Why We Can’t Shake Ambergris
September 4, 2021 3:17 PM   Subscribe

 
What smells like freaking porpoise hork??
posted by bleep at 3:21 PM on September 4 [18 favorites]


Where I learned about ambergris
posted by chavenet at 3:40 PM on September 4 [17 favorites]


So it's made from ancient shit-covered squid beaks, and is ejected from the exploding arse of a dying sperm whale.

And you say it smells nice?
posted by scruss at 3:56 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


So it's made from ancient shit-covered squid beaks, and is ejected from the exploding arse of a dying sperm whale.

Give it two weeks and, with Ivermectin supplies running low, anti-vaxxers will be self-colonically administering it to "protect" against Covid...
posted by Wordshore at 4:22 PM on September 4 [11 favorites]


Neat. Just an hour ago I learned of castoreum
a yellowish exudate from the castor sacs of mature beavers
It is used as a tincture in some perfumes and was sometimes used as a food additive in the early 1900s
posted by djnnnou at 4:31 PM on September 4


A search for Dr. Clarke's 2006 paper The Origin of Ambergris (referenced in the article) actually led me to this lengthy excerpt from Christopher Kemp's book of more or less the same title (also referenced in the article). For those interested in learning more, the excerpt fills in quite a bit of detail otherwise glossed over.

(And clearly not every ambergris results from an exploding whale---they can also be passed less dramatically and with much less or even no harm done.)
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 4:45 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


I once went to a really cool one-off ice-cream-making class, that was part "how to make ice cream" and part "the history of ice cream". The teacher - a food historian and blogger - touched on ambergris during her lecture, because yes, there was once an ambergris ice cream; she said that it was most popular before vanilla became a flavoring, because ambergris has a complexity of flavor that people really dug. It could be divisive, where some got a "floral and sweet" vibe off it, but others responded more to the "Musk" notes and were turned off by it. Then when vanilla came along, it was a lot more universally accepted and ambergris fell out of favor.

She made some ambergris ice cream herself for her own blog if you want a report.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:44 PM on September 4 [21 favorites]


Precious hamburgers?
posted by MrBadExample at 5:46 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


Read an article a few years back where a beach comber found a large hunk of the stuff washed up on the shore. Was worth several thousand bucks. Wish I could remember where I read this.

Interesting post! I've been interested in this stuff since I first learned about it decades ago. I always have curiosities about what stuff smells like. For instance: what did King Tut's tomb smell like (if anything)? What about ancient jars filled with old spices or olive oil or wine? Any smell? What do bee hives smell like? What do preserved peat-bog bodies smell like? (probably like peat—but who knows?). What do preserved Inca mummies smell like? I could go on and on, but smell info is usually not mentioned in scientific articles.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:51 PM on September 4 [11 favorites]


If you want to see what ambergris probably smells like, there is a perfume called Not A Perfume that is just dilute cetalox (artificial ambergris).
posted by Lycaste at 6:00 PM on September 4 [9 favorites]


This was a wonderful post. Thanks very much.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 6:03 PM on September 4


where i learned about ambergris.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:05 PM on September 4 [6 favorites]




That link Oyeah posted will be the inspiration for a feel-good movie in like 15 years, I guarantee it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 PM on September 4


Where I learned about ambergris
posted by Westringia F. at 6:35 PM on September 4 [4 favorites]


I learned about it from Moby Dick like a normal person
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:37 PM on September 4 [63 favorites]


I once went to a really cool one-off ice-cream-making class, that was part "how to make ice cream" and part "the history of ice cream".

Was this at Greendale Community College?
posted by tavella at 7:41 PM on September 4 [7 favorites]


Bob's Burgers has a whole episode on Ambergris!
posted by wyndham at 7:44 PM on September 4 [10 favorites]


Where I learned about ambergris.
posted by whatevernot at 7:57 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Activate protocol B4RR.
posted by BiggerJ at 8:11 PM on September 4


Empress Callipygos, that was a fantastic blog post about making ambergris ice cream! Thank you for posting it. Her whole blog is fascinating.

I don’t like the synthetic version (JHAG’s Not A Perfume smells like something hideous and unclean on me), so I probably wouldn’t like the real thing. Someone in the blog comments mused that its polarizing nature might mean there’s a genetic component to whether it’s perceived as pleasant or not, like with cilantro.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:17 PM on September 4


The spice must flow.
posted by ryoshu at 9:26 PM on September 4 [5 favorites]


Decades ago a housemate kept it around as his personal scent. He'd only have a gram or two in a little pot that, well I don't know how he actually used it, but it was on a table in that certain kind of bedroom of the early 20something stoner where a lot of stuff is idly sitting around. It wasn't unpleasant just as part of the natural aroma of a hangout room, the kind of smell I thought could be nice at a much much lower concentration.
posted by rhizome at 9:37 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


I came in to make some cool quip, then discovered there is an Ambergris Lane in New Bedford MA. The whaling industry was the fossil fuel industry of the time then it was gone.
posted by vrakatar at 9:37 PM on September 4 [6 favorites]


Where I learned about ambergris. (And boy was I confused by the end of it!)
posted by zoinks at 10:31 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


I have eaten ambergris. Musky is the taste and smell that comes closest.
posted by vacapinta at 2:24 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


Kind of makes a person wonder whether breaching could be an auto-heimlich maneuver or possibly help get things out the other end.

Squid beaks are pretty exotic stuff even before they’ve passed through a whale.
posted by jamjam at 3:18 AM on September 5


Fun read, though I have no idea where or when they got their price range from. If you're trying to buy a gram of it today, ambergris not $25 per gram. More like $35, if you can find anyone selling it in such small amounts. Heck, when buying from a reputable supplier, a 10% tincture of ambergris costs $45 per gram. I'd love to smell it, but not that much.

For anyone who wants a more personal look into Ambergris trade, this piece published on Basenotes is fascinating.

None of the replacement aroma chemicals or base blends are a perfect substitute, but they're not bad. Apparently they are much closer to ambergris in effect and scent than any of the Mysore sandalwood replacements are to real Mysore sandalwood. Or oakmoss replacers to oakmoss.

Also, Juliet Has A Gun Not a Perfume is not just Cetalox and ethanol. A fragrance chemistry expert, who was working for Givaudan at the time (might still be, but I don't know), Philip Kraft, had a GCMS of it. There's more than just Cetalox. Basically it seems to be about 7.5% Cetalox, with Hedione, Iso E Super, another amber replacement chemical called boisambrene forte, and a blend of musks. Sorry about is being a Facebook link: Scent and Chemistry post from June 27, 2013.

However, due to repeatability by anyone with some versions of Ambroxan and 95% ethanol, it is widely accepted that Molecule 02 from Escentric is just Ambroxan and ethanol. (Much easier to dupe than Molecule 01, which is not regular Iso E Super, but a captive molecule version that has a high gamma content. Another manufacturer's product called Sylvamber is a good substitute for the high-gamma Iso E Super.)

Cetalox is a "a diastereomeric mixture," while Ambroxan is "the single diastereomer (chiral)." According to people who are better at chemistry than I.

I've got some actual Firmenich Cetalox and also an amount of some version of Ambroxan, and they do smell closely related, but they do not smell exactly the same.

(The some version thing is about the issue of Ambroxan being the original trade name chemical from Kao, but most other manufacturers make a version of this chemical and some distributors are not entirely honest about what they're buying and sending to suppliers as Ambroxan. Could be Kao Ambroxan or it could be Givaudan Ambrofix, Firmenich Ambrox, or IFF Ambermor or ??)
posted by monopas at 4:06 AM on September 5 [21 favorites]


If you're trying to buy a gram of it today, ambergris not $25 per gram. More like $35, if you can find anyone selling it in such small amounts.

Where do you begin to find reputable sellers? I’m curious as well, but am clueless as to what criteria to use determine ‘reputable.’
posted by Silvery Fish at 5:14 AM on September 5


Even the term ambergris is the result of a misunderstanding. The word is derived from the old French term ambre gris, meaning gray amber, distinguishing the substance from amber resin—fossilized tree sap that was also used in fragrances and found on beaches. Beyond this, the two substances bear no relation. Still, the misnomer corrected an even earlier error: amber resin likely took its name from ambar, the Arabic word for ambergris.

Okay, that's a hoot.
posted by brundlefly at 5:34 AM on September 5 [14 favorites]


Probably in the top 10 on the “What human first thought this shit was okay to eat?” list.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:45 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


One of the throwaway bits from the article: "Even today, visitors to the kinds of cocktail bars found hidden behind bookcases will occasionally be served expensive ambergris-laced cocktails." There are still speakeasy-type bars in operation? That's charming.

If I got a chance to try some ambergris-laced food, I probably would, just to be able to say that I did; its origins are kind of gross, but so are those of a lot of comestibles (kopi luwak, say); our plant foods are basically grown in worm shit, after all. I loved that post on ambergris ice cream; it led me to the same author writing about moose face.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:12 AM on September 5


Just here to say that it smells amazing. Like nothing else and somehow like everything else. My one encounter with it as an amateur perfume maker though it was $100 a gram and I had to really deliberate whether or not to buy it as a perfume ingredient. It seriously smelled that… not necessarily good, but compelling. I don’t make alcohol based perfumes though and that was the only way to be able to dilute and extend it and make it usable. The reason it’s so prized, beyond it’s rarity is the lasting power it has on the skin. Synthetic perfumes last for ages, like an unwanted guest. They also don’t change in smell really after a certain stage. Ambergris, castorum and musk (from a musk deer) also last for a really long time, but being from other animals they respond to our own body chemistry and change over the course of a day. Kind of like the difference between Pinesol and actual pine needles. One smell evolves and fades, the other remains strapped to your face like a facehugger.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 7:17 AM on September 5 [18 favorites]


Related fun fact: Sperm whale oil was used in NA automatic transmission fluid up until 1971, when the USA endangered species act came into effect.

Transmission Problems in Cars Linked to Ban on Whale Killing is from a 1975 NYT article.
posted by brachiopod at 7:18 AM on September 5 [7 favorites]


Ambergris is just another one of those things that make you wonder what the first person who didn't just throw it away in disgust was thinking. Like, imagine the Sumerian who upon discovering bread that had gotten soaked in water and was now bubbling like it was possessed thought it might be worth drinking.
posted by tommasz at 7:47 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


What do bee hives smell like?
I can't answer your other questions but I can answer this. They have a very distinct aroma, like honey and beeswax (of course!), with what I can only describe as an earthy/woody note mixed in, probably from the bee bread that's fermenting, but also the smell of the wood the hive is made of. Bee hives are quite warm (~95F) and the aromatic compounds waft out quite strongly. If you ever get the experience, I'd highly recommend shadowing a keeper opening up their hive. It's a pretty incredible experience.
posted by kdar at 9:16 AM on September 5 [7 favorites]


As to disgusting smells… While driving around this morning doing early errands, I heard a talk on NPR where they discussed disgust. It seems that in many cases it is a learned reaction. Each of us has, to a degree, difference in how we smell things. They pointed out that babies when offered the smell of old sweaty socks or vomit smiled. Vanilla, look of disgust. Little kids like the smell of poop, until all the disgust reactions from parents teach them to not like it. There are genetic reasons for being repelled from some things, like that horrible and vile cilantro. But in many cases, it’s a learned behavior.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:01 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


Whale Oil was also a fixative in some magnetic recording tape, and was also phased out in the early 1970s. Archival tapes from around that era are sometimes unstable and difficult to store.
posted by ovvl at 10:02 AM on September 5 [6 favorites]


Where I learned about ambergris.
posted by asra at 10:11 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


I’m with the Tom Robbins camp. I kept thinking about beets.
posted by MtDewd at 4:35 PM on September 5


Please sell me a sampler pack of "Ancient Smells - 15 scents and flavours that used to be popular"
posted by rebent at 5:21 PM on September 5 [7 favorites]


Please sell me a sampler pack of "Ancient Smells - 15 scents and flavours that used to be popular"

Sorry, but I am no longer allowed to sell my socks or underwear on MetaFilter.
posted by loquacious at 11:20 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Came here to say Moby Dick and was glad to see over 50 likes on the person who did it first.

I'm still mad at Stubb over that.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:53 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]


I have never smelled ambergris, but this summer I had my first encounter with a dead whale. A fin whale that had been sitting on a beach for 2 months, and the day we came across it was sunny and 38c. It set a new bar for what truly awful smells like. You could smell it from quite always away. So of course, we went right up to it. Fun times!
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:38 PM on September 6 [3 favorites]


I'm still mad at Stubb over that.

That's not even the worst thing Stubb did

Down with Stubb
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:00 PM on September 6 [1 favorite]


@njohnson23 I had an English professor when I was an undergraduate who once told us that we had to learn to recognize our own faults as a writer and work through them by repeatedly revising our writing. Ok, what he actually said was that we have to be taught to hate the smell of our own shit. But that's what he meant...
posted by ElKevbo at 2:09 PM on September 7


I’ve had two experiences with ambergris, being an amateur perfumer. The first was a tincture, purchased in 1ml size, and it was warm and sweet. The next was from Perfumers Apprentice (one of the main suppliers of aroma chemicals to the perfume industry), and I hate smelling it straight from the bottle: it genuinely smells like a bad case of halitosis to me.

But it’s still amazing blended with other things… it’s astonishing that something can smell so bad on its own, but somehow still enhance other scents.
posted by chronic sublime at 4:30 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]


I loved that post on ambergris ice cream; it led me to the same author writing about moose face.

I'm recommending people go check out the blog post where she writes about making stewed moose face, because basically the only way you can procure it is by knowing a hunter - so she got shipped this whole moose snout in dry ice, with the fur still on, and she talks about being stuck in her kitchen trying to figure out "how in the HELL do I handle this".

And I honestly had to laugh when I saw the picture she took of said moose face because it was just so....blatantly itself. Yep, that sure is a moose face. Heh.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:05 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]


I initially clicked on the moose face post because I figured it was some fanciful local delicacy name a la "moose tracks" but no, extremely literally a moose face.
posted by eponym at 6:58 AM on September 8


There are still speakeasy-type bars in operation? That's charming.


Come to Chicago, they never stopped here!
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:40 AM on September 10


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