I have always been fascinated with the synthetic molecules that go into my favorite fragrances. Very often the first use of these molecules form an inflection point from which many other fragrances spring from once it has been used successfully.
The first molecule I want to talk about is Ethyl Maltol. It’s most famous use is in 1992’s Thierry Mugler Angel. Perfumer Olivier Cresp combined it with other synthetics, Hedione and Coumarin, to create an indelible piece of day-glo olfactory art. Angel is a love it/hate it fragrance for its exuberant nature and at the heart of that exuberance is Ethyl Maltol.
Maltol (l.) and Ethyl Maltol (r.)
Ethyl Maltol by itself smells like a cotton candy machine running at full throttle at the state fair. It almost feels like the fumes are vaporized sugar floating in the air right on the verge or crystallizing. Prior to Ethyl Maltol’s synthesis perfumers used the natural form Maltol. As you can see from the two structures above there is only one small difference between Maltol and Ethyl Maltol. The addition of one more carbon and two more hydrogens leads to a significant difference. Maltol is a naturally occurring material which is used to add a note of coffee, caramel, or cocoa depending on the dilution. Ethyl Maltol does not occur in nature and is synthesized in a lab. The simple addition of one more carbon and its attending hydrogens increases the effect of Maltol by a tremendous amount and turns it into a powerhouse source of sweetness in a perfume. You have to dilute Ethyl Maltol many times more than Maltol to achieve a similar intensity.
It is exactly these kind of small molecular changes which lead to dramatic olfactory differentials which make this so intriguing to me. It also points up the difference in natural and synthetic sources of perfume materials as the synthetic conterparts to natural molecules generally carry a a bigger impact and intensity. This can be a reason for a perfumer to choose it especially for that over the top quality.
When you smell that intense cotton candy smell the next time you are trying a new fragrance, or revisiting Angel, now you know where it comes from.