People

Scents and Sensibility

Roja Dove is one of the world's most celebrated names in the fragrance industry. The 'Professeur de Parfums' recently working with The Macallan to help broaden the understanding of the aromas found in single malts.
By Neil Ridley
To spend several hours in the company of Roja Dove is something of a revelation to the senses. A highly articulate raconteur, he has been quoted more times than anybody else about the artistry within the perfume business and many of his creations have helped shape it into the multibillion dollar industry it has become today. But as I discover, strip away the glamour and what lies beneath is an exacting science, as well as a highly complex process of understanding the relationship between scent and the psyche.
Dove’s obsession with perfume began at a very early age when he first became aware of the scent his mother was wearing and how it lingered in his room. After studying medicine at Cambridge University he celebrated his 21st birthday with a visit to the famous Guerlain Boutique on the Champs-Elysées, which would ultimately determine his career path – and after ‘bombarding’ them with requests for employment, he was recruited to begin the lengthy apprenticeship in learning the perfumer’s art. Two decades later and the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie at Harrods has become the destination for the ultimate experience in luxury scent.Do you think the ability to pick up and analyse aromas is something anyone can develop over time or is it something certain people have a natural affinity with?
“Well, it’s interesting to note that the sense of smell is the oldest sense in living organisms, which developed before any other – really to help find food, escape danger and to find a mate.
When an odour hits the synapses, hormones are released, triggering emotions; for instance flight or attraction. One of the key fundamentals is the ability to articulate and describe aroma accurately and I think this is one of the most difficult things to develop.” He continues: “It’s a totally subjective area and your experience of odour has to be learnt. For example, occasionally when I’m creating a bespoke scent for someone and they say they like ‘rose’, I will give them every good examples of a rose aroma to nose and they hate all of them. The idea of liking an aroma is sometimes stronger than the reality and I imagine the same thing applies to whisky.”So do you think this is an issue shared with both the perfume and the drinks industries?
“One of the things that I personally find fascinating is that people don’t really talk about smell very much. I think that for the majority of people the only time they really stop to think about smell is when a sommelier comes over with a very thick book and suddenly, in front of your peers, you’re expected to make educated choices about a subject which most people don’t really know very much about, but would never admit to. It leads people to make very safe choices.”Where do you draw most of your influence from when analysing a scent; life-changing aromas from your childhood or exposure to a myriad of aromas during later life?
“When I started, it was a 15 year training period to become a perfumer, where one is expected to commit to memory the aromas of around 3,000 raw materials. A bottle of scent will on average contain around 30 to 40 separate aromas, sometimes many more, but rather like the whisky world, part of my job is about obtaining a level of consistency, as well as highlighting certain aromas in more bespoke scents.”Do you think that there are key indicators when analysing aroma and do you break them down into building blocks? For instance, certain whisky makers often use descriptors like light and heavy to characterise a spirit, or sometimes certain colour analogies, such as green/grassy to denote lighter aromas.
“I wouldn’t say I would describe an aroma as a particular colour, but I would look for certain textures, which are hugely important when creating a brand new scent. There are certain aromas that could perhaps be described as bright or dark, or very diffusive- radiant, or conversely, introspective. I would also look at what we call the ‘evaporation curve’ of an aroma- the way it develops and ultimately deteriorates over time.”So perhaps similar to the ‘finish’ of a whisky?
“It’s a very similar principle. One of the most important parts of my work is about balancing out the formula properly, so that once the initial aroma starts to diminish, the correct balance of the next notes can develop properly. For me, a great formula has very few raw materials used in its construction. It’s all about sublimating individual aromas and getting the profile right; the minute you put too many in, the more, ‘grey’ it becomes. I always find it hilarious when perfumers proudly point out that their scent has hundreds of raw materials in it!”It’s clear that there are real similarities between putting together a quality scent and the craftsmanship of the master blender, especially from the perspective of both balance and consistency, so what about his involvement with The Macallan came about and what he took away from the process?
“Well it’s an amusing relationship! I’m not a huge fan of drinking whisky at all, but a few years ago, I met (Edrington’s) Ken Grier at a very esoteric perfumers’ dinner and he was amazed by the complexities of the oils I use in constructing a scent, so wanted to explore the similarities between my world and the single malt business. One of the things that I find most frustrating about the way whisky is described is the level of parochialism with the terminology used – things like ‘peaty’ or ‘Christmas Cake’ don’t really mean anything to an audience where peat doesn’t exist or where there’s no such thing as a Christmas cake! There isn’t really an international language for describing whisky. It is also such a volatile spirit that it’s difficult to accurately analyse aromas without your nose becoming anaesthetised. So I wanted to approach the whole thing from a new angle, effectively discarding what has gone before and looking at some of the fundamentals from the perspective of a perfumer and what I’ll learn from The Macallan.”Cue a visit to the distillery where Roja met The Macallan’s whisky maker Bob Delgarno.
“We formed an amazing bond,” explains Roja “and there were a lot of similarities between our respective careers. During my visit, I nosed between 50 and 80 whiskies, selected by Bob to give me a composite picture of The Macallan aroma profile. I was surprised that some of the whiskies displayed such floral, almost rose-like tones, but also that there is such a dangerous preconception by many drinkers that the colour of the whisky can allude to the flavour and aroma found in the bottle. For me, one of the most fascinating things about nosing a whisky is the diffusion; i.e. the first impact you have straight out of the glass and also the stability, or if you like, that finish and development you find.”Fast forward through three years of detailed experimentation and sensory enlightenment and the end result is The Macallan Aroma Box; a collection of 12, highly articulate scents, which Roja has created to accurately describe the classic house style of The Macallan’s spirit. It is a tool, which it is hoped with be used to empower and educate audiences from as far afield as Asia to the Middle East, without the need to mention the dreaded ‘Christmas Cake’ descriptor. So were there any particular highlights to the samples he analysed?
“It was interesting to work with both very young and aged spirits and see the difference in their complexity,” points out Roja. “In my world, if I choose to work with Sandalwood for example, I’ll use a raw material which is aged for around 50 years and is worth several times its weight in gold bullion, because there is no other way to obtain that type of complexity and aroma profile.”Such is his incredible attention to raw materials, how does Roja approach making a bespoke scent for someone, especially as describing aroma is such a subjective beast?
“I work with something called a Perfumery Organ, which is a desk, surrounded by a series of shelves containing hundreds of bottles. Without revealing the name of the aroma, I begin to build up a composite picture of the subject’s profile through their response to the aromas, starting with the most volatile, zesty Hesperidic odours, finishing with the most stable – or Animalic aromas.
“Without it becoming a test, you look for clear patterns in response to aromas and you then have a blueprint to what definitely needs to be included in the finished scent and what should definitely be omitted.”
Roja points out that it can take three years to create the perfect bespoke perfume, which often shocks some of his customers, but when one begins to understand the intensity
and psychological power of aroma, the phrase: ‘it’s ready when it’s ready’ seems wholly appropriate.