One of the most intriguing aromas, that of roasted coffee beans, can be elusive. Anyone who has swooned over the perfume of freshly ground coffee – sweet, bitter, spicy, floral, toasted, with hints of blackcurrants, chocolate or hazelnuts – knows the frustration of capturing all those beautiful nuances in an infusion. Coffee aficionados have challenges in brewing a perfect cup, but the task of perfumers to bottle the fragrance of arabica is no easier. A coffee note is capricious, and while the natural essence, coffee absolute, has an addictive aroma on paper, on skin it can resemble roasted meat and damp wood.
The solution is to approach coffee notes creatively. Instead of mimicking nature, a perfumer instead might fashion a blend that hints at coffee’s pleasing bitterness and heady richness. Such is Arquiste’s Nanban (£135 for 100ml EDP). The composition uses a plush backdrop of woods to frame the smoky, spicy notes of myrrh and incense, with an accent of coffee to lend the composition a dark, delicious twist. It teases with its smoky, nutty warmth, but keeps its presence mellow behind layers of sandalwood and leather.
The effect is similar to Maître Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble (£66.50 for 100ml EDP). In this perfume, coffee offsets the sweet, powdery accord of sandalwood and moss. The fragrance is as intricate and opulent as one would expect from a perfume house inspired by French baroque aesthetics, but the touch of coffee gives it an element of surprise. Contrasted with warm, enveloping notes like amber, vanilla and toasted spices, coffee makes Santal Noble radiant.
My latest discovery is Atelier Cologne’s Café Tuberosa (£110 for 100ml cologne absolue). Atelier Cologne’s collection plays on the theme of classical citrus colognes –refreshing, easy-to-wear fragrances – by recasting them as light but long-lasting perfumes based on a wide selection of accords. In Café Tuberosa, the pairing is of airy white florals and coffee. The idea is clever, because instead of mixing coffee with similarly dark notes like woods, balsams or incense, Atelier Cologne infuses it into a creamy tuberose accord. The contrast between bitter coffee and sweet tuberose is intoxicating. A final squeeze of bergamot completes the vignette, resulting in a sophisticated blend with a gourmand inflection.
Though Café Tuberosa remains radiant and airy like a true cologne, it lingers for hours, evoking the impression of glossy dark beans mixed with white petals. At first I couldn’t understand how such an illusion was produced, but wearing the perfume longer, I realised the secret of Café Tuberosa lies in the generous dose of patchouli. The essence of a green leaf that smells like dark wood plays a trick in this perfume by conjuring up the coffee bean.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.