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.