WHISKY AND PERFUME
Scent of a country
Just as you would take your time with a delicate dram, perfume requires patience to unlock its complexities. Wait and you’ll be richly rewarded with a sensory journey that can transport you somewhere else entirely, as Madeleine Schmoll reports
PHOTOS: CAMERON LEASK
Before there was perfume for Imogen Russon-Taylor, there was whisky. The founder of Kingdom – Scotland’s first perfume house – Imogen started her career working in the communications and brand side of the whisky industry.
“I worked there from the age of 25 onwards, when you’re developing your palate in terms of alcohol and more epicurean delights,” she says. “It was a good time in my life to introduce the complexity and the layers that you get in a fine whisky.”
The idea for Kingdom came when Imogen worked with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (both part of the LVMH group) and was sent on a trip to visit different perfume house, including famed ‘maison’ Guerlain in Paris. “That was an incredible experience,” she says. “I could see so many parallels between the nose and a master distiller. That really influenced me.”
In 2016, Imogen set up Kingdom, but it took two years before she released her first perfumes. The first step was a deep dive into Scotland’s perfume history, working with Scottish Enterprise and Interface – a knowledge connector between academia and entrepreneurs. Teaming up with the history department at the University of St Andrews, there were months of research ahead to find out if Scotland had ever had a perfume house of its own and to see if there was any legacy to build on.
“At first I thought we’d be able to bring back to life a Scottish perfume house that perhaps existed in the era of [renowned British perfumiers] Penhaligon’s or Floris. I thought there must be one through the way that Queen Victoria loved Scotland and the stature that Scotland has had in the European world following the Enlightenment,” says Imogen. “They said, we can find chemists selling toilet waters and selling perfumes from different countries, but we can’t find a Scottish brand…so you can say that we are the first Scottish perfume house.”
After this, the scope of the project changed. Imogen began to research “stories of scent”, delving into the archive at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens to look at pioneering botanists and the ingredients that informed their work.
With it, she created her own archive of scent stories to bring her perfumes to life.
It’s clear that Scotland is a powerful force in Imogen’s perfumes, each one a love song to a different part of the landscape and environment and an echo of her degree in geology and geography.
But there is also a hugely personal aspect to her perfumes that is linked to her own memories.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that our sense of smell is almost a bit of our sense of self,” she says. “It depends on where you’ve been brought up in the world.” For Imogen that part of the world is a childhood holiday in Ardnamurchan, the essence captured in her perfume, Portal.
“I used to spend half-terms and Easters there and climb trees as a child and that is very much a scent memory for me, but I know it’s also quite a collective scent memory.”
For those who look more closely, there are also whispers of Imogen’s whisky past. “In the opening notes is a new-make spirit accord,” she says. “You know the esters you get with new-make spirit that are very fresh and outdoor? There’s a touch of that in the opening of Portal.”
Imogen Russon-Taylor (pictured left) samples some scents with her Kingdom colleague
WOOD AND PEAT
While the new-make note hints at Imogen’s whisky past, her perfume Metamorphic explores the sensory aspects of whisky making.
“It’s a very complex scent memory,” she says. “From whisky for me, some of the most powerful experiences are in the barrels.” She talks about a trip to the Ozark mountains to see American white oak casks created for Jack Daniels.
“We went to the cooperage and it was incredible to see and smell the firing and the charring of the wood and the oak. The oak is air-seasoned white oak, which is seasoning in the outdoors. Just smelling the freshness of that and then how that results in the whisky – I think that’s something that has really impacted me.”
This link to wood is found in some of her favourite notes in other perfumes as well. “You get the most beautiful woody resin notes within perfumes and those are the notes I really love,” she says.
“They tend to be base notes and long lasting and they tend to be very evocative with memory. Wood notes for me with whisky have really travelled through into my perfumes.”
And wood isn’t the only whisky note you’ll find in Metamorphic either.
“It also has a nod to West Coast island whiskies – to peated malts. It has an element of peat and heat and smoulderingness that’s brought to life – an Islay malt note.”
A SENSORY LIFT
In telling these stories of scent, Imogen weaves a narrative of her own experience combining whisky, perfume and history, capturing a time but also a feeling and a mood. And that part of the journey is just before it’s bottled.
Wearing perfume and experiencing the different notes of the scents as they evolve with our own unique chemistry is a story and experience of its own. Nevertheless, if our sense of smell is in fact a bit of ourselves, as Imogen says, and linked to our past, it’s hardly surprising how quickly perfume can transform our mood – especially now.
“People are using scent in a bit of a different mood-altering way during these times,” Imogen says. “What I’ve found is people emailing me about my perfumes. They’ve bought them for a lift – for something uplifting that transports them. Perhaps they’re having a day where they aren’t feeling so happy and they’re missing their family, or they’re missing a place or a memory.
But also people say they might be wearing tracksuits, they might be wearing pyjama bottoms and a shirt on top to do their Zoom calls. They’ll put perfume on because it’ll give them the edge and they’ll feel, ‘Right I’m in work mode’ or ‘Right I’m in confident mode – I feel good’.”