The Modern Sage: A Case Study

Sampling Wood Sage & Sea Salt this weekend instantly reminded me of Fig Leaf & Sage. The new limited edition offering from Jo Malone inspired me to bring up the topic of sage: an herb that is near and dear to my heart. Growing up with it, it has been used in my household to treat any ailment you can imagine - from sore throat and upset stomach to mouthwashing and hair-rinsing. Therefore, I never cared for it so much as an herbal tea - it has too strong of a medicinal association for me in that format.

Another story altogether is safe as fresh or dried leaves in the wild, as well as its uses in cookery (sage leaves in butter, anyone?), or even baked goods (sage & blackberry thumbprint cookies are now a family tradition). I remember the first time when I had sage inside a pasta sauce. It was at a wedding of one of my mom's cousins, who owned a catering company at the time. Her brother asked me what I thought about it, and I was kinda cynical... It's just like the herbs on our mountains", I said. "We drink it all the time". I did not enjoy it at the time, but years later, sage has become a staple herb in my kitchen, both dried and fresh, to give more depth to simple roasted vegetables (butternut squash, potatoes) or pasta sauces. It just takes those dishes to the next level... Personally, I find the whole leaf is a little more complex and intriguing, and somehow bypasses the medicinal association.

Ditto for its use in perfumery. It is one of my favourite accessory notes, actually. Thank God my mom's herbal medicine practices didn't ruin it for me completely... Sage is an integral part of some of the perfumes I'm most proud of, especially from the Chypre family: Ayalitta, Autumn. I also fell in love quite late with Clary Sage (but that's another story). When done correctly and artfully, what sage does to a perfume is something that's inexplicable. It normally does not really smell like sage at all - but rather creates a full-bodied smudging effect, akin to smearing your fingers forcefully over a thick line of pastel crayons. It has a bold presence, but it does not really come across as an attention seeker. Rather, brings out the brave voices of otherwise demure notes such as jasmine, rose or amber.

Now, there are several types of sage, but the one discussed here is the common sage, Salvia officinalis. It grows wild in the Mediterranean region, and has a very warm, earthy, herbaceous scent. According to Julia Lawless' Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, the principal constituents are thujone (about 42%), cineol, borneol, caryophyllene and other terpenes. Borneol is an alcohol that gives it a camphoreous character, and cineol is another alcohol, characteristics of eucalyptus and rosemary - camphoreous but also a little warm or even spicy if you will.

Thujone, on the other hand, is a ketone and a monoterpene, and its scent is well known as white cedar, yellow cedar or arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), and is native to the northeastern parts of Canada and the USA. It is not a true cedar, but actually belongs to the cypress family (Cupressaceae). in wormwood (especially in Artemisia absinthium), and also in juniper, mugwort, tansy and oregano.  Thujone is controversial in aromatherapy and liquor preparations: It is a GABA receptor inhibitor (or antagonist). It can cause side effects such as anxiety and insomnia. In high doses, it's toxic to the brain, liver and kidney, and can causes convulsion, and can even be lethal. The are liquor regulations in Europe and North America that control the level of thujone in liquors such as Absinthe.  However, when used cautiously and in moderation (for example: as an herbal tea, or in very low dilutions within an essential oil such as common sage), it can help strengthen the immune system, and help in situations such as colds and viral infections.

Now, the reason I discussed thujone so much here, is because in the three modern sage-centred fragrances I am testing today, what I'm really smelling is thujone, not so much sage. Thujone has simultaneously a fruity but also a strong and quite sickening woody-coniferous smell on its own. And indeed, sage has that effect of creating an illusion of fruitiness in a perfume, as you shall see. 

Fig Leaf & Sage by Kiehl's is an original yet approachable, marketed as a non-committal cross between a scented ancillary product (body spray) and perfume. Fig Leaf & Sage is simultaneously fruity yet not exactly sweet, with an herbaceous-dry sage notes and a certain tart, almost green undertones reminiscent of green figs (perhaps not quite ripe yet). It's certainly a duet, at least for the first hour or so of wearing - tilting between green figs and sage like an airplane that hasn't decided yet where to land. I find this to be quite an unusual fragrance; but I also find the drydown to be way too musky and synthetically ambery scent to my taste. Nevertheless, I keep coming back to it, so I won't be surprised if a small sized bottle will end up joining my ever growing collection of fragrant marvels...

Wood Sage & Sea Salt Cologne by Jo Malone smelled at first just like how I remembered Fig Leaf & Sage. Must be the thujone. It really comes across strongly at first. As expected from this brand, it's a lot more tame, and also a lot more transparent. And also about 5 times the price. It last only a couple of hours on the skin (and not much longer on the scent strip). At first, there is a burst of musky, fruity sage-ness; but paired with very light citrus notes. And marine notes. And also a reminiscence of their Black Pomegranate - kinda fruity, dark yet transparent woody-leathery note that is I suspect the modern answer to isobutyl quinoline, and a rather insipid answer I'm afraid - lacking the depth and intrigue of the former, and leaving you high and dry with a flat, sterile smoky-wood finish. While sweet at first, it dries down rapidly, if I may emphasize my point. And there is a coconutty, yet also fake marine-like quality in there that is not appealing at all to me (though much more pleasant and creamier in the matching body cream).

Lemongrass Sage Hand & Nail Cream is not a perfume per se, but it's the scent of this product that I like, and the first one of this type of "sage" scent that I came across (while killing time for a connection at SEATAC airport). Again, the thujone is more dominant than it is in actual sage oil. And it's slightly fruit-like ketone quality added a lot to the lemongrass - an oil that often smells dull, as it is too commonly distilled from the dried leaves instead of the fresh ones (and sometimes not the freshest quality either).

Sick & Chic

Sick & Chic by Ayala Moriel
Sick & Chic, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
I've been struggling with a cold since Sunday, and been trying to keep my cool about it and not feel too sorry for myself (probably the worst part of being ill). That's how I came up with the idea of Sick & Chic - maintaining your dignity through illness.

Of course this is not an easy task when you’re as sick as a dog and can’t even get out of bed. And I don't know that it would be effective or relevant for someone suffering from a serious condition. Nevertheless, just like in healthy living - it’s those little details that make the not-quite-pleasant experience just a little more bearable and ever so slightly less depressing.

Instead of drowning in used tissue, surrounded by empty mugs and 80’s workout attire (I'll be the first to admit that the ugliest clothing tend to be the most comfortable) -- bring out your finest china to drink that medicinal brew, your coziest sweater (or sweater dress), up-cycled cashmere underwear and mukluks and try to be a little bit more glamorously ill... I guarantee it will lift your spirits up. At least a little. And after the spirit, the body will follow - slowly but surely.

While we’re speaking of brews to ward off those flu bugs and chase away the chills: not all medicine tastes awful. Here are a few examples that are easy to brew even if you don’t have a personal nurse or a cook at your disposal. The key is to keep the body warm and hydrated, so it can flush out the toxins and whatever else it's fighting with... So as long as it's not coffee and alcohol - you'll probably benefit from a hot tea or tisane. But some are, of course, more effective:

Fir needle tip tea, which was the aboriginal’s only source of vitamin C throughout the winter months. It has a delicate citrus taste, reminiscent of mandarin oranges. Harvest the new growth needles in the springtime and dry for later use; or purchase from Juniper Ridge.

Another wonderful source of vitamin C is hibiscus flower tea (aka Jamaica), Besides, its ruby-red jewel tones are another reason to bring a smile to one's face. Brew it alone or throw in a few slices of fresh ginger or even a few blueberries (frozen will do) to enhance the flavour and amp up the medicinal properties (ginger is a great warming and anti-microbial brew that's wonderful for chest colds).

If hot water and lemon is your thing, why not spice it up a bit with Bittered Sling Lem-Marrakech? Reminiscent of Moroccan pickled lemon and cardamom, it's sure to add some intrigue to your run of the mill lemon and hot water remedy. Besides, it's got the beneficial "side effects" of relieving fever. 

Ginger, lemon and honey is my long-time go-to whenever I have a cold. It seems to take care of it all - vitamin C, soothing the throat, aiding digestion and warming up the body. Honey also helps the immune system fight foreign invaders, and the whole thing just tastes great, in my humble opinion. Simply slice about a thumb-length of fresh ginger root, top with hot water, add a teaspoon of local unpasteurized honey - and squeeze as much lemon as you can take (up to 1/2 a lemon, preferably organic). You can also slice 1/2 a lemon instead of squeezing it - and eat the entire thing once you finished the brew. It's actually the white pith that contains the most vitamin C in the citrus... 

Sick & Chic

Feeling extra glamorous - and your nose is not 100% plugged and useless? A little perfume won't hurt to lift up your spirits. This is the time for those otherwise in-your-face spicy orientals: they won't feel nearly as overpowering as before (though you still should be careful of overdosing, in case you are surrounded by humans whose noses are not as plugged as yours). Opium, Tabu, Youth Dew - the time is now! And what with their slightly medicinal air of all those oriental spices and patchouli, medicine chests and the Chinese clinic are not an unpleasant association.

Not surprisingly, I'm partial to my Zangvil, which I created exactly when I was feeling cold and sick. It never fails from bringing that feeling of coziness and well-being and just warms me up, with magnolia lily, ginger lily and ginger.

Speaking of ginger lily - it is a rather unusual note that shares some characteristics with ginger root: effervescence, complexity, warmth and sensuality. It started showing up in perfumes such as Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, where it disappears in a blink of an eye and gives way to sheer amber and woodsy musks. In Providence Perfume Co's Ginger Lily, this note is paired with rather bold spices - clove and cinnamon - to create a modern spicy oriental that is all-natural and seductive. But also perfect for those under-the-weather days, when you're not sure if you want a medicine or a perfume.

If your cold has reached the point of needing to steam with eucalyptus or camphor - try a dab of 1000 by Patou, or better yet - Shiso by Aftelier will make you feel glamorous about it. After all, borneol camphor is what the geishas used to scent their kimonos with; and their milky white skins were adorned with a powdered form of incense containing camphor, cassia, sandalwood, agarwood and other sweet spices and herbs. 

Chinatown is one of those powerhouse modern fruity chypres, where more is less (so you might not be as overwhelmed by it when you have a cold!). It also has an unusual concoction of spicy medicinal notes reminiscent of the TCM's clinic, where powdered Don Quai permeates the air, numbing pain an bringing up memories - alongside many other sickeningly bitter herbs.

Mitsouko is another go-to-favourite when things don't go quite so well. It has proven to withstand the test of time (read: bad memories) and even though I was wearing it during a very traumatic time when my daughter was hospitalized - I still enjoy it very much. It's one of those friends that will never leave you, even when all hell breaks lose. It's that good. Besides, it is so perfectly balanced - dry yet sweet, fruity yet spicy, warm yet clean and elegant - that it never fails.

And if nothing at all seems to satisfy you - you can make an aromatherapeutic diffuser blend to keep all those winter bugs at bay, clearing your space while infusing it with a lovely, refreshing smell. You may also use 10-20 drops of this blend in a bath:
20 drops Eucalyptus oil
20 drops Lemon oil
10 drops Ginger oil
10 drops Thyme, Linalool
3 drops Allspice oil

What do you wear when you're feeling ill? Do you just go au-naturelle - or do some scents seem to help you get out of it?

Patchouli & Amber Cologne Intense

Joyness by ceca67
Joyness, a photo by ceca67 on Flickr.

Jo Malone's newish "Cologne Intense" collection came out in August 2010, in noir bottles, of course. Although the names are the usual Jo Malone formula (One Ingredient & Another Cologne), they are concentrated around heavier scents and are not nearly as "British" and scrubbed-clean as under Jo Malone's artistic direction (the company was sold to Estee Lauder, and ever since then there were a few uncharacteristic scents that came to play, at times interesting - such as Sweet Lime & Cedar or Blue Agave & Cacao; and at other times just very pretentious, as if trying to keep up with the "Niche look" headed by Tom Ford and the like. Meaning - that everything has to be "Noir" this or "Noir" that and have a heavy dose of patchouli or synthetic oud and amber - which has come to be represent with "luxury". In reality, these are pale imitations of what the true raw materials would smell like, thinned out (or completely replaced, whenever possible) by their synthetic imitations.

Patchouli & Amber is no exception. It brings nothing new to the table (except for being the first and only patchouli offering under the Jo Malone brand) and it is paired with crowd-pleasing amber, which dominates it in a similar manner Prada’s eponymous scent does. It doesn’t hurt anyone to have a god amber scent around; but it by no means provide anything new and interesting (which Dark Amber & Ginger Lily already did). From a curator’s point of view – it’s really quite pointless. But I’m sure the accounting department would be in favour of such a scent.

Patchouli & Amber has all the usual suspects: Overdose of thin, caramel-like benzoin with hints of dark Indonesian or Indian patchouli, an under-dose of resinous Spanish labdanum. It’s as disappointing as Prada as far as representing patchouli goes. And the amber is nothing interesting either. Very pleasant and easy to wear – yes; but interesting? No. There is really very little to write home about, and the only reason I’m writing about is because of the patchouli theme that’s been lingering in SmellyBlog’s quarters. My favourite from these "Cologne Intense" bunch remains Rosewater & Vanilla (which I will write about at another time).

Lotus Blossom & Water Lily

Ironically, it is here where I smell ginger lily, not in Dark Amber & Ginger Lily. Ginger Lily has more in common with ginger than with lily though, it’s more of a spicy, warm, rooty and sharp note rather than a floral, heady or pretty like you might expect.

Initially, Lotus Blossom & Ginger Lily is lighter and fresher than Dark Amber & Ginger Lily, but also a little odd. While I find the use of ginger lily unusual and daring, I am disappointed (though not surprised!) by the aquatic notes and even more so by the very obvious patchouli undercurrent. Patchouli and water notes to me are less appealing than mud. At least there is something genuine about mud; the artificial aquatic florals seem pretentious and trying too hard to please. And in this one even more than in Dark Amber & Ginger Lily – the Koh Doh connection remaind a complete mystery to me.

There is something that feels unfinished and disharmonious about Lotus Blossom & Water Lily, although I imagine it to be well received (otherwise, this limited edition wouldn’t have come back again this spring, or would it?) and because of its striking similarity to other popular mainstream scents (i.e.: Coco Mademoiselle). Some aloeswood perhaps peaks at the end, but again it does not feel authentic - it has that sweet berry note that seems to be the way agarwood is perceived nowadays ever since M7. So far from the truth.

Top notes: Aquatic Accord, Grapefruit, Bergamot, Mandarin

Heart notes: Lotus Blossom, Freesia, Honeysuckle, Water Lily, Jasmine

Base notes: Temple Incense, Amber, Sandalwood, Bamboo, Musk, Aloeswood, Guaiac Wood

Dark Amber & Ginger Lily

sweet alyssum, originally uploaded by powerbooktrance.

Dark Amber & Ginger Lily comes in a striking black glass bottle, which makes it stand out from the rest of the Jo Malone cologne collection, at least visually. But it is also very different in style. While I can’t say that Koh-Doh incense comes to mind when I smell it, it does have a similarly stylized, modernized Orientalism that characterizes another British niche line – Ormode Jayne.

Dark Amber & Ginger Lily opens with a the spicy-fresh notes of pink pepper and cardamom, reminding me simultaneously of Ormonde and Ta’if. The spicy sharpness is sheer and underneath it a woody-berry note that is the only moment when I sense some oudh. What comes next is mostly musk and a modest dosage of florals – primarily jasmine. The dry down is an almost powdery, perhaps even aldehydic musk reminiscent of opoponax, patchouli and woods combined.

Top notes: Black Cardamom, Pink Pepper, Ginger

Heart notes: Night Jasmine, Orchid, Water Lily, Rose

Base notes: Black Amber, White Pepperwood, Leather, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Kyara Incense

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