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.


Several animalics--castoreum, ambergris, musk, civet, and hyraceum--were once used in perfumes. Nowadays, many have been replaced by synthetics, none of which match the real thing. While the ethics of using castoreum is somewhat ambiguous--it's really a byproduct of trapping beavers, not the main incentive as it is for musk--it is still commonly used in perfumes.

Castoreum is usually sold as the dried gland. Since it can be difficult to find, I had to think of where I could track it down and it occurred to me that trappers probably have it to attract beavers. Indeed they do and sell it as a thick black paste. Having heard about its strong aroma, I opened the jar in the garden, but found its aroma surprisingly gentle and clearly defined.

To produce the castoreum used  in perfumery, the gland or the paste must be tinctured in ethanol (drinking alcohol). It tinctures rather quickly--in a week or so--and throws off a thick sediment. I carefully decant off the liquid with a pipette into a clean bottle.

When I think castoreum, I think leather, tobacco, fossilized amber, and saffron--a perfect base for a leather perfume. Its use, however, is not limited to leather complexes, and it is used in many creations including many famous ones from which it has now been eliminated. I know of no replacement for castoreum. 

My latest experiments

Sometimes I end up frustrated when I start out in the morning to work on my perfume exercises. This is because I don’t know exactly which direction I want to go in.  I’m now working with florals which I’m finding much more difficult than working with woods and resins. Of course, price is the central issue since it’s impractical to use more than 10% of naturals without the perfume being insanely expensive. Even this percentage is unheard of in a commercial perfume.

Meanwhile, as I train my nose, I found a list of accords in Tony Curtis’s and David Williams’s excellent book An Introduction to Perfumery. So, I’ve set out, attacking the accords one by one to see what I come up with.

One accord that I found particularly amazing was vetiver combined with a trace of aldehyde C-11 (I use a .2% solution). I’m not very experienced with aldehydes (a nice way of saying I don’t know what I’m talking about) but was amazed how the aldehyde brought out the vetiver and gave it a little pizzazz. This put me on the track of experimenting with more and varied aldehydes with florals, woods, etc. I have yet to follow up on this as I became distracted by the next accord.

The next accord was again with vetiver, but this time with isoamyl salicylate. I’m very fond of salicylates and find they give an ineffable lightness to compounds, especially floral combinations. In this case, I found that the salicylate attenuated the aroma of the vetiver—perhaps gave it a bit of finesse?—rather than heighten it.

One of the fun ones was thyme oil with bergamot. The thyme oil is strong (I use a two percent solution instead of my usual 20%) such that I figured it would knock the bergamot out of the water. In fact, I used six drops of the thyme with 10 drops of bergamot to come up with a fresh accord in which neither of the two took over.

Further experiments have ensued—estragon with lavender; tagete flower with bergamot, and coumerin with lavender.

While these accords were interesting in themselves, they led me to a central insight that most perfumers have already grasped but is new to me: One can neutralize aromas by using these accords. For example, if vetiver is too retiring, then add a little C-11; if it’s too strong, add a little isoamyl salicylate. If lavender takes over your blend (something I’ve done more than once since the stuff is so strong) then you can add estragon to come up with a nice accord in which neither one is “visible.”

Last, I fooled around with tagete flower. I think my batch has aged (I’ve had it about three years) because when I used to smell it, it smelled of marigolds. Now it smells like something much more intriguing and harder to identify. Following my accord list, I combined it with bergamot and ended up with six drops of tagete to 14 drops of bergamot to get them balanced. 


While all of us have heard of sandalwood, few of us have smelled the authentic wood which has a smell all its own, quite unlike that of most sandalwood oils. The best sandalwood comes from Mysore in eastern India where at one time wild trees were cut down for their oil. Now most sandalwood oil from this region comes from harvested trees. Sandalwood also comes from other places such as Sri Lanka, Hawaii, Indonesia, and New Caledonia. While each of these can be lovely in its own way, none have the particular creamy delicacy of the real Mysore stuff.  

As a young child, I discovered a sandalwood fan of my mother’s. It had a distinct aroma that was so dry it was hard to breath. Today, I'd probably call it “powdery.” It took me years of searching to find a sandalwood that captured that aroma—a batch of original Mysore sandalwood from the 1930s. Once I smelled this aroma, and I realized that most sandalwood is but a poor imitation, I set out to make a sandalwood that resembled as much as possible my antique treasure. After some struggle, I think I’ve come up with something pretty good, if not an exact replica of my “gold standard.”

Brooklyn Perfume Company’s sandalwood perfume is designed to amplify the aroma of sandalwood, otherwise quite subtle. Our sandalwood has a deep smell of sandalwood, accented with a small amount of green/blue vetiver (vetiver is an aromatic grass coming from India) distilled in traditional copper stills. (This is responsible for the slightly green hue of the perfume.) This touch of green aroma is characteristic of the best sandalwood.

Sandalwood oil has been used for millennia and is made by distilling the wood of the tree to come up with a viscous, golden, and aromatic liquid. It has a slightly sweet (but never cloying) and balsamic somewhat animalic aroma. The best sandalwood, and that used in Brooklyn Perfume Company’s, comes from eastern India in the region of Mysore. Traditional sandalwood comes from old wild and practically extinct trees, but that used in our perfume is made from sustainable harvested trees. Good sandalwood perfumes—those that actually resemble the wood and not some fantasy of it—are best worn in the evening when their soft toasty aromas can blend with rich surroundings, perhaps scented by perfumes others are wearing."

When I first encountered sandalwood oil, I couldn't smell it. I had read about anosmia--the inability to smell--but never realized that one can be anosmic to particular substances. Even perfumers may be anosmic to certain flowers, musks, woods or chemicals. But I was anosmic to sandalwood and artificial musk, two essentials in the perfumer's kitchen. It was sort of like being a French cook who couldn't taste butter. I felt like some kind of olfactory paraplegic. Convinced I could smell certain things to which I had had a previous blindness, I practiced sniffing bottles of sandalwood and artificial musk for months. Now I can smell them both, and rather well.

Once Brooklyn Perfume Company's Sandalwood was released on the market, it received many insightful and helpful reviews at, the premier forum for perfumers and would-be perfumers. One of the first issues that came up was whether I had indeed used Mysore sandalwood. Well, I had to answer in all honesty that I wasn't really certain. My method was this: I took my 17 bottles of sandalwood, all labeled "Mysore," over to The Twisted Lily where I had Eric (the proprietor) and his colleague Anna, and a couple of friends of mine with good noses smell them all. We just held the bottles up to our noses since these were pure oils and had no alcohol. We eliminated some right away as not fitting in with the rest of the collection, but the remainder were more difficult. It was finally decided that mine was right up there, nearest the gold standard. Now whether it's Mysore or not, in all honesty I can't really say. But who can? I suppose a great connoisseur might be able to but none of my parfumista friends could distinguish one from the other with absolute certainty.