Orris is an excellent example of the diversity and unexpected origin of many aromatic and perfume ingredients – after all who would expect a root (rhizome) to have such a gloriously rich and sensuous Violet scent as we are used to the flowers playing the aromatic role in the plant world. However, over some thousands of years of non-recorded history, the herbalists, the alchemists and the perfumers explored every plant they obtained in a feverish search for some big new thing in scent.
The aromaticity of the Orris is understandable in terms of biochemistry, but the discovery of this scent realm lies hidden in the mists of perfume history. Orris comes from the root (rhizome) of the Iris flower. The roots are dried under specific conditions for up to five years or more. In this ageing phase, which is common to other valuable perfumery ingredients, (the famous patchouli oil being an example) a number of enzymatic processes lead to the breakdown of bigger molecules into smaller ones and some of these smaller ones have exceptional fragrances. The evolutionary significance of such ‘aromatic’ degradations is unclear - perhaps they are just an epiphenomenon of standard biochemical degradation steps.
Sniffing the Aroma It is often the richness of the olfactory sensation - when the aroma has come to equilibrium on a smelling strip - that impresses the nose of an Orris beginner. There is a smooth mixture of rootiness (a complex and baffling word, and the aroma can be variable depending on the amount of earth attached to the roots) together with some element of earthiness and a general rich and smooth odour which is joyous. However, the startling feature is the emergence of such a delicate floral scent from the rooty-earthy matrix. The violet scent captures hearts instantly and is almost an olfactory symbol of romance and love. Olfactory caution must be exercised. The violet-smelling molecules have a marked dampening effect on our smell brains. Literally, within a sniff or two, the sensuously delicate and fragile floral odour note may disappear for you and you may have to wait for several minutes to regain full smell sensitivity for this type of scent. Why this type of smelly molecules should exhibit such potent olfactory adaptation is still a mystery. However, this olfactory feature adds to the mystery and allure of the violet Orris note. You get one chance, in a single sniff, to get this enchanting aroma experience and so have your romantic smell memories driven to distraction. It is “love at first sniff.”
The Gin which undisputedly shows-off the Orris effect is the celebrated Bombay Sapphire which kicked-off the new Gin era of the 1990s. This highly aromatic Gin, with an aroma profile which was much more sophisticated than its predecessor Gins, was launched in 1988. There are several ways in which the Orris effect is manifested. There is a contribution to the mild rooty-earthy background note, there is a more subtle contribution to the roundness and smoothness (a team of the Bombay Sapphire botanical oils do this) and also its own distinctive contribution (to which some people are much more sensitive than others) – a delicate and enchanting floral violet scent note, which might be fleeting. Blackwoods Vintage Dry Gin also has a prominent Orris aspect of the aroma and flavour profile.
It is interesting to note that Myth & Lore surround Orris Oils. The stately Iris flower, from which the noble Orris is derived, was considered a sacred plant in ancient Egypt, and a depiction of the majestic flowers was found on the King’s scepter.
See our Gin Aroma Kit for more information.