Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood Attars

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Rain in the Desert Copyright Elise Pearlstine

 

There is an ancient method of capturing delicate floral essences and the product is an attar. The making of an attar uses the essential oil of sandalwood to receive the distilled fragrances and support them over its rich and woody note. Used as perfumes, these attars may be as simple as a single flower essence distilled into sandalwood oil or it may be a secret and proprietary blend of flowers, spices, roots, and woods. While many attars possess a complexity and richness that makes them quite assertive, some of the floral attars are wonderfully delicate and balanced.

Attars are made according to strict tradition with the knowledge of distillation often passing down through family lines as are the secrets of the formulation. The area of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, India is known as the Grasse of India and is home to many traditional distillers and perfumers. This is also where they make mitti attar, a blend of baked sacred earth and sandalwood that, to many, smells of rain.

Attars are made with the Deg and Bhapka system of distillation. There is a copper cauldron called the ‘deg’ that holds the material to be distilled and a ‘bhapka’ which is the receiver. The receiver has a long narrow neck and is connected to the ‘deg’ by a bamboo pipe. The setup is sealed tight and the heat and length of the distillation is controlled carefully by skilled workers. Once distillation is finished, the resulting attar is sealed in a leather bag. The leather bag is important because it allows any water in the attar to evaporate, leaving behind only the pure fragrant oil. For more information visit the blog from White Lotus Aromatics here: http://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/newsletters/visit_to_kannauj_4_production_of_traditional_attars and here: http://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/newsletters/hina

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Traditional Distillation of Attars. Credit White Lotus Aromatics

Attars (also called Ittars) are traditionally sold in very small amounts, often in cut crystal bottles. They were common gifts given to guests in the Eastern world. When used as perfumes, they tend to be oil based and quite strong. The fine scents of attars were also thought to discourage evil spirits and assist in the journey towards enlightenment.

Before I talk about floral attars, a quick word about Mitti Attar in which the sacred earth of the Kannauj area is dried and distilled onto sandalwood. This sacred attar mimics the fragrance of the first rains of the monsoon season hitting the dry, baked earth and is the essence of rain and renewal.

The fragrance of mitti attar is indeed one of rich sweet soil released, not into the air as with a rainstorm, but into the woody essence of sandalwood. The two are a perfect pairing as the sandalwood supports the sweetness of fertile soil and gives it the elegance of perfume. As I write this I am in spending time in the deserts of the southwestern United States – southern Utah to be exact – where rain is also a much anticipated blessing. I am lucky to be here during a soft, steady rainfall. The smell of rain here is less rich but carries with it the sharp freshness of sage and creosote with an undertone of woody resins. Although the rain is gone, the little bit of mitti attar I have on my hand gives me the blessing of rain throughout the day.

There is a lovely story about finding the source of Mitti Attar found here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/making-perfume-from-the-rain/391011/

There is so much variation in composition of attars that I decided to focus on single note examples.

Champa attar: Michelia champaca

A really nice champa extract has a very floral sweetness but also a definite hint of green and fresh. This attar captures the exact pretty green floral. Although the initial fragrance is slightly sharp, it moves to a sweet powdery floral layered over the sandalwood musk. It becomes a very nice light floral with light touches of green, spice and freshness.

rose700 pxGulab attar: Rosa damascena

The perfect marriage – roses and sandalwood. This is where the beauty of the attar becomes apparent to me. The charismatic and ethereal beauty of rose remains true, not changed so much as enriched and deepened.

Mehndi attar: Lawsonia inermis

This is from the flowers of the henna tree and may also be called Hina Attar. The fragrance is slightly nutty but also with a definite musk. Becoming slightly sweeter as it ages on the scent strip it maintains just a bit of fresh musk scent. I have found that henna flowers exhibit this dichotomy of sweetness, most apparent from a distance, and a definite muskiness as you get closer.

jasmine grand duke 700 pxMotia Attar: Jasmine sambac

Jasmine sambac provides a lovely green and stemmy floral over the sandalwood. There is a bit of natural muskiness appearing along with a strong sandalwood. I also have a sample that is a jasmine musk attar including ambette seed. In this one the floral/musk/sandalwood is very nicely balanced and evolves to a nice jasmine musk.

Khus attar: Vetiveria zizanoides

As a huge fan of both vetiver and sandalwood, I was entranced with this attar. The vetiver notes were lovely, being grassy and green with just a hint of what I call the “oat” note. The fragrance remains fresh and maintains the true essence of vetiver.

Kewra attar: Pandanus odoratissimus

Pandanus or Kewra is a very strong, rooty essential oil that can add a musky strength to a blend but very easily overpowers as well. This one I saved until last and my notes simply say ‘as expected.’ If you know pandanus and you know sandalwood, it is what it is.

Distillation photo from http://www.whitelotusblog.com/2010_07_01_archive.html

3 thoughts on “Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood Attars

  1. Daria Schneidman

    I have been searching for a reliable source for hina attar, which I used to buy when i was in India. I have purchased what is sold as hina attar from a number of sources (mostly in India) via the internet, and not one of them is close to acceptable! Can you recommend a reliable source for an excellent quality hina and majmua? I would be very grateful! Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Brian

    Hi Elise,
    I wonder, have you ever experienced the vetiver-based attars that White Lotus used to carry? I had samples of the gardenia, frangipani, and white ginger. He had champa, jasmine(both sambac and grandiflorum I believe) and I think rose. I didn’t try those, but I loved the white ginger so much I bought a half ounce of it, not only do I wish I would have gotten more, but I wish I would have gotten some more of the frangipani and gardenia too, because they don’t carry any of them any more. I recently started to appreciate the frangipani more and more-there is a defininte peachiness to it. The white ginger is incredible with ylang ylang;’Muy Tropical!” 😀

    Reply
    1. Elise Post author

      Thanks for your comment Brian, I love your explorations of new ingredients! I have not tried many of the vetiver attars but the white ginger sounds lovely!

      Reply

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