Lavender and licorice. Whilst these two alliterative notes may not exactly plunge all and sundry into scented horror, they’re unlikely to top the list of favourites for any but a handful of weirdos (and I mean that as a compliment, I guess). I know quite a few scentaholics who dislike either or both of these notes, but can’t think of anyone who appears to rave about them in the same way as say a dirty musk, smoky leather or vetiver. Lavender has unfortunately been tied up with the herbalised healthcare world – those pillows you heat in the microwave to comfort you, the bath oils to relax and destress you after an apparently long day (we’re all supposed to be stressed and need a bath or glass of wine to unwind,aren’t we?) – or as a masculine barbershoppy note in any-ole-fougeres. And licorice – well the fact that it has laxative qualities may be the least of its worries. It’s a polariser note, like its smell relative aniseed, and where it does appear, it’s often sweetened to tone down its bitter qualities. It’s there of course in the *interesting* Blue Sugar, and Lolita Lempicka. But I can’t think of many other places in which I’ve smelled it, so if you can tell me a few, I’d be pleased.
I don’t have any such associations with either note, fortunately. Lavender makes me think of that world in the photo on the left – the heat of summer, the thrum of bees collecting, a world of burnt greens and impossible mauves. Licorice takes me back to childhood. I was addicted to Licorice Allsorts, especially the round chewy ones with the blue or pink speckly coatings (do y’all know what I’m yabbering about?). Licorice is naturally pretty sweet – I’ve chewed the root enough to know that – and yes, I do have a high-fibre diet thank you very much – but we tend to sweeten it even more as a foodstuff. Not so the Dutch and the Scandinavians I think, who tend to make salty little cough candies from it, chewable as biltong, and just as savoury. They’re an acquired taste, but it’s one I found easy to get…
With the unusual character of these two ‘notes’ in mind, I made a trip to London especially to smell Un Brin de Reglisse, the latest in the Hermessence series, only available at Hermes stores. Fortunately, the haughty sales assistant (Hermes staff have hauteur down to a T) deigned to give grubby little me a sample to take away, to test at length. I wonder if she used anti-bacterial hand gel after our encounter.
Jean Claude Ellena, the Hermes nose, co-founder of the Different Company, Patty’s additional love interest, and all round scent genius, has his own signature style. He has the ability to make a whole heap of scent ingredients smell like a handful at most, and is therefore often regarded as the expert of minimalist style. However, I think it’s important to remember he also made Ambre Narguile (pretty maximalist by anybody’s standards, even if it is sheer at the same time), the intensely animalic Rose Poivree (dirty devil…), and Cartier Declaration, a sparkling but still rich update of Roudnitska’s Eau d’Hermes. Therefore, though his most recent scents may have been about sparse form rather than flourishes and curlicues, I was intrigued to see where the listed notes of lavender, licorice, orange and hay would fit into his canon.
This fragrance starts with a simulacrum of lavender. It’s lavender with all its impurities stripped out, a multiplicity of notes pretending to be a unity, leading me to think this is the best smelling lavender I’ve ever come across. It’s exceptionally real and a fiction at the same time and perhaps because of that paradox, disappears in on itself pretty quickly. It’s gone on my skin in five minutes. What overlaps with it, and then goes onto replace it, is the licorice. This starts bitter and more in the vein of those Dutch sore throat candies than my own licorice allsorts. But once again, this is a brief play of notes, and isn’t allowed to reach a stable presence for too long. Like in many of the Hermessences, this scent strikes me as a series of diaphanous veils, one lifted or completely removed to reveal more fully the next transparent layer. And so on. The ensuing juxtaposition is between licorice and orange – not a full blooded zesty aroma, but a toned down, creamy version of this soft citrus, more like a body soap than an acidic drink.
And from this stage on, as far as I can tell, the perfume softens and softens and starts to play quite differently to Ellena’s recent work. The licorice slowly fades – perhaps a touch clings on – as does the orange, and what seems left is in fact another nod to Eau d’Hermes. On my skin, the latter dries down to a thick quality where the leathery notes merge with soft, near powdery, impenetrable layers of something… vanilla? Benzoin? Musk? Tonka? Fumerie Turque and Musc Ravageur also have this structure, and whilst I love it sometimes, at others it has a quality of suffocation, of unnecessary warmth. I’m surprised to find this aspect in Un Brin de Reglisse, and keep wondering if there’s something else on my skin or my sweater that’s muddling itself with the fragrance and whether the Hermessence has actually disappeared completely. Because this thick drydown (don’t get me wrong – no sillage – this is close to the skin thickness), seems unlikely. The hay listed as one of the elements in this composition might contribute to this density – it strikes me as perhaps a coumarin and vanillin blend.
Ellena wants this fragrance to represent southern France in the heat of summer: the lavender is reassuringly that – a cooling blast of scent from a burnished world. But the rest of the perfume is the heat itself, and for me, in late October, and ready as I am for the journey into winter, it seems to stifle peculiarly.
Happy Hallowe’en everyone!