Pub Perfume

The corner of a pub lounge in Chester.

The recent tenth anniversary of the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs prompted quite a few comments like this one:

It’s funny how rarely the smell of pubs is discussed when it’s such an important part of the sensory experience, and capable of conveying so much. One of our favourite ever quotes is this from an essay by Adrian Bailey for Len Deighton’s 1967 London Dossier:

“Before opening time there is a virgin aroma of freshness, an inimitable pub-perfume mixture of hops and malt, spirits and polish with perhaps a faint touch of violet-scented air-freshener. This is my boyhood nostalgia. Spilt ale, dried and sugar-sticky.”

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few distinct ‘pub perfumes’.

There’s the spore-laden waft of cold air from the cellar for example that, at the right dosage, seems to enhance the atmosphere; but, in excess, can be nauseating, suggesting damp and decay. Similarly, there’s the tang of stale beer soaked into old carpets that a certain type of down-to-earth old-school pub wears proudly, like a 1970s aftershave.

There are a couple of pubs we can think of whose toilets are an intrusive presence, however many equally intrusive air fresheners are deployed, accompanied by meandering and thirsty fruit flies. This is never appealing.

One of the most pleasant smells in a pub is that of an open fire — rustic and homely, a link to the past.

Sometimes the customers contribute to the aroma with too much in the way of toiletries, or too little — a particular problem in the crush at the bar. Increasingly, vapers add unsubtle but not always unpleasant layers of cinnamon, vanilla, apple and so on.

But, generally, most pubs these days smell almost neutral (deliberately perfuming pubs is frowned upon even as scented candles take over the world) thanks to rigorous cleaning regimes and fans designed to suck away the pong of the deep fat fryer. That’s probably better on the whole but, as is often the case, consistency can sweep away character along with the problems it was sent to fix.