Back in November, the day after I posted something about the Aroma Box collaboration between The Macallan single malt scotch and British perfumer Roja Dove, I went to a Scottish-themed event at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Strolling around the men’s floor amid men in plaid pants and Harris Tweed, I sipped a glass of The Macallan’s 18-year-old sherry oak-aged single malt, a rich dark amber whisky that tasted sweet with a hint of smoke, silky and almost cognac-like.
I hunted down the public relations crew for The Macallan and asked about the Aroma Box, explaining that it was the perfect subject for my blog, Cocktails & Cologne: what more explicit connection between spirits and fine fragrances could there be?
It would be more than two months before I sat down with The Macallan’s brand ambassador, Charlie Whitfield, and saw the Aroma Box, but the wait was worth it. We met at the Flatiron District offices of Edrington, the privately held Scottish spirits company that owns The Macallan, Highland Park, Famous Grouse, and Cutty Sark, along with the Dominican run brand Brugal.
Whitfield is a youthful looking and impeccably groomed Scot whose smooth accent (like Glenrothes brand ambassador Ronnie Cox), sounds more English than Scottish. He’s an articulate salesman who carries props in his pockets for demonstrations and large-scale, lavishly produced public tastings, which he does all over the country. He’s a confident but down-to-earth showman; he likes to tell the story of his engagement to his wife (it involves The Macallan, of course), but it doesn’t seem exploitative.
The Aroma Box is a large unvarnished oak case with three sets of flacons of pure aroma oil, undiluted by alcohol. The oils are not single notes, but blends mixed to invoke aspects of whisky. Whitfield couldn’t tell us what those blends contained—they’re a secret only Roja Dove knows.
Dove is well known to fragrance aficionados, but he may not be familiar name to spirits connoisseurs, particularly outside Dove’s native U.K. He started his perfume career at the legendary French perfume house Guerlain (which may be best known for Shalimar) and eventually left to start his own company. The Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie opened in 2004, and he now sells his fragrances in Harrods in London and in boutiques in other major European cities. There are rumors that he may open a New York store, or at least begin selling his fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman. He makes scents for both men and women, and they are very expensive. A 100ml bottle of his Scandal Pour Homme, a masculine fougere, retails for about $270. Dove is also the author of a coffee table book called The Essence of Perfume.
The only clue as to the ingredients of the Aroma Box’s oils was a mention of Rose de Mai from Grasse, France and Vanilla Bourbon from Madagascar—but it seemed as though they were only invoked to establish the excellence of the ingredients and the connection to traditional perfumery. That said, I definitely detected both vanilla and rose in the oil blends once the presentation began.
Like a fine wine, the nose of a good scotch whisky is complex and difficult to deconstruct for many of us. The Aroma Box goes beyond what a typical guided tasting or class can do: Roja Dove, himself a whisky novice at the beginning of his relationship with The Macallan, has deconstructed the elements that comprise the nose of scotch in general (the first six oils in the Box) and two Macallan single malts in specific.
We smelled each oil on a paper perfume test strip. The first was intensely woody, like an unvarnished oak chest or a cigar humidor. The next scent, much lighter, was sharp and at first full of black pepper and spice. Depending on how you look at it, these two could represent the contrast between aged and unaged whiskies or the effect of the oak vs. the personality of the spirit. In each of the next two pairs, one represented age, depth, and wood and the other youthfulness, vibrancy, fruit and spice.
The third strip, another heavy one, smelled dry, earthy, even musty. It reminded me a little of a Pu-Erh tea, which is a dark Chinese tea that’s dry aged. There was a slightly smoky note, and an underlying oak note. The fifth strip smelled like a strong vanilla to me, and then almond. It was the almond note that lingered, again, with oak undertones. Whitfield nodded his head, smiling when I said this. “Smooth, polished,” he said. “Like the smooth, rounded style of aged, mellow whisky.”
The next two sets each demonstrated three aspects of a fine Macallan scotch: the Sherry Oak series and the Fine Oak series. I’ll focus on the Sherry Oak — it’s my favorite of the two.
The Sherry Oak 18 (a bottle of which was generously given to me after the demonstration), is aged in casks made from Spanish oak first seasoned for a few months with immature mosto wine and then filled with dry Oloroso sherry for 18 months before being sent to Macallan.
The first of the three strips doused with the oil for the Sherry Oak series smelled spicy, like cinnamon, brown sugar and oak. When I smelled the next one, I immediately thought of Coca Cola, with dried fruit notes—maybe fig and orange. Upon a second sniff, I detected some floral notes as well. The last in this series smelled like a sweet, fresh orange. Whitfield called it a chocolate orange. We were instructed to put the three strips of paper in a wine glass to let the aromas concentrate and mingle.
Then Whitfield had me smell a glass of Macallan Sherry Oak 18. After the three strips, sniffing an actual glass of scotch was a revelation: each element came out, so that in all the complexity in the glass, we could effortlessly pick out the oak, the fruit, and the spices. As Whitfield promised, this was whisky deconstructed.
And then we went back to the glass with the strips in it. Removing the strips, we smelled the concentrated oil aromas. It smelled impressively close to the actual glass of scotch.
As an editorial demonstration, the Aroma Box is an excellent tool. It not only forces us to slow down and focus on the nose of the whisky, it also takes apart a bouquet that’s notoriously complex. Some of us may scoff at critics who describe wines and spirits in florid language and ridiculously specific comparisons, but when it comes down to it, some whiskies really do smell (and taste) like very specific things—brown sugar, baking spices, tobacco, leather, oranges, lemons. Once we begin to identify these notes, we have a greater appreciation for what we’re drinking and a better vocabulary to describe it.
Whitfield assured me that there would be more to come with The Macallan and Roja Dove, but I’d like to see that relationship made explicit: why not make a scotch-inspired cologne? None of the oils we smelled were meant to be worn, but any of them could provide the basis for a fragrance. I’d also like to see a smaller, relatively affordable version of the box with the first six oils and a booklet to guide drinkers through them would be great for tastings at home and in liquor stores.