Patchouli Blues

"Strange weeds a flutter in your mind
Worn out jeans are showing your behind
Spake cake with a bit of whipped cream
Herbal tea and patchouli . . . "

-Lords of Acid



Ah, the poor maligned patchouli leaf!  Love it or hate it, patchouli is important to perfumery.  The problem with patchouli oil is that most people have powerful memories or scent connotations triggered by the aroma of patchouli.  To many, the precise mathematic formula for the distinct aroma of patchouli is as follows:  PATCHOULI = MARIJUANA + SWEAT + DIRT.

At our perfume boutique we offer custom perfumery services, where customers can create their own natural perfume at our scent bar.  No other essence triggers a more colorful emphatic response than patchouli.  As we pass the bottles of oils to the customer to sniff, they become alarmed at the mere idea of smelling patchouli.

"That's O.K. I don't need to smell the patchouli-I already know I don't like it. It reminds me of  . . . "

"Oh no!  Don't make me smell patchouli!  I HATE it. I remember my college roommate . . . "

"I don't need to smell all the base notes, right?  Because I know I don't like patchouli--so we can skip that one.  I had this boyfriend once who followed the band Phish and . . . "

Ironically, those who profess a hatred for the scent of patchouli will often change their mind and request a quick sniff, just to see if it's as terrible as they remember.  Frequently they'll comment reluctantly, "Well, it's not as bad as I expected.  You must have a really good patchouli?"



Now, I understand the scent of patchouli is intolerable to some.  Really I do.  I wasn't always a fan of patchouli myself.  But as a perfumer, one has to understand the importance of patchouli.  Patchouli is an excellent fixative.  Just a few drops of patchouli added to a perfume deepen and add richness.  Let us not forget that patchouli is a member of the mint family.  Just as a tiny amount of mint goes a very long way in a perfume so can patchouli.  Patchouli blends easily with other base notes and is an inexpensive extender.  Patchouli is indispensable to perfumery.  Yes, indispensable.  

While some may shy away from the aroma of patchouli straight up, they enjoy perfumes with small and even large amounts of patchouli.  List patchouli as one of the perfume notes and the reaction is alarm.  Veiled patchouli disclosure is imperative.  This reminds me of my childhood dinners and my little brother, the picky eater.  Growing up my brother professed a hatred for a number of foods.  I remember my mother brandishing a fork speared with a brussel sprout imploring, "Try it!  Just try it.  You'll like it."  Eventually my mother discovered that if she covered the brussel sprouts with a cheese sauce my picky little brother would eat his veggies.  As the years progressed, my mother learned to disguise the foods my brother refused to eat.  Neatly tucking these reviled greens into stews or purees.  My brother happily ate his dinner never realizing he was eating his dreaded sprouts.




As a perfumer, my patchouli blues stem from the stigma that patchouli possesses and the general populace's reluctance to try patchouli.  Hear Ye, Hear Ye: Not all patchouli smells the same.  There's iron free patchouli, light patchouli, dark patchouli, old patchouli, new patchouli and they posses characteristics that differentiate their aroma and the way they present in a perfume.

Patchouli improves in quality and value as it ages, becoming smoother, and richer almost like single malt scotch.  Aged patchouli is mellow, with a round hint of fruitiness that works wonderfully in all styles of perfume.  Patchouli CO2 is lighter and fresher than the essential oil, and possesses a more fleeting top note quality.  Patchouli absolute is less complex than the essential oil and linear in my opinion, easy to tuck into a perfume undetected.  My preference is for aged patchouli, but all distillations are useful in perfumery.  In the words of the perfumer Alec Lawless in his book Artisan Perfumery or Being Led By The Nose, [Patchouli is . . ] "Absolutely one of the most useful of all essential oils in perfumery.  Goes with everything, including people who don't like it."



Try these harmonious patchouli combinations!

aged patchouli + oud = deep velvet wine base

patchouli CO2 + sandalwood = light, warm wood

patchouli + saffron abs. = leather love

patchouli + rose abs. = a synergistic pairing. The rose amplifies the patchouli, the patchouli amplifies the rose.

aged patchouli + honey abs. = musky, sexy & warm

patchouli + tonka + lavender + oakmoss = deep forest foùgere.

patchouli + jasmine grandiflorum + ylang ylang = classic Aveda

patchouli + raspberry compound + bergamot = fresh raspberry plant


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There is another combo of note: Patchouli + Sandalwood + Vetiver= Pure Heaven
NIce post, Charna. Yes Patchouli really is an infamous and polarizing scent. I find Vetiver is close behind.
I loved your list of Patchouli parings. I’m going home later and trying them out!

Brian Shea

Thank you for sharing your Patchouli Blues — I love listing patchouli after someone tells me they have a bad scent-memory of nasty stuff from college. And I can’t wait to try the patchouli and saffron.

monique herzig

Nice Charna! I love patchouli and saffron!

Elise P

I always love reading your posts, Charna! As a natural perfumery enthusiast and dabbling amateur perfumer with an almost-embarrassingly large collection of EOs, absolutes, CO2s, and resins, I’m always forcing myself to re-learn scents that I had previously pigeonholed. I often read your posts to my husband, who has been a patient and curious onlooker during my years of studying and mixing and cursing and exulting, and they always make him smile, too! Please keep sharing—if I didn’t live on the opposite coast, I’d be in your classes in a heartbeat! <3


Love how you describe things.


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