Sanctuary for the Senses

Castalia in Midtown offers a cocktail experience unlike any other
Kevin Peterson (left) and Jane Larson at their retail and bar space in Midtown.
The Crafty Couple: Kevin Peterson (left) and Jane Larson at their retail and bar space in Midtown.

By day, the basement-level space that makes up Sfumato’s charming storefront in Midtown is a treasure trove of fragrances. The wood shelving that lines the concrete walls holds the brand’s eight natural perfumes, some of which are displayed in glass jars beside their wax-sealed packaging. By night, lights are dimmed, stools are set up, and tables are pulled out to reveal Castalia, an innovative bar concept that pairs fragrances with craft cocktails.

“We’ve been calling it a sanctuary for the senses,” says Jane Larson, who along with her husband, Kevin Peterson, opened the mixed-use space in March. The couple, who founded the natural fragrance brand five years prior, however, won’t claim to be the first to combine scents with cocktails — it’s a trendy concept that has periodically appeared at perfume events across the country. Still, what they’re doing is incredibly unique.

Once served their drink of choice from the bar’s seasonal menu, customers are instructed to take a sip then smell either the napkin or the garnish attached to their glass, which is sprayed with a complementary Sfumato scent. After, they’ve taken in both the cocktail and fragrance, they’re free to take another sip. The result is a heightened awareness of the cocktail and fragrance’s shared notes. “As you’re drinking, you’re getting this boost in harmonized aroma,” says Peterson of the craft cocktails, which can contain as many as 12 ingredients. “We’re exploring that realm of independent scent and taste coming together to form an experience.”

Peterson has a background in culinary, physics, and engineering. He started experimenting with scents as a hobby about seven years ago after he and Larson, who works in user experience design — “I make websites more user-friendly,” she explains — moved from Minnesota to Detroit. Eventually, Peterson’s testing led him to neurogastronomy, the study of how the brain interprets flavor. “I saw analogies between the way you put flavors together and the way fragrances go together.”

By 2015, Peterson and Larson were drawing from their individual backgrounds to host artfully designed pop-ups. The sensory-driven events, which were first held privately at the couple’s loft then publically at Revolver in Hamtramck, paired Sfumato fragrances with food, drinks, and musical albums. The evenings proved to be a hit, especially for one diner, Dr. Mark R. Beard, who approached the couple with an opportunity to set up shop in the lower-level of his Midtown property in 2016.

Peterson and Larson took Beard up on the offer, and renovated the space into what is now, on select days, Sfumato’s storefront from noon to 6 p.m. and Castalia from 6 p.m. to midnight. For the time being, they’re focusing on perfecting their scent and cocktail pairings — the location proved to be too small for the dinners. But, as they celebrate the fragrance company’s milestone anniversary and nearly a year in the bar, they have plenty to look forward to, especially as the concept continues to gain traction. “People spend half an hour with their drink, and they’re like ‘I need to bring this [this fragrance] home with me, ’ ” Larson says. “Some things just have to be experienced.”

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Warm Up Winter

(Right) A hint of chartreuse fog adds an air of mystery to Castalia’s already complex Pareidolia cocktail. Crafted using Detroit-made Nordic Aquavit, angelica seed oil, bitters, aged rum, gin, and caramelized sugar, the drink is paired with Sfumato’s Apricity, a basil, frozen air, and angelica scent named after the feeling of the “warmth of the sun in winter.” To experience both the scent and the drink, Peterson and Larson instruct those at the bar to first try the orange-hued cocktail on its own then sniff the fragrant napkin, and taste again. The result is a sensory experience that accentuates the many flavors of the drink, which the couple says is one of their favorites on the fall menu.

Awaken the Senses

(Left) Paired with the citrus, herbaceous, and earthy Epiphany fragrance, Hirameki, the name of the ethereal emerald green cocktail, fittingly translates to “epiphany” in Japanese. It’s an appropriate title for a drink that contains matcha, a tea that Peterson says can conjure a sense of awakening in some. Other ingredients include Japanese whiskey, grapefruit juice, lavender and maple syrups, and orange juice. Poured into a glass tea cup, the cocktail’s complementary fragrance is sprayed onto a dainty white bow tied around the handle of the cup. When smelled before sipping, the scent can help enhance the sweetness of the grapefruit and dull the stringency of the green matcha flavor.

Embrace the Eclectic

(Right) After customer feedback about how Sfumato’s musk, raisin, and myrrh Arcanum fragrance had an unintended hint of Kalamata olive, the couple and their bar staff decided to create a spin on the dirty martini that paired with the scent. The resulting cocktail is My Dear Watson, a savory drink that features Kalamata olive brine, gin, mezcal, sweet vermouth, molasses bitters, cherry liqueur, and a house-made brandied cherry. Peterson discovered that olive and cherry worked well together after reading a book by IBM and Institute of Culinary Education, which features unlikely flavor combinations developed by the Watson supercomputer. Hence, the nod to the tech company’s technology in the drink’s name.

Freshen Up

(Left) Also paired with the Arcanum fragrance, Forbidden Provenance is better suited for a drinker that favors a more fruit-forward cocktail. Containing solera-style rum, lemon, valerian tincture, Moscatel wine, raisin syrup, and egg white, the concoction is designed to mirror the dark, nutty notes that are present in Arcanum, which is spritzed onto a napkin when served. Take a seat at the bar when ordering this menu item. As the drink is poured, bubbles put on a show as they disperse throughout the glass, eventually forming a thick, frothy head. The drink is then delicately garnished with raisins.