Hendley Perfumes Bourbon, 2015

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Perfumer Hans Hendley

We’re approaching a bubble. Or we’re already in one—bubbles are notoriously identified after the fact. The Perfume Bubble has all the features of previous speculative bubbles, from the Dutch Tulip Crisis in the 17th century to the Housing Market Crash of 2008. It even follows the five stages:

1) Displacement, or New Paradigm. (Independent Perfumery)
2) Boom. (Groovy Early Niche and the Celebrity Perfumer)
3) Euphoria. (The Rise of Luxury Perfumery)
4) Profit taking. (The Whores are at the Gate)
5) Panic. (You Can Smell the Fear)

Look around you. Grossly inflated prices, escalating new releases, more new luxo-lines than you can shake a stick at. When the bubble bursts who among us will be saved? Economically, the most adaptable survive, and while large companies might have deeper pockets, my money is on the small indies surviving. Scalability is key to living past a bubble and artisanal perfumers, whose scale is the single perfumer, might stand a better chance than others.

So how did we reach stage 4.5 so fast? The seeds were planted early in independent perfumery, where new perfume brands responded to the perceived poor condition of the state of the perfume market. They focussed on quality, favoring novelty over reiterating traditional forms. It makes sense that the perfumes that drove creativity at this time were the oddballs, the beautiful freaks. Professionally-trained perfumers who chafed at the limits of their days jobs were free to test new ideas in the new niche houses. Fairly quickly the old guard learned the lessons from the indies and threw a lot of money at new, pricier alt-niche lines, often hiring the same perfumers. Ellena reinvented Hermès. Roger invented Roja. Chanel created les Exclusifs. Guerlain, launched the new blah-blah line. Dior, likewise. Tom Ford, ditto. Less experimentation, more lavish olfactory symbolism.

Artisanal perfumery signals a return to fundamentals, though I don’t mean to imply that it is either reactionary or prosaic. No single impulse drives independent perfumery. Small-scale work is an alternative to the noisy world of commercial perfumery, not protest against it. As for why artisanal work takes the shape it does, after early-niche experimentation played the ‘unconventional’ card, outrageousness started to seem easy. The high-end commercial lines went the other direction, filling surprisingly uninventive compositions with oud, molecular derivations of rare botanicals, and horseshit. If there is a goldilocks center to be found, artisanal perfumery might point the way.

Hendley is trained in photography. One risk of crossover work is that technical training in one form won’t translate to another. Despite a strong conceptual framework, will the artist’s ‘new’ form have an amateur appearance on a technical level compared to the form that he was trained in? Compared to the professionally trained perfumer?

In Hendley’s case, creativity translates, though not literally. I’m new to the line, having tried only four of the perfumes recently: Rosenthal, Amora, Jade and Bourbon. I don’t know Hendley’s photography, but his perfumes are clearly not simply an extension of visual work—they don’t translate photography to scent. They do offer a coherent approach and well-finished, well-edited perfumes. Of the four, three explore a resinous range of tones without too much overlap. Amora is fruity-resinous, Rosenthal is a balsamic rose and Bourbon explores vanilla. The fourth, Jade, offers a new angle on the maligned “fresh” category. It has a buoyant, aromatic quality without leaning on citrus and herbs or the dreaded ozonic and aquatic notes.

Why turn to the artisanal artist for a new take on a known idea? The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. I’m not usually drawn to vanilla-centric perfumes. Vanilla brings out my conservative tendencies, I suppose, and Jicky and Shalimar cover my vanilla needs. But Bourbon is the vanilla I never knew I needed. It’s is more than just a simple vanilla perfume and the furthest thing from the ditzy stereotype of the nom-nom vanilla. It avoids the traps of gourmanderie and humdrum orientals, and, like Hendley’s Rosenthal, finds plenty of new twists in a well-worn trope.

The single word bourbon tells you about the two sides of the perfume. Vanilla from Réunion (formerly Isle de Bourbon) and Bourbon whiskey find common cause in wood. Unsweetened vanilla has smoky and woody facets and whisky is a reflection of the charred cask in which it ages. Bourbon (the perfume) smells like a sip of whiskey or brandy feels–potent and invigorating. Smooth and rough at the same time.

The perfume makes great use of its extrait concentration. It strides out of the bottle and covers a lot of ground very quickly. It has moderate throw, but if you’re within range, it is deadly handsome. The opening is djinn-in-the-bottle alluring and the tweedy drydown still manages to growl 12 hours down the road. It doesn’t coast into coziness as vanilla perfumes can. The liquor gives it a speakeasy quality and the drydown speaks in shady Lauren Bacall tones.

The early indies responded to a market of dull, unsatisfying perfumes by taking unconventional approaches. The current luxe market again offers uninteresting perfumes, now at stratospheric prices. Crossover perfumers still can and do question convention (Cognoscenti Warm Carrot, Cadavre Exquis) but Hendley’s Bourbon doesn’t shock. Its inventiveness is in the half turns and subtle juxtapositions that undercut expectation of a well known note/material.


(Image, 18th Ammendment repeal poster)

Sample provided with a purchase from Hendley Perfumes.

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  1. islandjavaguy says:

    I’ve been so shocked at some of the perfume prices showing up these days, from “Wow! That’s really expensive!” to “Are you fucking KIDDING me???” ridiculous. It has certainly changed the way I purchase full bottles when I actually do these days. I’m wondering if these exorbitant prices set by marketing geniuses, and the companies that are flooding the market with them, are hoping the 1% can sustain their business? Pretty sure I know the answer to that.

    So glad you are discovering Hans Hendley’s work, love his range! And very excited that Bourbon is back in stock! Time to order…. -Robert H.

    1. jtd says:

      Hi, Robert. Just came back from ScentBar where I witnessed the ‘expensive to fucking-kidding-me’ range you describe. Some bright spots, though. I bought Hiram Green’s new one in an 11 ml bottle and the new ELDO–still $85/50 ml.

      Yeah, I’m really happy to have found Hedley’s line. Will be smelling some more soon.

  2. Ines says:

    I’ve been thinking more and more about what you said of the bubble bursting. When I fell in love with perfumes and discovered niche, it was relatively easy to keep track of happenings and perfume houses. And the prices were relatively okay. At some point I lost all interest in new releases (even by the houses I adored) because it was all too much. Too many perfumes for way too exorbitant prices. I’m in a phase now where I buy a bottle (possibly two) a year and not an expensive one. My new acquisitions need to to fill several criteria for me to decide to buy them. (or I ran out of a favorite but that doesn’t happen often)
    It occurred to me the other day that I really love perfumes but the industry has killed all my enthusiasm for them.

    1. jtd says:

      Ines, geez, do I hear you. Independent perfumery had to grow and unfortunately the sense of community that it initially fostered has faded. I suppose that it’s a necessary function of the expansion of the market, but the increase in prices leaves many behind. It’s tough on many, including the perfumers who might prefer simple marketing/packaging and lower prices but need to stay current in order to survive. As you mention, it’s also a challenge to keep up to date. I don’t follow new releases per se, but do follow certain lines, perfumers and trends. I’m fortunate enough to plugged into a smart group of fumies, perfumers and writers with whom I maintain an ongoing discussion. They help me to navigate the frenzy of new releases.

      I’m encouraged by a lot of the work happening on a small scale–the artisan work. Sometimes I cringe at that word, because it’s already been colonized and maimed a good bit both by the mainstream (see John Varvatos perfumes) and by the wannabes who use the term as a shield to cover their lack of craft.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. What you’re talking about is a very important consideration for all of us who value the-art-formerly-known-as-niche. I hope your annual bottle this year was a good one!

      1. Ines says:

        It’s funny you mentioned a group of fumies. I have that too although we see each other twice a year nowadays (everyone is busy). One of them introduced me to Narcisso Poudree and I fell hard. :-D It’s been a long time since I liked a perfume so much. And one with synthetic musks on top of that! I usually can’t stand that as it kills every other smell once it gets into my nose.

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