Health & Grooming

Drink in the scent

They’re the most polemic of scents, but perfumes that play with notes of spirits and food are winning over a new generation of fragrance aficionados. Vicci Bentley reports.

November 29 2011
Vicci Bentley

In this socially demanding season, there’s a wisdom in erring on the right side of good cheer – exuding too much bonhomie may not win you friends. Yet a soul-warming scent can be relied upon to melt the ice and get you into the festive spirit.

Spirit is the operative word here, since a dash of hard liquor – gin, cognac, rum, absinthe – is the kick that gives the latest connoisseur fragrances a near-intoxicating romantic appeal that works on men and women alike. Not that the hooch slugs you over the head – as in all the best blends, it’s that indefinable hint that swings the alchemy.

Take, for example, Hiroshima Mon Amour (£105, 100ml) from Marais-based label Nez à Nez. Husband-and-wife perfumers Christa Patout and Stéphane Humbert Lucas, poured sake over yuzu (Japanese citrus), plum and cherry wood to evoke the passion of the 1950s Nouvelle Vague cinematic love story. The result is a honeyed waft of incense that catches the tension between lust and tradition.

From the same brand, Atelier d’Artiste (£105, 100ml) pulls no punches with its liqueur-rich hit of rum, cognac and raspberry wine, leavened by black coffee and Egyptian tobacco. Perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec would have relished Nasomatto’s Absinth (£108, 30ml) – raunchy, suede-like and spiked with bitter herbs to “encourage irresponsible behaviour”, in the words of maverick perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri. In Parfum d’Empire’s smoother and more soignée smoky Ambre Russe (£84.50, 100ml), chilled vodka, champagne and samovar-brewed tea (considered by Balzac to be the finest tipple) offset a cooler trail of incense.

If these spirited scents conjure up nostalgia for a long-lost loucheness, their hedonism is welcome sensual therapy. Is the road to ruin really awash with gin sling? Penhaligon’s version Juniper Sling (£78, 50ml) is inspired by the 1920s English fast set, carousing straight off the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Not any old gin would do, either. Nathalie Vinciguerra, the head of fragrance at Penhaligon, asked the Juniper Society in the UK to help her with her research on the history of the spirit. The one she took back to Paris was Beefeater (“neither too dry, nor aromatic, but perfectly balanced”) to be appraised by Olivier Cresp, a perfumer known for his gourmand predilections.

“It was a pleasant surprise to taste, smell, discover and evaluate the ingredients surrounding the juniper berry,” Cresp says. His formula – a sprinkling of cinnamon and ginger, a pinch of pink and black pepper, powdery orris and chamois-soft vetiver – gives Juniper Sling an icy-warm, fizzy-smooth ambiguity, which goes down a treat with both sexes.

So to the Fontpinot Château, in Segonzac in south-west France’s Grande Champagne region, to Frapin, maker of premier cru cognac. Making scents to reflect the family’s long heritage (Frapin began making wine in the early Middle Ages) was started on a whim by Béatrice Cointreau, daughter of head of house Pierre, and an avid perfume fan.

Cointreau reasoned that since “bouquet” and “terroir” were critical to both perfumer and distiller, what was to stop her applying her cognac expertise to developing a recipe for scent? A collaboration with perfumer Sidonie Lancesseur, at fine-fragrance company Robertet, brought 1270 (£98.50, 100ml) – named after the year the Frapin family established the Château de Font pinot – to fruition. A lively and opulent palate-teaser, the scent recalls the lightly acidic Folle Blanche grape revered by cognac distillers (the perfect foil for roasted fruits and melting chocolate). The Oriental-style scent quickly became a cult hit among the “cognacscenti”. The new addition 1697 (£125, 100ml) – the year Louis XIV ennobled the House of Frapin – is a rum-and-brandy-soaked plum pud of a scent, rich with dried fruits, spices and vanilla-smooth, oak-matured liqueur. Created by Bertrand Duchaufour (the “Heston Blumenthal of perfume” with a recherché culinary touch) it evokes the “angel’s share” – that measure of cognac allowed to evaporate so as to concentrate its aromas.

Boozy scents like these are the most elegant refinement of the current “soul-food” fragrance trend. Of all the trends, gourmand scents have polarised perfume wearers for the past two decades. Love it or hate it, Olivier Cresp’s provocative blue-juiced Angel (£42, 25ml edp) for Thierry Mugler scandalised the market with its chocolate-fudge aromachemical called maltone, when it launched in 1992. But as the benchmark for the gourmand trend, it’s now the fifth-bestselling fragrance globally. Yet if you’re a floral sort of person, you’ll be damned if you can fathom why anyone would want to smell like a chocfest.

“For the comfort factor, or simply the desire to seem good enough to eat?” wonders Pierre Guillaume, the nose behind edgy label Parfumerie Générale. Pierre Aulas, the olfactive artistic director at Parfums Thierry Mugler, gets to the point. “There is a direct correlation between food and mother, which is always reassuring,” he says, and explains why soothing hints of chocolate or vanilla could make you irresistible. Not that a splash behind your ears turns you into a meal ticket. “Wearing a modern gourmand fragrance doesn’t have to mean smelling like a cookie,” he adds. The elements are now so subtle that anyone can relish them, Guillaume believes. His latest, Parfumerie Générale Indochine (£88, 50ml) – golden-spiced honey cakes blessed by incense – will reassure. “I chose balsamic notes of honey, milk, coffee, liquorice and cereals for their roundness and the comfort they bring,” he explains.

Prada is fronting the latest wave of “comfort-food” scents with Candy (£40, 30ml), a youthful, slightly salty, caramel made moreish by powdery musk and incense. More exotic, a vanilla-praline base is lushed up by succulent peach, melon and blueberries in Lalique’s “acqua Oriental” Nilang (£68, 100ml); and for log-cabin escapism, maple syrup and cranberry cheer the lonesome pines of Nova Scotia in Molton Brown’s bracing Rogart (£60, 50ml). Liquorice, coconut and apricot’s peachy but piquant flesh contribute to the bready aroma of sated skin in Serge Lutens’ Jeux de Peau (£75, 50ml).

Not to be nudged off the menu, Angel – which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year – and stablemates Alien (£40, 30ml edp) and A*Men (£35, 50ml edp) get a double-foodie fix in the new Parfums Thierry Mugler Ltd Edition Taste of Fragrance Collection. Aulas recruited Michelin-starred French chef Hélène Darroze (of the eponymous Parisian restaurant and London’s Connaught Hotel) as consultant. Central to the project was the haute-cuisine technique of maturing elements of the dish separately, before combining flavours at the last minute to preserve their integrity.

“Traditionally, a perfume concentrate contains all the fragrance components and is aged and blended in steel vats. For our project, we aged a taste enhancer in a separate vat, then combined it with the concentrate only at the solution phase, when alcohol is added. The complete solution was then macerated to obtain the final juice,” Aulas explains, adding that it took more than six months to perfect the recipes.

With the Angel Ltd Edition Taste of Fragrance scent the “taste enhancer”, bitter cocoa powder, takes the sweet vanilla-praline down to a darker, almost 90 per cent, intensity (£42, 35ml). In the A*Men Ltd Edition Taste of Fragrance (£50, 100ml), red-chilli pepper gives roasted coffee a Tabasco kick; and echoing the “glassage” technique of reducing juices in the roasting pan, salt-butter caramel hypes the amber of Alien Ltd Edition Taste of Fragrance (£39, 30ml). Chef is happy. “The nose and mouth are inseparable. Taste buds need to be astounded to match the olfactory surprise,” muses Darroze.

Meanwhile, at the Bar du Plaza Athénée in Paris, director Thierry Hernandez still mixes the wickedly sly Juniper Sling Cocktail he created with Olivier Cresp to celebrate the press launch of Penhaligon’s Juniper Sling. Cherry brandy, bitter rhubarb, ginger beer and cranberry and ginger juices are shaken along with the gin. But the exact method and measures are secret. You might just have to pull up a stool, inhale and savour. That’s the spirit.

See also

Perfume