What Started Me on Ambergris: Part I

Eight years ago, I didn’t know what ambergris was.

It all started with a book from the fifteenth century, entitled De Honesta Voluptate translated into English as On Right Pleasure and Good Health, published in Latin with an English translation on the facing page. In it, Platina describes scenting rooms with burning ambergris.

I sent away for some, to New Zealand.

It arrived looking like a cross between a truffle and a rock.

First, I put it in cold water to make sure it floated; if I doesn’t float, it’s fake. Next, I took a pin, heated it red-hot on the stove, and jabbed it into the lump. It slid in easily and left behind a waft of resinous smoke. The smoke made me think of the rosin they use during soldering. I could well imagine a room smelling so good, but at what cost?

Sperm whales, the only source of this treasured substance, vomit (or do the other, no one’s sure) a black vile-smelling substance that floats on the sea for no-one-knows how long, becoming pale and aromatic in the salty sea. Maybe, because there were many more sperm whales in those days, ambergris wasn’t so rare.

Ready to move on to the next phase, I put my 10-gram lump in a large test tube and poured over 90 grams (about 115 ml.) of ethyl alcohol for a 10% tincture. I considered heating the test tube to dissolve the lump, but I noticed it began to dissolve almost immediately (this was easy to see by the thin, translucent threads that formed in the alcohol).

By the next morning, the lump was gone and a thick murk had formed in the bottom of the test tube. I set the test tube in a rack in the sunlight and let it sit. (Many people tincture in the dark, but I get more aroma when I leave it in the light.)

After a month, nothing had happened.

After four months, nothing had happened.

After six months, a peculiar aroma developed. The bottom of the test tube cork smelled like isopropanol. How lovely, I had recreated the scent of rubbing alcohol.

Would more waiting help?