Balsamic: heavy, sticky, sweet, unctuous scent, usually from an aromatic resin. If you think of balsamic vinegar whenever you read about balsamic notes in perfumery, you are not far off. They have a similar sticky-sweet, rich character as a true wooden cask aged balsamic vinegar.
The oud trend and the fascination with the East is nothing new in perfumery. The oriental style of fragrances, compositions that rely on rich, opulent notes of vanilla, musk, resins and ambers was inspired by the traditional elements of Middle Eastern and Indian perfumes. As the fascination with everything Eastern and exotic grew at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, these “odalisques and harems” fantasies also took olfactory forms. The oriental fragrances, which are represented well by Guerlain Shalimar, Dana Tabu, Estée Lauder Youth Dew, Yves Saint Laurent Opium and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, are inconceivable without balsamic notes. Whether they include benzoin, tolu balsam, peru balsam or styrax, their sweet vanilla fragrance with a distinctive cinnamon note lends a beautiful richness and heft to the compositions.
Balsam is a term used to describe the gummy resin from various trees and shrubs. In perfumery, there are several classes of balsamic notes, but balsams like tolu balsam, peru balsam, benzoin, and styrax are distinctive because they have a strong cinnamic note and they are often used in oriental fragrances to give a rich and pleasantly spicy quality to the warm oriental accords. They are very beautiful materials on their own, although using them requires some skill. In excess, their rich, heavy fragrance can suppress the composition, with other notes hiding under the dense balsamic richness.
Benzoin is balsamic resin derived from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax. In perfumery, either benzoin Siam (from Styrax tonkinensis trees) or benzoin Sumatra (from Styrax benzoin). Benzoin has a clear vanillic fragrance (it contains vanillin, just like vanilla beans) as well as a hint of cinnamon. It is one of the most versatile notes among other balsams, and it is used in most amber, vanilla and oriental accords. It also can be found all over the fragrance wheel, from citrus colognes to woody blends. I especially love its sweet vanillic note in Chanel Coromandel and Serge Lutens Vétiver Oriental, where paired with incense, it creates a gilded, plush sensation.
Tolu balsam or balsam of Tolu is the resinous secretion of Myroxylon Balsamum, a tree native to South America. Like benzoin, it is formed when the tree is injured. This was noticed in ancient times, and benzoin and tolu balsam were commonly used to heal wounds and skin rashes. Even today some of these balsams (particularly peru balsam) or their derivatives are used in various dermatological ointments. Tolu also has a vanilla and cinnamon fragrance, but I notice a strong smoky and sweet note. Tolu is reminiscent of almonds and leather, a seemingly darker note than benzoin. Tolu balsam is the leading player in Ormonde Jayne Tolu as well as an important supporting note in Cartier L’Heure Defendue. A smoky, warm touch of tolu balsam in Donna Karan Gold and Robert Piguet Fracas lends their florals a spicy, rich quality, which is further augmented by other sensual, oriental notes.
Peru balsam (also called Peruvian balm) is related to tolu balsam; it is derived from another Myroxylon tree species, Myroxylon Pereirae. I find Peru balsam spicier and smokier. The smoky note can be introduced by processing methods when the raw material is boiled in water over a wood-burning fire. It is quite a dark, heavy material, and it is usually blended with other balsamic and ambery notes as in Hermès Elixir des Merveilles, Serge Lutens Amber Sultan, Lorenzo Villoresi Incensi, Yves Saint Laurent Opium or Nicolaï Sacrebleu Intense.
Styrax is a genus of about 130 species of large shrubs or small trees, but for our purposes, styrax resinoid obtained from Liquidambar Styraciflua L. is the one that is interesting. It is a beautiful dry, smoky, spicy note, with a distinctive leather and incense facet. It is the least sweet and vanillic out of the balsams I have described here. You can smell a beautiful note of styrax in the drydown of Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, Bois Oriental and Tubéreuse Criminelle. It is generally a supporting character, but smell Bond No.9 Broadway Nite, and the presence of leathery styrax is unmistakable right from the top note, where it is given a nice lift by the violet and aldehydes. Also, many leather accords like Chanel Cuir de Russie, Dior Fahrenheit, and Tom Ford Tuscan Leather rely on the leathery darkness of styrax.
Drawing of Tolu balsam plant from wiki commons.