Olfactory Deconstruction: Patchouli

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The purpose of these olfactory deconstructions (see Iris and Vetiver) is to understand a raw material used in perfumery by dissecting it into its many facets. By experiencing the many nuances, one starts to gain an appreciation for how it is used within a wider composition and how it can be utilised to create interesting and novel effects. Such is the magic of perfumery – where one distinct material can bring so much more to a fragrance than its odour profile, shifting and changing as it tessellates with other notes to create things that are more than the sum of their parts.

Today’s deconstruction is a widely used material: patchouli. I chose patchouli because it’s a material found in so many fragrances, many of which utilise it as a supporting act as opposed to the star that takes top billing. I also picked it because it’s a tricky note to love, due largely to its associations with head shops and hippies, not to mention how abrasive it can be as a smell. But patchouli is so much more than a new age oil, it’s actually a fascinating and multifaceted material that deserves a lot of attention – and today we are going to give it that attention!

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What is patchouli? Patchouli is a plant from the mint family. It’s a bushy herb that flowers with pale pink coloured blooms and is native to many places across Asia. Unassuming in its looks, patchouli actually packs quite a punch scent-wise with a nuanced and heavy-hitting odour profile. I’d describe it as smelling; earthy, oily, camphoraceous, dirty, mineral, fizzy, smoky, and boozy, with facts of; chocolate, sour fruit, and spice. There are many different patchouli materials, including. naturals, distillations and fractional distillations, and these brings lift, space and contrast to a fragrance, pairing beautifully with fruit and rose notes to create shades of dark and light. Patchouli: the wonder material!

In this post I intend to deconstruct patchouli into its many facets, guiding you through a compilation of fragrances that showcase each of these nuances in an intriguing way. This is not a guide to the best patchouli fragrances out there because there simply are too many to list, instead this is an olfactory deconstruction that aims to showcase the versatile odour profile of a material that is beautiful and iconic. We will pull apart patchouli to separate its many facets, inhale its smell and shine a spotlight on those fragrances that let these specific elements of the material shine. So don your lab coats and safety googles, and get those scented scalpels out (also known as your noses) because it’s time to make the first incision.

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Facet: Patchouli All-Rounder
Scent: Patchouli Patch by L’Artisan Parfumeur

Our deconstruction starts, as all do, with a perfume that shows the fullness of the material so we can appreciate it in totality, before separating out the nuances. In the case of patchouli, the most all-round example is Patchouli Patch (£105/100ml EDT @ L’Artisan Parfumeur) by L’Artisan Perfumer which brings all of the many facets of the material together in an incredibly soft and wearable iteration. Patchouli Patch smells like patchouli, with an earthy, fruity, sour and oily tone that it is instantly recognisable as the hippy, bohemian note we all know so well. What Patchouli Patch does that is interesting is that it uses oakmoss to bring a soft, powdery texture that intensifies the earthiness but smooths everything over to make for a patchouli that is contemporary and utterly wearable. It’s the very first stop on your patchouli education and the starting point, from which we can start to dissect the material’s many fascinating facets, starting with earth.

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Facet: Earth
Scents: Patchouly by ETRO & White patchouli by TOM FORD

Patchouli has a very strong earthy character to it, evoking the image of dry granules of dark black mud. It is mineral, spicy and cool, creating the sense of a healthy kind of dirt, rather than something animalic or fetid. A good example of a patchouli fragrance that highlights this is Patchouly by ETRO (£99/100ml EDT @ Escentual). Bold and spicy, Patchouly makes one think of jet black ink, but also of hot earth that has been baking under an unforgiving sun. All of this is served in a hedonistic cloud with a distinctly vintage feel that puts the ‘Etro’ in retro (yes that’s a terrible pun, no I don’t care).

For a more modern take on an earth patchouli it’s hard to beat White Patchouli  by TOM FORD (£82/50ml EDP @ Harrods). Perhaps one of M. Ford’s more under appreciated fragrances, White Patchouli is an olfactory clash between rich, heavy patchouli and an intense floral bouquet. The effect this creates is olfactory monochrome, with the patchouli representing dark blocks of black, with its rich earthiness, and the bouquet (rose, jasmine, peony) contrasting with pure white. This juxtaposition creates the image of blinding white flowers forging their way up from the dark, black earth towards the light.

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Facet: Smoke
Scent: Patchouli 24 by Le Labo

At the richer end of its spectrum, patchouli can boast a strange smokiness. Unlike a dry woodsmoke, the smoke element in patchouli has a herbal, oily quality to it that is bold and challenging. The best example of this is Patchouli 24 by Le Labo (£55/15ml EDP @ Le Labo), which uses patchouli as a supporting act amongst leather, guaiac wood and vanilla, to create an intense smokiness with a undercurrent of vanillic sweetness. There simply isn’t anything out there like Patchouli 24 – it sends forth warm plumes of leather smoke that diffuses with a meaty, sweet signature that is surprisingly transparent and soft. In his review, Luca Turin compared it to hot, stifling air filled with the smell of books, which is absolutely spot on. Patchouli 24 is the smell of smoke rising from the pages of burning hot novels and if that doesn’t make you want to try it, I simply can’t help you.

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Facet: Sour Fruits
Scents: Midnight Train by Prada & Nightfall Patchouli by Caroline Herrera

Like the very best of us, Patchouli can be a bit fruity at times. It’s deep, dark oils are filled with a richly purple hue that is evocative of grapes, plums and berries. This is put to excellent use in Midnight Train (£220/100ml EDP @ Selfridges), one of the many fascinating Olfactories from Prada. Midnight Train uses a core of patchouli at the heart of a resplendent oriental. Dry cedar wood and amber cling tightly to a big, fruity patchouli that has the character of a fine wine, with dried purple fruit accents adding a souk-like, exotic quality. Midnight Train is intense but it also shows how patchouli can really help to drive diffusion in a scent – it’s gauze-like structure pushing all of the other notes outwards, creating gaps for them to rise up through and carry the message of a warm desert wind.

For an even more intense take on fruity patchouli, Carolina Herrera’s Nightfall Patchouli (£210/100ml EDP @ Harrods) certainly does the trick. This is fruity patchouli married to intense spices, with cinnamon and pepper adding a gourmand kick. It is drier than the Prada with a feel that is more arid, yet somehow the fruit facet gives the patchouli an almost luminous quality that is neon-like but also as black as the night. Nightfall Patchouli is a fruity patchouli that isn’t afraid to let some of the harsher aspects of the material to shine through and to that, we must tip our hats.

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Facet: Clean
Scents: COCO NOIR by CHANEL & Mistral Patchouli by Atelier Cologne

Much of the patchouli we smell today is somewhat sanitised and far from the butch, stinky patchoulis of the past. To cater to modern tastes many new fragrances present a cleaned-up idea of patchouli that focuses on the fizzy, sharper qualities of the material and none of the heft or dirt. Thanks to materials like clearwood and akigalawood, patchouli has been modernised and some of the weight lost creating an entirely new style of fragrance that has the texture of patchouli but none of the richness.

Take COCO NOIR by CHANEL (£115/100ml EDP @ Boots), for example – a fragrance that spins patchouli into silk by pairing a clean version of the note as the link between fruits and flowers. COCO NOIR is a somewhat abstract fragrance, channeling Nº5 in that sense by not smelling like any one thing. Instead one perceives it as a shimmering piece of black fabric, with the fibres of patchouli illuminating the nuances of the lighter, sweeter nuances. It’s so elegant it hurts, almost.

Or on the even cleaner side there is Mistral Patchouli by Atelier Cologne (£60/30ml Cologne Absolute), which is perhaps the lightest and also most unusual patchouli on this list. Here, the usually dark, dank and dirty note of patchouli is diluted by a deluge of sea water. The result is a sea breeze of patchouli – patchouli caught in the sea spray, crystalline and clear with a bracing, mineral feel. If you thought that patchouli could never make a wonderful summer fragrance then you need to check your judgment at the door, because this is exactly that!

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Facet: Chocolate
Scent: ANGEL by MUGLER

I’ve used the word “rich” quite a few times in this deconstruction and that’s because patchouli does have a depth and density that reads as unctuous and plush. It’s dark too and in some fragrances it can really add a dark chocolate vibe, none more so than in the iconic ANGEL from MUGLER (£56/25ml EDP @ The Perfume Shop).

Now, first off, here’s a brief celestial history lesson: At the time of ANGEL’s creation, Cresp was working at Quest International (now a part of Givaudan) and for himself had been tinkering with a Patchouli and Vanilla composition called ‘Patchou’ – a fragrance that Cresp was starting to become smitten with by the time it reached modification 50-55. It was at this time that Yves de Chiris (also at Quest) met with Vera Strubi, who was in charge of Mugler’s parfums at the time and who had reportedly asked for something that had to be “exceptional and beautiful” for Mugler’s debut fragrance.

As with most fragrances, perfumers were asked to submit briefs to pitch for the creation of what would become ANGEL. Cresp and Yves de Chiris showed Strubi ‘Patchou’ and she fell in love with it, therefore the wheels of history were set in motion and Olivier Cresp was officially chosen as the perfumer to create the very first fragrance for the House of Mugler.

So patchouli is the backbone of ANGEL, not only in creating that butch, elevating contrast to all the sugar, vanilla and fruit, but also the deep chocolate fact that gives ANGEL its unique gourmand character. Without patchouli, ANGEL wouldn’t be well, ANGEL, I guess!

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Facet: Booze
Scent: Monsieur. by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Right, let’s finish off with a quick shot of booze. What’s your poison? Gin? Wine? Absinthe? Tough, I’ve got a keg of rum and that’s it! My booze comes in the form of  the boozy but bonkable Monsieur. by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle (£190/100ml EDP @ Liberty), which is a delightfully rugged masculine fragrance built on an overdose of patchouli (over 50% of the composition is a patchouli molecular distillation) married to a comparably decent slug of rum. This high proof addition brings out the intense, boozy accents of the patchouli material, giving it an oaky, vanilla vibe that makes one think of ancient casks soaked in rum. I’d classify it as dangerously sexy on the right guy – an easy fragrance to become intoxicated by…


Join the Discussion

What is your favourite facet of patchouli? What is your favourite patchouli fragrance? Let me know in the comments box below!


Disclaimer

Samples via; L’Artisan Parfumeur; TOM FORD; Etro; CHANEL; Atelier Cologne; Le Labo; Carolina Herrera; Prada; MUGLER; and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Images are my own.

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