From the editors

Is perfume the new whisky?

  • Late night, slick pavements, walking past bags in doorways and orange peel littering the gutter. The scene shifts to peeling cucumber and making melon balls next to starched linen.

    Shake the head. I can hear the creak of leather as I get off the bike next to an old-growth forest, filled with redwood and sandalwood, resin oozing from trunks, a distant camp fire and sage smoke lifting off from the hogans in the desert, the rustle of dry corn husks under my feet.

    Open my eyes. I’m not on some lost Californian highway, but in London’s Somerset House, halfway through the hallucinatory experience in 10 acts that comprises Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

    Each of the installations in this sense-expanding experience presents you with a different setting: white scarves tied to a bench, or an unmade bed reeking of last night’s lovemaking.

    They are cues, or clues perhaps, which lead to a certain degree of auto-suggestion. It’s hard not to think of chainsaw oil, cut timber and campfires fires when you’re sitting on a log, but Lyn Harris’ Charcoal does exactly that even away from the installation.

    The exhibition showcases how perfume is currently being driven by ‘experimental’ brands which are pushing what was a lucrative but safe luxury market in a new and radical direction.

    Perfume, in this reading, is no longer about smelling good, or sexy, or elegant. Today’s scents are about telling a story, taking you on an olfactory journey.

    Perfume installation: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques

    Some demonstrate a shift from the exotic to the explicitly erotic: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques combines the aromas of semen, blood, sweat, saliva and breast milk.

    Others seem more abstract: a white cube containing Geza Shoen’s Molecule 01 (made from a single molecule) conjures up a picture of weeping while reading a newly-printed book; my night-time city was Mark Buxton’s CDG2, the brief for which was ‘the smell of a swimming pool of ink’.

    Then there are those which are olfactory dioramas of place: my desert highway is David Seth Moltz’s El Cosmico, while Harris’ Charcoal is inspired by her Scottish grandfather. I’d willingly wear either of those every day.

    All of this is bound up in the belief that for perfume to remain relevant it has to change its frame of reference and be experiential, not simply aromatically complex. We demand stories. We can now wear them on our skin, like scented, molecular tattoos.

    Olfactory diorama: Mark Buxton’s CGD2 has notes of ‘night-time city’

    There has been an equally dramatic shift in the way in which perfumers, rather than being the person behind the curtain, are now the focal point; and also how these new scents are open about the science behind their creation.

    Yes, these are synthetic molecules, they say, but look at how they are used creatively and artistically. The ‘disruption' caused by the arrival of these new scents isn’t making perfume more luxurious. By incorporating the wonders of the apparently mundane, it is making it real.

    In the accompanying catalogue, perfume writer/consultant Lizzie Ostrom has written one of those essays which should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in the making, selling or drinking of whisky – and not just because she uses the drink as an example.

    ‘Perfume is becoming less like fashion and more like food and drink,’ she writes. ‘…We are being invited to pay attention when we smell our scents, just as we might pay attention while tasting a whisky.’ You don’t just wear a scent, the argument goes – you are a participant in it.

    It’s ironic, then, that as the perfume industry moves away from an over-reliance on packaging and image towards this idea of experience, whisky is moving in the opposite direction.

    One reason for perfume’s shift is a rejection of the old school belief that because aroma was so difficult to talk about, the only way to describe (and sell) a perfume was through its look. It was about surface, not content. Now, it would seem, there is a realisation that you can engage with people by talking about aroma, function, and the creative process.

    Visitors were encouraged to smell the perfumes, then write down their impressions. The responses were fascinating to read. Because no-one was trained in the language of perfumery, they weren’t constrained by orthodoxy.

    No top, middle, or base notes, there was precious little ‘sillage’, and no-one seemed concerned with ‘dry down’. In its place were impressions, jokes, doodles, likes and dislikes. Honest responses.

    All of this made me wonder about the formulaic way we talk about whisky. If the flavour wheel has been turned on its head, does the tasting note also need a reappraisal? Nose, palate, finish, this, then this, then this… Now, repeat. Yes, there are advantages in having an agreed method, but are our responses not also constrained by its formulaic nature?

    Being able to see the difference between a ‘fruity’, a ‘fragrant’, and a ‘smoky’ whisky gives people confidence, but what comes next? Dare to try something more radical? Can the tasting note not be about what this whisky speaks of at this precise moment, can it not tell a story of place, or of memory? Seen this way, and tasting becomes a phenomenological experience, not an analytical one.

    The exhibition also made me wonder whether you can put a story within a blend? Should we think of ‘wearing’ whisky as well as drinking it? Perhaps that form of disruption and freeing of language can help to put you in a different creative space as a whisky maker and consumer. 

    Re-reading Ostrom’s and co-curator Claire Catterall’s introductions, I started to replace ‘perfume’ with ‘whisky’. Catterall’s essay then read as follows: ‘It is precisely whisky’s position as an object of material culture that makes it compelling.

    ‘Whisky appeals to us on many levels, not just the abstract or artistic. It signifies who we are and what we aspire to, where we come from and where we want to go, and of our time and place in the world.’

    Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September.

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