A Baker’s Dozen of 2023 Wins from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab | Courtney Dowdall

I carry in my head a running list of my favorite Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab releases, just in case some innocent soul should ask me what scent I’m wearing. Out pours a story about perfume oil, synesthesia, socially-conscious consumption, and fandom, and you can either pull up a chair or slowly back away. Like the High Fidelity of perfume oils, I maintain a mental catalog of scents ranked by category: favorite peach blend, best scent for a big boss mood, scents to wear at a music festival… It’s an obsession I cannot contain, ever present from the minute I roll out of bed (time for some citrus! or maybe peppermint?) to my last conscious moments (lavender for calm or fur musk for cozy?), with dabs of self-expression throughout the day.

Given a platform to put it in writing, I will happily document one of these lists to share. Here are my favorites from 2023, at no behest or even knowledge of the fine folks at BPAL, with big hits in the fruity, red musk, incense, and green categories. If any of those notes tickle your olfactory fancy, these picks might be right up your alley!

1. Choke Me 

Salty tears streaming down cherry red cheeks

Cherry is a tough note to pull off, veering so easily into Robitussin territory. Gourmands are also tough for me personally to pull off, as the faintest whiff of synthetic, plastic, or otherwise contrived deliciousness is an absolute deal-breaker. From the Raunchy Hearts series last Valentine’s Day, this delight accomplished both difficult tasks with a realistic, tart cherry saltwater taffy. It’s light and airy, close to the skin, with a hint of salt, like fun in the summertime. 

2. Femdom 

An eagerly-anticipated whip crack of wild plum, champagne, and blackcurrant

Also from the Raunchy Hearts series, this was a surprise for me, well outside my usual range of scents. As a result, it fills a niche unlike most anything else in my collection, and I reach for it when I want a more confident and mysterious edge. More on the cologne end of the spectrum, it first comes across my nose as piney, with the leather whip reading as aromatic and dry, and develops a softer, effervescent, fruity floral side. It reminds me a lot of Berlin Girls, the Century Guild exclusive, and the artwork inspiring the latter suggests they are meant to cast a similar vibe. 

3. Heartshow 

Cherrywood, red amber, and red musk with a smidge of vein-blue cotton candy

I adore a sweet red musk, and this starlet is exemplary. It leans on the blue raspberry in the cotton candy, with a cloud of tart, tangy sugar. Beneath it, the red musk is dazzlingly spicy, deepened and darkened with the cherrywood, combining to an effect like the Lab’s dragon’s blood note. It’s not a shy blend, but the fluffy candy keeps it from being too serious or intimidating, so it’s broadly wearable. Developed as an event exclusive release, proceeds from Heartshow sales are donated to Lutheran Settlement House in the Lab’s new home of Philadelphia, PA.

4. How to Write the Beat of Love 

pulsating red musk, red mango, labdanum, black honey, black gardenia, Indonesian patchouli, and champaca blossom

When Heartshow was inaccessible to those who missed it at the Jinxed Heart Show event in February, I recommended this scent as a stand-in. Released just a couple weeks later, this blend shares the fruity/musky base but veers more floral than edible. It’s rich and delicious, playful in a more suggestive sense than Heartshow. Both are musts for red musk fans. 

5. Lines to a Nasturtium (A Lover Muses)

golden amber, warm nutmeg, cardamom pod, tolu balsam, sweet patchouli, vanilla absolute, wildflower honey, lovage root, and cacao

From this year’s Triumph in My Song releases, this was made for cardamom lovers. The nutmeg, cardamom, and patchouli are dry and spicy, while the lovage and balsam give this a green sapling feel. Add honey for a maple-like sweetness that reminds me of an amped up Impromptu Goat Yoga, and a layer of amber glows up the whole thing. The botanical sweetness feels like an edible plant you’d encounter in the yard, more intense and vegetal than honeysuckle, like a spicy-sweet version of those little clover pickles from my childhood. I’ll now be planting nasturtium in my yard this year to give the real deal a taste! 

6. Sirène Médiévale

Rolling hills of green grass squished by kelp, seaspray, orris root, white jasmine, coconut, white sandalwood, and cucumber.

The tropical and green combination here made this my favorite scent of the summer. The notes read like something akin to The Last Unicorn, one of my summertime go-tos for its breezy sweetness, and this did not disappoint. Where the latter has a wild lettuce note, this has cucumber, kelp, and seaspray for the fresh effect, pitching initially as an aquatic, softened by heady floral notes to a cool, sweet green. The label art is a bonus. 

7. Coffee Bean, Jasmine Sambac, and Vanilla

This is a green coffee bean, not roasted. This gorgeous trio starts out like freshly cut, dewy stems with the suggestion of something hypersweet lurking below. It ends up a pleasantly sharp, lusty floral, reminiscent of the damp blooms of Coral Bean & Louisiana Phlox, which I love for summer evenings. Ultimately, this is a unique scent among my collection and works in a lot of situations. I frequently wore this to the office over the summer. 

8. Bringer of Evil 

A foreboding tremble of poppy leaf, cerulean musk, violet grapefruit, mimosa, orris butter, and benzoin

Violet grapefruit? What in the heck? I love grapefruit, also violet if it’s really sweet, but I’ve never seen them brought together like this. Well, let’s have some more, because this blend was my favorite of all the Halloween collection I tried. I’m not sure what causes it to start so harsh, like acetone or polyurethane leather, but it quickly morphs to a velvety soft citrus, with the grapefruit sticking around longer than usual. Immediate need. 

9. The Harvest Haunt

A thick, viscous blackened pumpkin incense

I don’t usually reach for incense blends, pumpkin neither. I was gifted a sniff of this one and surprised myself how much I loved it. The beginning is rich, buttery sweet, nutty caramel, with none of the plastic that often foils me in gourmands. Upon settling, a dark, scratchy, black musk element develops that makes this feel like a tweed jacket in the sun before a barn dance with fresh kettle corn hanging in the air. The waft is lovely and lasts for hours. 

10. Hard Candy bath oil 

Release your cares into a warm, soothing bath of liquefied hard candies

Any time my husband says, “You smell like candy!” I consider it a win. This time it was red Life Savers, to be specific. I embraced this as a post-swim moisturizer that successfully covers any lingering chlorine smell and transfers a trace to my clothing. Another victory for cherry flavor scent this year!

11. Dream Skin 

The remnants of a dream laying softly on your skin: somnambulant lavender and orchid incense suffused with red labdanum, champaca orchid, patchouli root, champignon, Italian bergamot, and white oakmoss.

I was so sad to learn there would be no releases in the Lilith series this year, as they tend to lean on the playful, experimental, and emotional side, with lots of lavender and other soothing, reassuring scents. This collaboration with Blood Milk was released at about the same time as Liliths would have, and I was delighted to find it’s like two of my favorite Liliths blended beautifully into one—bold, dry sandalwood of Solved Mysteries plus bracing lavender of Urban Undine. The orchid incense smooths it all over to a chill, calm scent I wear happily to work and to sleep. 

12. Dragon Bell Z 

dragon’s blood and frankincense resins, sugared violets, blackberry pulp, and blackcurrant

It’s a new agey head shop! This event exclusive release for Dragon Con does exactly what it claims to do. Juicy blackberries combine with sharply sweet violets in a potent, ceremonious frankincense to create a plum-colored aura. It ends like a smoky version of Limitations. Big, gorgeous win. 

13. Batty Hunger

Black narcissus, orange blossoms, vanilla bourbon, red leather, and red musk

Another successful leather note for me came at the end of the year as part of the Bats in the Belfry collection among Halloween releases. In BPAL parlance, ‘bat’-related notes typically indicate leather and fur vibes. Fur works well for me. Leather does not. But Hunger from the General Collection is absolutely my jam, the older and stickier, the better. This reads like a creamier version of a treasured, well-aged imp of Hunger that I’ve been hanging onto for years. The orange blossom is richer thanks to the vanilla bourbon and made heavier by the red aspects. It’s like I fast-forwarded my Hunger bottle to peak aged perfection. 


Gingerbread Milk

Gingerbread Milk – warm and frothy~

I haven’t tried all my end-of-year scents, but I can confidently say that this one is a standout. From this winter’s Gingerbread Cotillion series, this is a dead ringer for those gingersnaps in the brown paper bag, caramelized sugar and baked ginger, dripping with milk, but it takes more than a dunk to soften this snap. So delectable I want to eat my own arm. Bakery scents almost never pan out for me, but this one nailed it. | Courtney Dowdall

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