What is Ambergris and How is it Used in Cigarettes?

Illustration of a sperm whale eating a squid. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Perhaps one of the more unusual of the hundreds of possible additives used in cigarettes is something called ambergris tincture.  Often referred to as whale vomit, it's more accurate to call it whale poop, as ambergris actually comes out the other end of the animal.

What is Ambergris?

Ambergris is a rare and highly prized substance that comes from approximately one percent of the world's population of sperm whales.

With approximately 350,000 of these giant mammals on the planet, only 3500 of them, give or take, will produce ambergris.

Sperm whales are huge eating machines, consuming up to a ton of food every day to fuel their body weight, which for a bull can be 50 tons, and 20 tons for a cow.  They love squid, and can eat hundreds of them in just a single one hour dive. Repeated several times a day, the number of squid consumed can be in the thousands.

Sperm whales have four stomachs and are able to digest all but the hard beak and pen of the squid. These bony items build up, are vomited back out in clumps every couple of days, and life goes on. This is why ambergris is often called whale vomit, but the reality, according to ambergris expert, Robert Clarke, is somewhat different.  

Sometimes the hard, indigestible bits of squid travel all of the way to the fourth stomach and then beyond, where they scrape and irritate the lining of the intestines.

 When this occurs, the whale's body secretes a fatty, waxy substance that coats and encapsulates them. It mixes with fecal matter as it makes its way along and then, with luck, is expelled by the whale.

Without luck, the mass continues to grow and eventually ruptures the intestines, killing the whale.

The whale becomes fish food, the ambergris is released, and because it's buoyant, makes its way to the surface of the ocean, where it can float, mostly submerged, for many years.

The Long Journey Begins

Fresh ambergris is foul smelling, black or very dark in color, and sticky, tar-like. With years of exposure to the elements however, it slowly hardens and changes to a smooth, waxy brownish tan. And with even more time, it turns white and lighter in weight as most of the water content is gone, similar to pumice or chalk.  Aged ambergris takes on a sweet, pleasant smell.  The aroma is usually described as sweet, woody, earthy and marine.

It then may wash up on a beach somewhere close or far from where it originated.  It is impossible to know how long it's been in the ocean or anything else about its long journey, but if you're lucky enough to find a piece while strolling on the beach, it can be like winning the lottery.

The Value of Ambergris

Ambergris has long been prized in perfume manufacturing because it has the unique ability to "fix" a fragrance, keeping it from fading too fast.

It's also used as a food additive, and is listed as a possible additive in cigarettes, presumably for its fragrance.

Because it is such a rare substance that must be found, not manufactured, it can command a very high price.  Just how much depends on how long it spent bobbing around in the ocean before discovery.  Ten thousand U.S. dollars per pound for the finest quality is not an unreasonable number.

Here are a few examples of ambergris finds and what they fetched over the years:

  • In 2012, an 8 year old boy walking on a beach in Dorset, Great Britain with his dad and dog came upon a piece of ambergris that weighed in over one pound.  It was thought to be quite old and estimated to be worth $60,000 - $65,000.
  • September, 2015: A 2.4 pound piece of ambergris was discovered on a beach on Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales. It sold at auction for 11,000 pounds ( $15,679 U.S. dollars) to a french bidder later that month.
  • November, 2015:  A 28 pound piece of ambergris was discovered on the coast of Oman. In this case, two men came upon a dead sperm whale that had washed up on the shore. The huge piece of ambergris was found when they gutted the animal. (Perhaps it was the cause of the unfortunate whale's death?)  Its estimated value is in the $17,000 U.S. dollar range, undoubtedly because it was trapped inside of the whale's body and is virtually un-aged.

Where Ambergris is Found

Ambergris can be found on just about any ocean facing beach in the world, in part because it often travels long distances over a long span of time, and because sperm whales travel through all but the very coldest of ocean waters.  

If you are interested in looking for ambergris, bring your patience and fido!  Most specimens have been located by dogs because of the smell.

Ambergris Image

Also Known As: whale vomit, ambergrease, grey amber, floating gold


Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals. The Origin of Ambergris by Robert Clarke. http://lajamjournal.org/index.php/lajam/article/view/231/183. Accessed February 2016.

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