I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Dram of Smoke & Fire: ‘Aqua Alba’ by Angela Flanders

I recently visited Angela’s second shop in Spitalfields on a work visit to London. The original Columbia Road shop only opens its doors on Sundays for a handful of hours. But the new scented sanctuary operates more normal opening hours and closes on Sundays.

Angela Flanders Perfumer is tucked away down Artillery Passage next to Precious, the clothing boutique run by Angela’s daughter Kate. Precious One, Angela’s heady, luscious floral chypré was created for Kate’s boutique and went on to scoop a much lauded Best New Independent Perfume award at the 2012 FiFi awards, surprising many in the industry. It will have not been a surprise to Angela’s numerous fans, near and far who love her creative and unique fragrances, home scents and skincare. She is very much a name shared amongst friends, softly, secretly, perhaps a little reluctantly. Such is the desire to keep her scents secret.

Spitalfields is hipster central, awash with arty types and bearded men in rolled up trews, girls in vintage rags on basketted bikes and dogs in neckerchiefs. It’s a little too deliberate for my liking. In the evenings the trendier pubs overflow onto the pavements and everyone sits around discussing Guardian articles and the search for the perfect coffee. But the area is gathering some very interesting scented destinations. Oxana Polykova’s wonderful scented niche haven Bloom Perfumery is on Hanbury Street and French perfume provocateurs Etat Libre D’Orange recently opened their first British store a couple of streets away in Redchurch Street. Gorilla Perfume, the fascinating scented house of Lush until recently had the most wonderfully cute and involving pop-up shop in Rivington Street. So Angela’s boutique in Artillery Lane is in a great area for the niche scent lover. She may seem old fashioned and whimsical to some, but she is an instinctual parfumeuse of considerable skill and imagination.

Angela Flanders Perfumer 
Artillery Passage

 The boutique itself is padded and soft. The outside world stops as you step through the door. It does feel a little Parisian and archaic, which I have to say I liked a lot. Most of all I liked the sense of hush and gentility that emanated from the thoughtful and decorative space. The air was tinted just enough with an amber scent I think, and a hint of gilded rose. Gold and gilt are noticeable motifs. The bottles themselves are quite modest rectangular shapes with gold lettering. The shop’s elegant furnishings are elegant and ormolu is style, knocked back gold and wood. There is an air of gentility and calm that befits Angela’s distinctive brand image.

In this day and age of ever changing technology and shock value aesthetics, it is easy to forget that many people are searching for stability and reassurance in their lives. A sense of safety. But, you know what, however elegant and genteel Angela’s fragrances may seem on the surface, I discovered that for every shimmering classic floral, there was something a little different, a little darker. I realised, Angela Flanders is a little like the PD James of perfumery, creating masterly olfactive scene setting, skies, gardens, travel, weddings  - their safety disrupted by touches of darkness. Very British in fact; the body in the library, the shadow in the sun, the potential danger behind a lipsticked smile. Eccentricity and manners, situations solved with decorum and observation.

The range of perfumes and scented preparations at Angela Flanders is wide and diverse. There is a core Signature Fragrances collection with a recognisable range of perfumes styles. I particularly liked Ottoman with its airy treatment of floral swagger over a classic oriental base of amber and vanillic woods. It had great depth and colouring to it, like varnish on old masters.

The Collection Florale is exactly that. I love my florals and some of them were just delicious. I am always drawn to powder and the oriental end of floral formulation. Much as I love my indolic white flowers, both the Jasmine and the Tuberose left me unmoved, but Topaz, with roses (again.. I know… I can’t resist) clove, vanilla, patchouli and balsams was rich and earthy and smelt very truffly in the drydown. My fave from the florals was another rose, Rose Poudrée, defiantly retro-boudoir in style and a bit of a heartbreaker. All about the powder. Iris, heliotrope, violet, musks and Ambrette seed. Deeply frivolous and moreish, scented echoes of almonds, sugar and a whisper of purple leather.  

There is also now a classic men’s collection called the Artillery Range, with Angela’s interpretation of eau de cologne, eau de Portugal, Hungary water, vetiver, patchouli and sandalwood. They smell clean and tailored, upright and to my tastes just a little too staid and generic. There are some incredible fragrances amongst her other collections for men to wear. But again, everyone’s tastes are different and the more traditional gentleman will always look for something discreet and close fitting in terms of scent. I can imagine city gents and hipster boys smelling sharp-edged and retro-dad in these handsome odours.   

Then a collection I suppose I wasn’t expecting – The Collection Noir. These led me to my two favourites of Angela’s fragrances, the Ambre Noir and the haunting (and limited) Aqua Alba. The five Noir fragrances are indeed very smoky and inky, completely different in tone from Angela’s other work. I’m not going to say they are better, that would be very unfair, however, they do feel different, more studied and passionate.

Angela Flanders

As a perfumer you need conversely an incredible lightness of touch to create darkness. Time has been spent working the elements together, crafting and blending the accords to balance out the more traditional elements with the Parfumerie Noire fragrances. Using woodsmoke, ripe figs, patchouli, amber, resins, balsams, woods, oud and vanilla Angela has woven together a much deeper, richer collection than I expected. They unfold like expensive liquid cloth, rolling across mahogany floors. Glowing in the dark like fire, the five scents, Figue Noire, Oudh Noire, Ambre Noire, Cashmere Noire and Parissiene have tremendous presence and power. 

When I wear perfumes with these basso profundo notes, I still like subtlety. Many brands have failed to grasp the inherent beauty in gentle doses of rich, balsamic and oriental tones. Many modern takes on this Guerlain style reference point fall at the first hurdle due to the similarity of the materials on a molecular level, meaning the notes develop at the same rate and have no real distinction or point of difference on the skin. One of the great wonders of finely tuned scent is the subtle seguing of layer into layer. The smaller head and base notes often mask or prepare the way for the deeper more profound notes that follow.

It is an interesting route for Angela to have taken after so many years. Many perfumers would baulk at the challenge of creating something original from the palette of darker-hued, smoked and ambered notes. The key to this Collection Noir for me is not its lack of iconoclasm, but in fact its beautiful safety and classicism. 

I want to talk about Ambre Noire first. This series of darker hued fragrances has sold very well according to Angela in interviews. I can see why. They are unexpected and artisanal in temperament. I do them no disservice when I say they seem a little unfinished and raw. This makes them to my mind infinitely more intriguing to wear. Like artist sketches and studies where one can see the intent and purpose in each line and studied curve, sometimes fragrances are better served undone, allowing the skin and senses to complete the olfactive synapses.

Ambre Noire opens roughly, like a medieval poultice for treating wounds. Hay and tar effects collide with brute force over sweeter tobacco and burnt caramel depth. The sheer toffee and grass chutzpah of the blend is remarkable. There are moments of subtlety, harmony as the ambery gold light rolls out for under the layers of mulch and autumnal litter. I smell hops in it too, an hour or so into the drydown, just a whiff. It is dark, it stays pungent long after it hits the skin, losing its unguent potency and gaining a sweeter more urgent closeness of warm Demerara sugar and gingerbread. It is a beautifully tinted juice too, a warm, cinnamon brown tincture that seems to make the wearing of it that little bit more special.

Oddly, I preferred this (and the Aqua Alba) to Angela’s Oudh Noir, which was a little acrid on the nose and smelt decayed around the edges. I liked the leather and patchouli as they lasted, but they drifted off a little too early for my liking and on my skin the oudh note intensified too much and began to turn, twisting into that armptitty unpleasantness I really can’t abide in certain oudh formulations. I think perhaps just a whisper of rose or saffron, a bite of dried apricot might have lifted this, but who I am to say? It might be my skin, it can react oddly to oudh; sometimes I radiate super sexy warmth and sensuality (modesty permitting…!) and then at other times, the oudh can make my stomach churn and trigger violent migraine.

Jim Beveridge

Now: Aqua Alba, Water of Scotland – whisky essentially. This is a limited edition, created by Angela in collaboration with Jim Beveridge the highly regarded Master Blender with Johnnie Walker, the whisky mega-house now owned by Diageo. Johnnie Walker’s distinctive square bottle, tilted label and ‘striding man’ logo have made it one of the world’s most iconic and recognisble brands. The Red, Green and Black label blended malt and grain whiskies are loved the world over. More recently, in a similar way to large fragrance houses like Dior and Chanel, Johnnie Walker have added more specific blended editions for overseas markets like Russia and China and flankers such the highly regarded Blue Label and Double Black Label blends. Trade reviews often read like perfume PR with great emphasis placed on the huge range of fruity, woody, spicy, smoky, floral and leathery aromas unleashed as the spirit rolls around the glass, encounters ice and water, the palate and the nose.

Perfumery and whisky use an orgasmic tumble of adjectives to describe odours. In fact the whisky tasting wheel is incredibly brave and forthright in its use of more extreme language such as diesel, wet dog, burnt match, soy sauce, molasses, sweaty, cork, skunk, horsey, artichoke etc. In many ways it is a more liberating lexicon, unafraid of boundaries.

There have been a few previous perfumes with whisky facets, most of them missing the mark somewhat. Whisky like fragrance is initially all about the nose. The variety is astonishing. Living in Scotland, you know whisky is BIG business; it is everywhere and is now a huge global icon. Once the tipple of old men in smoky pubs or golfers in sexist clubhouses, whisky has exploded to become one of the world’s most stylish and recognisble Scottish exports. Yes, they are whiskies made elsewhere, in the US, Japan, England etc, but truly beautiful golden, tawny, molten, burnt, peaty whisky is Scottish.

The joyously camp Scottish actor Alan Cumming had a scent created for him by Christopher Brosius of CB I Hate Perfume (and Demeter) renown, one of the most unusual odour specialists working in scent just now. Cumming (I know….) is a collection of nostalgic notes including fir, rubber, heather, smoke, leather, peat fire, Highland mud and of course whisky. Mugler’s A*men Pure Malt flanker was a sweet subtle take on a whisky note, tinting the classic A*men formula with a warm, glowing malted facet. One of my favourite scents of all time is Siwa by Memo, a cereal-rich scent with popcorn notes and whisky lactones. Six Scents Series Two contained an edition called Toga: Whiskey Caramélisé, which smelt exactly as it sounds. The closest evocation for me to the peaty, burning scent of Islay malts, my favored kind when I still imbibed, is Fumidus by Profumum, a rich, swirling distillation of scotch, vetiver and birch. It smells foggy and abandoned, a really atmospheric portrait of whisky warehouses and eerie rolling Highland landscapes.

Aqua Alba is similar to some of these and different from them all. It is toasty and deeply comforting, the amber liquor rolling smoothly around the hobnail glass in the glow of a roaring fire. There is an element of dampness, of distillery floor, but this is outside, kept at bay, looking in through glass at the heat within. A meeting between Jim Beveridge and Angela highlighted the many similarities between mixing the different whiskies for a blend and finding the right note or effect to pull them together and the ephemeral art of perfumery, blending essential oils and aromachemicals to create complex olfactive portraits and landscapes. Both share the need to create harmony from entwined olfactory or gustatory turbulence.    

There is still a lot of snobbery about blended whiskeys compared to the more refined world of single malts. This finds its parallel I guess in mainstream or high street fragrances versus niche or artisanal perfumery. But all fields require tremendous skills; the joy and proof is in the appreciation and loyalty of the consumer. As with perfume, tastes in whisky differ dramatically. Beveridge is well known for his unique skill in blending various spirits from across Scotland to create atmospheric compositions with tremendous body and personality. His work on the Double Black Label and the Blue Label blends have earned him great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. By adding touches of burnt peat, charred oak casks, dried fruits, rubber, tar, mud and Christmas spice facets to existing blends he has managed to introduce a more artisan aura to the world of blended malts.       

Beveridge’s work on Double Black has produced a much more roasted blend with pronounced smoke and peat aspects to it apparently due to the Caol Ila strand woven through the mix. Other reviews have mentioned a more vanillic and creamier feel to the blend compared to the Black Label. Unlike the Black Label, Double Black carries no age statement and is aged in charred oak casks. This lends the finished product its distinctive weathered and peaty feel. It is this skill with smoke and Highland atmospherics that Angela Flanders has chosen to reflect in her wonderful dark juice Aqua Alba. Using oudh, clove, heather, guaiac wood and foresty dank oakmoss and amber Angela has set out to reflect the caramelised honeyed tones of Johnnie Walker’s smoky burn. The guaiac wood is honeyed and soft, counterpointing any potential harshness from the oudh. Indeed the oudh develops at a slow pace, glowing like a ember at the heart of the scent, allowing the other notes time to breathe and bloom. The oakmoss for me is key; it anchors the scent to the warehouse floor, a touch of mould, damp and cold stone. It gives Aqua Alba an aroma of realism needed to balance out the rolling submersion of the darker toned notes need to create the smoky whisky effects.

You could argue - and a few friends have tried to do so – that there is no actual whisky note in Aqua Alba, no hard-wired attempt to translate the complexities of the aged malt and grain note into the perfume. But there is no challenge in this. As a perfumer, I suppose you could spend ages perfecting an effect so close to a whisky note that only a little set dressing around it would be needed to finish it off. Angela has attempted something more challenging – the ‘Can you imagine’ scenario, i.e., sampling for example a smouldering peaty malt and thinking… ‘Can you imagine what this would smell like if you made it into perfume?’

This is much more intriguing to tackle, creating a portrait of something experienced on the nose and palate from materials associated with the nose and skin. Much as Beveridge needs to balance the needs of his discerning clientele with his desire to perhaps push his blending skills in more adventurous and picturesque directions, Angela Flanders has used the Noir collection and Aqua Alba in particular to explore more tenebrous themes and more sensual outlands than she may have previously been tempted to do so.      

As Aqua Alba settles on my skin, it softens so beautifully, unfurling its honeyed wares like morning mist. The oudh fades gently away and the chewiness of the woods bristle with clove. The labdanum is done well, velvety and supple, drifting a barely there phantom touch of leather. I was surprised to read there was patchouli as I couldn’t really sense it the first couple of times I wore the fragrance. Then I detected a bitter chocolate note beautifully placed with the oudh, rounding off the edges of the composition as if dredged over with a shaker. This was the patchouli, really good patchouli, warm and moist like fresh baked brownies.

Burning peat

But in the end, Aqua Alba is all about the smoke. When I was much younger and getting drunk at parties, I would blow cigarette smoke into my wine glasses to lie like fog over whatever I was drinking. It was my party trick, pouring the smoke onto the table like water. I can’t help thinking of that image though now, as Angela’s hymn to Scottish firewater rolls and burns across the skin like the country’s unpredictable and turbulent weather. It is a bewitching use of oudh, expertly blended with dark elements and years of scented experience. Wearing it now, I yearn for winter and the cold weather to embrace me so I can don cashmere and fur, douse myself in Aqua Alba and walk the streets of Edinburgh, wreathed in smoke and Highland fumes.

For more information on Angela Flanders, please follow the link below: 

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