Lilacs. Glorious, glorious lilacs. Thank you for existing!
The sweet smell of lilac is an unmistakeable harbinger of spring. For many, its definitive scent stirs up memories of those first days when you can really truly believe the warm weather is here…country drives, sunny patios, farmhouse visits. Lilacs on a kitchen table that perfume an entire room. We all know that simple, magical pleasure.
But it’s bloom is short-lived. How can we make it stay? The answer is enfleurage.
Lilac expresses its scent in a process known as enfleurage, a traditional french perfumery technique. What a beautiful word for an amazingly beautiful process. Beautiful word—but holy heck, a tedious and expensive process. Lilac expresses its scent through its flower’s sex organs. Those sexy organs are tiny perfume factories, pumping out the scent we know and love. But since its scent is not in the plant’s tissues like most wonderfully smelling plant matter (such as mint, whose scent is released when you crush it) lilac's scent is lost when crushed. If you were to steam-distill lilac, the high heat and steam would turn it into a pile of brown mush that smells like compost. Of the many ways the scent of plants can be preserved, enfleurage is best reserved for lilac.
The Process: Enfleurage involves laying each tiny lilac flower face down into fat, which absorbs the scent, then removing the flowers after a day…then doing the whole process again… 5-7 times. Over time, the fat becomes as heavenly scented as the lilacs the day they were clipped. Scented fat created through the enfleurage process is called a pomade. A pomade makes a lovely scented moisturizer on its own, and has for centuries been used to scent hair, and to keep coifs coiffed. Pomade is then scooped up and placed in pure ethyl alcohol. After three or more months of being placed in the alcohol, then…and ONLY then, do you have a Lilac Absolute. An absolute is the pure plant essence in a workable medium for perfumery. In the same way that essential oil is pure plant essence, an absolute is a pure plant essence, only it is not in the form of a volatile oil.
Lilacs: Much like the story of roses, the best lilacs are the ones whose genes haven’t been mucked about with too much. In the commercial gardening world, lilacs are prized for their colour variations over their scent. My favourite lilacs of all time have been found on abandoned farms so were presumably heirloom varieties. Just follow your nose though, if you like it, you like it, so use it!
The skinny on the fat: The fat that is traditionally used in French perfumery is a rendered cow or hog fat. This fat absorbs the most scent (through academic and empirical study). Ask me some day about the time I tried to DIY rendered fat. Yikes. Alternatives include, but are not limited to: cocoa butter, shea butter, mango butter or any other high fat content butter that has minimal scent (so preferably refined). So far, I like a refined coconut butter, but I’m still working out the kinks. Palm oil does work well and has a neutral scent, but then you must consider the orangutans.
Alcohol: Ethyl Alcohol is basically moonshine and is the best alcohol to use. It is also called ethanol, or grain alcohol and is a restricted substance by the LCBO not available for general sale. After a lengthy phone call, a letter, an email, and a visit to the head office of the LCBO, they allowed me to purchase Global Alcool 94% in bulk. This stuff is potent, but it is the most neutral scented pure grain alcohol. Don’t drink it, it’ll make yer eyes bleed! I had to convince them I was not a mad woman, despite not having convinced myself quite yet. I have seen other enfleurage recipes using rubbing alchohol, vodka, homemade moonshine, all which I would assume still work, but would have that first sharp topnote whiff of alcohol for sure. If I'm are going to sit for hours plucking lilacs hoping that it all works out, I might as well have the best materials possible! I’ll do more research to determine whether denatured perfumer’s alcohol is effective, since that is much easier to acquire.
Recharge: A recharge occurs when you strip the fat of all of yesterday’s flowers, marvel at them, then throw them back ouside, then you ‘recharge’ the fat with another layer of fresh lilac. The removal of the flowers is also called 'defleurage'. Think of it as a moving meditation. Or call over your pals and do it with wine (LILAC wine: https://thenorthwestforager.com/2015/05/12/lilac-wine-how-to-make/) while debating which cover of ‘Lilac Wine’ is best.
Women in France coat panes of glass, called chassis, with fat for floral infusion or 'enfleurage'. This process can be used for many plants including Jasmine, Lily of the Valley, Tuberose and more.
After all this, it’s easy to understand why Lilac was one of the first natural scents to be synthesised for perfumery. It is an incredibly time consuming process that requires expensive materials. But the real deal is amazing. It doesn't knock your socks off with its potency, but let me tell you, it is still something to marvel at. Just knowing that the lilacs I love… from a place I love are preserved using a natural process, it’s… it’s sublime? Amazing? Magical? Ethereal? There really isn’t an ultimate word, except for maybe 'nature'. The way nature intended it to be.
So now you know that the creation of a true lilac essence, known as an ‘absolute’ requires immense effort, time and materials. What do you think that a $5 drug store lilac-scented moisturizer is actually made of?