Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.
I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.
Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.
For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.
I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.
I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.
First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…
Then I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.
Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!
“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”
Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.
“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”
Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.
I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”
Seventeen years of living in a three-bedroom Astoria apartment distilled into one art installation: so much lost and gained; so many things dismantled and recreated; so many memories… I lived and worked in every room of that home. Beginning in the front room with my first guide dog and the boyfriend whose munificence allowed me to remain long after us, to the back room where I came into being as a blind person and an artist. Once I looked out the window to fire escape and cherry tree, the identical buildings across the yards, but, upon my departure, I saw only a pixilated rectangle of light.
I last moved towards that window to open the curtains for Stravinsky, a creeping pothos (Epipremnum aureum) I bought to commemorate the untimely death of my second guide dog Igor. Igor’s poem, To Stravinsky, ensured that his plant spirit would occupy the living center of Distillation Installation. Also his small relics made into a piece whose description sounded, “Glue on memories.” (I audio labelled title and description cards with my PenFriend, dots that speak with my voice when touched with tip, analogue/digital magic!)
Finally, in later years, I came to rest in the dark corner room, dubbed the bat cave. Its purple walls with a genie providing pulsating light and smellscape in the last days, days when future was uncertain about everything except the important things: art and love, love and art, warm stability with our two hearts knocking out a stronger beat, keeping up the simple hard tune, “desire is suffering, desire is suffering, desire is suffering…”
So much potential had to be tossed. Braille books and maps, fabrics that wanted sewing, yarn that wanted knitting, paints that wanted painting–so many things collected and hoarded in the late stages of dissertation-that-wanted-writing. Throwing so many things out seemed so sad–so much potential lost that I conceived making an installation out of some precious drops of it. for months, I put things that might be of value in one corner and made bags for the street scavengers to pick through and utilize, minimizing landfill.
I’d decided years ago that I had enough clothes and began repurposing. Too many things in the world. Too much crap. I kept ahold of my crap so that I would not be so tempted to buy new crap. With that in mind I first put fringe on deconstructed sweater and kept on with my refashioning old things into new by hand sewing. But of course, there are always things to buy that are not clothes–technology and musical instruments–and I can’t make shoes…
Distillation Installation manifested in the once-living room, the home’s center, with tin ceiling painted over long before I arrived. As I worked, around me as I sorted, discarded and built, its cracked paint fell about me in apocalyptic chips.
The braille blinds were the first part of the installation. “See ya later world,” I thought as I sewed double-pages of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde braille book together, and lay them in cascading strips from the wrought iron double bar curtain rods bought in the early years of domesticity.
Then began the odoriferous papier-mâché experimentations. If I’d had a budget I would have invested much more heavily on smells, because flour takes a scent, is cheap, and good for sticking odd things together (pink taffeta on shovel) and mummifying others (drum music on accordion), but aromatic distillats, the cells of plant matter burst asunder to capture their aromas in oil or water, are rightly expensive. In the end, I could not give each piece a signature scent. But the room was scented: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus plenissima) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) bubbled in the ultrasonic diffuser in the Never Be Sorry exhibit, and in the corner under Prague Castle, a fan diffuser blew sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana), while the hanging braille cranes were lovingly spritzed with orange blossom water from the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium).
My origami braille cranes–not a thousand as planned, but a lot–hung from wire hangers suspended on the five blades of the dusty ceiling fan with three colored lights–blue red green–in the center sockets for a soft organic look.
Beneath sat Stravinsky on his personal braille-mâché tabletop–the last-minute decision that worked well to create small gasps when the curtain opened on the night of the goodbye tours.
I see it all in my mind’s eye and am proud to have done this thing–compensatory vanity! And why not cover over the mirrors (if I can’t look at myself why should anyone else?)–the gilt one sacrificed its mirrorness first, covered over by gold dust and finger paint scrawl, “Never Be Sorry,” another poem-inspired exhibit.
and “by following the scent” near the end–mirror removed from useless vanity, covered and dusted in mist and pink lipstick. Goodbye to the stage and the music and the light. Hello dazzlement and words and another trip in new places. No guilt just a bomb left behind, time tick tocking until another home will be made and destroyed, until the end when I leave all homes for the last time, leaving behind a fine distillation of my experience of the world, overwhelmingly flavored by brilliant hallucinations and this long eye disease my life.
[All images by Geo Geller. Check out our conversation in Distillation Installation HERE!]
Sandalwood reminds me of entering homes with objects from faraway lands. My aunt and uncle had such a home as this, with artifacts collected in world travels scenting the almost sacred space. When I entered the familiar yet exotic realm, my child’s imagination and consciousness expanded to include worlds beyond the tiny one I occupied.
As Deniz Ataman, managing editor at Perfumer & Flavorist put it in an email, “At the root of it, perfumery is about sharing the essence of the Earth’s spirit and creating beauty for others to enjoy.”
Earlier this year, Perfumer & Flavorist teamed up with The American Society of Perfumers (ASP) and TFS (an Australian company sustainably growing and harvesting Santalum album) in a perfume contest using this precious commodity. It was in fact this competition that inspired me to write about sandalwood, because, as I mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, it is an unfortunate age-old tradition in perfumery to be secretive, and the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) is one of the few places where the spotlight shines on the perfumer, instead of the hype of a brand or celebrity so common in the fragrance industry.
Ataman attests to the excitement of this unique competition, “Working with the American Society of Perfumers and TFS Corporation for the perfume contest was one of the highlights of my career. Our team was fortunate enough to participate in the judging with five other perfumers. It was quite an experience to watch a perfumer in action–it’s not just about smelling. It’s about experiencing, it’s about unlocking your memory and traveling to forgotten places.”
Jennifer Jambon, a perfumer at Molton Brown (London), won the competition. In its announcement article, TFS quoted The president of ASP, Chris Diienno, explaining her win:
“Jennifer Jambon’s winning fragrance topped a world class selection of contenders by striking a delectable balance of complimentary notes. Capturing the magic of the TFS sandalwood, she exposed it just enough to allow it to peek out and blend with the beautiful orris accord she had developed. This gave an elegance to the creation that became the determining factor for the judges,”
Sandalwood is one of the building block materials in both men’s and women’s fragrances. In fact, the oft quoted figure from Michael Edwards “the perfume experts’ expert,” is that approximately 47 percent of all fragrances since 1790 contain sandalwood notes.
Considering the demand, it’s no wonder Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been for decades overharvested and endangered. Thus, the WPC’s 2016 theme of Scents and Sustainability had a focal point in the work of TFS.
Sandalwood oil derives from the heartwood of a mature tree. There is much oil in the roots, so in order to yield the full potential of oil, the tree must be uprooted, the outer bark and branches stripped away, the inner pulverized and then steam distilled. In India, Santalum album is endangered and even threatened with extinction. Although the Indian government has done much to regulate the buying and selling of the oil which sells at upwards of $2000 per kilo, poaching is obviously a problem, and enforcement difficult.
As Keville and Green put it in Aromatherapy, “Sandalwood has a long history of being overharvested everywhere it grows, and it is difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly, taking twenty to fifty years to reach maturity.”
The time it takes to grow sandalwood is clearly at odds with the desire to be a profitable business. Keville and Green conclude their section on sandalwood as a “threatened essential oil plant” (alongside rosewood and spikenard) thus: “India’s sandalwood trade dropped in half during the 1980s. Replanting efforts and the control of poaching have been difficult. Some landowners actually cut down the trees rather than risk poachers, who often arrive armed and dangerous.”
In fact, according to a 2014 article at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rangers are killed for protecting nature’s pricey offerings: “Almost 60% of all rangers killed this year are from Asia, with the majority of those from India. India, Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinos, sandalwood, rosewood and other valuable resources are most affected.”
Besides being a precious commodity for which people have been killed, sandalwood takes time and special effort to grow. Sandalwood, like its relative the European mistletoe, is hemiparasitic. The hemi means that the plant contains chlorophyll, and therefore carries out some photosynthesis, but derives a great deal of nutrients from neighboring trees. So, while human poachers are after sandalwood’s heartwood, the sandalwood tree is sucking the life out of its neighbors!
Hemiparasitic trees have specialized roots called haustoria that attached themselves to the root systems of other trees and pilfer their nutrients. Emma Mende, a forester who works with the TFS team in Australia’s tropical north, growing over 4.5 million Indian sandalwood trees and 10 million host trees, describes the endeavor in a brief Q&A:
“Over the course of an Indian sandalwood tree’s life it will use around 3 different host trees. While we plant all of the host trees in the plantations at the same time, the Indian sandalwood tree will move from the pot host to the fast growing medium-term host which is strong enough to support the nutrient requirements of the Indian sandalwood tree. Once the medium-term host tree dies at around 3 years of age, the Indian sandalwood tree will move to the long-term host which by that stage is strong enough to sustain the Indian sandalwood tree’s growth. The Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) will then host on this tree for the rest of its life.”
She concludes by making the connection between the forester’s job and oil production:
“To achieve the best yields this parasitic relationship needs to be carefully managed even from the seedling stage. This is because the development of heartwood in a stem is largely dependent upon diameter growth early in an Indian sandalwood tree’s life. This is important since fatter (larger diameter) trees generally have more heartwood and therefore offer more oil yield.”
Since the original publication of this article in my Distill My Heart column at Quail Bell Magazine, I have had the privilege of smelling TFS Sandalwood, and it is glorious! But as I’d not yet got my nose on the TFS Santalum album and in order to learn some distinction between species, I travelled to NYC’s West Village to the beautiful aromatherapy supply store Enfleurage, where I purchased a tiny vile–2ml–of Santalum album from Indonesia.
I also got to do a little comparison contrast with another species of sandalwood native to Australia, Santalum spicatum, which was much stronger and in some ways seemed more familiar, more easily recognizable, intellectually anyway, as sandalwood. It poked me in the nose and announced itself, “I’m sandalwood!” In other words, not a terrible smell, just a little over-friendly, bordering on aggressively pleasant, like an ambitious salesperson.
On the other hand, the Santalum album drifted into my consciousness as if from a tiny box of exotic treasures rarely opened. When I got it home I put a drop in my palm and rubbed the woodsy warmth around. Creamy sweet and softly spicy, this lingering scent is ambiguously seductive, being neither too feminine nor too masculine. I’m smelling myself right now, and I smell delicious!
In response to my follow-up email, Joe Richkus (who teaches many of the free classes at Enfleurage) wrote that the Indonesian trees that provide the oil they carry are left to grow for forty years before they are harvested and added, “It could be a lot better, but that’s a happy medium given the climate for fast profit today. The older the tree, the better the oil.”
Hence, sandalwood is necessarily expensive. My little 2ml vile of deliciousness cost me $25 at Enfleurage, and at Organic Infusions I see they are selling Santalum album (CO2 extracted) for $94 for 5ml. One of my favorite aromatherapy shops, Stillpoint Aromatics does not carry S. album, but carries Royal Hawaiian (Santalum paniculatum for $300/oz.
In other words, if the stuff is cheap, chances are it is not sandalwood at all but another genus altogether, such as Amyris. Also, real sandalwood may be adulterated with a synthetic, such as Sandela or Javanol, which can work, albeit with much fussing, in perfumery, but may run you into trouble if you try to use it medicinally or in aromatherapy.
Sandalwood has had many uses through the ages, and so the peddling of fake or adulterated sandalwood is nothing new. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh writes, “Sandalwood is arguably as important a raw material to South Asian religions and civilization as jade is to China or porphyry was to the Roman Empire at certain times. … Taking sandalwood as an example, I present several texts on the evaluation and artifice of aromatics and conclude that faking this costly material was clearly both common and very profitable.”
There is so much to say about a product of nature prized for millennia, that I will wind this potentially book-length subject down with this insightful comment from McHugh, “things smelled differently in early and medieval South Asia than they do today: not only were there many different odorants to smell (more elephants and sandalwood for example, at least in certain circles), but, more important, things smelled differently because of what was in people’s heads when they smelled things.”
In conclusion, I offer this thought: When an exotic fragrance is, by ingenuity and cunning, distilled and transported so far from its natural and cultural habitat, to land like an arrow from nowhere into our noses, we skirt the dangers of simple appropriation. A quick Google search for “sandalwood” will find you thousands of posts about the marvelously spiritual effects of sandalwood, which appeal I think to our sometimes untethered experience of modernity. Perhaps learning a little bit about the tree that gives its life for our pleasure will help us to feel less greedy about having it in our lives, and realize that our demands for natural must necessarily be costly. It is up to us to decide if the costs should be suffered by our pocketbooks or the environment. If we are ok with taking the hit financially, then a 2ml vile of the essence of Santalum album’s heartwood offers an olfactory expansion of our personal smellscape that is not otherwise quantifiable.
Often we associate the Victorian Era with a degree of primness that falls helplessly into parody–nowhere better illustrated than in Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)–but as with all eras, the Victorian presents a dark underbelly as well as a laced-up exterior. I shan’t elaborate on the entirety of this dichotomy, but content myself with the extremities of Victorian perfumery, from the nosegay to the nether regions of the civet, and from the ancient coaxing of flowers by enfleurage to the explosive manipulations of chemical compounds.
Let’s start with the era’s namesake, who set the tone for the ladies in her realm and beyond. As the Perfume Society says in a delightful article called The Victorians, From Violet Posies to Va-Va-Voom, “Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ by plenty of things, including the over-lavish use of fragrance. Anything too ‘sexy’ – along with the use of cosmetics and wearing of make-up – was associated with ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, those of questionable morals.”
Hence, simple fragrances suggesting a single flower such as rose or lily were often preferred (even if the formulas were complex and sometimes, as we shall see, artificial).
However, as the Perfume Society goes on to relate, even Queen Victoria enjoyed a racy scent when it was given her: “Creed actually presented Victoria with a surprisingly heady scent, in 1845, ‘Fleurs de Bulgarie’, which she wore throughout her illustrious reign: a waltz of Bulgarian rose, musk, ambergris and bergamot.”
Fleurs de Bulgarie still exists today, though it is unlikely all the ingredients are the same as they once were…
Unlike many of its familiar citrus kin, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), is not generally consumed, though its peel gives Earl Grey tea its distinct flavor, and its essential oil offers a bright uplifting scent that has been used extensively in perfumery for centuries. It was a key component of the original Eau de Cologne (1709).
As G.W. Septimus Piesse puts it in The Art of Perfumery (1857), “When bergamot is mixed with other essential oils it greatly adds to their richness, and gives a sweetness to spice oils attainable by no other means, and such compounds are much used in the most highly scented soaps. Mixed with rectified spirit in the proportions of about four ounces of bergamot to a gallon, it forms what is called “extract of bergamot,” and in this state is used for the handkerchief.”
As we shall see, a great deal of aroma Victoriana went into the hanky, and hence the lasting power of a dearly bought fragrance elevated its value.
Our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, writes this of Rose (Rosa damascena, R centifolia): ” This queen of the garden loses not its diadem in the perfuming world.”
Rose may be thanked for the development of modern perfumery, as it was likely one of the first materials to be distilled by the Medieval Arab alchemists. The authors of Aromatherapy summarize:
“Rosewater purified the mosque, scented gloves, flavored sherbet, and Turkish delight, and was sprinkled on guests from a flask called a gulabdan. Prayer beads made from gum Arabic and rose petals released their scent when handled. … Following the translation of the Western classics into Arabic in the seventh century, Arab alchemists in search of the “quintessence” of plants found it represented in essential oils.”
As I discussed in Distill My Heart 2, spirits, whether of alcohol or plant matter, symbolized a pure and incorruptible manifestation of the mundane and corruptible world. Hence, the Medieval alchemists took a great interest in distillation, which crossed the disciplines of perfumery, medicine and booze-making. It is likely that rosewater/oil, along with distillation and Greco-Roman learning, (re)entered Western Europe as one of the many treasures brought back during the Crusades, which in turn sparked the Renaissance.
Ambergris is not for the faint-hearted! In his section on “Perfumes of Animal Origin, Septimus Piesse explains that there is still in his time a great debate concerning the origins of these foul-smelling lumps which periodically wash onto shores from Ireland to Japan, but offers this first: “[Ambergris] has been particularly found in the intestines of the spermaceti whale, and most commonly in sickly fish, whence it is supposed to be the cause or effect of the disease.”
The stuff is then puked by the whale into the ocean where it floats for a long time and is pickled by the salt water and finally washes ashore.
As Wikipedia tells it:
“Ambergris occurs as a bile duct secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.”
Now that we know what it is, we must ask (with less auspicious results) what clever bloke thought of using the stuff for perfume, for it seems not to smell very nice. In fact, using the assertions of others, Piesse suggests it smells like shit. Literally…
“A modern compiler, speaking of ambergris, says, ‘It smells like dried cow-dung.’ Never having smelled this latter substance, we cannot say whether the simile be correct; but we certainly consider that its perfume is most incredibly overrated; nor can we forget that Homberg found that ‘a vessel in which he had made a long digestion of the human fæces had acquired a very strong and perfect smell of ambergris, insomuch that any one would have thought that a great quantity of essence of ambergris had been made in it. The perfume (odor!) was so strong that the vessel was obliged to be moved out of the laboratory.’ (Mem. Acad. Paris, 1711.)”
Hence, our friend Septimus includes ambergris in his book not because he uses it himself, but because other perfumers do:
“Nevertheless, as ambergris is extensively used as a perfume, in deference to those who admire its odor, we presume that it has to many an agreeable smell.
“Like bodies of this kind undergoing a slow decomposition and possessing little volatility, it, when mixed with other very fleeting scents, gives permanence to them on the handkerchief, and for this quality the perfumer esteems it much.
“Essence of Ambergris is only kept for mixing; when retailed it has to be sweetened up to the public nose…”
The “sweetening” apparently adds rose and vanilla, which make sense, and musk, which does not, as it too derives from the interstices of an animal–from a glandular sack located near the anus of the poor little male musk deer.
The animal secretions apparently find their use as fixatives on the hanky:
“This perfume has such a lasting odor, that a handkerchief being well perfumed with it, will still retain an odor even after it has been washed.
“The fact is, that both musk and ambergris contain a substance which clings pertinaciously to woven fabrics, and not being soluble in weak alkaline lyes, is still found upon the material after passing through the lavatory ordeal.
While we’re on the unsavory subject of animal secretions as fixatives, we might as well pay homage also to the harried civet cat whose butt was scraped for its odorous secretion and used similarly to ambergris and musk.
Happily, by the end of the Victorian Era, chemistry figured out how to create synthetic fixatives. In 1888, Albert Baur discovered a musk-like odor while attempting to create a more effective form of TNT, and the first synthetic musk blasted into the world of perfumery! As musk is one of the foundational base notes in perfumery, and because today the killing or torturing of animals is no longer tolerated–for cosmetic purposes anyway, synthetic musks are used almost universally in modern fragrance. In this case, I think we can all agree that synthetic trumps all-natural!
Septimus Piesse tells us that it was fashionable even in his day to pooh-pooh the use of musk, though “nevertheless, from great experience in one of the largest manufacturing perfumatories in Europe, we are of opinion that the public taste for musk is as great as any perfumer desires,” and he assures his readers that “Those substances containing it always take the preference in ready sale—so long as the vendor takes care to assure his customer ‘that there is no musk in it.'”
Besides telling customers that an ingredient that they believe themselves not to like is not present, the Victorian perfumer mangled truth in advertising by creating fragrances named for flowers that are reluctant to give up their scent. For example, “The Parisian perfumers sell a mixture which they call ‘extract of jonquil.’ The plant, however, only plays the part of a godfather to the offspring, giving it its name.” He goes on to give a recipe for this “Jonquil” which includes jasmine, tuberose, vanilla, and fleur d’orange (orange blossom).
Likewise Lily perfume is but imitation:
“The manufacturing perfumer rejects the advice of the inspired writer, to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ Rich as they are in odor, they are not cultivated for their perfume. If lilies are thrown into oil of sweet almonds, or ben oil, they impart to it their sweet smell; but to obtain anything like fragrance, the infusion must be repeated a dozen times with the same oil, using fresh flowers for each infusion, after standing a day or so. The oil being shaken with an equal quantity of spirit for a week, gives up its odor to the alcohol, and thus extract of lilies may be made. But how it is made is thus…”
Septimus Piesse gives a recipe for “Imitation Lily of the Valley which adds rose, cassie and otto of almonds to the fake jonquil recipe. Interestingly, he does not shy from imitations, or from sharing the recipes of deceit.
Before leaving you and Aroma Victoriana, I wish to impart a bit of wisdom found in two books separated in time by nearly a hundred and fifty years that convey nearly the same criticism of the historically secretive perfume/fragrance industry.
First, I’d like to quote the entirety of the introduction of Perfumes, wherein the case is made for treating fragrance like we do other art forms (in order that perfumes be critiqued and analyzed with all the vigor we do films, books, cuisine, etc.), but I will content myself with this:
” the perfume industry, in a hoary, unbroken tradition of self-defeating behavior, has done everything it can to avoid viewing its work as art. Perfume companies do not generally keep archives. They change formulas without telling customers. They discontinue their classics. They lie about contents. They hide the perfumers and art directors responsible. They shill shameless copies of great ideas and hope no one notices. They’ve even withdrawn advertising from magazines that criticized their work.”
As the book’s authors suggest, with the help of the internet, where recipes for natural perfumes and critiques of industry standards are the norm, the fragrance industry will (have to) bust out of its dark laboratory and join in on all the scrutiny and exhilaration the public sphere has to offer.
I will leave you with our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who saw this necessity even back in 1857:
“As an art, in England, perfumery has attained little or no distinction. This has arisen from those who follow it as a trade, maintaining a mysterious secrecy about their processes. No manufacture can ever become great or important to the community that is carried on under a veil of mystery.”
*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*
I’ll admit upfront that I loved The Botanist before I ever tasted it. When my boyfriend told me about a gin, which , in addition to nine traditional botanicals, features 22 others that grow wild on the Scottish island of Islay, I was immediately smitten. I asked him to nab the last bottle in the shop where he works and hide it till payday. Meanwhile, I would look into these botanicals…
The Botanist’s website is a rabbit hole for those who like to geek out on plants and booze and legend. Take, for instance, this little tidbit from #3 of the 22 native botanicals, creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense): “The thistle is of course the symbol of Scotland and is believed to derive from the battle of Largs in 1263 when a barefoot soldier of the Norse king Haakon IV inadvertently trod on the thistle while advancing in stealth on the Scottish encampment. His cry of pain was heard by the Scots and the attack repelled.”
And this from number 6, gorse (Ulex europaeus): “In the Scottish region of Argyll, home of The Botanist, gorse is closely associated with the Cailleach (Divine Hag), or the spirit of winter. The Cailleach is credited with forming the landscape of Argyll with her hammer as she strode across it creating mountains as stepping stones, and perhaps leaving a trail of hardy gorse in her wake.”
But if this whole botany & gin romance is new to you, may I refer you to The Drunken Botanist–or The Bible, as we lovingly call it chez nous! In her introduction, Amy Stewart describes how the idea for her book was born. She was hanging with a fun bunch of garden writers, and found that one of her companions, an Agave (Tequila) expert, expressed his disinclination for gin. En route to convincing him with a cocktail, she subjects him to her “rant on the many virtues of gin”:
“How can anyone with even a passing interest in botany not be fascinated by this stuff?” I said. “Look at the ingredients. Juniper! That’s a conifer. Coriander, which is, of course, the fruit of a cilantro plant. All gins have citrus peel in them… Gin is nothing but an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world—tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.”
In fact, gin would basically be vodka–a neutral spirit–if not for the botanicals. As The Botanist says on their website, “Botanicals are the very essence of gin; its raison d’etre.”
Strange to say, my love of gin all started with Dry January. Perhaps because I am a masochist, I found that during a month-long abstinence from drinking alcohol, I derived great pleasure from reading books about alcohol. One of my favorites was Craft Distilling by Victoria Redhed Miller, who is, by the way, a badass–not only does she make her own booze, but she built her own still! Anyway, it was during one dark and dry January that I learned about the botanicals in gin.
Of course I’d always heard that juniper was the thing that made gin gin, but I did not know why or how that was, and, due to some unfortunate youthful encounters with cheap gin and tonics, I did not drink the stuff for many years–the very smell made me gag. But when I read in Miller’s book that “Top-quality gins are distilled at least three times” and that “during distillation, the vapors rise through a special basket that holds the botanicals, picking up the flavors and resulting in a subtle and complex gin,” I was intrigued. The process of making gin sounded a lot like the process of making the essential oils and hydrosols I’d been pleasuring my nose with in recent years. So my intellect turned to gin and my palette had no choice but to follow!
It turns out that there is quite a bit of research out there that suggests that our enjoyment of wine and spirits does require a mental grasp on the thing in question to appreciate it. As Adam Rogers writes in Proof‘s chapter on “Smell and Taste, “People who teach wine-tasting classes often tell funny stories about how their students, even with training, prefer box wine in a blind test. And research shows that people say they enjoy a wine more if they know it’s more expensive. Sure, that bottle of red from the little village you found when you and your first love got lost in Tuscany on that rainy night was the best bottle of wine the world has ever made. Just don’t try the same bottle again alone, sitting in front of a Star Trek rerun.” In other words, the intellectual or emotional situation shapes our taste enjoyment.
Rogers quotes Tim Gaiser (one of only about 200 “master sommeliers in the world) as calling wine a “shared hallucination”. This suggests that what we really like about this wine or that does not, in the usual sense, exist, which is cool.
I can relate.
Thanks to a strange phenomenon called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes affects people who lose their sight later in life, I experience almost constant hallucinations. Basically, having felt rather proud and useful–happily processing stuff sent to it via the retina–and now deprived, my visual cortex gets bored and manufactures visual hallucinations.
On hangover days these hallucinations can be quite manic: parades of lurid faces and multitudes of jugglers and circus horses all surrounded by complimentary pulsating breathing designs. In other words, my hallucinations have generally got the humdrum visible world beat, which is precisely the point of this detour: Latin binomials and Celtic Mythology can provide structure and play to our appreciation, and appreciation of booze (or music or art or food…) can be learned precisely because it is tied not only to the acuteness of our sense organs, but also to our intellects and imaginations.
I should say though that today’s hallucinations are quite pleasant–reminiscent of a kelpie paradise with shimmering fish and gently undulating flora–perhaps because last night I sipped my first bit of Botanist!
If I had not been predisposed to loving The Botanist before getting a hold of the bottle, I would have fallen for it the moment I touched it because, printed in raised letters are the 22 Islay botanicals! I’m not going to say that they are easy to read–raise Latin characters are not so legible as braille, particularly when they are justified, but this blind drinker enjoyed the hell out of first picking out Juniperus communis, juniper, which is of course the only botanical absolutely required to get the label gin slapped on your bottle.
Next, I found Sambucus nigra, elderflower, which is a force to be reckoned with. “Elder is one of the most powerful trees in mythology. Judas is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree … As a consequence elder has traditionally become associated with ill-fortune and bad spirits – to cut down elder is to be plagued by the demons that live in the tree and many woodcutters would refuse to chop the tree.”
In The Big, Bad Book of Botany, Michael Largo puts it like this, “People have long loved the elder for its beauty and host of benefits. Naturally, superstitions grew around the plant; for example, if someone dared to kill one of the stouter varieties to make furniture, the chair or table fashioned from its timber would seek revenge. A chair might fling itself across the room or move about on its own and haunt the home’s residents for abetting the plant’s destruction.”
Hurrah for the magical Elder! I LOVE elderflower! Elderflower tastes like chocolate, if chocolate were indigo velvet.
Here beginneth my (extremely idiosyncratic) tasting notes: I take a sip of The Botanist, and the first thing to fill my mouth is a violet icing of soft flowers spiked with juniper’s pinecone. Then there is a complicated herbal intensity, which gives rise to a lingering tingling, as if my tongue were dusted with iridescent fairy dust.
This last makes sense because number 7 of the 22 Islay botanicals is Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which marks the entrance to the otherworld and is therefore closely associated with the world of spirits and fairies.
In the entry on ghosts in The Encyclopedia of Spirits, Judika Illes writes, “Hawthorn allegedly repels evil ghosts, while permitting the entry of helpful souls. Maintain a barrier of living hawthorn bushes and trees outside the home or bring branches within.” But she warns, “hawthorn is among the plants most associated with Fairies. Do not break off a branch without first seeking permission from the Fairies, lest ghosts become the least of your problems.”
If I’ve not yet convinced you that you will find spirits–other than alcoholic ones–in a bottle of Botanist, then allow me one more go…
Number 15, Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), is “the species of the legendary four-leaf clover… Many of the Celtic races revered the clover, believing that if one carried a (three-leaf) clover it would give advance warning of evil spirits ahead, and a four-leaf clover would provide active protection. Similarly medieval children were told that a four-leaf clover would allow the bearer to see faeries where they were hidden.”
Apparently the chances of “finding a four-leaf clover are estimated at 10,000-1,” so “there has to be at least one in a bottle of Botanist somewhere…”
I do love my booze, but even beyond the literal satisfaction of imbibing spirits, distillation offers a wonderful metaphor. You take a thing that you really really like, put it into an apparatus, subject it to fire, force its volatility, and are rewarded with a high concentration of the thing you liked about the thing you like. In other words, you make the thing you like more like the thing you liked about that thing. Get it? No? Ok, I’ll try again, but first let’s drink to our health…
Ah, that’s better.
It’s like this: writers who are worth their salt know that the writing itself is fine and/or painful, but it’s the edit–the distillation –into high proof prose or poetry that knocks socks off.
Writing–the putting words on paper or device–is like dropping berries in a bucket–fermentation will happen and you will get something mildly alcoholic. You can thank the yeast fairies for that. Likewise, you can thank the human brain for the stories and images that drop into the buckets of our imagination. But it is the work of the writer to distill the fermented mash into a strong-ass spirit.
In Proof, a delightfully geek-inducing book on the science of booze, Adam Rogers writes, “Distillation tells us that having less of something can make it more potent. It is concentration. It is focus.”
While fermentation is natural and will happen with or without us, distillation is a human invention, a technology. As Rogers puts it, “Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”
And who better to turn to for advice about the hubris of changing your world than the very lunatics who, if they did not ever hit upon the philosopher’s stone, did invent and perfect distillation–the alchemists.
Though alcohol was not the first thing to come out of their alembics, we must thank the long and secretive contemplation of transmutation for the eventual revelation of distillation. The alchemists figured out how to turn wine–ironically perhaps?–into water, specifically aqua vitae from which developed such delightful “waters of life” as eau de vie (French), akvavit (Scandinavian) and whisky (from Gaelic uisce beatha).
But before fermentations of grains and fruits went into the still, strange things like Sulphur and antimony went in; the ultimate goal being the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would turn base metals to gold.
For many centuries and many alchemists chrysopoeia was the name of the game. Chrysopoeia means the making of gold–chryso is the gold part and poeia is the making part. And if that poeia part looks familiar, it’s because the Ancient Greek word “to make–poiein” has come down to us as poetry.
At its most basic level writing poetry means to make or create, and to take it one-step further, the transmutation of base metals into gold is not unlike a poet turning the mundane and painful stuff of life into something sublime.
As we turn to Shakespeare’s Sonnet, I think it’s helpful to understand that our modern tendency to want to find in poetry straightforward one to one analogies and symbols was not shared with our Renaissance counterparts. As Lawrence Principe puts it in The Secrets of Alchemy, “premoderns tended to conceive of and visualize the world in multivalent terms, where each individual thing was connected to many others by webs of analogy and metaphor. This view stands in contrast to the modern tendency to compartmentalize and isolate things and ideas into separate disciplines.” So as we turn to the highly distilled Shakespeare sonnet, we ought not to forget that multiple and even contradictory readings are possible. In Sonnet 33, I would argue that Shakespeare indulges in the contradictions inherent in the human heart, and intentionally leaves us unsure.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace;
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain, if heaven’s sun staineth.
In the first quatrain, we have a lovely picture of morning, more specifically the morning sun, flattering the lowly mountains (a reversal of the usual flattery of the lowly towards his superior), and in the next two lines the sun becomes the artist–both like a painter who kisses with gold light to create a brighter green, and an alchemical artist who would cover the natural world with gold.
Suddenly in the second quatrain everything changes. Anon, meaning shortly, the effect is reversed. Now it’s the base things, associated with the world, that darken and disgrace the face, i.e. the “ugly rack” of clouds are permitted to ride the sun and darken the forlorn world.
The third quatrain superimposes a new and personal element to the poem. Now the poet is involved, so that the first two quatrains are compressed into a single quatrain divided into two couplets, signified by the dividing semicolon. The first couplet refers, for the first time in the poem, explicitly to a sun, specifically “my sun,” indicating possession, albeit brief, by the poet.
If we read this through the lens of the first quatrain, we might see how the poet enjoyed a brightening and gilding not unlike that experienced by the lowly mountains and streams. And, as in the opening octave, very quickly the poet experiences a reversal and the “region cloud”–perhaps another lover? Has come between the poet and his sun, leaving him to see only a masked, or covered-over splendor.
In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler demonstrates how the brevity of what we might call the personal third quatrain narrative may be filled out with the vocabulary of the seemingly impersonal description of a morning sun being obscured by clouds:
“Even so my sun (glorious, golden, sovereign) one early morn did shine (flattering, kissing, alchemizing) with all-triumphant splendor on my (pale) brow; but out alack, he was but one hour mine, the (basest) region cloud (permitted by him to ride with ugly rack on his celestial face) hath masked him (hiding his visage) from (forlorn) me now (as he steals in disgrace away).”
In the final couplet, a kind of parable enters the poem and offers a rather dull platitude: if the heavenly sun may be so easily stained by ugly dark clouds, then of course the suns (a pun on sons) cannot be blamed (disdained) for taking on a stain, or blemish.
Besides the direct reference to alchemy in the first quatrain, and the transformative powers it infers, the sonnet as a whole displays the transmutation of the prosaic into poetry in a stunning reversal: first we have the metaphor and, until the “even so” that opens the third quatrain and its shift to the literal event (the disgrace or perhaps betrayal of the friend or lover), we do not really know that this description of morning is meant to symbolize anything in particular. A more typical construction would present the loss of lover first and then set about describing how it makes the poet feel. In the case of Sonnet 33, the metaphor, or philosopher’s stone of the poem reverses the project and turns a golden morning into a base and rather relentless couplet of blemishes–the word stain may even strike us as crass and overused.
By the end of the fourteen lines, it is not clear whether or not forgiveness is felt as deeply as had been the joy and the suffering. Knowing that all earthly creatures are susceptible to corruption is not the same as feeling compensated by this knowledge.
Likewise the dwindling away of poetic space–from the octave metaphor, to the quartet narrative, to the couplet platitude–suggests a kind of lessoning of interest or importance. Though the final couplet may assert an unarguable fact of human nature, it cannot compare to the magic of poetry that may transform clouds passing over the sun into the sufferings of a disappointed lover.
To finish an inherently unfinishable investigation, I will clumsily return to our opening metaphor of distillation and remind my dear reader that 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of Shakespeare. Hence we might be wont to spend time with the bard, perhaps even his sonnets which, though they be difficult, beckon us in this auspicious year. If so, I offer this disclaimer, or WARNING label if you will: Do not guzzle! Sip as you would your favorite 180 proof spirit and keep your interpretive lens away from the flames of modernity and the scientific method, for the power of the philosopher’s stone lies in what you discover en route to what you thought you wanted!