What’s your poison? Why fragrance is finding its next kick at the cocktail bar

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Whisky, absinthe, rum and tobacco... fragrance is finding its next kick at the cocktail bar. Give it a shot.

Words: Alice Du Parcq | Photography: Dennis Pedersen

The fragrance trend set to trickle through 2017 has nothing to do with classic perfume rules: it’s not whimsical, flirty or flower- shop pretty, but dark, troubled and thoroughly moody. Slink into our dimly lit cocktail bar, where notes of whisky, rum, gin and tobacco lace fragrances with richness and grit for a luxury edge unlike anything you’ve smelled before.

“We live in an age that, by and large, extols the virtues of healthy living and abstinence. But things that are bad for you will always have an irresistible appeal,” says Palvinder Mann, Estée Lauder fragrance manager. “Now perfumers are evolving that concept with ‘alcohol’ notes because they have the same appeal, but with an element of sophistication and danger.” It explains why the latest offshoot of their Modern Muse fragrance, Estée Lauder Modern Muse Nuit is the current best-seller from the collection since the original launch in 2013: within the velvety glutton of jasmine, amber, vanilla and tonka bean lies a heady rum that adds an addictive ‘gimme more’ opulence.

Similarly in Beaufort 1805 Tonnerre Eau De Parfum, smoky, salty gunpowder and cedarwood are softened with resinous brandy.

Adding further fuel to this spirit scented trend is Tom Ford, whose new Velvet Orchid Lumière, is unapologetically sexy and not at all light and fruity as the name may lead you to believe. That’s down to a note called succan absolute, a purified rum extraction that smells like raisins seeped in syrup, then dipped in melted chocolate.

Barrel aged

These cocktail bar notes aren’t just a fantastical lure, but a significant industry innovation. “In the case of whisky, cognac, brandy and rum, we have access to these as essential oils, distilled from the barrels themselves,” says perfumer Roja Dove. “They’re fascinating; intensely aromatic and as complex as traditional perfume notes.” Extracted from the sediment in the bottom of the fermenting casks, the oils take on the flavours of the spirits, as well as tannins from the oak barrels. “They give enormous diffusion to a perfume,” explains Dove. “Because they’re highly volatile they push other ingredients to the front, so the boozy notes linger in the background and add wonderful depth.”

Like the fragrant equivalent to wine and food pairings, Dove himself has created four candles in collaboration with the whisky empire Macallan, highlighting the various floral, fruity, amber and vanilla characteristics of the brand’s vintage Scotch.

These alcoholic notes are so full-bodied they have the tenacity to linger all day long. But what’s integral to this trend working – particularly as a perfume that cloaks your skin – is to avoid smelling like you’ve stumbled out of the pub. “If you think about the composition of whisky, there are facets that are earthy and peaty, but there’s also some rose and honey in there too,” says perfumer Yann Vasnier, who created the upcoming Bloomsbury Collection for Jo Malone London, including mischievous Whisky & Cedarwood Cologne inspired by the Bloomsbury set’s nighttime antics.

“To stop it from smelling ‘alcoholic’, I enhanced the whisky extract with rose and honey to make it soft, wearable and elegant,” he explains. Likewise his Leather & Artemisia Cologne where the latter plant (used to make the hallucinogenic drink absinthe) has a fresh, shimmering green facet that’s been enhanced for skin compatibility, rather than focusing on the notorious medicinal bite favoured for the drink.

“I’m always looking for the next taboo note,” Christopher Chong, creative director of luxury perfume brand Amouage, explains. “They give simple perfume formulas an extra depth that’s mysterious and brooding. When I made Journey Woman I was looking for a contrasting note to osmanthus, a white flower that can be slightly cloying on its own. I played around and found tobacco gave the perfect tension.”

Tobacco, the note that’s also enjoying a starring turn in the new IDEO Tarbouche Afandi as well as Jo Malone London Tobacco & Mandarin and Merchant Of Venice Arabesque, isn’t the toxic stink of ashtray you’d expect. The essential oil of the uncured leaves is warm, fresh, earthy and animalistic. If you’re craving a more intense nicotine hit, let your mind be thoroughly messed with by radical niche perfumers creating conceptual cigarette accords. “This doesn’t mean the perfumer has thrown a pack of Marlboro into a blender and poured a few drops into their recipe,” says fragrance expert Thomas Dunckley, author of blog. “It means they’ve created an accord that evokes the smell of a pack of cigarettes. Notes like this should be taken with a pinch of salt.”

Case in point: Etat Libre d’Orange and their shadowy, seductive Jasmin Et Cigarette, inspired by the Gainsbourg gamine from the Eighties who smoked Gitanes and wore jeans to a black-tie party. The mix of cedarwood, tobacco, turmeric and tonka bean creates a dry haze like a match-lit cigarette. Jusbox Beat Café depicts a wood-panelled dive bar, worn couches and a fog of cigarette smoke hanging in the air as Bob Dylan plays in the background, thanks to notes of leather, black pepper and benzoin – a sticky resin with an edge of medicinal furniture polish.

Botanical notes

Similarly, ‘gin’ as a perfume note isn’t a singular ingredient, but rather an accord made in the same way as the spirit. “Gin gets its flavour from botanicals such as juniper, lemon peel and cardamom, and those are the notes combined in a perfume to suggest the bracing, refreshing nature of gin,” says Dove. Pushing the limits is one note that really shouldn’t work, but does – marijuana. Featured in upcoming Escentric Molecules 04, brand founder and perfumer Geza Schoen uses the plant’s botanical accord to open the fragrance. “If a top note is interesting and delicious then straight away you can win someone over more easily,” says Schoen. “Most of these taboo notes, such as marijuana and absinthe, usually occur in moments when you either relax, treat yourself or go out partying, and these circumstances generally have a positive connection in our lives.” These fragrances are at once addictive and dreamy, but wicked and devilish too.

Happy Hour

What’s your tipple? Pair your favourite drink with a scent that complements it

Gin & tonic

The ‘ginaissance’ shows no sign of slowing: even British Airways have launched their own gin brand and singer Bradley Simpson from pop band The Vamps is opening his own speakeasy gin bar this month. Its sharp, cleansing and botanical flavour has the power to freshen the senses after even the most feral commuter chaos or bad day at work. These ultra-refreshing colognes will hit the spot too…

Try: Bertrand Duchaufour Project Renegades; Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Celestia; Neom Energy Burst

Rum On The Rocks

Luxury rums are big on drink analysts’ radars, particularly from Cuba since the export embargo lifted in October. “Since then we’ve seen an upward trend for super-premium brands,” says Matthieu de Lassus, export director at Spiridom distributors. Save up for a shot of Pyrat Cask (now on the drinks menu at Skylon on London’s Southbank at £60 a measure), with its smooth butterscotch-vanilla notes, sweet apricot and smoky wood. Get your fragrance fix here…

Try: Tom Ford Velvet Orchid Lumiere; Joop! Wow! For Men; Estée Lauder Modern Muse Nuit

The snowball

The creamy, citrus and very Seventies advocaat, lemonade and lime cocktail, formerly beloved of nans everywhere is back for 2017, according to the Waitrose annual food-and-drink report. As a fragrance concept this really works: citrus notes such as lemon, grapefruit and lime contrast well with soft, milky notes including almond and vanilla. Check out these perfume pairings for similar zesty-sweetness...

Try: L’Occitane Terre de Lumière; Erborian Yuzu; & Other Stories Ballet Improvisé

Old Fashioned

“Whisky cocktails are going to reign in 2017,” claims Patrick McCourt, spirits buyer for Milroy’s of Soho. The best entry point for newcomers? The classic Old Fashioned: a measure of rye whiskey (sharper and spicier than bourbon), sugar syrup, bitters and a slice of orange makes for a warm, smoky, sweet, citrus concoction. As a fragrance, the accord smells elegant and masculine, just like these…

Try: Nasomatto Baraonda; Beaufort 1805 Tonnerre; Jo Malone London Whiskey & Cedarwood Cologne

With thanks to Cartizze Bar (