The Nose Knows: Fragrances & Cocktails in Detroit

By: Michael Fossbakk | March 26, 2018

Photo credit: EE Berger.

We may not think about it often, but a person’s sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses we have. And the fact that smell is intricately connected to memory is no surprise. The smell of barbeque ribs might remind you of the annual family cookout you used to go to with your family as a kid. The smell of pine needles might remind you of that time you wiped out and twisted your ankle on that ski trip all those years ago. And the smell of a familiar fragrance might remind you of the person you love most.

For however much a memory can complicate the way an individual person perceives a scent, there are other factors within a person’s olfactory (smell) system that varies from person to person. Just ask co-owner of Sfumato and Castalia, a Detroit-based fragrance shop and fragrant cocktail bar, respectively, Kevin Peterson.

“It’s pretty likely that if you take 10 people and they all look at the same thing, that they’re all seeing approximately the same thing,” Peterson said. “It’s also quite likely that if you take 10 people and have them smell the smell, that they’re all smelling slightly different just at a fundamental measurement level.”

For Peterson (and later his wife, Jane Larson), the decision to actually open a fragrance store of their own started in the culinary world, where Peterson spent his early twenties working in several restaurants as a cook. But, as he came to find out, his passion lies elsewhere.

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Photo credit: EE Berger.

“I eventually left the culinary world for a while, but I realized that flavors and fragrances had a lot in common,” Peterson said. “And the knowledge I had acquired on how to combine flavors was very applicable to the fragrance world.”

Peterson got to work on combining oils extracted from natural ingredients — the same ingredients he might use in the kitchen — to form newly created scents. Using natural ingredients, as opposed to the synthetic ones you might find in fragrances sold in department stores, is integral to Peterson’s craft.

“If you just have one very strong synthetic molecule, you’re just hammering one set of your olfactory receptors very hard,” Peterson said. “With a natural ingredient, what you tend to have is a broad range of ingredients that are exciting a bunch of your olfactory receptors more gently, and I think that’s a more pleasant experience and one of the keys to our fragrances.”

After practicing for a few years and building up a knack for the craft, Peterson and Larson, who would be in charge of packaging and design, decided to open Sfumato on the ground level of a late 19th-century mansion in Midtown Detroit.

Opening a store was one thing. It was now time to design the product line that would define Sfumato fragrances. In some cases, Peterson looked to his family for inspiration.

“One our scents called Survival Instinct was designed with my uncle in mind…at the time I was making these scents, he was into making his own knives,” Peterson said. “So, he was forging the steel and creating the handles out of wood and I thought, ‘Okay, what would a scent that was a knife smell like?’”

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Photo credit: EE Berger.

Peterson says that in designing fragrance, the depiction of a scent can come from literal or metaphorical interpretations. For example, for Survival Instinct, he used an anise note to reflect the sharp quality of a knife as it is a “very piercing” scent, but he also used rosemary and lavender to reflect the things that you might cut up with a knife. To replicate the handle of a knife, he then added woodsy scents, like vetiver, cedar and palo santo.

“Because there’s not that much language built up in the world of scent, a lot of the descriptions do come from analogies,” Peterson said. “So, you compare it to a piece of music or a painting or to a meal or a food dish. A lot of times, you find that metaphor of it you want to build and then you try to create it in scent form.”

When designing a scent with his uncle in mind, Peterson had a pretty good idea of who his uncle is as a person. But, what happens when he’s designing a scent for someone he’s only just met?

“A custom scent would start with a number of questions,” Peterson said. “’What other scents do you like? Are there ingredients you want in here? Are you intending this to be worn for a night on the town or for work?’ That’s going to push me towards some different notes, but then, really the most important part of designing a custom scent is actually smelling the different ingredients…You can talk about it. You can write about it, but actually smelling and experiencing the scents is the most direct way to figure that out.”

Taking what they knew about fragrances, Peterson and Larson decided to tackle an adjacent market through a trend that was growing in popularity around the United States: fragrant cocktails. At night, the 650-square-foot space transforms from the Midtown fragrance shop to an upscale bar called Castalia.

Using a common cocktail as the base of the drink, say an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, Peterson and Larson then modify the drink until they feel it is emblematic of one of their fragrances.

In the example of Survival Instinct, the fragrance Peterson designed after his uncle, the goal was to make a drink that shared literal and metaphorical traits, such as the sharpness of a knife, with the fragrance of the same name.

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Photo credit: EE Berger.

“My favorite take on a Survival Instinct drink is to start it from a Sazerac,” Peterson said. “So, it’s got rye whiskey, which has a nice bite to it, and absinthe, which has that anise note, and then I’ll add some tinctures of rosemary and lavender and then some palo santo smoke.”

The similarities between the fragrances and drinks don’t stop there. In order to capitalize on the experience, a drink ordered at Castalia comes with a garnish or napkin that is scented with the fragrance the drink is modeled after.

“Most of the time you drink a drink, some of the molecules in the drink vaporize and go up the back of your throat into your nose and combine to your impression of flavor,” Peterson said. “What we’re doing now is also controlling your external scent environment, so now you’ve got the taste…harmonizing with the external scent and creating an even more interesting and intriguing stimulus.”

Sfumato is open from 12-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The bar, Castalia, opens immediately afterward at 6 p.m. and will be serving drinks until midnight Wednesday through Saturday.

Remember to drink responsibly and plan ahead with a designated driver or take advantage of one of these local designated driving services.