Ambergris, Castoreum, & Civet


A few weeks ago I bought some animalic aromachemicals (synthetic) online because, being a lover of the vintages, I wanted to familiarize myself more deeply with these notes. I bought ambergris, castoreum, and civet. These are, along with musk, the animalic notes that have been used in perfumes for many decades (centuries?), especially in vintage perfumes. Nowadays, these ingredients are rarely used because they are out of style, but before the 90s – and especially before the 80s – animalic notes were very popular in fragrances.

Ambergris Essence: On one end of the spectrum, this smells like bad breath, rotting teeth, putrefaction. But on the other end, there’s an intoxicating salty sweetness reminiscent of ocean air. It reminds me a lot of vintage Miss Dior, a fragrance that did contain ambergris. I almost want to say that old Miss Dior was primarily ambergris in its drydown rather than oakmoss or patchouli or what have you. Now, I have a vial of real ambergris tincture from AbdesSalaam Attar and it lacks the sweet component, smelling very much of bad breath and bacteria. And I also have a small bottle of Amway Ambergris Oil, a synthetic ambergris single-note from the 70s, and conversely, it has NONE of the rancid, bad-breath quality – it just has the lovely salty, resinous sweetness. This Ambergris Essence I’m reviewing unites both qualities together into one. Sometimes when I sniff it, it reminds me of the smell of a guy when he stumbles in after a night out with the boys, and you can smell his liquor/tobacco breath, and whiffs of his masculine cologne, and the cold air outside still clinging to his coat. The smell of this Ambergris Essence reminds me of that, sort of.

Castoreum Blend: This is black in color and smells very smoky, quite similar to rectified birch tar, which I’m sure it has been used in combination with a lot. Its look and smell place it somewhere close to used motor oil/charred grease. Underneath the smokiness is a subtle animalic, pheromonal purr – like a warning rattle from a snake. Castoreum is used in leather fragrances like Cuir de Russie & Cabochard to give a rough, dark, dangerous quality.

Civet Essence: Oh, my sweet lord…This is just incredibly raunchy and repulsive smelling. It adds complexity when combined with other ingredients and it’s a fantastic fixative but on its own it is really disgusting. Some argue over whether civet smells like poop or like pee. This synthetic civet I have smells like both, brought together in a litter-box inspired assault on the nose. But more accurately, it smells like the bedding of an animal. Anyone who has kept a ferret or similar type of pet may be familar with the raunchy smell of their cage or bedding: a smell of poop & pee surely, but also of wild pheromone smells. If you’ve gone to the zoo and seen a majestic tiger or lion kept in a small enclosure (like I have…pretty heartbreaking) you may have caught a whiff of its cage: the smell is raunchy and wild, a poop and piss laden assault on the senses, but again – with something more, some raw animal pheromone that evokes warm sleeping quarters, predatory danger and fear, and raw carnality and power all at once. The dirty cage of a mammal: that’s what this civet smells like. Very wild, and very concentrated.