Making Scents Of It All
Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. Helen Keller
Ah yes, Helen, you couldn’t have been more right. Nothing takes one back to a moment in time so quickly, automatically and completely as the sense of smell. It is primal and instinctive. It stimulates pleasure and alerts us to danger. It can dictate mood – happy, sad, relaxed, excited. It is the one sense that is most closely linked to memory.
Smell, that silent, invisible force, is like an internal GPS system guiding the mind’s eye often before any other sense comes into play. Inhaling the aroma of a great dish, a fine wine or sexy perfume instantly brings to mind the memory of a place, time or person. It can also signal, “Danger Will Robinson, danger!”
The clothes we wear might shout, “You hoo, look at me.” But, the right perfume can do that, too, in a much more subtle way – unless you OD on it, of course. The reaction to smell is so automatic that the body’s immediate reaction is often difficult to control, whether you like the smell or not. You might be able to turn your eyes away from the individual wearing the Herb Tarlek suit, but the smell of perfume sends an automatic sonar ping to the brain that commands a search for the source.
Perfumers are like alchemists or wizards who concoct elixirs to entice, tantalize and titillate. They must study and commit to memory thousands of scents. There is only one way to do that – practice, practice, practice. The perfumer-in-training is first given ten oils to study and memorize. Once these are solidified in the olfactory receptors another set of ten are given. The process is repeated until a menagerie of oils can be recalled. Like wine writers who record their tasting notes, perfumers catalogue the thoughts and affiliations each scent has for them to help them design a fragrance.
Think dabbing a drop behind your ears is a modern idea? Actually, people have been dabbling in perfume for some 4000 years and evidence of this continues to emerge. An ancient perfumery was discovered in Pyrgos, Cyprus just five years ago. Sixty stills, funnels, mixing bowls and perfume bottles were among the artifacts. Historically, fragrances were used for everything from burials to attracting a mate. Today, nothing much has changed. Originally, flowers, herbs and resins were used. Modern perfumers use everything from ambergris expropriated from the sperm whale (rare and very expensive…and just a tad icky) to tobacco leaves in the mix. Yes, I did say tobacco.
So how are these aromatic compounds extracted? There are just four ways, actually, and which one is chosen depends entirely on the nature of the compound.
Steam Distillation. Yup, just like spirit distillation. Raw material is put inside the still, water is added and the blend is heated to boiling. The steam passes over the raw material capturing the oil which then makes its way to the top of the still towards the condenser. If the situation in the Gulf of (T)exico taught anyone anything it’s that oil and water really don’t mix. Passing through the condenser, the steam returns to its watery liquid state and the oil and water are forever parted. Et voilà, we now have what is known as an essential oil. The water retains a small amount of scent and can be used in its own right. The most famous would be rose water. Nothing goes to waste.
Solvent Extraction uses benzene and hexane to extract the oils. Sounds harsh, but this method actually yields oil that is truest to the smell of the plant. It’s the perfumer’s preferred choice. The stainless steel vessels used can contain anywhere from 3000 to 4000 litres. Enough to freshen the unwashed masses in the event you are charged with doing so.
Step one: combine the oil and solvents. Step two: remove the spent materials, just as if you were racking wine. Step three: decant. (Sit back and pour yourself a vodka while you wait for the thick paste to form.) Step four: add alcohol (not your vodka) to the oil and heat. The alcohol evaporates leaving a substance called “absolute” (not vodka).
Expression Extraction works kind of like the lemon zester of the perfume world. Its sole purpose is to remove the oils from citrus fruits. Press the rind, centrifuge the juice, and you’re done (add the lemon peel to your…okay, um, I don’t have an “issue.” Really).
Enfleurage Extraction. Enfleurage. In a word, fat! Ok, refined fat. Glass plates held in a frame are covered with fat. Flower blooms are spread out onto the fat on the plates and left to unleash their scent. This method can take days depending on the blooms, which are removed and replenished continuously until the fat is inundated with a copious volume of scented oil. Now called “pomade,” it’s washed with alcohol and mixed with the oils, then the fat is discarded. What’s left is heated resulting in “absolue de pommade”. All work is done by hand making it a very labour intensive and time consuming process. Which would tend to keep you thin (though smelling nice), if you worry about that sort of thing.
Like the Aroma wheel used to assess wine, the perfume world has a Fragrance Wheel. Created in 1983 by Michael Edwards, a perfume consultant, it standardized the language used when describing scent. It also classifies and categorizes families of scents that are relative to each other, like floral, oriental, woody, fougère and fresh.
When nosing a wine, the aroma (primary fruit) is your first initial impression. The next stage would be the bouquet which would be a deeper experience of the aroma (typically including elements that have evolved over time). For instance, a citrus aroma would develop into a bouquet of perhaps lemon rind, lime, orange peel and perhaps spice. In perfume you have the top note (your first impression of the scent), the middle note or the “heart” which is the main body of the perfume, and the base note which brings depth and cohesion.
Fragrances are sold in many forms. Eau de Cologne will be the lightest in scent and not long lasting. Next is Eau de Toilette, then Eau de Parfum and finally Perfume. The last, being the most concentrated and the most expensive, will remain the longest on your skin.
There are literally thousands upon thousands of possibilities for the perfumer to create magic. As a sommelier my sense of smell is always on alert to different odours whether I like it or not. I can only imagine what it must be like being a perfumer, but I’m sure you’d literally live life with your nose in the air.
Certified Sommelier Jacqueline Corrigan has been a part of the world of wine for 16 years. A member of the International Sommelier Guild and a graduate of the George Brown College Sommelier Program, Jacqueline operates DiVine Indulgence, a wine & spirit education and consulting company called Divine Indulgence.