Oakwood Absolute

Let it be known that I am officially enamoured with oakwood absolute.

I recently received a sample of this amazing material from French essential oils and natural extracts producer Biolandes. Having heard roumers of a rare and seemingly mystical essence romantically created from aged oak barrels discarded by French wineries, I came across a real-life reference to it as a newly released product in the October 2010 Perfumer and Flavorist magazine.

Old CaskAs far as I can tell, Biolandes is the only manufacturer of this true oakwood (Quercus robur) absolute – please correct me if I’m wrong and you know of another.  It is actually made from new oakwood and not from used barrels but you would not guess that from the aroma and I had to confirm this fact with the Biolandes sales rep as I was unbelieving that such a richness could come from the new wood alone.

There are a few producers of an oak bark extract which is used to provide a whiskey or aged brandy note to alcoholic beverages and there is also an oak bark powder dietary supplement. The extract is created by seeping pulverised oak bark in hot water – a different process from the absolute and I imagine these products would not have the depth and complexity of the absolute.

I am at a complete loss as to why oakwood absolute is not being used more frequently by perfumers around the globe – particularly by the indie / artisan perfumers. It is not overly expensive and there are no particular safety concerns that I can find. Perhaps it just is not well known out there, being relatively new – hopefully this blog entry will go small way towards rectifying that.

The absolute is brown, viscous and opaque and is supplied diluted to 50% with triethyl citrate (TEC) – to make it more useable. When opening the vial and taking a smell of the pure material you are immediately transported to a wine cellar in the Bordeaux region of France, surrounded by the old casks and the fermented smell from years of red wine spilled on the stone floors.  There is a mustiness there along with woody notes and warm, sweet raisins and vanilla.  Smelling this stuff provides an immediate insight into the flavours and aromas that oak imparts to wine and why the type and quality of the wood used in the casks is so important.

Oak Tree

To delve a little into the chemistry involved, the main volatile compounds in oakwood that are present in the absolute and also impart their aroma and flavour into wines are:

cis- (and trans-) oak lactone – responsible for the majority of the  vanilla and coconut-like aromas. These lactones vary greatly between the types of oak selected and are affected by the seasons and differing growing regions.

Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol – these have a smoky / spicy / vanilla aroma and are created by and vary depending on the levels of toasting the cask staves are subjected to before the wine is stored. These chemicals are probably not actually present within the absolute as the Biolandes sales rep assures me that the oak used to produce the absolute is not toasted before-hand. But these ingredients are extremely important to the vintner.

Vanillin – Vanillin is the main flavour compound in natural vanilla and is also present in oakwood. The level of vanillin imparted into wines stored in oak barrels decreases over time as it is transformed by yeast metabolism during fermentation. Vanillin concentration can be reduced considerably if primary fermentation is carried out in the barrel.

The oak absolute has a nice vanilla / coconut note due in part to the vanillin content.

Furfural and 5-methylfurfural – once again, these sweet, caramel / butterscotch smelling materials are mainly a result of the toasting of oak and may not be important in the scent of oak absolute, but are obviously important to the vintner.

Syringaldehyde – has an aroma described as sweet, chocolate, woody, tonka, grape. Syringaldehyde  is interestingly used by some insects as part of their chemical communications system and plays an important role in the over-all impression of the oak absolute.

Biolandes’ oakwood absolute begins life as by-product oak chips that the company purchases from the famous cooperage firm Dargaud & Jaegle. The oak used has been felled under National Forest Office control, from October to April when the sap is down and has been selected from 17 selected stave suppliers from around the region. The volatile components are extracted from the wood chips using a light hydrocarbon (hexane, I believe) and further processed to arrive at the final thick, dark, viscous and fragrant liquid.

To DreamArtisan perfumer Laurie Erickson has used oakwood absolute to good effect in the Sonoma Scent Studio perfume named

To Dream where the oakwood plays a supporting role to the main floral theme.

I have been working on a perfume for Evocative Perfumes that instead moves the oakwood to centre stage supported by incense, rose, woods and a warm smoky ash.  The original concept for this perfume was to simply enhance and adorn the natural qualities of the oakwood and was inspired by my visits to the local cellar doors of the Barossa wine region here in South Australia with their huge old barrels, open fireplaces in the winter and long, polished counters.

As development has continued over the last couple of months however, the overall effect of the perfume has become progressively softer and warmer and my partner now says that it invokes more of a spiritual feeling in her, in fact the words Gregorian chant came to mind just this afternoon. It feels right, but it seems a little trite to use that expression as a name for the fragrance – I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes.

The Abbey in the Oakwood by Casper Friedrich

The Abbey in the Oakwood by Casper Friedrich

Imogen

Imogen eau de parfum

Imogen eau de parfum

Imogen is a feminine, heady, powdery ambreine, oriental perfume that actually evolved from my studies of Shalimar.

The incomparable flagship for Guerlain, Shalimar was created by Jacques Guerlain , third in the line of Guerlain family perfumers to head the historic house, and released in 1925. This is the same perfumer who created Mitsouko, Champs Elysées and many more classics in the Guerlain line. Anything created by Jacques is required study for a student of perfumery.

The structure of the perfume is reminiscent of earlier 19th century perfumes with their high proportion of essential oils and balsams and with musky animalic notes in the base. Jacques enhanced this structure with large doses of the relatively new synthetic vanilla ingredient ethyl vanillin as well as the nutty, ambery and sweet coumarin.

The early development of Imogen was therefore also centred on the framework of those early perfumes along with Jacques’ addition of ethyl vanillin and coumarin. As work on the formula progressed the construct began to head off on a unique direction away from Shalimar and followed its own path to become the unique perfume that it is now.

As a side note – the creation of a perfume is a wonderful journey full of dead ends and unexpected discoveries with twists and turns along the way. The perfume will develop itself in an organic, olfactory selective way. Beginning with an idea, theme or framework, the perfumer provides a judiciously selected range of materials for the perfume to try before selecting a surviving combination at the expense of others – letting the perfume evolve through its versions. This is the major advantage of being an independent perfumer without contracts and briefs and time constraints and so on that can only serve to stifle this organic process.

Witness the difference between those fragrances created in a forced, restricted environment of market audiences and budget limitations and those released by such houses as Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle where the perfumers are free to follow their perfumes’ path. Developing purely in response to the market has killed the evolution of perfumes, inevitably resulting in a homogeneous mass of poorly performing unsuitable fragrances that must surely suffer their own mass extinction soon.

Mass Extinction

So anyway, in Imogen there are still a large proportion of essential oils and other botanically sourced ingredients with synthetics used only as a support, except for the major role still played by ethyl vanillin and coumarin.

Imogen’s top note includes the lighter, most quickly evaporating components including bergamot, lemon, lavender, jasmine and coriander.

In particular there is a large amount of bergamot used to create a sharp counterpoint to the overall vanillic backdrop; there is a compromise to be made here as bergamot oil contains the chemical bergaptene which is well known to cause problems with photosensitisation when used on skin. Now, the process of removing the bergaptene to prevent the photosensitising effect can be detrimental to the scent of the resulting essential oil, so a choice had to be made between using a bergaptene-free oil or a synthetic (and therefore completely safe) substitute. I went with the essential oil after finding one whose quality was as close as possible to the completely unprocessed oil.Bergamot Fruit

Imogen has a floral, spicy and slightly aldehydic heart. The floral elements used are rose, jasmine, violet, orange blossom and patchouli. The rose and jasmine notes are composed from a combination of both my own bases (mini perfumes) and the real absolutes.

Absolutes are the very essence of the flowers’ scents with kilograms of flowers famously being used to result in grams of the end product. To smell these absolutes in isolation, especially the Jasmine Grandiflora absolute used in Imogen is enough to convert any cynic to a perfumista instantly! I shall be writing about such materials as these in future blog entries, so stay tuned.

The scent of violets also plays an important role in Imogen and is present for most of the perfume’s journey, combining with the roses and musks to provide a powdery talc scent. The floral talc note is likely to be the first that others perceive at the outer edge of the perfume’s sillage or trial left behind in the air when you pass by. This violet note is provided by an orris root base composed of various synthetics known collectively as ionones along with a touch of carrot seed oil, believe it or not. This powerful base only needs to be dosed in small amounts to provide expansiveness to the perfume as well as the airy, pretty violet scent.

Cinnamon and clary sage also provide some spiciness and a touch of herbal character to the heart of the perfume, and it is from here on that things start to become a little raunchy. As the heart of the perfume heads towards the base, the Russian leather, or cuir de Russi, note begins to show its presence.

Leather GlovesThe scent of Leather has been used in perfumery since the 16th century when it became fashionable to perfume the leather gloves of the aristocracy to mask the malodours left over from the tanning process. The combined odours of the fragrant materials used and the tanned hide became the scent of leather as we know it today.

Traditional Russian leather has its own unique version of this scent that is a little more smoky and tar-like than the sweet smell of new wallets received for Christmas in the West. This stems from the use of birch tar in the Russian tanneries and the fats of sea animals used to soften the leather, each providing their own unique smell.

The cuir de Russi base used in Imogen contains smoky elements with the exotic animalic castoreum (a synthetic version – no animal products were used in the perfume) along with a touch of saffron and other materials to make up that unique Russian leather note.

The leather and vanilla notes blend wonderfully into the final base of the perfume composed of tolu balsam, bezoin resinoid and the best quality West Australian sandalwood oil. Once again, sandalwood oil is as subject that could fill an encyclopaedia and one which I will be writing about on this blog in future entries. The last that you smell of Imogen, usually the next day, is a slightly woody and balsamic skin scent with sweetly powdery musk and a little oakmoss.

Overall, Imogen is a rich, long lasting, powdery, musky and spicy perfume with a heart of leather within a framework influenced by classic fragrances of bygone times when the market was not a perfume’s creator, but the perfumer’s independent hand.

Welcome

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Welcome to Evocations, the companion blog to the Evocative Perfumes website. I created this blog for those who are seeking more information about the perfumes on offer or are just curious about the world of an artisan perfumer. I will be delving deep into the creative process and also exploring the amazing universe of oils, leaves, barks, seeds, fruits, flowers, balsams, resins, roots and synthetic ingredients that combine to evoke the wonderment and transport that we all experience when smelling an artistically created perfume.

I hope you enjoy.

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