Patchouli is having a bit of a moment – you heard it here first. OK, so I know that you’re probably thinking that I’ve probably lost my mind and it’s not the 1960s anymore, but it’s true, patchouli is having a moment. Many new fragrances are featuring the material as a prominent, top billing note and so many others feature it somewhere in the composition. We need to recalibrate our brains to stop thinking of patchouli as the domain of hippies and head shops because it’s an essential material in the perfumes we wear – and it smells blooming good too.
Patchouli has always been a bit tricky, mostly because it possesses such a distinct odour – an aroma that many people think they don’t like. It also has a very strong link to a particular time in the past (it’s very “Woodstock 1969), which doesn’t help. But patchouli is a wonder material, and there are many different variations used in perfumery, from nifty molecular distillations that provide excellent intensity to beautiful aroma chemicals such as akigalawood, that present many recognisable facets of patchouli but none of the dirt. It truly is an essential ingredient that does so much to a perfume.
To celebrate this patchouli moment, we’re going to take a look at what patchouli is and where you can smell it, with a selection of beautiful fragrances that you need in your collection.
What is patchouli, and how does it smell?
Patchouli is a plant from the mint family. It’s a bushy herb that flowers with pale pink coloured blooms and is native to many places across Asia. Unassuming in its looks, patchouli packs quite a punch scent-wise with a nuanced and heavy-hitting odour profile. I’d describe it as smelling; earthy, oily, camphoraceous, dirty, mineral, fizzy, smoky, and boozy, with facts of; chocolate, sour fruit, and spice. There are many different patchouli materials, including naturals, distillations and fractional distillations, and these bring lift, space and contrast to a fragrance, pairing beautifully with fruit and rose notes to create shades of dark and light.
1.The Classic Patchouli
Let’s start with something that offers a pretty straightforward rendition of patchouli, and with that in mind, there is no better place to begin than with Patchouli by Etro. If you’re seeking something that smells like patchouli (and why wouldn’t you? It’s gorgeous) then this offers up the warm, earthy, and somewhat dusty facets of the material in a delightfully retro presentation. Patchouly celebrates the very essence of the material, creating an olfactory spirit that is bohemian and incredibly chic.
One of patchouli’s favourite playmates is rose. Somehow when these two kids get together, magic happens. Roses, you see, are bright, luminous, and filled with the freshness of fruit and citrus, but also the rich, sweet, velvety character of rose petals. Patchouli cuts through the softness of rose, slashing its plush texture in jet black stripes. Moonlight Patchouli capitalises on this age-old pairing, throwing in some iris powder and cocoa to amplify the plushness of texture and add a gourmand touch; this is patchouli at its most beautiful.
3.The Pretty Patchouli
If that’s patchouli at its prettiest, what about patchouli at its most iconic? Well, look no further, because now we talk about Angel. When we think Angel, we often think about all of that edible stuff, you know, the chocolate, the caramel, the vanilla, the cotton candy (I would go on, but this is making me hungry), but Angel is nothing without patchouli. Angel started as a vanilla-patchouli accord created by perfumer Oliver Cresp and codenamed ‘Patchou’. Cresp worked with the MUGLER team to expand this accord, enveloping it in an entire fairground’s worth of gourmand notes evocative of the M. Mugler’s childhood memories. The result is a polarising fragrance of stark contrast, where a big and butch patchouli note directly juxtaposes sugar and sweetness. It’s this tension – this duality that makes Angel the divisive, gender-bending masterpiece that it is.
4. The Modern Patchouli
How about something a bit more modern, though? Because people often complain that patchouli is a bit ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’, and not in a good way, and my friends, those people are wrong. Patchouli is as modern as you want it to be and it still plays a massive part in a wealth of perfume compositions year on year. Take Givenchy’s L’Interdit, for example (not to be confused with the classic fragrance composed for Audrey Hepburn – it shares the name but is an entirely different composition). It weaves together dark, inky tones of patchouli with strands of fruity tuberose in a thoroughly modern fragrance that smells like bubble-gum died black (how couture). Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.
5. The Luxury Patchouli
You might be thinking that I’m straying away from the brief here but bear with me, because Prada Amber may sound like it’s an amber fragrance (it is), but it’s a stealthy patchouli fragrance too. In this sophisticated and soft amber, patchouli shows just how well it plays with others. The sweet, resinous nature of amber gets a sense of spice, of stewed fruits, a glossy sheen, and deep, inky warmth by a generous dose of patchouli. In Prada Amber, patchouli is the palpable sense of ‘je ne sais quoi’ in this fragrance, taking what would otherwise be a very lovely, but straightforward amber, and elevating it to the upper echelons of luxury worthy of bearing the Prada name.
6. The Smoky Patchouli
Finally, let’s look at a patchouli that is entirely new: Patchouli Ardent by Guerlain. This vibrant take on our subject material sits within Guerlain’s Absolus d’Orient collection, which is a series of bold, heavy-hitting scents that take inspirations from the East and paint them with broad brushstrokes. Patchouli Ardent fits in with the collection, and it’s so much more than just a whopping great big patchouli fragrance, it’s also a gigantic rose and animalic musk fragrance too. The patch in this one provides a dark current of ink and earth to all of the smouldering roses and naughty musky bits, creating a sense of patchouli carried through smoke. Beautiful (just don’t spray too much, you might get arrested).