Bortnikoff‘s Santa Sangre showcases authentic fragrant sandalwood in all its glory. Not only does Mr. Bortnikoff use the very best, most luxurious version, Mysore sandalwood, but he and his co-creator add to the verisimilitude of the bouquet through a plethora of other ingredients that help to recreate the bouquet of a santal tree from the ground up.
Santa Sangre is a pure parfum or extrait that was created by Dmitry Bortnikoff and Rajesh Balkrishnan and released in 2021.
The somewhat hyperbolic official description of the scent and its notes reads as follows:
Like their previous thundering success, Dmitry Bortnikoff and Rajesh Balkrishnan combine the finest and rarest absolutes from all over the world to create an incredible red floral dream. The perfume opens with delicious aromatic notes of luscious pink grapefruit, Tahitian vanilla flower and dreamy Indian jasmine sambac. The heart contains the finest Himalayan pink lotus absolute and white Thai lotus infusion. The perfume settles on a powdery bed of red Siam benzoin crystals, exotic Dragon’s Blood incense resin from Yemen and a mixture of Mysore and Indonesian sandalwood. An exercise in perfume creation like no other where Bortnikoff carefully created special infusion extracts of the lotus and jasmine with sandalwood for making this dream scent. Absolutely unique and resplendent like a shimmering ruby with even the perfume description embossed in 24 karat gold on the bottle, Santa Sangre is an infusion of new blood designed to bring peace and happiness in today’s troubled world.
Santa Sangre’s succinct note list is:
Pink Grapefruit, Tahitian Vanilla Flower, Jasmine Sambac, Himalayan Pink Lotus Absolute, Thailand White Lotus, Sandalwood (mixture of Mysore and Indonesian), Dragon’s Blood Incense, Red Siam Benzoin.
Before I begin, I’d briefly like to talk about two of the raw materials or notes with whom you may not be familiar in terms of their olfactory. First, let’s look at the Pink Lotus because it is quite prevalent on my skin during the initial 1.75 hours and I think you should know what it smells like. I first encountered Pink Lotus Absolute in Papillon‘s Anubis where it created a sort of shimmery, iridescent floralcy with earthy soil, mossy, chypre-like undertones. I next encountered it in two fragrances sent to me privately for feedback and, this time, they were more vanillic in aroma but still with that earthy, green-woody, hard-to-describe floralcy. I kept thinking of the aroma of earthy lilies mixed with the brown-green stalk woody greenness, the mud at the bottom of the pond in which they grew, the earth and greenness at the trail around it. The difference this time, however, is that the bouquet was simultaneously more dusty, more chypre-like, fruity sweet, and almost like a mix of cypriol, vetiver, Stargazer lilies, vanilla, vanilla orchid, damp soil, and a smidgeon of mossiness.
While I’ve never previously encountered Thai white lotus nor have any idea of what it is supposed to smell like, here is an olfactory description of the pink varietal from Eden Botanicals that also references the scent of the white kind:
Our superb Pink Lotus Absolute is a beautiful addition to fine natural perfumes and anointing oils. It has an exceptionally rich, honeyed, dense floral aroma that is earthy and creamy sweet, with a spicy green top note, ripe fruit and coumarin-like undertones, and a tenacious, slightly spicy, deep earthy richness in the drydown. While similar to our White Lotus Absolute, this absolute is softer, slightly sweeter, and a bit more refined. Even when highly diluted, the fragrance of Pink Lotus Absolute holds its fragrance.
With regard to the Dragon’s Blood incense, this is not a note that I’ve encountered before, though I’ve read about the trees and beautiful area from whence they come.
The scent here on my skin is interesting because it’s like a mix between sweet myrrh or opoponax’s nutty, resinous incense smoke and the more woody variety that one finds with actual sandalwood. At the same time, there is just the subtlest, most infinitesimal suggestion of vanilla and crème caramel-laced cedar pencil shavings, though those are undoubtedly from the other raw materials in Santa Sangre and their interaction together.
With the note descriptions out of the way, let’s look at the scent itself.
Santa Sangre opens on my skin with zippy, zesty, tart, and sweet pink grapefruit accompanied by heavily candied, vanillic and fruited powderiness. There is also a big splash of orange. Together, the fruits and the candied powder create a note that resembles both Pez candy and the old 1970s Tang orange drink powder.
Other elements soon appear. There is floralcy, smelling of pink lotus: earthy, mossy, like crushed wet green leaves, damp vegetation, pond mud, and something even a bit leathery. Incense resembling nutty sweet myrrh follows, then an undertone of dark chocolate and lastly, spicy Mysore sandalwood.
I have to say, it’s a highly original and creative opening; I don’t think I’ve encountered anything quite like it before. A good part of that stems from the use of the pink lotus flower along with the pink grapefruit and incense.
25-30 minutes in, a treacly, balsamic, resinous, and sweet benzoin rises up from the base, adding yet another layer of sweetness to the bouquet.
Honestly, the sugared levels are too much in my opinion, not because I have a low tolerance for candied qualities in perfumery (which I most absolutely do) but because it adds such a cheap aura to what would otherwise be the most luxurious of bouquets. Genuine, hard-core sandalwood is so incredibly rich and lush, then to go ruin it by adding a candied powder straight out of a cheap mall’s common Pink Sugar boutique, followed by caramel and vanilla…it’s frustrating. I find it neither high end, refined, sophisticated or, more to the point, well-balanced. One can add sweetness without the extreme diabetic excesses of which Mr. Bortnikoff seems so fond, judging by this scent and Sir Winston. In-your-face foghorn imbalance of one or two notes is not a good thing, in my opinion, when they detract from one of the most expensive, scarce, rare, precious, and beautiful raw materials around, like Mysore sandalwood. A thousand and one supposedly “high-end,” luxurious, elite and/or niche brands are constantly suffocating me with various rasping, abrasive, smoky, shrill, head-ache-inducing sandalwood aromachemicals and Santa Sangre tries to turn the most resplendent of woods into sugared candy froth at a fair? I’m sorry, it annoys me. Deeply. Immeasurably.
To be absolutely fair, the rest of the fragrance is a delight on an olfactory level after that grating, unrefined, imbalanced, self-indulgent first 45-50 minutes of poorly balanced cloying, saccharine excess that detracts from the main character.
During that initial opening block, the notes swirl around independently, each one clear and separate, until, 45 minutes into the fragrance’s development, they fuse together to form a totality that reads as “Mysore sandalwood.” To put it another way, the individual bricks have formed to create something entirely separate, a Mysore tree from the ground up, in all of its varied nuances. There is the powdered aspect to Mysore wood but also the spice, the smoke, the incense-like smoke, the nuttiness, the resinousness, and even the subtle citrus and the floralcy which the very best sandalwood distillations tend to have. (See, e.g., Ensar Oud‘s Santal Sultan, Santal Royale, et al.) It’s a diaphanous but unmistakable bouquet.
At the start of the second hour, Santa Sangre is a gourmand, sweetened but better balanced vanillic floral sandalwood that is layered with soft incense smoke, a soft but lovely resinous undertone, and that earthy, sweet, vanilla-laced, fruity pink lotus floralcy, all enveloped within a cloud of caramel-tinged amber. The way that the benzoin interacts with the vanilla makes me think of a creme brulee, only this one is laced with floralcy and smoke.
By the way, I keep repeating the word “soft” intentionally;” Santa Sangre performs more like a moderate eau de toilette on me than a rich extrait. The sillage is so discreet on me that, the first time that I tried the fragrance, I added a second batch, then a third. That ended up ruining my scent calculations (I try to use a standard application across all tests and fragrances), so I tested Santa Sangre a second time, was perplexed at the longevity and performance, so had to test Santa Sangre a third time to be sure. I’ll get into those specifics later but, for now, suffice it to say that the fragrance is translucently thin in body on the scent trail around me and only fractionally more in strength up close.
Like several of the Bortnikoff fragrances that I’ve tried thus far, Santa Sangre is minimalistic in composition and linear. There is nothing wrong with either; most of my favourite fragrances are simple “cozy comfort” scents that are pretty linear. With Santa Sangre, any changes that occur on my skin are largely one of degree, nuance, or the order and prominence of individual notes.
For example, about 1.75 hours in, the Pez powder (thankfully) drops in velocity and force as the smokier, woodier, and more ambered aspects of the bouquet bloom. There is no real pink lotus floralcy, no greenness, no earth, no pink grapefruit. There is really only a multi-faceted but singular, uncomplicated amorphous whole that equates to the many sides of true sandalwood.
At the end of the second hour and start of the third, Santa Sangre is a sweet, spicy, smoky, incense-y sandalwood with quiet undertones of fruity powder, chocolate cacao powder, resins, a whiff of tarry leather, a speck of sweet, tart, tangy citrus, and spices that nod to coriander and cinnamon.
Yet, to detect ANY of that, I have to dig my nose deep into my arm. From afar, all that’s detectable is a sweet, spicy, resinous, smoky, incense-y, and singed sandalwood sheathed within a cloud of sandalwood vanilla, sandalwood coumarin/tonka woodiness, and sandalwood amber.
Santa Sangre is, at its heart, a layered examination of sandalwood and, consequently, a soliflore that doesn’t change on my skin. From the 60-minute mark until a few hours before its end, it’s nothing but “sandalwood,” only blurrier, hazier, softer, and more abstract. In its final hours, there is only sweet woodiness. If I try really hard and focus, there is a whiff of something powdery at times or something sweet and vanillic at other times, but it’s difficult to tell.
It’s difficult to tell because Santa Sangre has pretty terrible performance on me for a pure parfum. The first time I tried it, the fragrance became a skin scent 2.5 hours in with my standard 2-3 good, generous wide smears from a vial. I assumed that I tried too little so I doubled the quantities in my second test and got 3.25 hours before Santa Sangre became a skin scent on me. The third time around, I almost used up the remnants of my vial, about 5-6 smears or about 3-4 sprays from a vial and I basically got 3.5 hours. Applying more and more scent merely seemed to amplify the opening sillage from anywhere between 5 inches to about 14 inches during the first 90 minutes. But the end result always seems to be the same midway during the third hour: Santa Sangre becomes a discreet, deeply intimate, olfactorily singular, linear, but fully layered and complex sandalwood scent.
There’s nothing else to it. Depending on test, I had the same scent from the 45-minute mark until the 6th hour, from the 60 minute mark until not much later, and so on. My skin seems to devour Santa Sangre — which is very peculiar for an oriental composition with these notes and this degree of concentration. (About 25% to 30% richness.) I don’t have an explanation. All I’ll say is that Santa Sangre has never lasted more than 7 hours on me even with a huge scent application.
On Fragrantica, a good number of reviews seem to talk about the supposed spirituality (??) of the scent, the brilliance of co-creator Rajesh Balkrishnan, and a lot more stuff that goes over my head and that makes me wonder if I’m missing a cultish sub-culture involving the co-creator.
All I can say is that Santa Sangre is pretty — after the unbalanced, unharmonious, out-of-place, disconcertingly inapropos candied sugar Pez opening. And it is certainly a thousand times better and more authentic to the joys of sandalwood than the cucumber aromachemical concoction in Santal 33 that Le Labo has somehow bizarrely persuaded everyone is what sandalwood is supposed to smell like.
I liked Santa Sangre – quite a bit at times but also often just… meh. I can’t be any more honest than that.
Which brings me to something I’ve experienced a few times thus far in my exploration of Bortnikoff. I’m not wow’d or overcome, but the fragrances are nice and they clearly use top quality and incredible ingredients. However, in my personal opinion, I just don’t feel that he’s progressed abundantly far in his fragrance journey as a perfumer in terms of editing, balance, and referencing the bench mark classics for the high price in question.
Of course, no-one is required to turn to the classics, but if you’re going to make Franco-Arabian perfumery at $350 a bottle, as so many other Bortnikoffs do, then I think it’s important to know the historical conceptual framework and to learn editing from the greats. Mr. Bortnikoff’s former partner in Feel Oud and artisanal counterpart Russian Adam has very clearly sought to educate himself on those things in specific. I know that from my own discussions with him but also from seeing his work progress over years and years. He references the greats in his works, but then he also updates or puts his own twist on them. He’s also clearly learned to use a finessed hand from the days when he, too, used Pez gourmand candy powder willy-nilly over ambergris and the most expensive ingredients around. I wasn’t a fan in his case. I’m not here, either. Also, I have samples of Bortnikoff fragrances from 2017 or 2018 and, frankly, I think a few of those are more interesting than the more recent, splashier, more clearly Franco-vintage skewing releases that I’ve tried.
Which brings me to another point: Inconsistency. I find there is inconsistency in skill, idea, and complexity across the various creations that I’ve tried thus far. That’s totally normal for a self-taught perfumer and, to be exceptionally clear, Mr. Bortnikoff shows great innate talent but I really think he needs to edit himself somewhat and perhaps not fall in love with his (admittedly gorgeous) ingredients so much that he can’t help overpowering some of them. (Also, for the love of GOD, enough with the sodding Pez gourmand powder. It makes your expensive fragrances smell common.)
My criticisms notwithstanding, Santa Sangre might work for a hardcore sandalwood lover who didn’t mind both a candied quality and also taking a risk on an expensive fragrance that may not last for eons on one’s skin. There is no doubt that this fragrance is a rarity in the market today: a scent that smells of actual Mysore in all its facets and is a soliflore without other distractions.
Santa Sangre will suit those who prefer an airier, significantly sweeter, and more discreet personal style. The performance of the scent cloud makes me think of Bertrand Duchaufour’s aesthetic which one reader dubbed, long ago, “airy weightlessness.” I think that is true on my skin for the first 2.5 hours of Santa Sangre. Thereafter, I’m sorry, but I found the performance to be seriously lacking. Maybe it’s just my skin.
Personally, I prefer Ensar Oud‘s Santal Sultan. However, it’s not really fair to compare them because that is a concentrated, distilled oil essence while this is a spray parfum with a very diaphanous (though rich) body. Also, I’ve just been informed that Ensar Oud is no longer offering the oil of Santal Sultan. I believe there is a spray perfume now, however.
Onto retail and sample matters now. Santa Sangre comes in a 50 ml bottle for $350 and a 9 ml decant for $90. Luckyscent sells the 50 ml bottle and samples but, at the time of this writing, February 19, 2022, LS is sold out of samples. On Mr. Bortnikoff‘s site, the 50 ml and 9 ml bottles are available, but no individual samples. However, in a different section of Bortnikoff parfums, there are multiple sample sets available consisting of 3, or more, different fragrances. To find a Bortnikoff retailer in Europe and beyond, you can turn to his Stockist/Retailers page.
Disclosure: My sample was provided courtesy of Luckyscent. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews and my opinions are my own.