Smoke on the Water

Smoke and perfume might seem, for some, to be at the opposite end of the olfactory spectrum. Smoke is, however, the most ancient mean of delivering aromas in the air. The origin of the word perfume comes from the old italian word parfumare meaning “to smoke through”. The fragrant smoke of the incense rising up to heaven is a universal symbol of prayer and offering to the deities.

Dry distillation of wood in the early 20th century

Destructive (or dry) distillation is the method used to produce aromatic tars that can be further distilled and rectified to become appreciated fragrance ingredients. This dry distillation process consists of heating the wood in a low-oxygen atmosphere for long hours. As the hot wood transforms slowly into charcoal, it also delivers a viscous liquid called tar, composed of various aromatic hydrocarbons. Wood tar is microbicidal and was first widely used to protect and coat wooden houses and boat hulls. it was also found as a domestic disinfectant and even in medicines and shampoos.


Birch tar, obtained by the dry distillation of the bark of the birch tree, is one of the finest of all wood tars. It is composed of phenols such as guaiacol, also found naturally in guaiac wood and widely used in perfumery. Russia leather, oiled with birch tar oil after tanning, became a treasured high-grade leather in the 17th and 18th centuries. The deep oil impregnation made the leather resistant to insects, waterproof, and exuding a pleasant smell. It was one of the major produce of exportation from Russia in the past. Some leather for shoes and gloves is still produced today following this traditional method.

World War II Soviet equipment. Leather officer belt. Isolated with clipping path
Russia leather officer belt. Early 20th Century.

The exceptional house of CREED was the first to use birch tar oil to create a fragrance called Cuir de Russie (Russia Leather) for the french Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, the  Empress Eugenie. In 1872, it was Guerlain‘s turn to launch his Cuir de Russie, more complex than the Creed’s, but with still a dominant note of birch tar. Chanel will follow 50 years later with their own version under the same name of Cuir de Russie. Many others brands will sell this classic accord since then.

An original bottle and box of Cuir de Russie from Guerlain – 1872

This history explains why smokey scents are the base of the leather note; itself classified as a dry wood. But smokey notes are not only used in leather fragrances. Some of the finest juices today have some degree of smokiness in the base. Among them, the magnificent Creed Aventus with its pineapple note flirting with birch. I also recommend Orion from Tiziana Terenzi as a happy alternative.

Creed Aventus – a new landmark in fruity-smokey-aromatic fragrance.

Try also the excellent Mississippi Medicine or Burnt Barbershop by D.S. & Durga from New York. Again from the Big Apple, Bonds No.9 will please you ladies with Union Square and you gentlemen, with Harrods for men, both fragrances made with subtle notes of birch tar. Fumoir, from Arte Profumi, a summer discovery for me, is perhaps the smokiest perfume I have ever tried so far, an excellent choice.

Bonds No.9 Flagship store in Bonds Street, Manhattan, NYC
Bonds No.9 Flagship store in Bonds Street, Manhattan, NYC

Smokey notes do not please all noses, but for the ones who like it, it has surely an addictive effect. Winter is the right season for wearing such fragrances, so reserve some budget for Christmas.

See you next week, fragrant regards my friends!





About Laurent 70 Articles
Born in Switzerland but lived half of my life in fragrant Asia, I want to share my passion for scents and flavors

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