When my tinctures started smelling like isopropyl alcohol, panic moved in. My first thought was that tincturing in the light had been a mistake and that I had bleached the ambergris and made it worthless.
Desperate, I searched around and landed on Wikipedia. Then I saw this: “However, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent as it ages, commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol...”
Wow. I went back to my bottle of isopropyl alcohol and, while yes, there was a resemblance, the ambergris was deep and complex without, as Wikipedia says, “the vaporous chemical astringency.”
So, where has this left me? First, I realized that ambergris has a top note, something I’d never heard about before. When it’s in a perfume, it hits you with the weirdly appealing rubbing alcohol nose and then mellows down to a faint earthy smell that reminds me a little of unwashed hair. The earthy smells last many hours on the skin. While at no point is the aroma terribly grand, like most pheromones, it’s impossible to resist going back for another whiff.
Ambergris gives a particular radiance to floral fragrances. In marine perfumes it lends finesse, complexity, and ineffable nuances of the sea.
While I’ve never seen a discussion of whether to tincture ambergris in the light or dark, tincturing in the light works faster. I have smelled years-old tinctures that have much less aroma than those I’ve tinctured for six months.
Ambergris needn’t be terribly expensive, usually from $30 to $50 per gram. But, consider this: Ambergris is typically used in concentrations of 3%. 1% of this tincture is the usual amount added to a perfume. Hence, 1 gram of ambergris makes 33 ml. of 3% tincture, enough to tincture 3300 ml. of perfume.
Without irony, a bargain.