Americano, or Why Weaker is Sometimes Stronger

Americano, or Why Weaker is Sometimes Stronger

We sometimes confuse potency with quality... It is easier to make a perfume that "shrieks" than one that is lovely and pleasing.
—Edmond Routnitska

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 Italian aluminum stove-top model. I took it with me when I left for college at 17 and made coffee on a hot plate during late-night study sessions. The little pot radiated the aroma of fresh coffee in my tiny dorm room. I always 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 I was a little eccentric, but it was how I was raised. My espresso pot was a miniature pot of the one 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. You could only find coffee in big cans in the supermarket. My dad would re-roast these canned beans under the broiler to make a dark French roast. Waking up to this gorgeous smell filling the house is one of my most vivid scent memories. My parents, European immigrants, went to great lengths for good food.

Back then, Arizona 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 made them exotic and desirable to me. I still have a thing for American cheese.

Even so, for the most part, I preferred the food I ate in France during the summers when we visited family, and most American foods seemed bland by comparison. As a result, the Americano always seemed like a terrible idea, almost a kind of vandalism against coffee. 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 equivalent to destruction. It takes the essence of the flavor and spreads it very thin. But now, 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, knowledge of raw materials.

You study an entire scent family (say, ten different citrus notes) by dipping blotters into the bottles and then "following" them for the hours and days they last on the paper strip.

It's all very straightforward until you come to materials that you can barely smell at 100% concentration. Some of these materials are very strong and are only used in traces. These need to be diluted to 10% or even 1% or even 0.1%, and then strangely, they open up, and you can smell them.

On the other hand, some strong materials are overwhelming at full strength, sometimes nasty or obnoxious. Galbanum is one of these. The extraction of a root that grows in the middle east 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, brightness, or green vitality. In some combinations, it has a mysterious way of creating powdery sophistication and darkness.

Concentration also plays a vital role in the dilution of the final perfume. A perfumer creates a pure perfume oil and then dilutes it in alcohol at percentages anywhere from 3% to 30% (and these have different names, like Eau de Cologne, Eau de Toilette, Parfum, Extrait de Parfum).

I love the simple pleasure of traditional Eau de Cologne. The bright citrus and herb accord appeared around 1789 and is, in many ways, the first modern perfume. Traditionally made at very low concentrations of 3-4%, they're meant to be liberally splashed as a sort of refreshment after, or historically, instead 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 when you increase from 3% to 15%, you find that instead of more brightness and freshness, you get a squat and dense fragrance with little "space" inside.

Stronger does not always equal "stronger." Sometimes a perfume smells "stronger" when the concentration is lower, not higher (I'm still surprised by this when I run tests of my perfumes).

The legendary perfumer, Edmond Roudnitska, greatly respected the sophistication of our sense of smell. Writing in 1966, he urges 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."

This 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 subtle aroma of the coffee rang like a bell.

Maybe I should explain that: 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 make the whole formula sing out broadly and clearly.

My Americano is like that. Drinking it without milk, it has vibrant clarity—open and spacious.

Shine brightly!