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.