Starting Out

Castoreum is an animal product used in perfumery. It is a byproduct of beaver trapping such that ethical concerns are somewhat ambiguous–the beaver isn’t killed for the castoreum. Castoreum comes as either the dried gland (often smoked over a gentle fire) or as a paste. I found mine by going to a trappers’ site and finding the paste for sale for use as an attractant. I tincture the paste in alcohol to obtain a brown, almost black, solution that smells funky in its way (it’s not really repulsive) and also strongly of leather. It goes well with patchouli, tobacco, fossilized amber, oud, vanilla, benzoin and other balsamic notes. Its effect, when combined with these ingredients, is tar like and phenolic. I find that methyl laitone smooths these things out.

I remember when I obtained my first bottle of castoreum paste, I was so afraid of its power that I assumed it would stink up the whole house. I opened the bottle outside in the garden. As hard as it is for me to imagine now, I started in perfumery by rubbing various tinctures on my arm. I stopped this practice when one day I applied a drop of 100% MNA (C-12) directly on my arm. Well, for those of you who are familiar with this, you can only imagine the result. I got it on my jacket which smelled like cheap perfume for weeks—-I now use MNA in a .2% dilution. So, when I applied castoreum, I was much relieved by its gentle aroma. At this point, however, I wasn’t even sure that what I had was the real deal, so I ordered some from profumo.it and indeed I had managed to obtain a large amount for very little money. 

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.

Now that my Sandalwood is available at The Twisted Lily, there have been a number of reviews on basenotes.net. Most of the earlier reviews had to do with what kind of sandalwood I used to make my version. I claim in my description that I use Mysore sandalwood. Mysore sandalwood, from eastern India, is the rarest and most desirable of sandalwoods. In my description, I assert that it is Mysore sandalwood that I used in my blend. Well, this caused quite a stir with several basenoters who claimed that, no, I had used Australian sandalwood instead. When confronted with this, I had to admit (I did so on basenotes) that I don’t really know which sandalwood I used. The reason I don’t know is that so many merchants label their sandalwood “Mysore” when, in fact, it comes from a different place or has been adulterated in some way. The interesting thing is that I have 17 bottles of sandalwood, all labeled Mysore. Amongst them is an 80-year old Mysore sandalwood of solid provenance that I use as my gold standard. While I wish I could have used this in my blend, I only own about 5 ml. of it and don’t know of any more sources. My approach was simply to smell all the remaining bottles and pick out the best one. So, I’m either using Mysore or something from somewhere else, but that I thought was the best. The bottles vary enormously in price. Strangely, my favorite was one of the least expensive, which, admittedly, makes me a little suspicious.

It should be said that Mysore sandalwood is extremely rare, especially the old wild trees which provide the best oil. Sandalwood is also being cultivated in the region of Mysore but these cultivated trees are said to yield an inferior oil.

My main concern about my sandalwood is that it doesn’t last long enough on the skin. It starts out (if I may say so) rather beautifully, but then this first impression recedes as the sandalwood wears off. It’s usually gone in about four hours. I’ve tried various methods of increasing its duration on the skin, including adding more sandalwood, but that doesn’t seem to work. There are a number of products on the market—gluecam and fixateur—but having tested them, I find they make little difference. I’ve also experimented with adding some of my musk. The effect added richness and complexity and made for a more agreeable dry down, but I hesitate to add musk because I don’t want the sandalwood to be similar to my own musk. Oh, what I would give for ethical natural musk, my favorite smell in the world.

The best solution, while a rather unsatisfying one, is to spray more than once over a period of several hours. This is a nuisance and makes owning a bottle more expensive, but it makes the initial top and middle notes more available. 

Perhaps because I’m always attracted to forbidden fruit, the animal products in perfumes have always fascinated me. Nowadays, few are permitted. Castoreum is used (see entry, page 000) because it’s a byproduct of trapping beavers for other purposes. Civet, on the other hand, is a no-no because it involves tormenting the civet cat. A civet cat is not related to a regular domestic cat, but is rather closer to a weasel. It’s most famous for producing civet coffee by partially digesting the beans and giving them a particular flavor. Civet coffee is very expensive.

Civet paste is obtained by allowing the civet cat to wipe a particular gland on polls which are then scraped everyday. Unfortunately, this process is inhumane because the civet cats are teased and tormented, the idea being that they produce more of the necessary aromatic paste. (There is someone in China who supposedly is obtaining civet in a humane manner, but he doesn’t answer my e-mails–I’d be thrilled to find an ethical source.)

The civet obtained from the cats is a foul smelling greenish paste. It keeps forever and will stink up anything it comes near. The trick, of course, is to tincture it in alcohol. This creates an entirely different effect. As the tincture ages it develops an intriguing almost fruity quality that some people find repulsive and others (like myself) can’t get enough of. Nowadays, since civet can’t be used in perfumes, it is replaced by various synthetics. In my own experience, these substitutes smell rather foul and have none of the lovely fruitiness (for lack of a better word) of the real deal. 

Civet is used in perfumery to give a natural funk to florals and to provide just the right background. It is used in minute quantities, being extremely powerful. It also adds a natural radiance. Some old perfumers even suggested putting a little in the alcohol used for finishing the perfumes.

We’re very excited over here at Brooklyn Perfume Company because we got mentioned in basenotes, an online web center for people who are interested in perfumes. Apparently it’s a big thing to get mentioned there. Eric, over at The Twisted Lily, said that there have been lots of requests for samples. He has also mentioned that the musk has created a bit of a stir because, I assume, of its animalic funk. 

My life has often consisted of serendipitous and synchronistic events that remind me of how the universe laughs at me. In any case, the latest event is the opening of a chic perfume store around the corner from me – The Twisted Lily. They only handle niche perfumes and they carry a lot of high end and really lovely stuff. I started going in there about a year ago and, when he was free, would engage the owner and we would talk about perfume. I finally got up the nerve to tell him that I was experimenting with making perfumes of my own. It was after several more visits when the owner, Eric, said to bring in some of my “creations” for him to smell. So, one afternoon, with great trepidation, I went over to his shop and handed him 7 vials of my latest experiments. He smelled them slowly, one by one, such that by the time he was finished I was a nervous wreck and ready for the worst. He looked at me intently and said “You have a line here.” OMG! We’ll, this certainly put a bee in my bonnet. As I was leaving the shop, I asked him what his favorite perfume in the shop was and he said “None now.” Talk about being blown away.

So, one thing leading to the next, I became determined to sell some perfumes. I have made a musk, oud, amber, and sandalwood. The problem is the packaging. I found little bottles (I wanted to make real perfume rather than the more dilute “eau de parfum” sold at most perfume counters) and fitted them with pretty little corks. To keep the corks from popping out, I dipped the bottles, upside down, in molten sealing wax to create a Makers’ Mark-like seal. I made little labels which I pasted on the bottom of the bottles so that the perfumes’ beautiful colors would show. Then there was the problem of how to package the bottles. To have boxes made requires a minimum order of in the thousands so I had to figure out how to make them myself. I went out and bought a cheap lipstick, carefully unglued the box, scanned it into photoshop, and printed out templates that fit the size of my bottles. I then hired an assistant to glue them together to make the boxes. The whole process was so laborious that I figured each box cost me 10 dollars.  I made individual brochures describing the perfumes and how they were made and inserted a small vial and eye dropper in each box so that people could bring a little with them while they’re on the run and not have to carry around the whole bottle.

Anyway, the perfumes tanked. It wasn’t that anyone complained about the scents themselves, but the perfumes were expensive (they were expensive to make with lots of natural ingredients) and the packaging looked too homemade despite my best efforts to give the bottles a professional look. So I’m back to the drawing board and have decided to make an eau de parfum since it’s unlikely that men are going to wear perfume (the perfumes are designed to appeal to both men and women but I refuse to use the word “unisex”). I’ve tracked down 1-once bottles, am working on labels, and packaging for the  packaging. I’m thinking of putting each bottle in a small cotton or leather pouch and then enclosing it in a wooden box. (The packaging is going to end up costing as much as the perfume.) I’d attach a photo of the new design but it still isn’t there yet. These photos show the old design.

The more I experiment with perfumes, the more I realize that I’m trying to emulate the perfumes of the past. I remember the smell of my mother in the 1950s as she’d get ready to go to a party–the smell when she was leaving and the smell when she got back. By the time she got back, the top and middle notes of the perfume had disappeared and the only smell was that of natural musk, an aroma most people, even perfumers, have never smelled. So, it is emulating these perfumes (sans the natural musk) that draws me deeper into perfumery. I’ve had some success, particularly with a natural floral blend fixed with some special balsam I got from a supplier in India. I think it smells divine, but it doesn’t last long enough–a couple of hours at most. I know there are things I can do and add to help it last longer but I don’t want to attenuate it too much.

I’ve been playing around with para-cresyl acetate, which has a strong phenolic aroma with a strong animalic component. I’ve combined it with synthetic musks to see if I could emulate natural musk. I got into the ball park but no home run. I added civet and that helped but of course that’s another forbidden product (I don’t want to participate in the torture of the civet cat) that I won’t be able to use.

Everyday, I have a smell training session. I take 20 or so aroma chemicals and smell them on smelling strips. I then try to identify them blind. It’s not as easy as it might seem. Right now I’m working on a bunch of chemicals that start with P. These means a lot of phenyl this and phenyl that. Phenyl means that the aroma is probably going to be phenolic–sort of tarry and burned and really like phenol, but most people these days don’t know what that smells like. But it does mean that the chemicals are somewhat similar which makes distinguishing them all that more difficult. I figure when I can identify all 250 of my aroma chemicals that I’ll be partly on the way to becoming a perfumer.

I’ve been working on an artificial narcissus. I would never have known how to create one myself without the help of Jellinek’s The Practice of Modern Perfumery. He uses a number of para-cresyls, ylang, hydroxycitronellal, petitgrain, indole, heliotropin, terpineol, natural geraniol, linalool, isoeugenol, benzyl isobutyrate, and phenyl acetaldehyde. It’s not bad but of course it’s more aggressive than narcissus absolute. I’m going to add narcissus absolute to it to see if I can tame it and make it more natural seeming.

So, I’d been experimenting along these lines, when a chic perfume boutique opened around the corner. After chatting up the owner on several visits, he said to bring in some samples of my “creations.” So, with much trepidation, I sat with him as he slowly and silently sniffed the 7 vials I had brought in. When done, he looked it me–I was preparing myself not to be crushed–and said “You have a line here.” “You’re very talented.” Well, I left the store floating on air. He not only praised them but said he would carry them in the shop (apparently the place is very hard to get into being high-end and niche) once I got the packaging together. After much experimentation, I finally figured out the packaging but it turned out not to be slick enough to sell these rather expensive perfumes. So, I’m back to the drawing board and have been in touch with numerous suppliers in China trying to get someone who will make an order of fewer than 10,000 bottles. It’s very hard to get something simple and elegant.

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 musk for months. Now I can smell them both.

According to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, during the Renaissance foods were sprinkled with a combination of rosewater, ambergris and musk, these last two, two of the rarest flavors in the world. Musk comes from the Himalayan musk deer or more precisely from a gland near the naval of the male Himalayan musk deer. Musk was fashionable in the 17th century both as a flavoring for foods and a base for perfume. By the end of the 19th century, natural musk was replaced with synthetic muscone, the active ingredient in the real thing.

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 culinary insight. It wasn’t until years later, when reading Italian renaissance cookbooks, that I realized that at one time it had real 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.

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