Interview with Dabney Rose: artisan perfumer, expert distiller and plantswoman

Dabney & roses

Today I’m talking with Dabney Rose, a fellow perfumer, a gardener/distiller extraordinaire, and a wonderful example of an indie artisan staying true to her vision and ideals. She is a life-long plant lover and currently has a custom greenhouse at her home that holds an amazing array of beautiful flowering plants from which she extracts fragrance. In addition to flowers, she also distills roots, seeds, leaves, and woodsy materials such as agarwood and incense.

Dabney has spent years perfecting her distilling techniques and produces beautiful hydrosols from steam distillation as well as hyper-realistic extraits using the ancient art of enfleurage. She sells hydrosols, enfleurage extraits, and all-natural perfumes that make use of her special extractions.

Dabney’s tuberose enfleurage

I recently had the chance to experience some of Dabney’s products. I was especially enamored with her tuberose extrait from enfleurage (image of the process above); it’s amazingly beautiful and represents the full scent of the flower better than an absolute does (the absolute lasts longer, but the enfleurage is truer). Her agarwood and incense hydrosols were also favorites of mine. The hyacinth enfleurage extrait was fascinating to sniff because, like the tuberose, you’d almost think you had the flower in your hand.

I’ve long admired the gorgeous photos that Dabney shares on Facebook. All the photos in this post are hers; you can see she is an excellent photographer with a sharp eye for composition (all photos copyright Dabney Rose). I’ve not met Dabney in person, but she seems like a straight shooter, someone who always tries to be real and honest with you, which is something I greatly respect.

Dabney’s North Carolina home

Dabney grew up in West Virginia and currently lives with her husband in North Carolina. She has a son and a daughter. Today she shares an in-depth peek into her world and an update on what she will be working on this year.

Laurie: Did your connection to plants and nature start in your childhood? I’ve read that you spent a lot of time on the trails by horse and by foot, as I did, and I’m guessing your early experiences probably contributed to your wanting to keep a lifelong connection to the natural world.

Dabney: First, Laurie I want to thank you for this opportunity; it’s refreshing to come across another perfumer with this much interest and vision outside her own studio!

dabney_hiking_smAnd, yes, yes and yes! Not sure how the twig gets its original bend but I was extremely fortunate in that the natural world was in the forecourt and as a backdrop to my life. “Playthings” were trees, rocks, woods, flowers and creeks. I would wander off, sometimes for hours, even at a young age. Our family had ties with Northern Virginia and that world was of horses, old family homes (the old places had smells that you hardly encounter anymore), and roaming several family estates on foot and horseback. My first experience with ambergris hit me over the head with my childhood in Warrenton.

Another early memory is the wild plum tree at the edge of our woods; somewhere around age ten I asked my dad to help me make some wild plum incense with the flowers, and I remember that the incense did smell like the blossoms. That made a vivid memory!

In the early 80’s I had the experience of sharecropping tobacco, from the planting to the curing and baling, and smelling tobacco absolute resonates at a deep level with me (I have “been tobacco”). I also have a lot of plant dreams and sometimes the actual smell of a flower will wake me up.

In Conversation, ©DR
“In Conversation” ©DR

Laurie: You recently mentioned on Facebook that you lived for 11 years in a place with no running water? Can you tell us about it? (The photos looked like it was a gorgeous spot, but that would be very challenging!)

Dabney: Ah, Laurie, this was one of those “starting over from scratch” times and I was offered a place with the whole south wall in windows. My brain’s first cylinder fired off with, “Think of the plants I could have!” I had done a bit of homesteading and roughing it but had no inkling it would go 11 years! It didn’t stop me from distilling though.

greenhouseLaurie: That’s dedication! I love seeing pictures of your beautiful greenhouse. Did you design and build it to your own specs? What types of plants do you grow in it?

Dabney: My husband built it; we were gifted all the double pane windows we could use. It is a real dream come true for me and is built in panels so when we move, it will definitely move with us! The intention was to enable me to grow whatever fragrant plants I could, from a lemon tree to parma violets to cyclamen (the roster varies each year). It’s kind of like my lab, and I have figured out the cool and warm zones and place the gang accordingly. It’s also my own personal haven and I go out there and blend energies with the green people.

greenhouse3_smLaurie: A greenhouse like that would be a dream for many of us! (Probably more work than we’d imagine, but worth it.) How did you learn to distill? Was it mostly trial and error or did you learn from others or from books? I read that your Dad helped you learn?

Dabney: My dad got me started. He was a chemist, saw I was into aromatherapy, and connected a few dots. That was in 1987 and I still have the glassware he got me. Back then there was no reading material to help me along the way, and I do remember feeling isolated and frustrated. But at the same time there was no one to tell me I couldn’t do this or that!

Laurie: Did distilling lead to perfumery or vice versa?

Evening primrose distillation
Special evening primrose distillation, ©DR

Dabney: I was distilling for over 15 years before I got into “proper” perfuming, and I got into it as a way to round out my fragrance experience. With distilling, I seem to be able to go deeper into the creative process; it offers more of an unknown quality to the journey and encompasses more realms. Enthralling as perfuming can be, the process remains on one plane only. You are mixing, moving material around, and then you end up with blended materials. (Of course beautiful synergies take place but you are still on the one plane.) Distillation is alchemy; something gets transmuted and raised to a higher frequency. It “encourages the flowers and herbs to release their finer spirit from the grosser,” and the essence of the distiller gets distilled as well.

Because hydrosols have water-soluble components as well as oil-soluble, they are a more holographic representation of the original plant than the EO and can be truer in scent profile. Hydrosols, as with enfleurage, are closer to what I think of as the “original fragrance,” the fragrances that inspired and gave rise to perfume, and they captivate me as much if not more.

"Hydrosol fragrant kisses" ©DR
“Hydrosol fragrant kisses” ©DR

I have for years desired hydrosols to be taken more seriously as fragrance; people tend to dismiss them because they are so fleeting, but really, how long does a kiss last? Let them be fragrant kisses!

Laurie: I can definitely understand that point of view. Sometimes you are in the mood for something gentler and have the time to focus on it and appreciate it — these would be lovely for meditation.

Hydrosols are usually produced as a by-product of distilling essential oils, but you specialize in creating exceptionally high-quality hydrosols as a main product. How do you modify the distillation apparatus/process to focus on the hydrosol?

Rose blossoms, ©DR
Rose blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: For me it is simple: I don’t do bulk. Period. My batches are small, intimate and intense. My yields are in pints, not in gallons. If I’m doing flowers, I hand remove every single calyx. A lot of my batches are quite labor intensive; the ginger lilies go through the mortar and pestle on their way to the still. I once had someone who wanted to buy my whole stock of raspberry. It’s gratifying beyond anything when people say, “yours are the best I’ve ever found.” It helps one rebound from the burnout times but it’s also validation that you have found a good and worthy path through your life. It’s humbling. I’m sorry that I disappoint some people because I can’t offer to sell wholesale, but I am an artist and this is my art; it’s not just a way to make money. On occasion I will do special requests.

Laurie: I think most indie perfumers feel the same way about the scents we make in small hand-made batches, so we can relate! What are some of your favorite materials for distilling? And for enfleurage?

Camellia blossoms
Camellia blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: I’ve put over 60 different materials through the still, and it’s nice to still be awed; recently I did some high-quality Japanese incense and it’s precisely and beautifully right on. I like doing my lemon tree “a la petitgrain sur fleur.” I enjoy doing co-distillations, like an agarwood and rose that was sublime. Delicate things like camellia flowers get doubled distilled; I put them through the still twice to give them a little more “oomph.” This also takes more time, electricity, and water. I enjoy pairing flowers with gemstones, like tuberose and moonstone. I like getting out of the box and have done things like french green clay and rice bran (you would not believe what they do for your skin). And I want to bring back my AlcheMists (hydrosol hybrids)… the ideas never stop coming!

Laurie: Have you been able to extract scent from some of the flowers that aren’t usually available in essential oils/absolutes, like gardenia, lilac, violet (flower) or lily of the valley?

Dabney’s narcissus enfleurage

Dabney: Yes, but I’m still trying to grow enough of these to really have them make an impact. My daughter and her husband just bought a farm in upstate New York that just happens to have a lilac grove, and I hope to be able experiment with these in every way imaginable!

Laurie: That’s great! I’ve tried some simple infusions in alcohol, and while I’ve had success with things like iris root, ambrette seeds, and tea, the flowers that I’ve tried have produced infusions that were nowhere near as useful for perfume as essential oils. Would you say enfleurage is a better way than infusion for the home gardener who wants to extract some scent from a small crop of flowers?

Dabney: Enfleurage continues to be a revelation to me. There is no other process to compete with its authenticity of capturing a flower’s scent profile. It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing. If you’ve taken good care of them, they will sing for days. To dunk a flower in oil or alcohol (or solvent), you drown their voices. The resulting medium is flat and distorted. To me it’s like dead verses alive. (I once seared some scallops with enfleuraged lemon blossom…and I know I will never top that for taste.)

"It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing."
“It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing.” (hyacinth blossoms, ©DR)

Laurie: I can see what you mean by sniffing the samples you sent me; the hyacinth and tuberose are amazingly beautiful and real! Makes me very tempted to try enfleurage next summer, especially since it does not take any special equipment.

For steam distillation, is there any simple equipment someone can set up in the kitchen to give it a try, or do you really need to buy professional equipment to get good results?

Dabney: Distillation is a very straight-forward and basic process, and it does not take fancy equipment; the only thing I would insist on is a really good condensing tube, but that is well under $100. Sometimes I use a reconfigured stainless steel pressure cooker (reconfigured at my friendly neighborhood hardware store). Quality comes from knowing how to ride your horse, not how fancy the saddle is.

Laurie: I understand that you may be coming up with some new products for sale. Do you want to give us a hint of what might be coming?

Vase of tuberoses, ©DR.
Vase of tuberoses, ©DR

Dabney: Recently I had to withdraw from the scene for a while, and now I am back in creative mode and building another website. The big news is that one of my favorite clients has asked me to collaborate as perfumer for her forthcoming company. We are taking the time to get all of it right, so it might be another year or more as we are aiming high!

Laurie: That’s wonderful news, Dabney! I’m sure you will come out with something extraordinary! Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm with us! It’s been a treat to talk with you. Best wishes with all your projects!

You can stay tuned to Dabney’s Facebook page for updates, announcements, and the beautiful photos she shares.

Petal portrait, ©DR
Petal portrait, ©DR

1. For those who want to learn the art of enfleurage, Dabney provides a wonderful illustrated tutorial here. Enfleurage involves spreading freshly-picked flowers on trays of fat (coconut oil, for example) and collecting the scent of the flowers in the fat. The flowers are changed multiple times to concentrate the scent, and when the scent is strong enough the fat is washed with alcohol to transfer the scent from the fat to the alcohol.
2. A hydrosol is a product of steam distillation, and an excellent discussion/definition can be found here at Mountain Rose Herbs.
3. Dabney has been interviewed by Cafleurabon and Now Smell This. A beautiful review of several of her products can be found at Indie Perfumes, and more reviews can be found at Scent Hive.
4. All photos copyright Dabney Rose.

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  1. In Persia rosewater was actually considered perfume until the essential oil was accidentally discovered by Noor Jahan’s mother when she was distilling the petals. I love Dabney’s description of hydrosols as “fragrant kisses”! So true.

  2. Thank you for this Laurie!! Dabney sounds like an amazing woman. I was enraptured reading about her life and her love of fragrance. I hope to order something she has made. Those hydrosols sound lovely. Good interview!

    1. Thanks, Tora! I thought her story would be interesting to people because it’s rare for someone to reach her degree of expertise with distilling and enfleurage. She really is amazing.

  3. Thank you All for the lovely comments and special Thanks to Laurie for the interview to begin with! I had a lot of fun with her questions.
    I have met many amazing fragrance friends through fb, etc and love that the (daisy) chain keeps growing! I continue to learn bits and pieces here and there and it is a real feel good to me to help move the momentum forward.

    1. Glad you had fun with it, Dabney! I, too, love the wonderful group of people we have in the fragrance community, and making new friends in that circle is always a great experience.

  4. i so much enjoyed reading your interview with dabney rose.in regards to distillation and the cost dabney responds.”quality comes from knowing how to ride your horse,not how fancy the saddle is”these words and the entire interview was most interesting and enjoyable for me.i’m most thankful for an artist that is real and honest as they are able to see,smell,and hear with an incredible brightness as they have a passion for their work.you laurie and dabney have the ability along with hours of hard work as artists to create and share amazing perfumes for me and many others to enjoy.thank you for a most enjoyable read.

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It’s fun to highlight people who are doing amazing things. We have so many talented people in our fragrance world.

    2. Thank you Carrie for your kind words! Yes, the Good days can be bright indeed. 😀 And as you know, that is not the whole journey. For me, this opportunity gave me a glimpse of a very strong, dedicated individual in Laurie herself.

  5. oh yes laurie is a favorite of mine in so many ways.you are so correct dabney.it shows in the beautiful scents she creates.i’m fond of many.when one uses their talents there is only one way to go…UP! i so admire you both and look forward to many more reads about your work as well as new artists in the land of perfume.

  6. Hi. I think I have contacted you before. We are a Lilac farm in Cherry Valley ny a22nd want to learn how to change our Enfleurage into an absolute. Is that something you can help us with. Hooevto hear from you

      1. Hi Dabney and Kandy. Kandy had left a note on my blog and I had referred her to you, Dabney, but I hadn’t heard back from my email to Kandy. Glad you two have connected now. 🙂

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