Holy Beaver! (Not for the squeamish)

And now for something completely different…

People who’ve known me a long time know that I have an extremely sensitive sense of smell. If you walk around with me, you’ll watch me locate and identify flowers, plants, mushrooms, and animals by smell way before we can see them. Not only can I smell them, but I derive deep pleasure from unusual fragrances. This week, for instance, I was in the bay area for about 12 hours, but I slipped away for to walk a few blocks and visit an osmanthus shrub that I knew would have at least a few little flowers on it.

I ran an essential oil company for a few years, mostly to give me access to high quality natural perfume ingredients. There are many things that you can only buy in quantities of over $100. This becomes feasible when I sell most of it and keep a tiny bit for myself.

And, in all of the time that I ran that little company and formed relationships with fragrance ingredient vendors, I could not get my hands on high quality, unadulterated animal musks. Most of them are illegal, and for good reason. Others are legally obtainable, but so rare that I could never afford them. And then there’s one that comes from local sources, is legally obtainable, but still evaded me, mostly because I was living in a city. It’s beaver musk, also known as castoreum.

You can find this stuff online, but I am very wary of this kind of stuff. There’s so much deceit in the perfume world. I’ve heard many horror stories of people paying lots of money for ingredients only to receive the items and have them obviously adulterated. Musk pods are scraped clean and filled with synthetic musk-soaked styrax grains or worse.

For years, I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for access to the original source – the trappers themselves. Finally, at one of the shows in the mountains of Oregon, I met a fur trader who deals with local trappers. I asked if he could get access to castor pods and he was neither shocked nor resistant to my request. His response? “You want Beaver Castors? I can get you as many as you want!”

Let me tell you a little about these things. The beaver uses this substance to mark territory and attract a mate. The glands are typically dried and allowed to age for a number of years before being used.

Like many “animalic” perfume ingredients, a little goes a long way. In high concentrations, this stuff smells like a full bucket of male cat spray that’s started to rot.

When I bought them, I expected them to have been dried already. These were not dried at all. They were as fresh as a package of grocery store liver, with liquid in the vacuum bag and everything. I don’t retch easily, but I almost lost my lunch when I opened the package and stuck my nose in it. I really should have known better.

The magic of animal musks happens when they are diluted. When I set the open package on the ground and walked about twenty feet away, the fragrance was incredible! It’s like vanilla syrup, juicy fruit gum, pine tar, and wet leaves all mixed together. It’s delicate, powdery, and pervasive all at once. This is why castoreum has been used in many of the most expensive perfumes on the market for over 100 years.

Since they were so fresh and had already spent a couple of days in the mail, it was important that I get them preserved IMMEDIATELY! I dropped one pair into Everclear right away in case something happened to the others. I knew that 190 proof alcohol would prevent them from rotting.

To dry the others, I decided to try the food dehydrator. This took a little negotiating with the household since there’s a chance that it will be permanently scented like beaver butt. We decided that if it was, I would get the house a new one. On the other hand, I think that adding a little beaver musk to our dried fruit might be AMAZING. Read about Kopi Luwak if you think I’m crazy.

Thankfully, we have a drying shed on our property. It’s a little screened in cabin with electricity to run the dehydrator. I put one pair of castors into it and plugged it in last night. The others went into the freezer until I knew whether the dehydrator would work.

I weighted it down with a rock to keep wild critters out of it in the night.

I awoke this morning to find that our whole valley smells like castoreum and that the pair I put in last night were drying up nicely. I was so impressed with the results that I pulled the others out of the freezer and put them into the dehydrator this morning.

Tonight, I think the pair that was in overnight will be dried up and ready to age. The others will get sealed up again tonight and put out to dry in the morning. In reading about how fond animals are of this fragrance, I don’t want to take a chance with coyotes, bears, fox, bobcats, mountain lions, wood rats, elk, deer, or anybody else deciding that they want to get into the drying shed and steal my beautiful castors.

  • Susan

    November 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    I haven't had the pleasure of castoreum but I have had a whiff of ambergris!

    In a more refined state it must be nectar to a perfumer! (is that the right word?)

    "Thrums" blog

  • Blossom Merz

    November 9, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Well, we'll find out!

    The only refinement that this stuff is getting will be a couple of years to "cure" before it's powdered and tinctured for another couple of years. I've heard of people creating an absolute, but I don't have the skill or equipment to do that myself.

    The key to using this stuff is simple dilution. A tiny amount, mixed with other ingredients, is pure heaven.