Smelling Juniper Sling by Penhaligon's at first is like inhaling the vapors of a London Dry Gin followed by the fruitier accents of Orange Brandy. There you have your sling as it ought to be: a sweet citrusy gin. What lets you know this is no cocktail but a perfume are two clues: it soon smells like a sottish version of an Eau de Cologne and there is an ambergris-cedar-y base which appears fast on the heels of the initial accord... and that blend has yet to be integrated into an index of cocktail recipes.
As I noted earlier on, Juniper Sling marks the first foray of perfumer Olivier Cresp of fragrance company Firmenich into the more culturally biased atmosphere of niche perfumery. Why did the nose change his mind about designing for the cognoscenti rather than the cognoscenti plus the everyman, is a question that would need to be put to him.
Meanwhile, one can well ask oneself how did Olivier Cresp approach the new enterprise?...
Based on the impression given by the perfume, one can see that Cresp has done at least four things: 1) he has remained faithful to himself and his near-fetish for the use of a gourmand key-note, here cherry sweetened by brown sugar and lacing juniper berries. 2) it seems that he has approached niche perfumery in a professional manner, i.e., more through a grasping of its codes and conventions than seen it as a his chance to unleash all his pent-up creative energy -- Cresp has never said that he felt frustrated to be a reference name in designer perfumery, and Juniper Sling is not going to reveal all of his nightmares and dreams not fit for bottling in a more mainstream production; 3) He has brought an understated, restrained sense of creativity which is typical of designer perfumery and more generally speaking of the art and craft of perfumery, which has been historically defined by elite taste-makers not so much in search of creative works as of balance and beauty, and in the industrial age, by mainstream, elegant creations more than by confidential releases known for their ability to push the envelope; 4) Cresp has applied his technical skills to the perfume to make it behave a bit more like a designer perfume in its sillage element, while keeping at the same a sense of spare aesthetics, which is one of the ways to recognize a niche perfumery offspring.
If a designer perfume aims to feel more like the imported lush Third Empire salon in the gilded mansion of The Breakers in Newport, a niche perfume aims more to feel like the scenography of Andrée Putnam for the Madeleine Vionnet exhibition that took place in Paris in 2009. It is sometimes so striking that I see a dichotomy which I term the opposition between "confidential sillages" vs. "social sillages." The distinction parallels the one between "niche perfumery" and "designer perfumery" to a great extent.
What Juniper Sling is not, is an atmospheric, evocative and images-rich scent. And so while Penhaligon's have been inspired by the atmosphere of the speakeasies during the Jazz Age in London (check their very funny video), I cannot say that I feel transported to that era or those places, just by smelling the perfume although this is eminently possible as some fragrance compositions have proven.
Apart from the boozy accord I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the perfume lets out in its initial stages a woody and citrusy contrast followed by a pungent and salty ambergris (Ambrox) with a leather facet. In contrast to the warm notes, an invigorating mint-y note comes to the surface and changes the atmosphere of the scent; it soon smells almost like Chicklets gum, but this subsides and turns into a seamless yet split-in-the-middle blend of woods on the one hand, with citrus and spearmint notes on the other hand. Melding the two offers the mythological result of a new creature. It is the equivalent of a siren, half-woman, half-fish, the reunion of the two giving birth to a minotaure, or as I said before, a centaur. Here, the woods breathe mint and the mint is woody. It is one of the tricks of perfumery to be able to be a bit of a composite Frankeinstein creature in this regard. The perfume is also noticeably peppery.
After that, the perfume starts smelling pretty exquisite, fully harmonious and espousing of the skin. It transforms itself into yet another hybrid, a semi-skin scent and semi-sillage scent. The fragrance is close to the body, yet one can detect that it projects a more outwardly sillage at the same time. The slightly candied cherry note is much more perceptible for others than for you, in my experience.
Up close, the drydown now smells of a mix of ambergris and carnation, or Ambrox and Eugenol. The natural aromatic, spicy and leathery nuances of juniper berries seem to be all present. The quirkiness of cherry, which prolongs itself throughout the scent, could be another cocktail allusion. It is not without recalling the cherry note in the cultish Luctor et Emergo by The People of the Labyrinths.
Where perhaps I do not feel fully satiated by the perfume, is in this sense of it being economical and deliberately lean. While I noted that when I wore the perfume in public I suddenly could hear stronger sniffing on all sides, signifying the scent is having an impact and people are intrigued by it, I as the wearer of the perfume would like to participate more in this fiesta for the 5th sense apparently that is going on around the wearer.
From my perspective, I perceive a main cherry-ozone-ambergris accord which is discreetly interesting, with peaks of exquisiteness, but is not emotion-laden. Juniper Sling is more of an intelligent perfume, conceptually accurate, than a scent suggesting a crazy party atmosphere with nuances of the forbidden. Unless there was a stress on "speakeasy" to justify its hushed tonalities. The story line behind the scent is more scandalous than the perfume itself.
The treatment of the woods reminds me of the earthy-urbane feel one finds in the Frapin fragrances which are all inspired by elements of vintner culture. Closer still, Juniper Sling definitely reminds me of l'Humaniste by Frapin for this take on a boozy, cocktail-hour version of the classic Eau de Cologne and its dry, blanched nuances. In Juniper Sling, the Orange Brandy replaces the orange blossom, but it is a discernable permutation and an homage to a genre which counts members with heavier ambery and woody bases. If you think that Eau de Cologne was sometimes casually ingested in olden times, then it is a sort of natural return to tradition.
People who are attracted by the paradoxical idea of a minimalist, restrained gourmand with the clean effect of London Dry Gin - Eau de Cologne should check it out.