Of the five senses, smell is perhaps the most confounding and underappreciated. In a split-second series of synapses, our brains can decode and distinguish scents, storing them away for future recognition.
Smell also intrinsically linked to emotions, capable of conjuring otherwise fleeting moments: grass-stained knees on a soccer field as a kid, the cologne of a bygone love, warm croissants at that tiny Parisian café you visited on a semester abroad.
Scientists say these triggers occur because scent is transmitted directly to our olfactory bulbs and carried directly into the amygdala and hippocampus: centers for emotions, learning and memory.
For local chandlers, the visceral nature of scent is a blank canvas for storytelling in wax and wick.
At the Weathered Barn in Greenport Village, most of the two dozen or so handmade soy candles are linked to the memories of owners Jason and Rena Wilhelm.
“We spent a lot of time in redwood forests and on the Pacific Coast,” said Jason, inhaling while twisting the lid off their coastal rain candle, an earthy green scent with notes of bergamot, forest and musk. “We wanted to come up with something that brought us back to that feeling of standing in Muir Woods.”
Inspiration is also found closer to home in the sea moss candle, which blends notes of bergamot with orchid and ozone — described as the smell before rain.
When lit, Rena is immediately transported to 67 Steps Beach.
“It’s the first thing I picture,” she says. “Looking out at the big boulders in the saltwater, covered with moss.”
The couple began sourcing soy candles from a local artisan at their first shop in Westchester County in the early 2000s. “That’s when I first learned that they burned clean. You don’t get the soot in the air or blackening the walls,” Rena explained.
We asked our local experts for answers to all our burning candle questions:
When first lit, a candle should burn long enough for the wax to melt across the entire diameter. This will help avoid the “memory ring” that causes uneven tunneling.
Trim the wick
Keep the wick trimmed to ¼ inch and check for debris before lighting. It’s cleaner and can prolong the life of your candle.
Candle enthusiasts recommend using a snuffer to extinguish the flame or gently dipping the wick into the melted wax to avoid creating too much smoke or coating the inside of the candle jar with soot. Bonus: A wax-coated wick is easier to relight.
Soy is also the ingredient of choice for Sue McCallister of In The Attic, which recently relocated their salvage shop to Mattituck.
McCallister launched a line of phthalate-free soy candles in 2016, first using a double-boiler in her kitchen before filling pitchers to hand pour dozens at a time.
“I’m a quiet person,” McCallister said, describing the therapeutic nature of working with wax. “I don’t mind being alone. I go [into my studio] and think it’s very relaxing.”
McAllister also finds inspiration locally: Peconic’s Breeze Hill Farm sells her signature Macintosh apple scent, a nod to their 70-plus acres of apple orchards.
McAllister’s seasonally rotating scents also include sweet, nostalgic foodie scents like red plum baklava, brandied pear and banana nut bread.
“When you walk into someone’s home, it’s very welcoming to have a scent that’s pleasing to your nose, to your senses,” she said.
For both handmade artisans, candle-making is a delicate combination of art and science that involves precise measurements of fragrance oil and ensuring temperatures are correct before pouring the wax so it’ll set properly.
“There’s a window,” Jason Wilhelm explains. “It’s sometimes a little challenging.”
Many who meander into the Weathered Barn are met with a rush to the senses, often pausing to inquire: “What’s that smell?” Sometimes, on a candle-making day, emanating scents can waft down Front Street.
In response to persistent queries, Jason concocted Formula 237, a mix of bright, fresh scents like lavender and sage that capture the essence of their store.
“I’ve been modifying the recipe over the years,” he said.
Certain scents at In The Attic have also developed a cult following, including cherry tobacco, part of their first line. “Years later, people would come back in and say, ‘Do you have it yet?’ ” McCallister said. The grand opening for the Mattituck location also featured limited batches of the coveted scent.
Scented candles have become a staple in most homes, adding a decorative or seasonally festive touch.
But humans have long been captivated by light, particularly during the long winter months. The fascination transcends religion, culture, millennia: lighting a menorah for Hanukkah or Kinara during Kwanzaa, stringing up Christmas lights or burning a Yule log. In my family, Filipino traditions are marked by the parol, a star-shaped lantern symbolizing hope and closely linked via colonialism to the Mexican luminaria.
Each ritual incorporates light and, whether you celebrate a winter holiday or not, there’s something inherently comforting about the glow and flicker of a flame.
“Now that it’s getting darker earlier, it adds coziness,” says Rena Wilhelm. Even on the darkest of nights.
Local candles make great gifts at any time of year. Here are some others we recommend:
This eclectic home furnishings store in Southold carries a wide array of options, from beeswax dipped tapers and Hanukkah candles to celebrity prayer candles and sculptural creations such as the “Dyri” reindeer skeleton candle with a ghoulish twist. 53740 Main Road, Southold
What began as a pandemic hobby has blossomed into a small business for mom-and-daughter duo Emily and Tracy Bazarewski. Their locally inspired scents include Mattituck Strawberry, Jamesport Chardonnay and Laurel Lavender and include ingredients sourced from their garden. Instagram: @bumbleforkbaz
Revel North Fork
Owner Jennifer DiVello and her husband, Tom Hug, make hand-poured soy candles to memorialize local experiences with scents like Long Island Beach Flower, Greenport Get Away and North Fork Farmhouse. 10 Front St., Greenport