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.”
When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.
Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.
I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.
Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.
That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.
The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.
Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.
Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.
But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:
” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”
Living now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.
I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.
And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.
My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.
She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.
If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.
The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.
The trick is not to panic.
The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.
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’ve been obsessed with gin on the one hand and hydrosols on the other for a little while now, and mixing them together seemed only natural, though they may strike the uninitiated as strange bedfellows. Hydrosols and alcohols (as well as essential oils) are all distilled. So what is distillation?
Simply put–which is about all I can manage since I’m no scientist, distillation is the heating of a liquid to create steam in order to separate out substances. Different substances have different boiling points. The two vapors are run through condenser tubing and cooled which results in two new liquids–alcohol and water, for example. In the case of distilling for alcoholic spirits each distillation results in a higher ratio of alcohol by volume to water and other chemical compounds–in other words the proof of wine is miraculously transmuted into brandy beer into whiskey, fermented potatoes into vodka… and the angels sing hallelujah!
In the case of hydrosols and essential oils, steam passes through aromatic plant material–rose or orange blossoms, for example, and the volatile oils separate out from the waters. In this case, both the substances have their uses as the resulting essential oil is very potent and lipophilic while the hydrosol (AKA hydrolat) is water-soluble and much milder. This is why essential oils should be diluted, while the corresponding hydrosols have historically been used in cooking and can be used undiluted. A quick Google search offers up thousands of recipes using both essential oils and hydrosols (including cucumber) in homemade beauty products and home remedies, but since this article is about drinking I will just get to our booze of the day.
The word gin derives from jenever, which is the Dutch word for juniper. As Italy has grappa, Poland vodka, Ireland whiskey, the Netherlands offers jenever as its national treasure. It travelled to England and was transformed into London dry gin, and the great destroyer in the eighteenth century as illustrated by the degenerates in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane“.
Gin differs from most other spirits because, at some later distillation–after one has been left with a fairly neutral spirit–the alcohol is run through a still that has some place to hang a basket of botanicals. This makes its production even more similar to that of hydrosols and essential oils. The alcoholic vapors pass through the plant material and pick up its volatile oils–its aromatic chemical compounds–and is flavored. In order to be labeled gin, the botanicals must include juniper, but as for the rest, it’s a free-for-all. Because so many of the botanicals in gin are the same used to produce hydrosols, the possible pairings to highlight this botanical or that is limitless.
Hendrick’s gin launched in 1999, but its history is long and peculiar as described on its website. Though a rather new label in the gin world, where brands like Tanqueray have been around since the early nineteenth century, it is quite established when compared to the many wonderful micro-distilleries that are popping up everywhere–even in my Astoria!–and all of which I plan to get friendly with until my liver gives out…
Besides its unique blend of botanicals, Hendrick’s infuses its gin with cucumber and rose, Rosa damascena for those aromatherapy geeks out there. I decided to make my first hydro cocktail highlight the green brightness of the cucumber, but if you like the floral, which I do, the following simple recipe can also be done using rose hydrosol.
Cucumbers are loaded with nutrients as detailed in this great article about their many health benefits. Cucumber hydrosol is good for digestion, and it is even said to have some appetite suppressant benefits if taken before a meal. Speaking of dieting, how about a delicious and refreshing cocktail with no added sugar? It’s amazing how hydrosols strong aromas trick the brain into perceiving sweetness, without the need for the high fructose corn syrup of commercial tonic water.
Having lured some friends over with a bottle of Hendrick’s I proceeded to pour out a shot for everyone so that we could appreciate the happy floral and green goodness of this award-winning gin, and while they were sipping and cooing with delight, I poured out an ounce of seltzer water from a liter bottle and replaced it with one ounce of cucumber hydrosol, put the lid back on and gently tipped the bottle upside down once or twice. Do not shake unless you are looking to have a cucumber shower–which by the way would be wonderful for your skin, but probably put a damper on your night!
Because we were buds from way back, I didn’t worry about getting fancy pants–just poured some Hendrick’s into vessels, tossed in an ice cube and topped with the instant cucumber seltzer, et voila–yum!
If we were high-class with actual furniture instead of folding chairs and tall glasses instead of mason jars, we’d have garnished with cucumber wheels or perhaps a citrus zest, but we’re simple people. Upon his first sip of this sparkling elixir, my boyfriend said, “I want to have this every morning!” In other words, it’s very refreshing.
Finally, because I’ve got some cucumber hydrosol left in the fridge and no gin, I will leave you with this warning: if you are not up to finishing a bottle of Hendrick’s in a couple hours, you should probably not make Hendrick’s Cucumbers, for the night was young when the gin ran out, which was the only sad part of this hydro-booze experiment.