Saturday, February 26, 2011

Skunked ~ Mandrake Apothecary's Sara Phillips

by Sara Phillips

"You'll never believe what I found. I can't believe someone was selling it..."

"What?" asked Lisa.

"Antique skunk oil. Can you believe this was used in perfumery at some point?"

And so I went arse over stripey tail into a very peculiar aromatic. It was a slightly anxious week waiting for the parcel in the mail. Would my cats freak out? Would my apartment smell like the acrid fatty smell of human sweat mixed with burnt coffee and the acid of rotting lemons?

Fresh skunk juice is one of those olfactory sensations that coshes one in the nose, hard. It is pervasive, pungent, piquant. Sharp. Be that as it may, it's not a smell that makes me run for cover, because it has those familiar tones of the burnt coffee and sweat, and because I have a bit of soft spot for skunks.

Antique skunk oil is in an odd class all its own. The Opening Ceremony was approached with trepidation, and a sense of expecting the worst. We did this in Lisa's kitchen, if memory serves; it was part of a lineup of other procured bottles of antique liquids, and was probably the last one opened that evening. I remember carefully carving out bits of fossilized cork with a trussing needle. Taking care to wiggle the cork free, but well away from our faces. I think we were worried it would be a stink bomb, frankly. But amazingly it wasn't. It smelled like acrid sweat, flat coffee, mud, and some other mysterious bitter things mixed into all that, sure. But it was smooth, very mellowed, and not obnoxious. It is not a smell I would rank among even a Top 100 Must Haves (frankly, the animalic essences do not do it for me), but it is history, and therefore interesting and worthy of further study.

Part of what makes this type of a smell interesting lies in its impact upon the limbic system, and I must admit this is something I gave short shrift until I got the bright idea to wave the cork in front of my cats and gauge their responses. Lucy the younger one was fascinated. Her nose twitched, and then wrinkled as she opened her mouth to get a better whiff and taste of the air around the cork. "Oooooh, this came from a furry beast! But which one?" She would have tried to cram her head into the neck of the bottle, had I held that before her. However, Daisy the elder was not interested or pleased. Her pupils got as big as kibble dishes and she bolted under the bed, not coming out for a few hours. It is probably safe to say she was skunked or had a poor encounter with one when she lived outdoors.

So, have you made 'skunk perfume'? you may well be wondering. Not as yet. I do have a tincture of this amongst the rest of my extractions and tinctures, and I did work on a blend that used its bitterness in the base, awhile back, which was actually quite good but got shelved for various reasons so I could work on other formulations. The oil itself was decanted into another bottle, and the original bottle is a museum piece in my collection. For being an animalic essence it is strangely devoid of uric and/or fecal tones, just as fresh skunk juice is devoid of those. Instead there is a dark rubbery presence in it that I've smelled only in certain roasted coffees, and in really young nutmeg distillations (as in the distillation has not aged at all, not that the nutmegs were immature when steam distilled). Rubber tires that have been baking in the sun, which have picked up a bit of prehistoric petroleum character from the tar in the asphalt. I've smelled castoreum that was 'rubbery' as well, in addition to the salty sweaty fecal tones.Antique skunk essence also proves the point that plant essences can smell more animalic than even animalic essences. Costus and cumin (highly diluted cumin) smell much more like they came from something with hair and sweat glands, than aged skunk does. I could see using this in a leather accord, but am unsure how I would go about making that happen. Perhaps with a bit of patchouli for dusty musty earth to dilute the rubber, vetiver to cut the acrid fat and add more sweat, and then some ylang III to sweeten the lot. At least, that is the plan next time I go near this essence at my workbench.

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