The scented secrets behind Patchouli & Black Pepper

How does a scent go from an idea to that bottle on a shelf we smell and fall in love with? Award-winning fragrance writer Suzy Nightingale catches up with British perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek – the ‘nose’ behind our bestselling Patchouli & Black Pepper scent.

“Very simply, scent is my life,” says Ruth Mastenbroek, a renowned British perfumer who creates evocative fragrances inspired by travel, childhood memories and scented snapshots of life’s most joyful moments. Bath House were thrilled when Ruth agreed to work on Patchouli & Black Pepper – a fragrance that immediately seemed to resonate with customers and has gone on to become a best-seller. The art of perfumery (and I do believe it’s an art form) is still often shrouded in mystery: how does a scent go from an idea to that bottle on a shelf we smell and fall in love with? I caught up with Ruth to find out…

Having graduated with a Chemistry degree from Oxford University and begun her training in the late 70s, Ruth Mastenbroek worked as a perfumer in the UK, Netherlands, Japan and the ‘perfume capital’ of Grasse, France. On returning to England, she then worked for a small company creating fragrances for up-and-coming brands like Kenneth Turner and Jo Malone – including her now infamously successful Grapefruit candle, (which reportedly Jennifer Lopez loved so much, she purchased 300 for her hotel room!) Ruth began her own company, Fragosmic Ltd., in 2003 – becoming president of The British Society of Perfumers that same year and launching a capsule collection of scented products featuring her signature fragrance in 2010, becoming the first perfumer to use a ground-breaking micro-encapsulation technology – weaving scent into the fabric of a bathrobe.

Perfume must run through the blood of the Mastenbroek family, as Ruth’s son, Nic, is following in her fragrant footsteps – having worked with his mother for several years, he is now also training to become a perfumer. Her daughter Claire, meanwhile, “looks after practically everything behind the scenes”; but when it comes to composing a new fragrance, Ruth is very much on her own.

“I get ideas overnight,” she explains, “and then I can try them out in the lab the next morning. Most of the initial work goes on in my head – the ideas are very vivid, and I like to start working on them immediately. Over the years I’ve made so many different formulas, it’s all written down and I keep a note of every single addition or subtraction I experiment with. My daughter thinks it’s hilarious I still write everything down by hand, though I also make a note of everything on the computer.”

When composing Patchouli & Black Pepper, for Ruth the starting point was creating a perfect balance. “I aspired to create a fragrance that was warm, fresh and sensual at the same time,” she says. “I had the idea for a fragrance with patchouli and vanilla at its heart. But it also had to be not too ‘feminine’, which is where the inspiration of combining black pepper, bergamot and lavender came from.” I wondered if Ruth always has a distinct idea of how the finished scent will smell, or if the process occurs more organically than that? “I always begin with an idea of the effect I want to create,” Ruth smiles, “I follow the flow creatively and there are often surprises along the way! Sometimes an idea will arrive from nowhere and turn out to be the magic touch I was looking for, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting. With Patchouli & Black Pepper the joy was how well some of the more contrasting notes jived together.”

There’s an alchemy to fragrance creation, a blending of ingredients that’s somehow more than the sum of all their smells and manages to create a new, utterly unique character. So, what is it about the qualities of black pepper and patchouli that work so well in this fragrance? Says Ruth: “Black pepper oil has quite a sharp bite to it so needs to be tempered with other strong, refreshing notes like peppermint and mandarin. I selected black pepper rather than its cousin pink pepper because it combines beautifully with the earthy quality of the patchouli. I find it like adding fuel to the patchouli fire! It is perhaps a question of texture: the smooth but spiky character of the pepper together with the multiple layers of woody character of the patchouli. When you add sweetness from the vanilla and freshness from the bergamot and lavender, it is an intoxicating mixture.”

If you’ve not yet been intoxicated by the perfect balance of reassuring warmth and uplifting freshness in Patchouli & Black Pepper, you can explore the full range, here. More recently, Ruth worked on another exclusive scent for Bath House, the Greenhouse Candle and Diffuser, which is the scented memory of a greenhouse with its diffused light, heat and fragrance. Whichever of Ruth’s fragrances you enjoy most, her signature style of “classic with a twist” (as she puts it) is never dictated by fleeting trends. The scents are made to “delight and instantly enrich everyday experiences” because Ruth believes that “…fragrance has the power to transform your mood, connect you to a time or place and focus your spirits on a positive future.” That instant hit of positivity is something fans of the Bath House Patchouli & Black Pepper come back for time and again – further proof of the Ruth Mastenroek’s skill, and in the power of perfume itself.