Monday, June 30, 2014

Taking Note of Single Notes

A calamity has befallen the perfume-obsessive community. I speak, of course, of the prolonged outage of the BPAL Madness forum, where Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab fans meet to chat about life and perfumes. In the interim, Facebook has been a home away from home, and a nice forum member organized a traveling box of single note scents to circulate so that we could train our noses to identify individual notes.

Due to my upcoming moving plans, I got to go first so the box would not be caught in some horrible limbo between the U.S. Postal Service and Canada Post. The box arrived the other day, jam packed with sniffable samples of a gazillion scents. I decided to use this moribund blog to catalog my impressions.

I decided to begin with my favorite, a Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean CO2 extract. I love it, a very pure rich vanilla, with a hint of booziness but nothing too buttery or too perfumey about it. If I had to live with only one perfume note for the rest of my life, this would be it.

Next in the package: BPAL's Neutral from the RPG line, which is described as "a perfect skin musk." This isn't how I usually think of skin musk, which I tend to find sort of rotten and cloying. This is a little more of a clean laundry floral, or what skin smells like after a bath with a perfumed soap.

BPAL Dragon's Blood may or may not be a single note of dragon's blood resin. It's not a note I usually care for, which smells to me like a too-sweet mothball, but this has more honey to it than camphor, so maybe I should give the Lab's blends containing this note another try.

BPAL Bliss is described as "pure milk chocolate" and I've always found it very true to that description. It smells a lot like a pan of brownies just out of the oven.

And now onto the hardcore single notes!

Frankincense (Somalia) this is a piney resin that takes me directly back to my grandfather's studio, so it must smell like some kind of solvent or oil paint from deep in my memory. It also reminds me of when my friends and I would attack an old pine tree in our elementary school playground and scrap the oozing sap with rocks. I don't really like to wear piney scents on my skin, but I could sniff this little tube all day to bring back those memories.

Bergamot is an empty tube, so it's hard to get a good sniff, but what I can get is a bitter orange skin, very much the bitter oils on the skin, not anything juicy from underneath.

BPAL Golgothan Myrrh I find it very hard to describe myrrh. It's a sort of honeyed herbal note, I guess. There is something I don't love about it in blends, and this single note isn't disabusing me of that notion. I can't pin down why, but it just doesn't hit my nose right.

Sandalwood (Australian) This is different from many other sandalwoods I've tried. I find sandalwood fascinating in its varieties. Some I love and find warm and spicy, while others repel me with a sharp perfuminess. This one combines a warm woodiness that reminds me of a cedar closet with an overlying sweet, almost paste-like note. I like that woodiness but don't like that other note.

Elemi is something I've heard of but never knew what it was. It's a resin often used in varnishes, and I get that same artist studio vibe I got from the frankincense, only this has a top note that is almost lemony. Another note I don't think I'd like on my skin, but I enjoy smelling it on its own.

Frankincense (India) This is sharper and stronger than the Somalian version, with a bright note that is similar to the elemi.

Carrot Seed This smells so odd, yet strangely familiar. It smells like gardening, like the inside of the shed where we keep the gardening tools and it gets damp and musty but with a pleasant smell of dirt. There is a hint of the mellow dirt sweetness of a carrot, but I wouldn't call it carroty, either. I like this when a drop is blended into a perfume, but on its own it is really strange and compelling at the same time it's fairly offputting.

BPAL Siberian Musk The one that got away. When this came out, I was convinced I didn't like musk and didn't buy it, until I realized that the deeper, warmer varieties did great things on my skin. When I finally got to try this, I realized it is the key note in BPAL's Snake Oil. It's both sharp and sweet, and very animal-like. It's rich.

BPAL Ambergris Accord Such an interesting scent, and one I love when it pops up in blends. It's both sweet and salty, floral and musky. There is something animal and marine about it, and even in accord form, you get an understanding of why it was so prized. It really adds something undefinable to a scent.

Violet Leaf Absolute I haven't been commenting on the oil colors, which range from clear to yellow to deep brown, but violet leaf is BRIGHT GREEN! And it smells like.....mashed up green leaves. I don't detect much of a relation to violet flowers in this, but there is something that makes me think of strong tea and maybe some rotting wood on the forest floor. I don't like it, but it smells like scary essence of the outdoors and I respect that.

BPAL Caraway At first whiff there is something piney and resinous about this that reminds me of frankincense, but behind that is the family smell of caraway seeds and rye bread. It's more aromatic and less foodie than I'd imagined and I can see liking this in a perfume.

Green Cognac really is faintly green. It smells like the strong, boozy slightly sweet center of a filled chocolate that I would have wrinkled my nose at as a kid but eaten anyway, or the illicit enjoyment I used to get out of smelling the bottles in my father's liqueur collection. I inherited my grandmother's liquor cabinet, along with an old bottle of cognac, and the wood interior has absorbed the smell of the booze after all these years. This is what it smells like, and I love it. No wonder I love perfumes that have this note.

BPAL White Sage I don't really love sage, either in perfumes or even as a flavoring for food. Even the smell of it in the garden puts me off. I'm not sure what about it bugs me, but there is something sharpish but also dusty about it. This note doesn't smell all that kitcheny to me, but I get both the sharpness and the dust, but also something else that smells a little like a freshly painted room.

BPAL Oakmoss I never like to wear perfumes with oakmoss in them because it turns to instant powder on my skin. It's a very distinctive scent, and I actually like it in the vial, but I don't enjoy what it does on my skin. The woody dustiness reminds me of some places I have spent the summer, and it's a very pleasant evocation, but I'd like it more as a room scent than a scent to wear.

Neroli This is soapier and more bitter than I expected. I love neroli in perfumes, the sweet warm blossoms are so perfect. But in its essential form, it's much more like the skin of the bitter orange than the pure smooth sweetness, mixed with something a little soapy.

Labdanum This is a sweet, slightly spicy resin that, unfortunately for me, kind of smells like B.O. Oh well.

Tonka Bean Sort of a pasty, musky vanilla scent. It smells like library paste in the best way. I think it's sort of to vanilla as carob is to chocolate -- nice enough on its own merits, but nowhere as good if you want to think of it as an equivalent substitute.

BPAL Black Patchouli This is my favorite patchouli, which smells to me like very nice fresh newly turned earth. It's not a dirt scent that has any moldiness in it, just like damp earth after a rainfall or when you're gardening. It's very rich.

Pink Peppercorn This shows up in a lot of perfumes I love, where it tends to add a kick to whatever spice is there. By itself in the vial it smells more like peppercorns in a pepper mill than any way I've smelled it in a blend, and I perceive the "pink" mildness of it, vs how I would expect black peppercorns to smell.

Cacao This looks like someone squirted some Hershey's syrup into a vial, it's that dark and thick. Smells recognizably like chocolate, but back in there is something slightly earthy.

Vetiver (Haiti) I supremely hate vetiver on my skin, but I actually sort of like this in the vial. It smells like a spicy grass and definitely makes me think of cologne. Whatever it is that goes awful on my skin is lurking in the back there, but I like its more immediate notes.

Cistus I don't know what I was expecting, I guess something floral because this is from the rockrose family, but it smells like lemon pine sol disinfectant.

Sandalwood (New Caledonia) This is my favorite kind of sandalwood, very rich, warm and spicy. In college I had a little vial of sandalwood paste a friend had given me, and I've been trying to find that smell again ever since. This is pretty close.

Agarwood Such a deep woody smell. It smells both natural, as if I am sticking my nose into a half-rotten log, and processed, as if it has been worked and then oiled. There is something slightly musty about it I don't like, but that goes away and reveals the nice wood underneath.

Vanilla Bourbon Not sure if this comes from the same bottle I tested earlier, but it also has a liquor smell, like the bottle of vanilla extract in the kitchen. I love that vanilla can come on strong like this, when we often tend to think of it as bland.

BPAL Red Patchouli Earthy like the black patchouli, but a little lighter and spicier.

Bitter Almond I love this smell. The bitterness is in the first whiff, when it seems almost alcoholic, but once that is gone, it's a bright rich almond, like marzipan or a maraschino cherry.

Vetiver (Sri Lanka) A totally different creature vs the Haitian vetiver. This is the smoky one -- however it ends up in the same awful place no matter what type on my skin. I can detect a hint of the spicy grassiness, but it's mostly smoky.

Lavender This is a gorgeous lavender, which puts me immediately in a purple field in Provence. Some lavender perfumes smell artificial or sharp, but this absolute is the real deal. It's totally fresh.

Fossilized Amber Oil I don't care for golden, rich ambers, because they tend to smell sweaty to me. This is close to that, but I can really smell the stone here. There is a mineral quality I just love.

And that's all! I hope this can happen again, because there are so many left to try. Various ambers, florals, interesting accords.