A hint of mint and a twist of lemon, spicy green angelica and honeyed hawthorn, powdery orrisroot on a resinous juniper base: Would you rather sip this blend or spritz it? What about tart pomegranate, rosy lychee, juicy mandarin and citrusy fresh ginger, laced with an extract of ginger lily (Hedychium zingiberaceae, when its mother is angry at it) and then spilled over mouth-watering candied ginger?
That first list is actually part of the recipe for The Botanist dry gin, an assemblage of 31 plant extracts, by Bruichladdich Distillery. The second is Roger & Gallet’s stimulating Gingembre Rouge eau fraîche parfumée. If either sounds like it could belong in a glass or an atomizer, it is because distillers and perfumers (including the noses who sniffed out this season’s newest scents) work in much the same way. They mix herbs, spices, flowers and woods by seeking out connections between their ingredients. And the way these ingredients connect is through the compounds they have in common. It turns out that the same aromatic molecules hopscotch all over the vegetal realm, and it is this overlap that makes botanical extracts combine into a third distinct entity instead of just sitting on top of each other.
In this fragrant Venn diagram, tea shares compounds with jasmine, which is why they’ve been served up together for centuries, the suave scent of the flower offsetting the tannic smokiness of the leaf. The thirst-quenching brew is translated into a “faux de cologne” in By Kilian’s Asian Tales collection. The jawdroppingly realistic Imperial Tea captures the scent of steam over a cup.
Essence Aromatique by Bottega Veneta offers another intriguing twist on the eau de cologne theme by connecting bergamot with rose. Peppery, aromatic coriander hooks up zest with petals via linalool, a Where’s Waldo? of a molecule with a citrusy, floral, woody smell that turns up in over 200 botanical species, such as mint, geranium, citruses and lavender.
Chanel is the first to admit that lavender, the iconic flower of Provence, is “a trite, sometimes even despised aromatic plant, shackled to masculine perfumery and household products.” But just as Coco made the humble Breton stripe fashionable in the 1920s, the double-C brand has turned lavender into couturelevel material. Jersey extrait de parfum, from its Exclusives collection, uses a variety harvested especially for Chanel and extracted through a patented process. The fragrance’s unusual fruity-liquorish sweetness, enhanced by the rich, bitter almond and tobacco facets of tonka bean, teases out lavender’s inner temptress.
The polar opposite of lavender, rose is one of the noblest notes in the perfumer’s palette. The modern house of Balenciaga deconstructs the grande dame in Rosabotanica by tugging out the green, almost aromatherapeutic notes tucked within its velvety petals. With its mint and rosemary facets, cardamom sheds an eerie light on the blossom. Vetiver adds a tough glint of grapefruit and flint. The fig tree lends its fruity, milky leaves. The resulting hybrid seems plucked from a sci-fi herbalist’s garden.
Byredo’s Flowerhead brings rose together with its favourite partners in crime, both white flowers with a green edge: tuberose and jasmine sambac. A sharp squirt of lemon, tart berry notes and aromatic angelica (its candied stems are the green bits in Christmas cakes) give the blend the cut-stem freshness of living flowers.
In the garden, the radiantly fragrant gardenia comes off as a sultry-voiced diva, but, among perfumers, it is one of those frustrating flowers they call “mute” because it refuses to yield its essence. The bloom’s fruity green top notes and coconutty plushness must be conjured with an Arcimboldo-style combination of ingredients that reflect each of its facets. Jour d’Hermès Absolu, for example, livens up its melon-tinged floral creaminess with a rhubarb-and grapefruit edge. Un Matin d’Orage by Annick Goutal sets gardenia in a Japanese garden before a storm, moist petals aflutter with crackling ozone.
But who knew there was a panther lurking under that gardenia bush? According to the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus, it is the only animal that naturally exhales a sweet scent, which it uses to entice its prey. Cartier pounced on that idea. La Panthère crosses the femme-fatale flower with its iconic feline. When it curls up around the petals in a purring haze of silky musk, you may well start clawing the couch.