Monday, November 29, 2010
I love requests from family members because they steer me in directions that I might not otherwise think to go. Bay Rum is not a scent that I would ever have decided to make without prompting. However, now that I’ve done it, I’m glad I did.
I have vague recollections of smelling something called bay rum in the past, but it was cloyingly sweet and not anything I would want to smell on others or wear myself, so when the matter was mentioned, I started researching bay rum formulas with some trepidation. Apparently bay rum originated when sailors started putting the leaves of the Caribbean bay tree in rum to flavor it - think Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum, which I recently had the pleasure of sampling. Tradition has it that the sailors, who had limited opportunities to bathe or shower, started using the spiced rum as a cologne as well as a drink. All I can say is that they must have had a big supply of rum on those ships.
Anyway, I surfed and sailed the high seas of the internet looking for bay rum formulas, coming up with all sorts of ideas, some of which seemed viable and others of which sounded like they would make a stinking mess. Using rum as the solvent seemed like a really bad idea, so I proceeded to mix up a dark rum accord from synthetics. After some trial and error, I hit on something that actually smells like rum. The rest was easy. Essential oil of West Indies bay is the backbone of the composition. This is not the same as the bay leaves used in cooking, which are actually a type of laurel. West Indies bay is Pimenta racemosa, a tree in the same genus as allspice. The bay oil and rum accord were anchored with a subtle balsamic base, expanded with some other spices like clove, allspice, cardamom and cinnamon, and the top was garnished with a little bit of orange, orange blossom, and petitgrain.
Overall, I’m fairly happy with it, and am ready for the family test. This bay rum is not at all sweet, just aromatic and spicy, with a bit of a traditional cologne-like feeling. I may want to tweak the base, but will have to monitor the drydown a few times before deciding what to do with it.
[Pimenta racemosa and rum bottle photos adapted from Wikimedia]
Saturday, November 27, 2010
I’ve been away from the blog for a while, distracted by my mother being in the hospital early this week, and then by all sorts of family Thanksgiving activities. Everything is back to normal now, but in the meantime a balmy autumn has suddenly turned to winter, with ice, snow, bitter cold, and an emergency evacuation of all the orchids that had spent the summer outside. The snow has melted, but there’s no doubt that it’s winter. The cold snap shocked the last of the leaves off the deciduous trees, and it’s now starting to get dark at 4 in the afternoon.
This evening I finally got back to my perfume lab for a couple of hours, and it got me thinking about what scents are most characteristic of winter. Of course the marketplace is filled with all the usual overworked winter holiday scents, the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice and “sugar” that go in pumpkin pie, plum pudding and hot drinks, and the evergreen-needle “Christmas tree” scents, which seem to be roughly based on pine, or some synthetic approximation thereof. These make their appearance in candles, potpourris, sprays, soaps, and that abomination of modern home scenting, the reed diffuser. For the past two years, someone at M’s work has given him one as a gift, filled with the most vile-smelling holiday-themed liquid imaginable. Needless to say these artifacts of the early 21st century quickly moved on to a new home via the local thrift shop.
What’s wrong with enjoying the natural scents of spices used in cooking, including the sage, rosemary, and thyme that are used in roasted meats, real spices in real baked goods or hot cider, or dark-roast coffee brewing in the morning? What about the smell of freshly cut greenery? What about the faint sillage of someone else’s perfume picked up while shopping? What about the smell of cold air and snow when people or pets first come in the house from outside? With room scenting devices running 24/7, I suspect a lot of these relatively subtle scents would be missed.
I think the most memorable evergreen I’ve smelled was a freshly cut Virginia red cedar, which is actually a species of juniper. The scent of the needles is not at all like pine or true cedar or arborvitae or fir or spruce, but is a combination of the cedar wood used in a cedar chest, aromatic green vegetable matter, and a characteristic cat-pissy smell. To me, that cat-piss smell epitomizes “Christmas tree”, which is what the tree in question was used for. I hadn’t thought about that tree for years, until I got some labienoxime, an aroma chemical that has exactly that same Virginia cedar leaf cat-piss scent. To me, that scent symbolizes the winter solstice, and I don’t find it at all objectionable.
There are a couple of other scents that always evoke winter for me. One of them is cigarette smoke outdoors on a cold, dark night. For some reason it smells wonderful under those conditions, maybe because it symbolizes the warmth of fire and the presence of other people somewhere on the street, out in the cold and the dark. Wood smoke is another scent that evokes winter for me. I’ll never forget the aromatic, incense-like scent of burning cedar and juniper on cold winter nights in the mountains of Arizona.
Probably the ultimate prototypical winter scent for me, though, is tangerines. One of my most vivid olfactory memories goes back to when I was a teenager, walking down a street in Rome on an extraordinarily cold winter day, peeling a tangerine that I’d bought from a street vendor. At the time, the fragrance of the tangerine seemed like the most delicious thing I had ever experienced. There was something about the cold air that transformed that ordinary citrus peel scent into a magical, almost spiritual revelation about the power of scent to affect the emotions. Maybe it was that little tangerine that eventually drove me to perfumery.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
The Michael Storer review series continues. Stephanie is a powerful white floral that’s peppery, spicy, a little bit indolic, a little bit green, and represents the prototypical “pollinators-come-hither” fragrance. It’s the scent of a mature flower sending out its last call, just before it starts to fade. It’s neither gardenia nor jasmine but a hybrid of the two with some other floral notes thrown in for good measure. The scent stays fairly linear, but as it dries down, it adds a faint root beer-like note that reminds me of some of the night-fragrant orchids that I grow. Mostly, the big white jasmine-gardenia flower with its persistently ticking biological clock just fades away over the space of 6-8 hours.
I’m not fond of floral fragrances, so Stephanie has no chance of ever becoming one of my all-time favorites. However, I would certainly wear it if I wanted a purely floral perfume. It’s as good a white floral as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s not complicated by a lot of irrelevant notes. If you are a lover of white florals, Stephanie is definitely worth trying.
The Gardenia Bush
Having just declared that I don’t like floral fragrances, I now have to explain why I just bought a gardenia bush for the garden. The fact is that I love and adore floral fragrances on flowers, I just don’t particularly like them on myself. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. Anyway, I was in a plant nursery the other day searching for something else when I was seduced by the scent of gardenia - that indescribable airy, creamy, velvety, sweet, moist scent put out by the real flowers. The plant I ended up with is a hybrid variety called “Chuck Hayes”, and it’s supposed to be cold hardy enough to survive winter temperatures much colder than those typical of the Pacific Northwest. We shall see. It’s covered with buds, so I hope they’ll survive the cold weather that’s predicted for the coming week.
[gardenia flower photo from Wikimedia Commons]
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Yesterday I got the usual monthly e-mail from Luckyscent offering a sample pack full of the latest goodies. This one contained some duplicates of samples that I already have, so I started checking up on the items I wasn’t familiar with to see if the pack was worth ordering for the ones I didn’t have (it wasn’t). What caught my eye was Luckyscent’s blurb for Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume, and I quote here a part of what you can read in full on their website if you wish:
“Along with today’s minimalist trend, Not a Perfume follows suit and adds extremity, irreverence and conceptual characteristics to deliver a true art form. You have now stepped into a new and elegant form of perfumery. With Not a Perfume you get exactly what you want from the scent: it does not evolve; it is not a composition, but rather a particular fragrance that is very strong & lasting on skin. Just like the white packaging it’s housed in, its makeup is fresh, clean, and clinical. This brand new concept from Romano Ricci is a modern day fragrance that is 100% synthetic and created without allergens. Not a Perfume is made of 1 single synthetic ingredient – Ambroxan.”
First of all, selling dilutions of a single aroma chemical is not a “brand new concept”. Among high profile perfumers, Escentric Molecules already did this a while back with Iso E Super and vetiveryl acetate, so what Juliette has a Gun has now done with Ambroxan is not all that innovative. Selling a dilution of a single material can obviously be done with any aroma chemical, essential oil, or fragrance oil, and I suspect it is done a good deal at the low end of the perfume world through sheer laziness and lack of imagination.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the smell of ambroxan, and have about 15 g of the pure stuff sitting upstairs in my workshop. It is one of the more expensive aroma chemicals, probably because Firmenich still has a patent on it, costing about $31 for an ounce if you don’t buy by the kilo. At Luckyscent’s prices, I’m sitting on a small fortune since a 1% dilution of my 15g would produce about 1500 ml of product. At Luckyscent’s prices, that’s over $1500 minus the cost of the crystals and a few nice 100 ml spray bottles, a good bit more if sold in 50 ml bottles.
Inspired by Juliette, I mixed up a 10% dilution of ambroxan, a small portion of which I further diluted to 1%, the recommended concentration for smelling. It’s lovely and strong even at that seemingly low concentration, with plenty of sillage. It’s one of those aroma chemicals that was developed to replace ambergris, but in some ways surpassed the natural material. It does have a hint of a salty, animalic ocean-like scent reminiscent of ambergris, but it also has a sharp woody aspect to it. For a single molecule, it has an unusually full and complex scent, and is certainly capable of holding its own as a perfume without any help from other notes. It’s long-lasting and, as Luckyscent says, linear. Honestly, I’d much rather wear pure ambroxan than any of the fruity-florals that are out there in such abundance. Moreover, I'd venture to guess that making a 1% solution of ambroxan costs every bit as much or more than making any of those fruity-florals and celebrity abominations.
And now for Luckyscent’s argument that a single diluted aroma chemical constitutes “a true art form”. I suppose it is as much an art form as those minimalist canvases that are in every gallery at every level, covered with a single color or just blobby off-white paint. The value of the primer-covered or solid blue canvas is determined by the reputation of the painter who created it, not by its intrinsic value, just as the value of a perfume is determined by reputation and advertising regardless of its composition. Maybe ambroxan is really not so minimalist, but more like a single objet trouvé, a pretty seashell with a complex form picked up on the beach and hung on a gallery wall, or a Campbell’s soup can (chicken noodle, because tomato has already been done) set on a pedestal in a gallery. As long as someone is willing to consider an item art, I suppose it is art, at least in the eye of the gallery owner or curator and the beholder who shells out their hard-earned money to view it or buy it.
The question of what art is can’t be resolved, but what I can do is offer 5-ml samples of ambroxan to the first two who leave a comment requesting them. If you leave a comment about how you personally define art, I’ll include an extra goodie assortment if you’re one of the first two, and will select a third person to receive an ambroxan sample.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Spikenard is, in my opinion, a much under-appreciated natural perfume ingredient. I hardly ever see it on lists of perfume notes, even though it makes an excellent base note. Maybe it’s too strong and raw and earthy for most people’s taste, but I really love the way it grounds a composition, works with other materials, and increases longevity.
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to what spikenard is. There’s something called “American spikenard” (Aralia racemosa) that is in the ginseng family and has nothing to do with the spikenard that’s used in perfumery. As far as I know, American spikenard is not used in perfumery, even though the roots are reported to have a mild, anise-like scent. The spikenard I’m talking about is Nardostachys grandiflora, which is sometimes called Nardostachys jatamansi. From what I have read, it seems that the two names are used interchangeably to denote the same species of plant. To further confuse the issue, the common name for spikenard is “jatamansi” in India, Tibet, and Nepal, where the plants grow.
True spikenard is a plant in the valerian family, native to the Himalayas, with pink flowers and fragrant rhizomes. The rhizomes are the part used to make the essential oil. Spikenard has been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in perfume and incense, and even as a flavoring for food. I can understand why it has been used as a culinary spice since it has a little bit of a cumin-like scent. However, spikenard mainly smells like a super-charged vetiver, all earthy and rooty, with some pungent spiciness, a little bit of a patchouli-like note, and some floral notes, with slight variations depending on which type it is.
I have three different types of spikenard, red and green from India and “jatamansi” from Nepal, which is a red one. There’s not a lot of information available explaining the difference between the red and green types, but one source I found speculated that it depends on the method of distillation, the temperature at which distillation takes place, etc. It seems to me that it could also depend on whether the rhizomes are fresh or dried when they are distilled. I find that the red spikenard is “drier” and more aromatic than the green, which is more “wet” and earthy. The Nepalese “jatamansi” spikenard that I have is a little lighter and more floral smelling than the Indian varieties.
I first discovered the longevity of spikenard many moons ago when I first started experimenting with making soap scented with single essential oils. After storing for a while, I was disappointed to find that many of the essential oils quickly faded away. The spikenard was exceptional in that it maintained its full strength. One bar of the spikenard soap got misplaced and resurfaced years later during a cleaning bout. I was surprised to find that it was still as fragrant as it was when freshly made.
I have used spikenard in a number of different fragrances including Little Stars, Luzonica, Red Cattleya, and Kyphi, and consider it an essential part of my perfumer’s palette.
[Spikenard plant illustration from Wikimedia Commons]
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The red hybrid cattleya that I used as an inspiration for a perfume and wrote about back in May is blooming again, bigger and better than ever. This year it seemed really anxious to bloom, with the buds bursting open in mid-October. The first year it bloomed, it had one flower, the second two, the third three, the fourth five. Now, in its fifth blooming, it has seven perfect flowers. Saturday morning the red cattleya went with me to Ciscoe Morris’s radio show on gardening, where I was discussing orchid growing. It has been building up its fragrance over the past week, and that morning it was in fine form, first perfuming my car and then the whole studio. It was almost as if it wanted to show off.
When the flowers first opened, they didn’t have much scent for the first couple of days. Then they developed a strong indolic note, and today they have the spicy, fruity, floral, bubble-gum scent that I find characteristic of this plant, although the indole lingers on as an undercurrent. It’s really interesting to see how the scent changes as the flower matures. I think this hybrid, Lc Netrasiri, is my all-time favorite Cattleya.
The other fragrant cattleya that’s blooming this week is the species Cattleya jenmannii. This is the first year it’s bloomed, but it already has three large flowers that are pretty much along the lines of an old-fashioned “corsage orchid” in both shape and color, just a little darker. This plant was not well-behaved, growing out of its own pot and into the pot of its neighbor, where it seems to be inextricably intertwined with a Cattleya intermedia. That’s what I get for not providing enough supervision.
When the jenmannii flowers first opened, they also took a few days to start producing fragrance and had a strong indolic note in the beginning. They have now mellowed out to a spicy, fruity, floral, bubblegum scent that’s similar to the red cattleya, but a little softer and sweeter, with gentle notes of iris and carnation.
For some reason, the red cattleya is extra-spicy this year, since I seem to recall that it’s been more like the jenmannii in past years. I’ve noticed with other orchids that their fragrance can vary a bit from year to year, as can their flower color, depending on growing conditions.