The future of men's fragrance may not be invented in some sterile, secret lab in Paris, but on a mountain in California. That's where I'm crashing through the forest of Big Sur's Ventana Wilderness, following Hall Newbegin, a bushwhacking perfumer, on a foraging mission.
The tall, bespectacled Newbegin, 45, is founder of the Oakland-based Juniper Ridge perfumery. His goal: Get men to smell like the woods.
"The fragrance industry is dictated by the narrow grammar set up by the French 200 years ago – floral equals feminine, musk equals masculine," Newbegin says, as he shears a Technicolor bud of sweet-smelling blue wild mint, which has eluded us all morning. "This idea that only 10 noses in Paris understand fragrance, it's just smoke and mirrors."
A cologne today, Newbegin says, usually starts with a celebrity, a few adjectives, and a barrel of oil. Then chemists take over. "They can make it smell like anything," he says. "Waffle cones, whatever. All that stuff smells like shit – thin, fake, grody, and turned up to 11." Juniper Ridge fragrances, on the other hand, are based on pine and sage, distilled naturally, without the use of petrochemicals. As Newbegin puts it: "We take an olfactory snapshot of a place and put it into a bottle."
It's a gig that keeps Newbegin where he wants to be – in the wild. For most of the year, he and his team of 15 travel all over California and beyond to source raw material, hiking and harvesting with machetes and chain saws and pickup trucks, armed with permits or permission from private landowners. Then they distill the plants to create everything from incense to soap to cologne. Each of their scents – Cascade Glacier, Steep Ravine, Big Sur, among others – is named for the bioregion where its ingredients were collected.
Newbegin started Juniper Ridge 15 years ago, but it's only lately that the brand has caught on like wildfire with the young, bearded, and tattooed. While the company's lower-priced products ($12 bar soaps, $13 teas) are sold at Whole Foods nationwide, its high-end offerings, like Caruthers Canyon Backpacker's Cologne ($100), deck the counters of men's shops that pride themselves on selling a curated mix of rugged and refined merchandise. All told, 50 stores around the country carry Juniper Ridge colognes, 25 joining that list in the past 12 months. The company cleared $2.5 million in sales last year.
With the afternoon's harvest tied to our day packs, we return to Juniper Ridge's mobile distillery: a 1987 Econoline van. From the rear, Newbegin pulls a 25-gallon steel kettle – a converted whiskey still – and throws in our wild mint, black sage (smoky), yarrow (fresh), monkey-flower (springy), mugwort (sagelike), yerba santa (medicinal), and pearly everlasting (mapley). He tops it off with a football-size cone of Coulter pine, and fits the top of the kettle with a copper distillation column. Then he sets the whole thing on a propane burner and rigs up a condenser from a spare radiator. "We're the only ones in the world who still make fragrances this way," he says.
Four hours and several beers later, Newbegin swirls a beaker under my nose. Piney, woolly, grassy notes hit me powerfully. Newbegin is not surprised. "This stuff is Ice Gge," he says. "You'll respond regardless if you give a shit about Big Sur, because the love of nature is hardwired into us."