Alexandra Balahoutis is the the founder and perfumer of Strange Invisible Perfumes. She creates vibrant, compelling, beautiful perfumes, the latest being Essence of IX. Essence of IX is a limited edition fragrance, inspired by the “ghostly aromas” present in a wine glass. She collaborated with Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars in creating this rich and complex fragrance that I will review at a later time. (Spoiler alert: I love it). It truly is an honor to have her answering questions here on Scent Hive.
Scent Hive: Your new fragrance Essence of IX was born out of a collaboration with Colgin Cellars. How was that experience for you?
Alexandra Balahoutis: I loved working with Ann Colgin and I learned so very much through the design of this fragrance. I shadowed the winemaking process and tasted wine in various stages of its development process. Spending time at the vineyard and inside the winery was heavenly. It was such a lovely collaboration.
SH: Is the process different when you create a limited edition vs. a fragrance for your permanent collection?
AB: What I love about creating limited editions is how impulsive I can be. I don’t have to put any thought into selling these fragrances on a larger scale. All of our fragrances are unique and stem from sincere inspiration, however these here-today-gone-tomorrow fragrances afford me artistic gratification without the commitment of a formal launch. Releasing limited editions is the marketing equivalent of a fling, no strings attached and no long-term commitment.
SH: I want to say congratulations on the launch of your new website design. It is aesthetically beautiful and so easy to navigate. How involved were you in the new design?
AB: Thank you very much! We designed the site completely in-house. I would say that I art-directed the look and experience along with our in-house designer/project manager who composed all the layouts. We hired a programmer and just sent him the precise artwork and content for each page. He was instructed not to change a single thing. We wanted the site to be distilled yet rich with nuance, in-depth or quite basic, depending on each person’s interest level and attention span. Most of all, we just wanted it to be true to the story and essence of our company.
SH: You are clearly very devoted to using only the highest quality, natural ingredients in your products. How do you ensure that quality, and make sure the botanicals are harvested ethically?
AB: Well, in many cases we distill our own essences. We own property in Ojai and Kentucky so we have unique opportunities to grow some of our own plants. We then hydro-distill them in-house with our full-time distiller. In other cases our distiller/head of production sources amazing essences from all over the world. We only buy essences from distillers we know. We do not buy from third parties or essential oil houses. The only way to know essences is to know the people who extract them. On a side note, our entire staff is going to Ojai at the end of April for a distillation we are doing of orange blossoms. We also recently distilled organic, locally grown Meyer lemons at our lab. We post photos of our projects on our Facebook page. People love to see the process of essences being crafted. It demystifies the process and connects them to the lovely reality of what they are buying.
SH: Your SIP alchemical lab is undergoing organic certification. What does that mean exactly?
AB: We currently use certified organic ingredients in our products whenever available. Once our lab obtains organic certification, everything we distill in our lab will be certified organic. This certification will be another measure we take to assure people as to the purity of our methods and products. Our standards of purity are often higher than those of organic certification, however we do respect the confidence that certified organic products inspire. As diehard purists, we address quality and purity from every angle.
SH: Why do you prefer hydro-distillation rather than steam distillation? And can you explain to us how the two processes differ?
AB: Steam distillation is a very commercial technique of distilling plant material. It is certainly the most common method used. In contrast, the technique of hydro-distillation is quite rare. It is not used nearly as often as it does not yield as much essential oil. Hydro-distillation does, however, ensure a beautiful odor profile that cannot be achieved with steam distillation. While steam distillation yields more essence, this method does not capture the fine aroma chemicals that make up an ideal odor profile. Sometimes these chemicals make up only 1% of the essence but they still influence the aroma significantly. Essentially, steam distillation loses very fine constituents of the plant vital to presenting the plant’s truest aromatic beauty.
SH: In terms of botanicals, what is really exciting right now for you to work with?
AB: There is a gorgeous, organic extract of black currant that I want to put in just about everything at the moment. Quite fittingly, I used it in Essence of IX, the fragrance we designed for Colgin Cellars. I’ve been using a lot of cedar leaf and cocoa as well. As for flowers, exquisite essences of ginger lily and kewda have found their way into many of my recent formulas.
SH: What are your current inspirations aside from scent?
AB: I’ve been wildly inspired by gems and music lately. I can’t seem to tire of canary tourmalines and the White Stripes.
SH: Moon Garden continues to be one of my personal favorites from your line. (I particularly love how you can smell the heat of warmed resins within the perfume). Can you speak to your feelings regarding Moon Garden?
AB: I am in love with Moon Garden! Tuberose has been my favorite flower for such a long time. People that know me very well tend to send me tuberoses on my birthday. I wanted to make a tuberose composition that told the whole story of tuberose blossoms, not one that smelled like a tuberose scented perfume. I used warm, eccentric resins to reinforce the deep textural scent of fresh, blooming tuberose petals. This flower has so many facets and I wanted to light them up. I didn’t want to glaze over them with the typical, confectionary interpretations of old-fashioned tuberose fragrances.
SH: You have traveled quite a bit throughout your life. If you could travel anywhere right now, would you revisit a special place, or take a new adventure? And where would that be?
AB: I automatically feel guilty for not answering “a new adventure.” Lately I have been thinking of places I haven’t been in a long time. I have been longing to revisit Paris. I almost feel like I want to reclaim something I left there. London is also calling. Afterwards, I think I will probably begin longing for new adventures. For now I’d like to have some new adventures in cities that are old favorites.
SH: You’ve mentioned in other interviews how childhood memories of scent have deeply affected you. Now that you are an adult creating perfumes, will you share with us how wearing your own fragrances affect you?
AB: I wear my own fragrances and the experience is somewhat fascinating. Have you ever wondered whether or not you are in love? You think and think and consider all of the variables as you experience the dynamics and chemistry between you and the person you are with. That is how it feels for me to wear my own perfume, which I do almost everyday. I tend to love and analyze each fragrance as I wear it. Right now, I am wearing a fragrance I designed called Tribute. It is something I made that reminds me of the perfumes my mother introduced to me to when I was little. My mother has a very good nose and excellent taste in perfume. In many ways she cultivated my nose when I was a little girl. When I wear this perfume it reminds me of the elusive reasons women wear perfume in the first place and of the admiration I had for time-honored, French perfumes. I have been enjoying the hell out of wearing it but I will never sell it. It is strictly for friends, family and the people that work for Strange Invisible. But you never know. I have been talked into relinquishing every private perfume I have ever made for myself. I really have to learn to say no. I just don’t enjoy doing so.
SH: What fragrances from your permanent line are you currently wearing the most? And are there fragrances from other natural perfumers that you enjoy?
AB: Honestly when it comes to perfume I’m a real tart. It is a different scent each week. I’m not a signature perfume wearer. I’ll entertain monogamy when it comes to romance but never fragrance. Magazine Street, Moon Garden, and Fire and Cream are very high on my list, however. As for the work of other perfumers, John Steele makes a botanical perfume called Mango that I love and wear from time to time. The distiller I work with also designed a floral perfume featuring ginger lily, especially for this past Christmas. I love it and wear it whenever I get really dressed up.
SH: And finally, (this is a request within a question), do you have plans to expand your lovely bath and body collection?
AB: Yes. I do. We are reformulating the collection and I have some plans to switch up the format a bit. That’s all I can say for now, but I promise there are some nice developments on the horizon.