auctioned by phone to buyers from all over the world. The other problem with wine, is that once it is opened, there is only a limited time--a few hours or so--before it turns. A fine wine cannot be recorked and left on the shelf or in the fridge overnight because it will be ruined. (I'm not talking about everyday stuff.)  Oud, on the other hand, can be sniffed without even opening the bottle (even the most hermetic bottles don't seal in its aroma). I expect to have my oud collection for the rest of my days. 

Mentioning my oud collection brings me to one of my favorite notions. Everyone should have an olfactory library. Why not? Most of us have libraries with books and collections of records (or whatever it is we do these days). I get great delight when friends come over not only to smell my own attempts, but to smell the oud collection, sandalwoods, musks, civet, ambergris, various florals, etc. Spending a half an hour or so exploring scent is almost always fascinating to guests.


My latest experiments III

Today I fooled around with coupling various ingredients with my own musk concoction. I started out by adding ambergris and ambroxan, as the two seem to amplify each other. However, there is one problem with ambergris that I’ve never heard anyone mention. It has a top note that smells like isopropyl alcohol. Now, if you smell a bottle of isopropyl alcohol next to the ambergris, you’ll see there’s a huge difference. The ambergris isopropanol is beautiful and complicated despite people describing it smelling of rubbing alcohol. The isopropyl rubbing alcohol out of the bottle smells coarse and rather revolting.

            Still, this problem must be dealt with. I don’t want people to think my mixture is off in some way. So I made an important discovery. I searched for a substance that would evaporate at the same rate as the ambergris such that once the ambergris dried down a little bit, this top note would be gone at the same time.  The top note had to have an aroma that was consistent with rest of the accord. So, following the advice of a number of authors, I added a tiny bit of rosewood. I suppose I could have used linalool, but the rosewood lends a certain je ne sais quoi. And voila, it worked. I first encountered a lightness and freshness that gently masked the ambergris note. When the rosewood evaporated, the animalic notes left over from the ambergris, shone through.

            For the fun of it, I decided to add some sandalwood. Four drops in a formula containing approximately 30 drops added a subtle wood note and a lovely suaveness.

            Yesterday I experimented with my musk. I added a little bit of bees’ wax absolute which lent it an animalic note and more complexity. I added ambroxan, ambergris, and too much rosewood (I couldn’t smell anything else for a few minutes).  I then added a fair amount of sandalwood to smooth the whole thing out. Last, I added a combination of natural florals which I made several months ago. The floral aspect lasted a fair while—a couple of hours—and then dried down to my synthetic musk.  The excess rosewood, though, made the whole thing difficult to smell at the beginning.

            Of course this whole thing would have been enhanced by a drop of civet (see entry below) to pull a little funk out of the ambergris, but such things are sadly taboo. Civet would also have brought the florals into focus.

            Wish me luck for tomorrow.


I've been fascinated by ambergris ever since I heard the story of some friends of friends who came across a gelatinous gray mound while walking along the beach. Eventually they ended up selling it for $60,000. Other than keeping my eyes glued to the ground whenever I'm at the beach, this fact never inspired much  insight. It wasn't until years later, when reading Italian renaissance cookbooks, that I realized that at one time it had culinary value. Few of us are likely to have ever smelled it except, perhaps, in a bottle of the most expensive perfume but it's supposed to have an aroma between that of musk and violets. For that matter, most of us don't know what musk smells like. (More about musk in an upcoming entry.)

But what is it? Well, one of my better reference books describes it as coming from sick sperm whales. Other books describe it as regurgitated gastric juices, also from whales. What they all seem to be saying, in fact, is that it's whale vomit. But not only whale vomit, but whale vomit that has been processed by having spent time (a month? years?) in salt water. In other words, it has to be found on a beach. (Ambergris found in "harvested" whales is foul smelling and inappropriate for perfumes.)

Once I found out that ambergris is rare and expensive, I knew I had to track some down. I was able to find some from a merchant in New Zealand and later from a source in Ireland. I was disappointed when the ambergris arrived--it looked like small rocks; how one could have spotted it, I don't know. But once in hand, the first step was to make a tincture. Numerous sources insisted that the ambergris be ground up and then heated in alcohol, but I just threw a chunk in a test tube of alcohol, shook it from time to time, and found that a several-gram piece dissolved in an hour or two at room temperature. I let it sit until the sediment dropped out and then decanted it into new bottles. (There are those who think it should be allowed to remain on its dregs.)

When I smelled the tinctures (I made separate ones for each piece), they smelled like nothing but alcohol--bummer. I set them on a window cill in the sun and left them a few months. After about 3 months, they started to develop a particular aroma. The aroma was delightful in its way except for one thing--it smelled like rubbing alcohol, isopropyl alcohol to be exact. However, when I smelled a bottle of isopropanol next to the ambergris, the difference between the two was striking. It was like smelling a bottle of wine out of a jug with a bottle of Chateau Lafite. The aroma of the ambergris was irresistible while the smell of the rubbing alcohol was coarse and unpleasant. Once allowed to dry on a smelling strip, the characteristic animal aroma (a little bit like seaweed) emerged. 

I've experimented extensively with using ambergris in my perfume mixtures and have found the isopropyl alcohol note to function like a top note and be immediately discernible, even in small concentrations. This is off-putting to some if they don't know what they're smelling. I've tried using smaller doses and think I smell a particular radiance. (I've read so much about this that it's very well that I'm being prejudiced.) I've researched ambergris in old perfume recipes and have found that a 1% concentration of 3% ambergris tincture is typical.