Storm scented notes, from the deserts of Western Australia to the Indian capital of perfume, Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh
I have awaited and dreaded the monsoon in equal measure. The joy of steaming chai with pakodas and a respite from summer’s heat. The frustration of soggy shoes, mouldy cupboards and lost umbrellas. How do you distil its essence? Try capturing its scent in a bottle.
Rain or water itself has no smell. The scent we associate with rain comes from different aroma-chemicals. The first is the scent before the rain, especially an impending thunderstorm. That zingy-pungent-clean scent is ozone, which comes from ozein, Greek for ‘to smell’. Think of it as the smell of calm before a storm.
Perhaps the best-known smell associated with the rains is petrichor. The term was coined in 1964 by Australian mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas. Bear and Thomas set out to investigate a scent till then known as argillaceous odour, referring to the smell of clay, soil, rocks and vegetation during rainfall.
A key part of the scent came from a yellowish oil which had been absorbed from the atmosphere by mineral rocks exposed to dry air for a considerable period of time. The liquid rises to the surface with a change in humidity before rainfall and disperses into the air. They called this liquid ichor, a Greek term for the tenuous golden blood that flows through the veins of gods. Hence, petrichor or blood of the rocks.
Prof Dhrubo Jyoti Sen unveils another component of the scent of rain — geosmin, which literally translates to smell of the earth, an organic compound released by actinobacteria, which live in the soil. Geosmin is responsible for the ‘earthy’ taste of beets, the muddy taste in certain freshwater fish like Carp (marinate in vinegar or lemon juice to reduce it) and even finds its way into wine. Humans have an extraordinary sensitivity for geosmin, and can detect it at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion, which might explain our yearning for the scent of the first rains as an evolutionary mechanism to seek out water sources.
The Indian capital of perfume, Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, has been making an extract of ‘wet clay’ called mitti attar or gill attar for centuries through steam-distillation using Deg Bhapkas, a process that might date back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. You can find mitti attar at traditional perfume shops in nearly every Indian city, at prices ranging from ₹500 to ₹6,500, for a 10 ml vial, depending on the base oil. The most expensive vials are blended in sandalwood oil, complementing the sweet earthiness of the scent.
If you’re looking for a contemporary version of the rain-scent, then options abound. Demeter Fragrance Library is an American house which has made a name creating real-world perfumes. Think everything from White Russian and Pizza, to Steam Room and Paperback.
There’s the ozonic minty-woody Demeter Thunderstorm, uni-dimensionally wet-earthy Demeter Dirt and a slightly more fecund version, Earthworm. Demeter Petrichor, redolent of lush wet grass after the first rains. And of course, Demeter Rain which is a damp, cucumber-ey scent of the rainy season.
Other American fragrance houses do their own takes. Clean Rain is based on notes of musk melon and water lily, while Clean Rain (reserve blend) takes a citrus-floral approach. Commodity Rain puts the aquatic floral notes in the foreground, while Bath & Body Works (B&BW) Gardenia & Fresh Rain smells like a wet, freshly-plucked peach. B&BW Rainkissed Leaves smells exactly like it sounds — the scent of tree-lined avenues after the rains. If you want to reminisce about the buzz of wings after the rains, then consider Dragonfly by Zoologist.
While some perfumes try to recreate the scent of rain, others draw inspiration from it. Perhaps, the best known of which is Jean-Claude Ellena’s tribute to the Kerala monsoon, Un Jardin Apres la Mousson for Hermes. With notes of cardamom, ginger, peppercorns and coriander, it tries to capture a colourful garden.
The timeless Apres L’Ondee by Guerlain, created in 1906 by Jacques Guerlain, evokes the fleeting sensation of expectance and anxiety before an approaching storm, in a dreamy composition of violet, powdery iris, heliotrope on a woody-spicy base. Calvin Klein’s Truth is redolent of a morning walk in a lush bamboo garden after the rains, with notes of bamboo, lily and clover on a vetiver-citrus base.
L’Eau Par by Kenzo wafts the sillage of cool respite with water lily, mint and reed on a reassuring wood-spicy base. Marc Jacobs’ Splash Rain hits you with a splash of freshness from passion flower and clementine, with cypress and sunflower hanging in the background.
Angéliques Sous La Pluie by Jean-Claude Ellena for Frederic Malle reminds one of those surprising unseasonal showers, with whiffs of herbal angelica and juniper.
Un Matin d’Orage by Isabelle Doyen for Annick Goutal weaves the scent of a drizzly Japanese garden with notes of dew, gardenia and jasmine.
As for my personal favourite, Carolina Herrera’s bestselling 212 Men is dewy, spicy and musky. Its easy availability makes it a daily wear whenever I crave the rains.