With the festive season upon us, so are festive scents. No matter where people position themselves on the Scrooge-o-meter, most of us have a favourite festive smell. Some may even find it difficult to choose just one. Maybe the smell of mulled wine kick-starts your festive cheer – or the smoky aroma of a crackling fire – but have you ever wondered what is behind these olfactive treats?
The Christmas tree is one of the most iconic symbols of the season. Putting up the Christmas tree fills any home with festive cheer; for those traditional enough to drag a real pine tree into their house, the smell of pine is an added pleasure.
The aroma that fills the room from a pine tree comes from the pine needles and the pine wood. The wood releases a resin which is rich in alpha and beta pinene and responsible for the characteristic smell. The odour of pine needles also contains pinenes and additionally l-bornyl acetate, plus a myriad of other aroma-molecules. There are many varieties of pine trees, and they have odours specific to their species. Why do pine trees smell? As you might expect, it’s not for our pleasure. The odours they produce repel parasites, so protect the tree. Additionally the odourous ingredients which seep into the soil are not liked by other plants, so act like a force-field, giving the pine tree space to grow.
Pine trees are of tremendous importance to the perfume business, too. Pine trees are a key source of wood pulp used in paper production and the process provides an important by-product, turpentine, which contains alpha and beta pinene. These pinenes are key starting materials for many other ingredients used in perfumes and other products, too.
Masquerading as houses, men, women – even snowflakes and stars – gingerbread has become a festive favourite. The only thing that can compete with the delicious taste of gingerbread is the delectable aroma released as it bakes. The key contributing ingredients to this sense tingling smell are ginger (obviously), cloves and cinnamon.
Ginger is the dried root of a herb. We say ‘root’ but officially it’s a rhizome, which is an underground stem. It’s grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions as it needs humid weather and both a hot dry season and a rainy season – China and India are the main producers of ginger. Once ginger is harvested it is dried to develop the characteristic odour and taste which comes from ‘gingerin’ a resin which is present between 1 and 3% depending on the age of the ginger root. When you cut a piece of root ginger it smells warm, spicy, almost fizzy and also slightly citrus – this citrus note comes from citral which is the characteristic smell of lemon. Gingerin contains many ingredients including various terpenes but gingerol is the molecule responsible for most of the recognisable characteristics of ginger. When ginger is dried or cooked, gingerol loses a water molecule producing shogaol and zingerone. Gingerol, shogaol and zingerone combine to form the recognisable smell of ginger.
Perfume is a popular Christmas present; carefully chosen scents, given with love and hope, unwrapped on Christmas morning and spritzed on excitedly. There are so many diverse perfumes and, without specific knowledge or a request, it can be tricky to buy perfume for others. An individual’s personal choice on something as intimate as perfume can be hard to predict – why is this?
There are 3 key areas we’re fascinated by:
Our unique sense of smell: our genes are responsible for our individual characteristics, including how we see, hear, taste and smell. In smell, there are estimated to be around 400 working receptor types in any one person. Each receptor type can be abundant or sparse and not every receptor type works in every person. We smell uniquely.
Our unique body odour: our unique body odour relates to our genes, our age, health, the food and drink we consume. When we choose a fragrance for ourself, there is a theory that we are drawn to fragrances which enhance our body odours. When we chose fragrances for family members or people we know well, we have a better chance of appreciating what perfumes they like.
Our unique experiences: our life hugely influences our perfume preferences. We start our relationship with smell before we’re born, inheriting some odour preferences from our parents through their genes, and are then exposed to odours of food in the womb. In our first years of life the aromas of our family, environment, food and drink set a tone of what’s normal, comforting, delicious, scary or alarming. As our experience broadens and we meet new people, places and cultures our odour preferences are modified. We can be influenced by associations and events and this can affect our perfume choices, even reversing them. The once loved aroma of a favourite scent associated with Mr or Ms X, can flip to become hated if the love turns sour.