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

Thursday 31 January 2013

Sweet Cask Memories (or Some Like it Bluesy): ‘Speakeasy’ by Frapin

I have written about this remarkable fragrance by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato for Frapin a lot recently on the Fox’s Facebook page and I picked it as one of my five fragrances I wanted from Papa Noel. I became somewhat consumed with the idea of Speakeasy and what I would smell like, how it would evolve, how the carefully assembled notes would unfold and seduce my senses. I imagined the tobacco, liatrix, mint, leather, tonka, white musks and immortelle all tumbling and writhing across me. I realised I was obsessed with the idea of a fragrance I had never actually experienced. 

My friend in olfactory exploration, Bertrand, visited Nose, the new temple of scented wonder at 20 rue Bachaumont in Paris and fell for its charms… (Amongst a number other things it must be said!). He is becoming quite the perfumed rogue. He and his partner Dounia sent me the loveliest gift for Christmas, a box of perfumed, edible and heartfelt delights. In it was an atomiser brimming with Speakeasy. Now, I didn’t know what it was it when I first tried it on, as Bertrand & Dounia had deliberately not labeled it. I had no idea. It smelt so weird, sweetly tannic and green, like a shot of whisky and wheatgrass strained through a rusty sieve by a woman smoking Gitanes through a veil. I realised it had to be something Bertrand had bought and guessed it was Speakeasy.

The reason I wanted to write this post is because I am rarely wrong-footed by a fragrance. But the disparity between reading so much about Speakeasy and the actual smelling of it was truly visceral. I don’t think I’ve sampled something in a long time as complex and idiosyncratic that smelt so utterly different from how I expected it to be. It felt so good to be thrown off kilter.

I almost laughed out loud when I realised how peculiar the scent was, how the notes I expected actually coalesced into something else altogether; a portrait of ambivalence, shared desires, cocktails, secrets and laughter in the night. Leather and smoke became alive and whispered of jolting love in cars. Davana, styrax and orange spoke of abandonment, straying fingers and lacquered nails. The mojito accord of mint, lime and rum is the sweetener before the break-ups in a louche deco bar. There is innocence too, a sweet bready background note of patisserie, a whiff of rum baba, a childhood memory of cake shops and kitchens mixed with a mother’s smile. Perfume fills the bar; a smear of lipstick stains a glass. I can smell the fuzzy scent of hairspray mixed with booze and cigarette trails.

Speakeasy is all this and more. Ephemeral. Never heavy. The images it raises shimmer and blur like a mirage, never quite fully coming into focus. I had imagined something so much deeper. A dark, echoing room with everything swirling like amber whisky rolling around the base of a cut crystal glass in the light of flickering fire. I expected density, the notes to weigh down on the skin, to be almost tactile. But the layers of scented effects shift and slide seamlessly over each other like a series of perfumed Japanese screens; transparent enough to allow the admittance of light and shade but still opaque enough to permit a certain privacy and structure.

Marc-Antoine’s oeuvre for his own house Parfums D’Empire is often very dramatic, so I guess I was expecting echoes of this in Speakeasy. I am huge fan of his Ambre Russe, an opera of leather, black tea, ambergris, vodka, smoke and an almost gleeful violence of notes marching through the composition. The cacophony of effects paint a picture of a cavalry officer’s boots flung aside before passionate sex on fur and silks, smoking and smashing vodka glasses into an open fire. It has a glorious intensity, getting stronger as it settles, and the boozy weaving of oriental and ecclesiastical notes rising to the heavens like a guilty whispered prayer.

The other two outstanding fragrances from the line are Musc Tonkin and Cuir Ottoman. Marc-Antoine’s extensive experience with the composition of natural raw materials has served him remarkably well as a perfumer. There is a minute attention to detail and for me an intrinsic awareness of texture. He seems to embroider fragrances, into luxurious fabrics of olfactory wonder, the notes woven together seamlessly to create olfactory tapestries of drama and harmonious beauty.

Marc-Antoine is Corsican, born however in Morocco and raised partly amid the citrus groves of North Africa and the family home of Cuttoli Corticchiato amid the fabled Corsican maquis. From a background in chemistry and an interest in the scented life cycles of aromatic plants, he completed his training at the world famous ISIPCA, the École Internationale de Parfumerie De Versailles.

Parfums D’Empire is a collection of fragranced publications inspired by Marc-Antoine’s passion for history. Each scent echoes an aspect of great empires: Russian, Ottoman, Alexandrine, and Napoleonic for example. He also sees the skin as an empire to be conquered by perfume, his perfumes. The fragrances are notable for their glowing depth and quality of raw ingredients. Cuir Ottoman has a truly beautiful dirtiness, a reveling in the baseness of skin.

The limited edition Musc Tonkin is slutty and oily, swimming with balms, resins, fire and of course an massive overdose of musks. There are no notes listed for this concentrated extract, but the composition reeks of fucked skin, the heat and exhalations of post-coital flesh, perfumed and wantonly sweaty. An homage to Tonkin musk, a very rare musk produced by Himalayan deer, the juice waxes and wanes with a fevered honeyed intensity. I sampled it on a visit to London and felt pornographic for hours. It spreads out and amplifies, ripples of musk becoming huge waves until you are knocked off your feet by the force of the effects. It made me feel vaguely unwell too, headachy and dizzy, like that point on an evening out when you know you really should go home…. but you don’t. The lure of the night is too addictive. If you get a chance to try it, please do, it makes the skin a dirty canvas begging to be licked and bruised.  

In his own words: “. My scents are an invitation to explore the most complex and mysterious of empires: the realm of the senses.”

P. Frapin & Cie was established in 1270 in the heart of the Grande Champagne region of France, establishing themselves in the Chateau de Fontpinot. The estate covers 300 hectares and the family has been distilling cognac for over twenty generations. 

As I live in Scotland I have over the years learned a lot about the whisky industry and while I cannot say I am massive fan of the amber nectar (I also stopped drinking 7 years ago), the variety of regional styles and odours that permeate the trade still amazes me. The scent of distilleries is kaleidoscopic, the older the better. Coastal ones for example can have an oceanic, iodine tang mixed with the woody, yeasty scents of the actual processes. Some of the distilleries have a whiff of must and dirt, some are gleaming new chromatic wonders with a steely sharpness of citrus and beery foamy wonder. The language used in the whisky trade is astonishing, ranging from fruity innuendo to downright abstract and goddam filthy and vile. From Weetabix, hen’s mash and oilskin to Madeira cake, nutmeg and bubblegum.

Holidaying in Burgundy some years ago I had the opportunity to visit several vineyards and wineries. Again it was the smells and textures of the air that I remember, not so much the tastings and wine we bought. The dry vineyards themselves have a particular fluttering salad aroma and I remember the tannic dust and burnt fruit tones in the cellar air. In one old vineyard there was a weird humming metallic scent in the extraction chambers that felt comforting and oppressive. And finally the incredible boozy lullaby of cavernous rooms where casks of wine lay slumbering in semi-darkness as the elements slowly macerated and blended, creating a dense and complex palette of tastes and aromas.

All these cask memories started coming back as I wore Speakeasy and concentrated on the oddness of the drydown, the shift from mojito fruity top down through the blond tobacco, leather, resins, tonka and musks. It shouldn’t really work, draping the ghost of a rum-soaked gourmand over the tough skeleton of a resinous leather scent. But the sweet aftertaste works, it allows the skin to love the cellar notes and bar smoke, the potential pitfalls of olfactory abstraction. Frapin have centuries of experience in the fine art of maceration and blending in order to achieve the perfect balance on the palette and in the brain. Bringing the weight of this knowledge to bear on perfumery was always going to yield intriguing results.  

In 2002 Frapin decided to launch 1270, what they like to refer to thier parfum des origines, the scent of their roots, or the scent of the soil if you like. Created by the daughter of the family, Beatrice Cointreau with the Frapin Cellar Master, 1270 was designed to celebrate the vertiginous heritage of the Frapin legacy and the terre itself, the fruits of the vine, the Folle Blanche grape and the obsessive stages of the cognac’s history. Built around a duet of vine flowers and the dry green licquorice tones of immortelle, 1270 mixes candied orange, nuts, prunes, cocoa, tonka and coffee over a sublime and harmonious base of honey, vanilla and woods.

1270 was the first Frapin I came across on a New Year trip to Paris and I was blown away by the resonance of the accords and in particular the controlled booziness of the drydown. Like the flickering heat of burning Christmas spirits, the blend of woods, spice, fruit and floral facets is masterly. Everything smells finished, smoothed off and matured. This boozy woozy sexiness was pushed even further by Bertrand Duchaufour’s 1697, a celebration of the year that Louis IX bestowed the Frapin family with the status of nobility and a coat of arms. Rum, rose, patchouli, jasmine sambac and ambergris meld together with dried fruits and spices, producing a voluptuous, head-spinning eau de parfum of unique power. It burns off the skin like fire, woody, moreish, giddy and so very sensual.

So for Speakeasy, Frapin turned to Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. Speakeasys were all about coded signals, what to say, who to talk to, passwords and the potential dangers of drinking during the Prohibition era. This made everything sparkle at the edges with alarm and threat. With the booze-swilling culture we have now it is quite hard to imagine a time when Prohibition could have been a real state of affairs. Now that tobacco has become persona non grata in so many countries across the western world, more and more of us are less exposed (probably a good thing) to the smell of tobacco. I gave up smoking years ago. Yet I still have days and minutes when I imagine a Marlboro Light in my hand, the strange anticipation of my heart rising in rhythm to meet the first draw. But most of my smoking memoires are linked to Gauloises in Paris, and coffee, nasty endless cups in Bastille cafes, idling time with ratty wannabe punkish boys and bored au-pairs. Smoking until I wanted to pass out or die and then just tearing open another soft pack and starting again.

As I mentioned earlier I was expecting Speakeasy to be more amber toned, tawny in the glass as it were. So the blond tobacco note that floats out of the notes early on was quite a shock. It is clean and damp, lip-wet. This soft smoky come-hither feel is deepened by the use of immortelle and its addictive aromas of burnt sugar and sweet grass. Liatrix (deer tongue) and tonka bean enhance the sense of hazy interiors even more; a fan overhead slowly chop chopping through the air as the smoke rises and falls around lipsticked mouths and blue unshaven chins.

The magnificence of Speakeasy is the playfulness, the laughter at the bar, the couple unafraid to laugh, crash their glasses together and kiss with abandon. This joy is the incredibly beautiful mojito accord that Cortcchiato has built into the top of the fragrance. It smells expensive; a cocktail mixed with the world’s finest ingredients, in this case, rum, Russian mint and fizzy lime from Brazil. It works brilliantly, cool and laid back, wrong-footing anyone expecting the tobacco and base notes to throw themselves forward demanding attention. Cortcchiato is far too subtle a perfumer for that. A touch of orange and the sweetness of Davana keep the top notes exhilarating for far longer than one would expect.

The base has ciste, styrax, labdanum, musks and leather blended with the tobacco and immortelle. They are heavy hitting notes. But nothing ever feels weighed down or muddied. As Speakeasy dried down I was continually surprised by the complexity of the evaporation curve, the evolution of the materials assembled by Corticchiato. I kept picking up a really compulsive rum baba note, sticky, heady and very nostalgic. Paris again. Tearooms in winter with hot chocolate served properly in jugs with milk to thin it out. The bustle of veiled cruising happening all around as I nibbled and dipped my booze-drenched baba, catching eyes and looking away with a smile. This delicious patisserie note, tempered by the curveball mojito effect at the top is what makes Speakeasy so unusual and desirable on the skin. I think however it is the addition of immortelle absolute that swings it for me; it is one of my keynote materials. I wrote about it extensively in my post on L’Être Aimé by Parfums Divine, which is shaped by this delicious scrubby wonder.

The very particular burnt sugar and scorched chlorophyll facets of immortelle; along with a whiff of licquorice left in the sun bolster the off-kilter gourmand jazzy vibe that comes off Speakeasy. It runs through the scent like a tenor sax note as the other elements mingle and coalesce into a soft-focused noir bar scene, plaintive yet persistent and unforgettable.

I am very taken with this skewed and bluesy scent. It has a certain laid back quality to it, a tension of illicit love, of stolen kisses and lipstick in the gloom, stubble against one’s cheek, a whiff of cigarettes, the smell of the streets on a hat and fingers. Speakeasy is bravura perfume making, a maceration of themes and ideas from a perfumer and an ancient cognac House. Together they have created something innovative and singularly distinctive. Santé!

For more info on Frapin please click below:

For info on Parfum D'Empire and Marc-Antoine Cortchiatto, please click below:


  1. I have tried very hastily most of the Frapin releases and although I can understand the quality of materials I kept getting this fruity vibe from almost all of them that is so not me. Now with the news of Speakeasy release I had a similar reaction to you: obsessing to smell it. I haven't yet but the idea of Cortichiatto doing a perfume with that name and these ingredients is truly tantalising.

    1. I agree on the fruit front. Frapin love their dark, preserved fruit notes. The best of those is Duchaufour's 1697. I guess they feel it suits their heritage and style. I do like a darker fruit note, something mixed with leathers, spice and tonka say. It a facet I've grown into, maybe all the years I've spent in Scotland and its chilly climes. 'Speakeasy' is by far the best release from Frapin. Cortichiatto has taken the Frapin elements and subverted them to his own obsessive cause.....a surprise on so many levels. Do let me know what you think.

    2. Speaking of Scotland and whiskey, have you tried Annick Goutal Vetiver? It smells just like Caol Ila single malt, a very good alternative to drinking the damned stuff :)

    3. Ha! Very true. I love the smells of whiskey, but the taste...No. I have not tried the AG Vetiver, i will look out for it. I am a huge fan of the L'Artisan Parfumeur 'Coeur de Vetiver Sacre' which they have decided to kill off after only two years in stores. I have written a blog piece on my dismay and other assorted vetivers i love, coming soon to a Foxy page near you. When Penhaligon's launched the first raft of Anthology archive scents, Bertrand Duchaufour came up to see us and help launch them. My partner is French and we took him to the Scottish Malt Whisky Society in the evening where he was very taken with the single cask exclusives one could sample. He kept sniffing over and over, rarely tasting. He was very surpriused by enormous variety in olfactory textures. And i will search out the Caol Ila single malt... thank you for the info.