You may have heard of Civet cat coffee — Kopi Luwak — which comes from the seeds of the coffee berry once it has been eaten and defecated by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). One lump or two? But there is also a scent staple that comes from the anal glands of the Civet (not actually a cat) often used to give florals a je-ne-sais-quoi radiance. Most Civet scent you’ll find today is synthetic, perhaps luckily, but it still smells more pungent than you can imagine. It has been described as sweaty, musky, fecal, but to me it smells exactly like the worst bad breath you can imagine emanating from a person who neither owns a tongue scraper nor drinks enough water.* But it rounds out certain fragrances the way you’d enjoy a red wine with that unmistakable barnyard quality.
One of my favorite moments in Chandler Burr’s engaging The Emperor of Scent, about genius nose Luca Turin, is when Turin recounts third-generation perfumer Guy Robert giving him a molecule to smell. And in the spirit of French fragrances and Noble Rot, Robert tells him “ça sent la femme qui se néglige.” (“It smells of the woman who neglects herself.”)
Ambergris is another scent that has been associated with ass but actually has nothing to do with ass. It is the undigested lump of octopus beaks and other delectable edibles whales eat and sometimes they pass it but often the globular chunk causes a rupture in the whale and takes to the sea, where it is then tumbled to perfection by nature’s rock tumbler and, if God and man are truly good, it washes upon the shore and a little kid finds it and saves his nun-run boarding school from being sold to the Education Authority and goes to college to become a genius philanthropist with the tons of money ambergris affords. Yes, ambergris creates stories wherein the Blues Brothers grow up to be Bill Gates. Seriously, though, ambergris stories are always full of intrigue and secrecy. Just add nuns.
*Get a tongue scraper.