The only nice thing I can say about Afrah is that its three-way clash between the fruity, musky ‘shampoo’ aroma of champaca flowers, the licorice-like basil, and the marine bilge unpleasantness of a soft, pooey (black) ambergris is, uh, original.
The opening is heady, with the champaca taking on the form of sticky peach syrup mashed into a sweaty clump of indolic flowers. The basil gives the champaca a salty, minty licorice kick that lightens the load somewhat, but, in general, Afrah is heavy going. There is something indigestible about its cyanide-ish brew of white flowers, honey, peach, and bitter almond. It is alluring and toxic in equal measure, reminding me of Hypnotic Poison (Dior) in feel, if not in aroma.
My main objection is that the civety stink of the ambergris refuses to play well with the other notes. It manages to recreate with uncomfortable accuracy the sweaty, sugared pungency of the skin of someone with a medical condition like Type 2 diabetes. I think should stop here lest I offend anyone who loves it.
Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash
Ambergris Civet Caramel (Agarscents Bazaar)
Ambergris Civet Caramel opens with a blast of intensely aromatic aromas, chief among them the ferrous twang of burnt caramel and the bitter, woody edge of freshly-ground Arabica beans. In fact, the aroma is so true to life that it feels like you are standing directly behind the barista at some artisanal Ethiopian joint while they grind the beans to go into your pour-over.
The bitter char on the caramel saves the blend from excessive sweetness, and the coffee grounds give it a woody edge that is a pleasant surprise in a scent with the word caramel in its title. Red-gold hints of maple syrup and autumn leaves thread through the coffee and caramel gloom, making me wonder if that a touch of immortelle has been roped in to add its handsome, late October sunshine appeal.
The ambergris makes its presence known very quickly for such a bolshy crew, elbowing past the maple caramel, singed coffee grounds, and autumn leaves to assert its marshy presence. The ambergris used in this blend manifests as an unclean combination of licked skin and unwashed hair. This salty funk blends well with the dry caramel for an effect that is far woodier and far less gourmand that one might imagine.
Gourmand fans – try this. But be aware that you really need to love less conventionally pleasing accords, such as burned coffee grounds and salty marine funk, to fully appreciate it. Fans of the half-edible, half-woody Parfumerie Generale scents such as Coze and Aomassaï will click with it. Pink Sugar lovers need not bother.
Ambergris Grade I (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)
Ambergris Grade I is an interesting take on ambergris. It does not initially smell of ambergris, but rather of bright soapy lemon and indeterminate fruits. Later, however, hints of an outdoorsy sweetness with a side order of salt and lightly-toasted tobacco leaf signal its presence. Most tinctures of white ambergris share a certain lightness of aroma that smells very little of anything save for mineralic rocks baking in sunshine and fresh sea air. And this is the case here.
The mineralic glow of this grade of ambergris is the same as that used in exclusive Western perfumes such as the now-discontinued (but brilliant) Angelique Encens by Creed, and the glittery Encens Mythique d’Orient (Guerlain). Not only does ambergris act as a fixative in these perfumes, but it magnifies the effect of the other materials – incense, rose – rendering their texture airy and almost effervescent. The cool thing about Ambergris Grade I is that it allows us to study this effect in isolation.
Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya (Agarscents Bazaar)
Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya is less of an ambergris scent and more an archetypal attar smell, i.e., starchy saffron and high-pitched roses blended together. This familiar rose-saffron pairing is enormously popular and thus finds traction in every single attar house. The problem is that it runs the risk of being a little too familiar. Either you have to put a twist on it for it to stand out or else you produce a version that out-exquisites all others in the crowded field. Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, though competent, fails to do either.
The model makes sense from a compositional point of view. The pungency of the leathery saffron is mitigated by the soft sweetness of the rose, and in return, the rose gains a backbone. This rose-saffron attar idea has been lifted wholesale into Western perfumery. Most Western oud-themed niche perfumes are constructed around a central axis of rose and saffron, with a dollop of synthetic oud added in for extra screech woodiness. This template, repeated from brand to brand, has inculcated in Western customers such a strong association between the materials of oud, rose, and saffron that, like Pavlov’s dog, all we have to do is smell saffron and we fill in the oud blank on our own.
And this is what happens here. When you first smell Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, the spicy rose-saffron duet makes the mind flash on oud. There is no oud here, of course. However, if you are a Westerner and want to have a rosy saffron mukhallat that recalls the traditional rose-oud-saffron triad without paying oud prices, then Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya may do the job. It is a somewhat traditional, sharp, and spicy blend, tilted towards the austere.
The delicate sweetness of ambergris is nowhere to be found in this scent. It is missing, presumed dead under the pungent weight of the other materials. Briefly there is the suggestion of something radiant, sparkling, and metallic lifting the spice and flowers, which could be the cited ambergris. But in terms of actual aroma, the ambergris is undetectable. It is simply a decent rose and saffron mukhallat.
Ambergris Taifi (Agarscents Bazaar)
The thrillingly tart, peppery scent of the Ta’ifi rose fills the nose upon application. The scent of a Ta’ifi rose always reminds me of a raw beef filet encrusted in green peppercorns and harsh lemon peel, and this bears true here. However, this version of Ta’ifi rose is far softer than the purer versions I have smelled from both Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Al Shareef Oudh. Its lack of purity translates into a smell that is less pungent, which might be more appealing to noses unused to the nose-searing properties of the unadulterated stuff.
This mukhallat possibly contains a small quantity of Ta’ifi rose mixed with a greater quantity of rosa damascena oil from another region, such as Turkey or Bulgaria. Or it might be that only Bulgarian rosa damascena was used, as rose oil harvested from Bulgaria features many of the same sour, herbaceous aspects of the Ta’ifi rose. Either way, it doesn’t really matter (except to a purist) for this rose note is sublime – fresh, tart, with a pickled lemon edge that makes you want to smack your lips.
Ambergris Taifi becomes rosier and creamier as it develops, blooming into a rich and durable red rose accord that shimmers on top of the golden, salt-marsh ambergris beneath. The ambergris does not assert its presence strongly aside from a salty radiance. Instead, it acts as a heat lamp, magnifying the rose and causing it to vibrate in 3D splendor. The blend finishes in a blaze of salted caramel and rose, casting a pink glow around the wearer. For those who can stomach the price, this is a great rose-ambergris mukhallat.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
Ambergris White Blackberry (Agarscents Bazaar)
Fruit is difficult to capture well in attar and mukhallat perfumery because there are no natural enfleurages or extracts of fruit, leaving the perfumer with the choice between Jolly Rancher synthetics or naturals with a somewhat fruity character, like osmanthus or ylang. Berries in particular are hard to get right.
When a synthetic fruit note is used alongside a bunch of naturals, its synthetic character can often become painfully apparent, like plopping a fake Nike trainer down beside an authentic one. Place a fruit synthetic alongside real ambergris, for example, and it has the potential to stick out and catch on you, like a clothes pin forgotten inside a sweater.
Thankfully, this is not the case in Ambergris White Blackberry. The blackberry note, though certainly synthetic, manages to be dark, plump, and slightly syrupy, with none of the ‘overexposed photograph’ shrillness of most synthetic berry notes. This is probably due to the softening effect provided by a tandem of sweet, creamy amber and the earthy, musty ambergris. Neither the amber nor the ambergris clouds the structure, however. The texture remains crystalline, allowing the luscious berry to shine through uninterrupted.
There is also a momentary hit of spice – cinnamon or clove perhaps – but this recedes quickly, leaving the focus on the blackberry. The blackberry note is fleshy, but thankfully, doesn’t attempt photorealism. It is more the suggestion of pulp and stained fingers than the metallic brightness of most synthetic berry notes.
Two ambery accords are notable here. First, a traditional amber accord with perhaps a hint of maltol, acting like a simple sugar syrup to buffer the first explosion of berry flavors upon application. Then, the earthy, almost fungal tones of the ambergris, which here smell like a clod of clean, wet marine soil freshly dug up near a harbor. The mixture of the sweet and earthy really makes this an amber-ambergris duet really worth wearing.
This is one of the few fruity mukhallats that I can recommend without reservation, even to those who normally find fruit notes in perfumery off-putting. The sweet, earthy magic of the ambergris is suggestive of the ground from which the blackberry bushes sprang, giving us the full blackberry-picking fantasy of ripe fruit, leaves, and humus-rich forest floor. A true Pan’s Labyrinth scent.
Ambergris White Chocolate Opium (Agarscents Bazaar)
Ambergris White Chocolate Opium opens with a rich, nutty accord that smells like the steam that rises off a pan of flaked almonds fried gently in brown sugar. This accord is enrobed in a silky white chocolate casing that manages to be creamy without being sweet. Think translucent nut nougat dipped in artisanal white chocolate, with perhaps a tiny sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper for contrast. It is admirably restrained, teetering on the edge of full-on gourmand territory but ultimately pulling back to give you a taste of chocolate and nuts without any of the calories, bloating, or regret.
Slowly, the ambergris in the blend begins to make its presence known. A sweet and salty smell, full of brisk air and sunshine. There is something of old paper here but also freshly upturned soil. There is the sleepy suggestion of mustiness, like the mildewy aroma that clings to clothes taken out of storage for the winter season. This aroma is not unpleasant because it never comes across to the nose as unnatural. It simply mirrors the familiar scents of home, namely, closed-up closets, earth, newspapers, salt, vanilla extract, and the crumbed tobacco leaves from cigarettes.
Unfortunately, the rich white chocolate accord does not last past the first hour and is disappointingly faint from the second hour onwards. Longevity is good, but with the scent whittling down to a mere shadow of itself within hours, it is like buying an expensive balloon at a fairground and having it deflate to the size of a condom within minutes. Still, something about the smell of salty, creamy white chocolate in Ambergris White Chocolate Opium is so pleasing that one is tempted to forgive its wimpy performance metrics. Maybe.
Ambergris White Gold (Agarscents Bazaar)
Ambergris White Gold is a great option for those who like the idea of ambergris but can’t deal with its often very animalic properties that often resemble halitosis, low-tide effluents, and dirty horse stables. This is the friendliest, most approachable ambergris mukhallat on the block. Opening with a thick caramel note so intense it approaches bitterness, Ambergris White Gold soon evens out into a musty, vanillic accord that smells like a cross between Communion wafers and old paper. Underneath these softly sugared ‘white’ elements, there is an undertow of stale saliva and warm horse flank. These notes merely nod at the presence of real ambergris but are not dirty enough to scare the truly skank-averse.
The blend is based on white ambergris, which is the finest and most expensive grade of ambergris. White ambergris does not smell foul – in fact, it barely has a smell at all other than the scent of fresh, mineral seaside air. If you smell white ambergris for a long time, you will also notice the subtle aroma of sea salt, paper, vanilla, and tobacco leaves. These more delicate properties of ambergris have been enhanced in Ambergris White Gold through the addition of a caramelized amber note up top and a dry, minty vanilla in the base. The overall effect is of a sweet, papery vanilla with facets of white sugar, pastries, salt, and clean marine air.
I recommend Ambergris White Gold to people who like the cleaner, sweeter side of ambergris, as well as to those who love gourmand notes such as salted caramel, pastry, vanilla, and mint toffee. The closest equivalent to this in the niche sector would be Dzing! by L’Artisan Parfumeur, which employs a similar gourmand approach to an animalic material (musk). Think of Ambergris White Gold as a sheaf of old manuscript papers, grown dusty and sweet with time, and finally, lowered into steaming vats of hot condensed milk and sea salt.
Amber Jewels (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)
Lovers of ambergris owe it to themselves to smell something like Amber Jewels at least once in their life, if only to establish a benchmark for quality. The notes list says ambergris only, but forget that, as there is clearly a lot of labdanum doing the heavy lifting in the lower register. The opening is pure marine air, thick, pungent, but also hyper-clean, as if all the elements have been doused in disinfectant. It smells huge with a capital H – a hulking block of dusty rock, baking in the sun, the air fizzing with hot sea minerals, salt, and ozone.
Under the dusty minerals and caked-on sea salt, there is something balsamic shifting, keeping everything moist. This comes across as something thick, tarry and black, with a rubbery sweetness in its undertow. This charred rubber is a facet common to many ambergris-based fragrances. It carries a tinge of smoke too, similar to the petroleum honk of some jasmine materials. The sweet tar sitting under the marine notes acts as a layer of insulation for the more diffuse ambergris topnotes.
The ambergris is eventually joined by a rather masculine leather-amber accord, likely to be labdanum. This base thickens and sweetens the ambergris somewhat, cloaking its salty sparkle in a dense blanket of leathery resin. It is important to note, however, that the amber-ambergris accord never tumbles too far down the well of sweetness. This is not the affably herbaceous amber of, for example, Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) or Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens). In fact, it retains a slightly rough, textured woodiness that is very characterful. It is precisely this salty, woody edge that will recommend itself to fans of amber scents that walk on the macho side of the fence. Although not equivalent or even similar in smell, Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte has a similar brusqueness, so fans of that might want to give this a try.
Amber Ood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)
Despite the name, Amber Ood is neither amber nor oud but ambergris, and specifically the black, soft kind of ambergris so fresh it resembles the whale turd from whence it came. Freshly dotted on the skin, Amber Ood smells like old peanut butter, ancient fishing tackle that has been shat on by seagulls, and the halitosis stench of someone who’s dislodged a kernel of corn from their back molars after not having flossed for two months.
I would love to be able to tell you that it gets better.
Both Indians and Arabs seem to love the fouler pieces of ambergris (black ambergris), finding the smell intensely erotic and skin-like. But although the smell does eventually reveal some interesting hints of old newspaper, tobacco, and marine soil, Amber Ood retains this turd-cum-halitosis stench all the way through, ceding only to a bitter fir balsam and Ambroxan pairing at the tail end that smells like it has been cross-contaminated with a splash of Dior Sauvage. The Ambroxan does nothing to mitigate the essential foulness of the smell. Rather, it accentuates it, broadcasting the stench like an airborne virus.
Ambre du Soleil (Sultan Pasha Attars)
Ambre du Soleil is a bright, lemony frankincense and bergamot blend over a rugged ambergris. I suspect that the ambergris tincture was made from black ambergris, because there is a softly dung-like aspect to it at first that might seem fecal to some. It might even have been boosted by a drop of civet. But mostly this smells like pure ambergris tincture to me, made from a non-white grade of ambergris.
Later, the blend develops into a natural, warm marine aroma, with tinges of low tide and earthy, raw tobacco to remind us of its origin. Ambre du Soleil is an excellent example of the depth that natural ambergris can add to a blend, serving as an amplifying glass for all the other elements in the mix.
Ehsas (Al Haramain)
A musky, salty ambergris-based fragrance with more than a lingering air of cheap men’s sports cologne. Ehas opens with a citrus and white musk combination that is about as comfortable as someone squirting lemon juice into your eye.
The ambergris note adds a dirty, musky salinity, and there are some nice green florals in the mix, but really, nothing in this mukhallat distinguishes it beyond the standard Iso E Super- or Ambroxan-powered sports dross so popular in modern masculine perfumery. If you like this sort of nose-singing rubbish, just buy Sauvage and be done with it. No need to get fancy schmancy with an attar.
Encens Mythique d’Orient (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)
Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil
Encens Mythique d’Orient by Guerlain is a resinous ambergris fragrance with a bright rose and lots of aldehydes. It is a rather complex fragrance, and not easy to dupe. When worn on its own, the dupe captures the general feel of the scent quite well, but worn side by side with the original, some vital differences emerge.
The first difference is texture. The steam-pressed hiss of aldehydes of the original is missing in the dupe, leading to a slightly flattened effect, as if all the air had been let out of the tires. The original has incredible body and lift, with salty ambergris adding a rough, animalic sparkle. The dupe lacks the radiance central to the character of the real Encens Mythique d’Orient and therefore most of the point.
The other main difference is in the quality of the rose. Whereas the original uses a sharp Ta’if rose – dry, peppery, and neon pink – the dupe uses an ordinary Turkish rose synth and tries to beef it up by adding a jumble of mint, blackberry, and raspberry notes, a discordant mishmash that doesn’t feature at all in the original. The dupe is also less finely soapy-musky than the original, veering off instead into berry jam territory.
Sometimes, the most important question to ask of dupes is whether someone would mistake it as the original when smelled in isolation, or in the wild. I think that the dupe is recognizable – just about – as Encens Mythique d’Orient. But it can only sustain the illusion for a short time. In the end, the dupe morphs into a blackberry musk with a curiously waxy edge, reminiscent of Mûre et Musc by L’Artisan Parfumeur. If you are fond of this particular L’Artisan Parfumeur scent, then you will probably like this dupe for what it is, rather than caring about what it is not. Those specifically in search of Encens Mythique d’Orient, however – well, this ain’t it.
About Me: A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes. (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world). Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery. Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud. But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay. In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.
Source of samples: I purchased samples from Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Al Haramain, Amouage, Agarscents Bazaar, and Universal Perfumes and Cosmetics. The samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. The sample from Gulab Singh Johrimal was sent to me by a Basenotes friend.
Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized. But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button. Thank you!
Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.