In July 2015, I purchased my first bottle of Aesop in Queen West, Toronto for C$57.63. The first shop in Toronto had just opened. I had been eyeing the bottle after many years of seeing Aesop at the world’s best restaurants; indeed Aesop cemented its image as the bougie soap of choice for the culinary elite. I would have bought it much earlier had it not been for rules on transporting liquids on skyliners. The price was excruciating but rationalizable, I did not buy another one for a year since it lasts long. I often refer to it as the most ostentatious material purchase I make. If that were the case, I can sleep at night.
My attachment to the product is many fold. The scent is at the core. Scents bring back memories. Although my recollections are not specific, the smell of Aesop soap places me squarely back to my globetrotting days before working life. Aesop makes two handwashing soaps. The more popular one is called “resurrection” which according to the label smells like Mandarin Rind, Rosemary Leaf and Cedar Atlas. The distinguishing scent is the Mandarin Rind, which is the perfect mix of sweetness and acidity. The rosemary and cedar are afterthoughts, though important for the overall balance. The quality of the product can be indeed judged by this balance. I compare it to a great wine, where the fruit is balanced by the oak aging and secondary flavours, and where sugar is balanced with acidity.
The importance of this product extends beyond memories. The soap added to experiences with friends that I had not seen in ages and is often a topic of conversation. Some friends I have gifted the soap to share it with their housemates but most of them cherish it for their own use. They limit their use to small beads, as if it were the last of its kind. The hope is that when they smell the soap, that they think of me. Pretty good for $40.
A few months ago, I was running low and purchased two bottles from Nordstrom online. I had not opened them until recently. On the first use, the scent hit me as unexpected. I didn’t think much of it at the time. The second time, I grew skeptical. I had an almost finished bottle from a previous batch to compare it to and the differences were clear. The new version had suppressed the Mandarin Rind smell, and accentuated the two secondary flavours – the cedar and the rosemary. It smelt like an over-hopped IPA (what most trendy “craft” beer tastes like, which deserves an article of its own) or an over-oaked chardonnay. When the base product fails to be elegant, more pungent smells are needed to override it.
Aesop is a high gross margin product with strong pricing. But for some reason, it has chosen to reformulate down instead of raising price. The list price for the hand wash has stayed at $40 since 2015, when I first bought it, even when the raw materials in the product have inflated materially. Citrus is one product that has faced significant inflation. The world’s largest producer of artificial citrus (citral) had a fire on Oct 31 and is still trying to ramp up its plant (https://nutrition.basf.com/en/Citral-plant.html). Linalool, which is an ingredient listed on the label, started back up in May.
Upon visiting a store in Manhattan, the test sample was fine. But the bottles for sale were tainted. It turns out that the sample was made in 2016. After smelling more and more bottles, it was clear that the ones dated Sept 2017 were acceptable whereas the ones dated Nov 2017 were not. I would guess that this is not a coincidence.
I am disappointed that the company reformulated down without any indication that it did so. In some ways, it is preying on consumers that cannot tell the difference. For those consumers, one must wonder if they should be buying the product in the first place. I myself wonder if I need to reconsider my attachment to the soap. Perhaps I would have missed the difference in a parallel universe. Perhaps I would not have the conviction if I didn’t have some of the previous soap lying around.
When I search this online, I wonder why I’m the only person writing about this. Now that the citral supply is returning, we shall see if Aesop returns to its previous formulation. But if you are a pessimist you would ask why they would, given absolutely no backlash. If it comes to this, perhaps a new soap source needs to be considered. And there are many.
Note: when buying Aesop resurrection, make sure that the last four digits on the back (bottom right) imply a date pre Oct 31, 2017. For example, 0917 and not 1117. That will make all the difference.