The Allure of Estonian Birch Tar

“The allure of Estonian birch tar” isn’t a combination of words one encounters often, but I rather like it. My recent article, The Evocative Allure of Birch Tar Perfumes, appears in the FT magazine and celebrates the delicious darkness and smokiness of birch tar, which can add an interesting undercurrent to fragrances and give them a new dimension. From Chanel Cuir de Russie to Juliette has a Gun’s Midnight Oud, this note plays a special role. Birch tar can mimic leather, smoke or even woods.

Yet, my first experience of birch tar came not from a perfume but from a soap I bought as a curio from Tallinn. I enjoyed its smoky aroma so much that I’ve since sourced a similar pine-tar version (€4.95 for 100g) by an Estonian brand called Nurme, and learnt that tar derived from different trees has been used for skincare in Baltic countries for centuries due to its antibacterial and soothing properties. To continue reading, please click here.

Do you like all things dark and smoky?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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25 Comments

  • Andy: I’m not sure I’ve ever smelled birch tar, at least not on its own. I’ve smelled Cuir de Russie, both modern and vintage, but none of the other perfumes mentioned (CdG Tar sounds particularly charming, and Nostalgia has been on my list for a while). How is birch tar produced? Is it a product specifically of the wood, the sap, or twigs? September 6, 2019 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s rather simple. Birch bark is heated in air-tight container, and at the end you have ashes and what looks like oil. Obviously, it’s described very simplistically, but that’s pretty much it. If you have enough birch bark and some backyard space (minus the neighborhood who might be concerned by such activities), you can make it at home. 🙂 September 6, 2019 at 9:13am Reply

      • Madaris: I have used pine tar shampoos for many years since I am prone to eczema. It really helps control the skin problem but my family says it smells horrid. It’s interesting to hear about birch tar now. September 6, 2019 at 6:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: Birch tar has a more rounded scent, I find. September 8, 2019 at 8:48am Reply

          • Aurora: Thank you so much for revealing so many things about birch tar. Vegetal leather appeals very much, I can have a difficult relation with leather, and thank you for the information about the Estonian soap. September 11, 2019 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: And if you have a Russian store near you, look for the birch tar soap there. It’s called “degtiarnoe mylo” (дегтярное мыло in Russian). September 6, 2019 at 9:14am Reply

  • Klaas: My dad used tar soap for years and years. I didn’t like the smell at the time (I indulged in hot baths with Anais Anais oil), but the smell provokes such fond memories to me now. Would love to try that Santa Maria Novella Cologne! September 6, 2019 at 4:18pm Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: I really am drawn to their products. There is a wonderful perfume shop in Bruxelles which carries a large part of their range. However, as I’ve resettled in Cologne, I cannot find the SMN products anywhere, not in Cologne, not in Düsseldorf. What a pity, as I’d love to check out their Garofano (carnation) perfume. September 7, 2019 at 2:47am Reply

      • Klaas: Well, should your saffron wings carry you to Amsterdam sometime, there’s two shops here that carry their products…..Babassu and Khasto. September 7, 2019 at 5:12am Reply

      • Victoria: I didn’t realize that SMN doesn’t have stocks in Germany. Maybe in Berlin? September 8, 2019 at 8:50am Reply

        • OnWingsofSaffron: Maybe Berlin, perhaps in Munich? But far too far to sniff, as a blind buy of SMN isn‘t always recommended 😉. September 8, 2019 at 2:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: You should! If only just for the pleasant associations, which no doubt you’ll have. September 8, 2019 at 8:48am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hi Klass! My husband uses SMN Nostalgia. It certainly smells great on him. In the wonderful SMN shop in Florence (where I bought it as a gift for him), they say that its smell is supposed to evoke the leathers of luxury sports cars. Just thought that might add another dimension to experiencing this perfume.

      Agree with everyone who mentioned Lonestar Memories as a great addition to this category. September 14, 2019 at 12:11pm Reply

  • MaureenC: My favourite what Andy Tauer calls his “ode to birch tar” Lonestar Memories which smells fantastic on my partner but pretty rank on me, so I enjoy it vicariously when he wears it!
    I use birch sap skin products produced locally in Devon by a very small company called Priestlands Birch. Ive found it to be brilliant for any outbreaks of rosacea. September 7, 2019 at 2:22am Reply

  • Kev: Yes, I do like smokey!

    I go nuts for Patchouli 24!! It’s one hell of a billowing bonfire, and u choke on it outrageous smokiness. It’s got a vanilla note, which is more discernible in the dry-down and is more warm than sweet.

    I also have Rien Intense Incense by ELdO and Black by CdG. Black is so cold and aloof, whereas RII has aldehydes which, to me, adds sweetness. September 7, 2019 at 3:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Great additional options, especially Patchouli 24. September 8, 2019 at 8:50am Reply

  • Austenfan: For some reason my last comment didn’t register.
    It contained two links to Andy Tauer’s Website where he explains why he can’t ship samples and large bottles to a lot of places anymore. It sounds complicated and exasperating. September 8, 2019 at 4:44pm Reply

  • Nick: As I am going through the raw materials, I classify birch tar, styrax, and isobutyl quinoline together as ‘leathery group’ in my mind. To me, birch tar at one per cent is just wonderfully smoky and most rounded of them all. September 12, 2019 at 4:48am Reply

    • Victoria: One of my favorites too. September 12, 2019 at 7:16am Reply

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