[Editor’s note: When I put out the call for lists defining the best of 2021, I encouraged our writers to write about anything they were passionate about. Since it’s a little outside of our site’s normal purview to talk about perfume or highlight a single company’s products, I just want to state for the record that this is not sponsored content—The Arts STL is, as it has been since its inception, 100% ad-free. She just really loves the stuff and wants you to know about it! –Jason Green, Editor-in-Chief]
I have been a fan of boutique perfumer Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (BPAL) for years, but life-in-the-time-of-Covid really amped up their value in my life. They are artists working in a medium of boutique perfume oils to convey times, places, moods, holidays, magical intentions, and legendary tales, in addition to their many tribute collections to others’ creations, ranging from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels, Fraggle Rock characters, sculptures around Edinburgh, and the film Only Lovers Left Alive. If you ever wondered what Jareth from Labyrinth might smell like, they have a good idea for you. Their perfume oils have been a perfect antidote to the cabin fever and wanderlust that resulted from lockdown and travel restrictions. They have enhanced my opportunities for personal expression and introduced me to new artists, authors, fairy tales, and historical figures, making my small Covid world so much bigger. I thought I’d celebrate a few of my favorite releases from 2021.
1. Buck Moon
an amplification of one’s natural musk coupled with forest herbs, pine pitch, smoky birch tar, cedar berries, dew-kissed juniper, amber moss, deer fur, a hint of clear, warm evening air and a crystalline spark of lunar oil
This is probably my favorite find of the year. It is special for sentimental reasons—we spent our anniversary at our favorite campsite, where the view of the full Buck Moon in the glow of the mist and dew was truly awe-inspiring. I grabbed this scent to remember that magic, and it happens to have a grassy sweetness that I just adore. Some folks describe it is as warm grain cereal (think Cream of Wheat), others describe it as Fruit Loops cereal. I call it calm, cozy, and heartwarming.
2. Asleep in the Deep
A lightless abyss of black plum, sea salt, opium tar accord, labdanum, and indigo benzoin
One of my absolute favorites of all time is this scent from the Anniversary release. It starts out a salty aquatic—the rich smell of kelp on the breeze late at night. Gradually, the most sophisticated, floral plum comes forward. Every time I wear this, I say to myself all day long, “Damn, I smell good.”
3. Kobold Barista
freshly brewed coffee with ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and cream.
This came from an expansion on the RPG series, keeping with changes made by the makers of Dungeons & Dragons to de-essentialize character races. The “reptilian humanoids that commonly infest dungeons” are no longer inherently evil. In this imagining, they whip up a mean chai latte, not too sweet, not too creamy, but plenty spicy—dry, freshly ground, just cracked spices. Cardamom and black pepper are standouts.
4. Still Life with Dooting Skull
Bourbon vanilla with wildflower honey, licorice root, coconut milk, and nutmeg
I love licorice. Of all sorts. Including those liquorice allsorts! This Halloween release conjures the most delicious and sassy licorice smell. It starts out smokey, and for all those sugary notes, it lands perfectly bitter and woody. The end result is cozy and slightly creamy spice rather than a candy.
5. Butterfly Dancer
Blush amber, red benzoin, rose sandalwood, sweet vetiver, and red oud.
My favorite of the Lupercalia releases, it’s perfectly coy—feigning innocent, but really wild beneath it all. It starts out pink, fruity, almost bubblegum-sweet on me, but it continues to develop a richness with just a little funk from the oud to suggest humidity in the air and lust below the surface.
6. The Hierophant and the Empress
Red and white roses, everblooming gardenia, violet leaf, Oman frankincense, styrax, honey myrtle, mallow flower.
This revival of the 2014 release keeps the same notes as the original. It starts out a grassy green violet and develops into a sweet floral. The final presentation is a sugary rose that lasts all day long. It’s a fun and lighthearted, very pink-feeling scent, with just the right amount of confidence.
7. Peach Brandy Snake Oil
No scent description
For their usually peach-centric Dragon Con offerings commemorating the Georgia-based event, BPAL added peach to their signature Snake Oil scent. Snake Oil on its own (deep, rich earthy notes swirled with vegetal musks, sugared vanilla bean, and dark spices) turns powdery on me, but the variants are some of my absolute favorite scents. I love peach notes and boozy notes, so, naturally I love this, too. Wet, it is a glowing peach with damp, vegetal freshness. As it develops, it turns more syrupy-sweet, candied and juicy. I would love for it to last a little longer, but the instant gratification is worth it.
8. The Unicorn
Frosty lilac petals, iris pallida root, orris, violet leaf, white chocolate, coconut, wild lettuce, white sandalwood, white gardenia and oakmoss.
This scent is a part of The Last Unicorn series, inspired by the classic book by Peter S. Beagle. The series was revived with a few small tweaks to some of the perfumes. The Unicorn starts with chocolate and coconut jumping out the bottle. These can be problematic for me, but they’re perfectly blended here. It quickly morphed into the loveliest sweet, green floral that makes me smile. The coconut is young—not toasty. Together with the lettuce, they give the florals a delicate, natural sweetness that is uplifting and encouraging.
9. Like the Very Gods
Shuddering, sweat-warmed skin gleaming with sheer musk, honeyed olive blossoms, vanilla cedar, white sandalwood, and orris butter.
This turned out to be a go-to for me in warmer weather. The musk and honey give it a rich sweetness, like a fruity dark brown sugar. The effect is simple and deep at the same time, making it perfect for lazy, languorous summer evenings. A little goes a long way.
10. Perilous Garden
A gloriously oleaginous orange perfume, slavering with bloated droplets of glowing white musk, oozing with tart neroli, blood orange rind, tuberose, and speckled with hairy little spikes of black pepper.
I made a good decision when I jumped in on this Century Guild Kickstarter. They are reviving and attributing to artists their illustrations that once accompanied stories published in early 20th century horror, sci-fi, and fantasy magazines. The results is a collection of high-resolution scans that include lithographs and woodcuts. Certain pledge levels include perfume oil developed by BPAL to accompany the book, and this scent accompanied Der Orchideengarten, considered to be the first fantasy magazine. The fragrance is wonderfully orangey, just like the giant space slug in the label artwork. It starts with the bitterness of an orange pith, green and dry. Eventually, the sweet floral notes develop, and I would swear it carries some orange blossom. It lingers as dry, delicate wood for hours. | Courtney Dowdall