We sometimes confuse potency with quality... The fact is that it is easier to make a perfume which "shrieks" than one which is lovely and pleasing.
Nowadays when I make my espresso, I add hot water to make an Americano. This is a recent development. My first espresso pot was the classic aluminum stove-top model, it accompanied me when I left home for college at 17. In the tiny dorm-room that I shared with two other guys, I made my coffee on a hotplate for late-night study sessions, the little pot filling the room with the aroma of fresh coffee. I poured it into a demi-tasse and drank it black, bitter and scalding hot. Fancy coffee had yet to catch on in the US, so it was little eccentric, but it was how I was raised. My espresso pot was a miniature of the pot my parents used every morning.
Until my mother opened one, there were no gourmet "specialty stores" in Tucson, Arizona and buying coffee in little bags by the pound was unheard of. When I was very young, you could only find coffee in big cans in the supermarket aisle. My dad would re-roast these canned beans under the broiler to make a rich French roast. Waking up to this gorgeous smell is one of my most vivid scent memories. My parents, European immigrants, went to great lengths for good food. Back then, America was a sort of food wasteland. Big cities had fancy gourmet cheese shops, but individually wrapped slices of processed cheese were the order of the day where we lived. Foods like that were forbidden in my home—which of couse made them exotic and desirable to me...I still have a thing for American cheese.
But for the most part, I preferred the food I ate in France during the summers and most American food was suspect or boring. As a result, the Americano always seemed like a terrible idea, almost a kind of vandalism. The name alone told me what I needed to know: it was excellent coffee that had been Americanized, diluted and made bland. From this perspective, dilution is tantamount to destruction, it takes the genie that is the essence of the flavor, let's it out of the bottle and spreads it very thin, making it a pale shadow of itself.
But my experience as a perfumer has taught me otherwise. This is an early lesson a perfumer learns. When you study perfumery what you do for a long time is simply smell a lot of stuff. The training revolves around a deep, almost primal, understanding of raw materials. You study an entire scent family (say ten different amber notes) by dipping blotters into the bottles and then "following" them for the hours and sometimes days that they last on the paper strip. All very straightforward until you come to materials that you can barely smell at 100% concentration, instead these need to be diluted to 10% or even 1%, and then strangely, they open up and you can smell them. There are also the strong materials that are overwhelming at full strength; sometimes nasty or just obnoxious. Galbanum is one of these. The extraction of a root that grows in Iran, it smells harshly of green leaves, like acrid chopped spinach. Because it's so strong, perfumers use this material at 10% in their formulas where it works all kinds of magic. Depending on the accord, it brings freshness and brightness, or else green vitality. In some combinations it has a mysterious way of creating powdery sophistication and darkness.
Concentration also plays an important role in the dilution of the final perfume. A perfumer creates a pure perfume oil that is then diluted in alcohol from 3%-30%. I love the simple pleasures of traditional Eaux de Cologne—the bright and spacious, citrus and herb fragrances that appeared around 1789 and are in many ways the first modern perfumes.Traditionally at very low concentrations of 3-4%, they're meant to be liberally splashed as a sort of refreshment after (or historically, in lieu of...) bathing. Many people love citrus scents and would love for them to "last longer" and be "stronger." So, naturally, as a budding perfumer, you might try your hand at a higher concentration version of one of these. But what you find is that instead of more brightness and freshness, you get something squat and dense with little space inside. Similar effects occur with more robust perfumes. Stronger does not always equal "stronger." Sometimes a perfume actually smells "stronger" when the concentration is lower, not higher and some materials will have a more pronounced effect when they are at a lower concentration in the overall formula. The legendary perfumer, Edmond Roudnitska, had great respect for the sophistication of our sense of smell. Writing in 1966, he exhorts perfumers to emphasize balance and subtlety, "We sometimes confuse potency with quality... The fact is that it is easier to make a perfume which "shrieks" than one which is lovely and pleasing." Given the preponderance of obnoxious perfumes in the world these days, his advice seems more relevant than ever.
Which brings me back to my morning Americano. I started pouring hot water into my espresso when I realized it created more space within the coffee. The first time I tried it, the aromas of the coffee rang like a bell. Maybe I should explain: when I compose a perfume, I know I've gotten the accord right when the smell is like hearing the sound of a bell. The scent is sonorous with resonant overtones that makes the whole sing out broadly and clearly. My Americano is like that. Drinking it without milk, it has resonant clarity—open and spacious.