Friday, May 14, 2021

Don't be afraid of alcohol

There's very little you need to know and the right alcohol is available

Regardless of your approach to perfumery you are probably quite aware of alcohol but when it comes to buying, using, or selecting alcohol or an alcohol substitute for your perfume you might feel a bit lost. You're not alone.

The first time I had a perfume made for me – this was before I began formulating my own oils – the vendor supplied it ready to bottle. The alcohol had already been added. There were no questions about alcohol for me to answer. The next perfume oil I had made for our company was simply purchased by the pound, without alcohol. I had to find a filling house to add the alcohol. Here my education began. I was what alcohol I wanted and I didn't have a clue. They helped me.

If you are interested in how commercial perfumes are made you will quickly or not so quickly discover that most commercial fragrances made in the U.S. use alcohol tagged "SD" or "SDA" indicating that the alcohol has been "specially denatured" and therefore not subject to the tax collected on the alcohol content of alcoholic drinks. Thus the big issue is not the quality of the alcohol or its scent or lack of scent but the rate at which it is taxed.

The U.S. allows alcohol to be denatured according to a number of formulas. Today alcohol denatured by formula SDA 40B is a common choice for perfumery.

SDA 40B is pure ethanol with a very small amount of a denaturant added, one which has minimal effect on its odor. In the U.S. you can purchase up to 5 gallons of denatured alcohol a year without a permit. If you require more you can either apply for a permit or take your project to a filling house with a permit that can supply you with all the alcohol you need.

If you are a beginner in selecting alcohol, SDA 40B is the favored choice. You'll find sources here. As you become more experienced you may want to try alternatives but if you never use anything but SDA 40B ethanol you won't go wrong.


The other question asked when purchasing alcohol is the "proof" you desire. 200 proof is pure ethanol. 190 proof alcohol is 95 percent ethanol and 5 percent water. 170 proof alcohol is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent water. The use of 200 proof alcohol is rare. Having some amount of water in the alcohol is believed to make the fragrance better. There is no complete agreement as to WHY water makes the perfume better. A number of theories are presented but there is no definite answer (in spite of what you may read!) Do your own experiments and go by your own results.


Today "perfumers alcohol" is more available than it was ten years ago. Not only are there, in the U.S. and U.K., a number of sources that will ship small quantities, also available varieties beyond SDA 40B. This means that the "hobbiest" – or small, independent perfumer – need not look to vodka, Everclear or one of the non-alcoholic solvents in order to make perfume.

How Alcohol Is Made

Typically the alcohol used in perfumery is distilled from a grain such as corn. Alcohol can be distilled from a variety of other plants such as grapes or potatoes. While, chemically speaking, ethanol is ethanol, it is said that a sensitive nose can, by smell, distinguish the source of any particular alcohol. If you are interested in the fine points of alcohol used for perfumery, you might read this article from Culinary Solvent (The Northern Maine Distilling Company), one of the current sources of perfumers alcohol.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

How many ingredients does it take to make a "real" perfume?

When Shakespeare wrote sonnets did he stop too soon? Would a few extra lines have made them better?

Today there are well over 2,000 ingredients available for perfume creation and the list continues to grow. Chemists develop new odors by rearranging molecules. Biologists plunk unfamiliar plants from remote jungles and plains. These allow the perfumer to create scents that are not easily knocked off by the competition. Cosmetic chemists use these ingredients to create wonderful face creams that could never before have existed. How many ingredients do you need to make a great new perfume? And do you really need new or rare ingredients to wow people? Does greatness depend on the use of exotic, never used before ingredients – or does it depend on the skill and artistry of the perfumer? Consider a sonnet.

A sonnet is a poem exactly 14 lines in length. It has a rhyming pattern which can be one of a number of possibilities. But it is always 14 lines in length. No fudging to allow 13 or 15 lines. No free verse. Just 14 lines with a fixed rhyming pattern and yet amazing poems are written within this arbitrary 14 line structure.

Consider your own work with perfume. Is your aim to be the great innovator who will be the first to discover and use some new exotic ingredient? Or are you the artist who can pull amazing rabbits out of a limited inventory hat?

It's always exciting to work with new scents that you've never used before, if only to see what you can do with them. But it may be a greater challenge to look at your current inventory of scent materials and ask yourself what you can do with them, without adding anything you've never used before. However limited your supply of aroma materials may be -- perhaps only a dozen or so scents -- this handful of materials can offer infinite possibilities in your selection of what you put in and what to leave out, how to balance the strength of "A" against the strength of "B" to give a pleasing effect, how to decorate a theme without killing its focus. A lot can be done with a little and, being forced to create within a fixed template is the same test the sonnet writer is up against. Constrained by fixed limitations, all will all depend on your skill and your imagination -- not the number of ingredients you use and certainly not the use of special new ingredients. You'll be working with just your imagination and your skill with the materials you have at hand.

Try this approach and see what miracles you are led to create!