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Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris

November 15, 2018

 

In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.

 

Koh-i-Noor

 

Koh-i-Noor opens with a duvet-like whoosh of cheesy, stale musks that somehow manage to be saline and sweet all at once. Gardenia is probably responsible for the curdy, cream-cheesey saltiness, the Indian tuberose too. In general, I get the same ‘rancid floral butter’ impression as the wonderful lostinflowers by Strangelove NYC, which makes sense as lostinflowers also uses real gardenia absolute and an Indian attar approach to perfumery.

 

The florals, compressed into a big block of yellow butter, exhibit a texture greasy with costus, civet, and a goose fat facet that I can almost taste at the back of my throat. Like Oudh Infini (Dusita), the sensation is akin to swallowing creamy goat curd and getting that delayed response mechanism to the underlying funk, whereby you think at first, oh this is mild, but then that goat flavor starts to fill the back and sides of your mouth until there’s no room for anything else. Honestly, I’m both repulsed and attracted.

 

There’s an interesting dual texture thing going on, though. The oily costus-musk and big ole block of Indian floral butter is backlit by a hugely powdery rose or jasmine nag champa note. The dance back and forth is fascinating; sometimes you tune into the sweet powder, sometimes the scalpy wetness is all you can smell. The musks and florals smell expensive, luxurious – but the nag champa note is sweetly, cheaply powdery, like when you put your nose too closely to a stick of Indian incense and inhale too deeply, getting particles of incense dust in your nose hairs. This lurch between expensive and cheap is the real hook here. It’s what reels me in, making me sniff myself compulsively throughout the day.

 

I’m seeing lots of references to Diaghilev (Roja Dove) in relation to Koh-i-Noor on Basenotes, but I don’t get that at all. I wore them both side-by-side to check. Diaghilev is immediately greener, fresher, and more chypre-like than Koh-i-Noor. The Roja Dove has a clear correlation to vintage Mistouko extrait, which apparently contained real animalics (ambergris). But honestly, wearing Koh-i-Noor and Diaghilev side by side reveals their differences more than their similarities. Koh-i-Noor is almost suffocatingly sweet, floral, buttery, and powdery, while Diaghilev is sharp, green, and distinctly oakmossy. As it dries down, Diaghilev takes on that bitter, ashy tonality so characteristic of oakmoss. Diaghilev is drier and more masculine than Mitsouko, but just like Mitsouko, it has chypre written across its face in capital letters. Koh-i-Noor is far more of a floral musk fragrance, and a sweet one at that.

 

Kafkaesque made reference to Britannia, also by Roja Dove, and that’s something that makes much more sense to me. Britannia is a gourmand leather with an intensely doughy, medicinal floral knot at the center that made me think of room-clearing monsters like Giorgio Beverly Hills and old-fashioned leathery floral extravaganzas like Cuir Cannage (which is, in and of itself, weirdly linked to L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain). If there’s an axis of Britannia and Diaghilev, both by Roja Dove, and Koh-i-Noor is in the center, then what does that tell you about Koh-i-Noor? Well, for one, that it has an old-world, musk-laden Guerlainesque feel (somewhat true) and that it’s built like an impenetrable fortress – Miss Havesham equipped with bodysuit and lasers for an Infinity War-style caper (very true).

 

Fragrances such as Diaghilev (Dove), Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI), Britannia (Dove), and vintage Gold Man (Amouage) are built on a gargantuan scale, like the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II in Rome, or The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, buildings designed by fascist dictators to frighten the living daylights out of their people. Built with the intent of conveying grandeur and stateliness – if not to cow lesser beings – scents like these can be difficult to pull off on a regular basis. Chypre Palatin, Gold Man, Diaghilev, etc. all revolve around a central building block of creamy civet-laden oakmoss, musks, costus, and castoreum, onto which are then cantilevered a mass of powdery florals to flesh things out into something even more obnoxiously grand. It’s stuffy. Wearing any one of these things can make me feel like the palace walls are closing in on me, silken cords tightening around my neck, and all I can smell is the cloying muskiness of the bodies pressed against me. It’s a deliberate effect, I think. Drop to a submissive position, stat!

 

Koh-i-Noor shares something of Chypre Palatin’s civety funk and powdery floral, but in truth, I find it to be far closer to vintage, pre-reform Gold Man (Amouage). I once worked with a guy who was drop dead gorgeous, but whose personal hygiene was so poor that every time he’d lean forward at a meeting, a waft of unwashed crotch, pasted down in several layers of deodorizing powders and sprays, would drift upwards to my nose. Gold Man, the vintage version at least, squirrels after much the same effect, which is to say it layers oppressively powdery musks and florals over a deeply funky base of unwashed crotch.

 

However, Koh-i-Noor distinguishes itself from this company by way of that floral nag champa note. It’s the dance between expensive (cream cheesey) musks and cheap, fizzy headshop incense powder that makes Koh-i-Noor such a fascinating fragrance. It’s the most interesting scent in the 4th generation of Areej Le Dore fragrances, although on a personal level, its constant lurch between greasy and dusty leaves me feeling a little queasy.

 

The far drydown is where the naturally powdery sweetness of the deer musk comes through, and fleshed out with sweet amber and florals, it smells incredibly moreish, chocolatey even. If you’re like me and love the collected smells of the incense aisle of your local Asian shop, the air thick with the powdery scent of individual nag champa sticks, musk cubes, cheap barkhour, and the entire range of Al Rehab oils, opened and sniffed by customers before you, then you’ll find 75% of Koh-i-Noor to be comforting and familiar. The stuffy, greasy wall of musk and florals at the start will be less familiar and even off-putting; but if you’re a fan of the powdered floral funk of the musks in vintage Gold Man, then you’ll be able to take the opening hour in your stride too.

 

 

 

Baikal Gris

 

 

Baikal Gris smells almost boozy to begin with, the tarry pop of ambergris working against a backdrop of what smells like freshly-poured latex paint, a furry-industrial smelling note that pleases my nose as much as the odd whiff of fuel, hot tar, paper, or glue you catch on the breeze outside a small fishing port or in the corridors of a school. These ‘incidental’ smells of the environment are always better-smelling to me than the scent of flowers. This preference explains, perhaps, why I am instinctively drawn to Baikal Gris over any of the other scents. It smells natural and industrial at the same time; evocative of a broader nature-scope.

 

I should explain that Atlantic Ambergris was by far my favorite of the 2nd generation of Areej Le Dore scents, and I wish I’d invested in a bottle. Atlantic Ambergris is warming and cooling at the same time, a tarry, leathered core buried deep within cool, seaweedy fronds and lifted by the warm, brackish-metallic air of low tide seawater. A Basenotes friend of mine pointed out that it smells like an excised portion of Blackbird (House of Matriarch), an observation that is entirely correct but (perhaps because she’s a woman) was roundly dismissed at the time until the idea later gained traction. Atlantic Ambergris just needed time to settle into its final shape. It was sharp and cloveish when I got my sample, but now, a full year later, it has softened into a tarry, salty black leather-amber thing that I’d wear every day if I had a bottle. Unfortunately, Atlantic Ambergris is as rare as pre-reform Blackbird these days, so it’s hardly a viable replacement. (Oh, the weirdly specific woes of the fragrance fiend!)

 

Baikal Gris shares enough of a familial resemblance with Atlantic Ambergris that I find it immediately lovable. There are some major points of divergence, though, so let me just quickly point them out. While Atlantic Ambergris is  sharply delineated by its fresh, camphoraceous pine needle, tar, and citrus opening, Baikal Gris has only a brief pop of metallic greenness from violet leaf. Either I’m missing much of the fir balsam or it needs some maceration time for that note to fully emerge. The upshot of this, for me, is that Baikal doesn’t seem overly coniferous to me, skipping instead straight to the tarry, salty freshness of the ambergris and the musky, almondy heft of the tonka bean. It smells clean, smooth, and almost medicinal.

 

Secondly, because Atlantic Ambergris’ amber-leather basenotes are laced with a ‘sweaty’ clove note, a splash of male aftershave, and quite a bit of ‘moldy’-smelling labdanum, the final result is part Caronade (a la Tabac Blond) and part Old Man of the Sea. In contrast, Baikal Gris feels infinitely more modern, with its musky bitter almond-cherry tonka bean. Because most masculines these days are upholstered with some kind of tonka bean finish, I like to joke that tonka is the beige carpet of the fragrance world (the audacity of taupe!). But honestly, it’s popular because it’s such a crowd-pleasing material. If you have a taste for tonka’s tan, buffed roundness and its ‘almost’ sweetness that orbits vanilla but never enters, then know that there’s plenty of it here.

 

Having said that, Baikal Gris maintains a fresh, salty sparkle that ensures that the big woolly carpet of tonka bean isn’t left out there on its own to do all the heavy lifting. It’s never overbearingly sweet or heavy. There’s a tendency for tonka-prominent fragrances to smell samey in the base – stuff like Fêve Délicieuse (Dior Privee), Fucking Fabulous (Tom Ford), or Ambre Eccentrico (Armani Prive) all blurring into the same matte, tonkified sludge towards the end – but in Baikal Gris, the sepia-tinted paste of tonka is sluiced and aerated by that grungy, salty-sweet seaweedy ambergris. Baikal Gris might be simpler and more modern than Atlantic Ambergris, but it’s no less pleasing for that. I think this one, like Atlantic Ambergris, is special and will only become more so with time as it deepens and macerates.

 

 

Malik al Taif

 

 

To understand Malif al Taif, you need to understand what Taif rose oil is, how it’s produced, and what it smells like (in the raw). Taif rose oil is the marmite of the rose world; you’ll either love it or hate it. Its aroma is to Turkish or Bulgarian rose oils as apples are to oranges.

 

It’s important to note that Taif roses are not a separate species of rose but just rosa damascena, the same kind of rose grown in Turkey, Syria, and Bulgaria. The difference is that Taif roses are grown in a highly specific terroir that forces their resulting scent into an altogether different shape.

 

Taif roses are grown in Ta’if in Saudi Arabia, a region that lies 2,000 meters above sea level. Its cooler climate, coupled with excellent irrigation schemes, produces rose oil that smells green, tart, lemony, meaty, peppery, metallic, and citronella-like all at once. Taif roses are gathered at first morning light, before the sun causes the flowers to open fully, thus preserving their immensely spicy green scent. Harvesting is an enormously labor-intensive process, requiring rose petals from 30-50 roses to produce just one drop of pure Taif rose otto, and up to 40,000 roses to make one single tola. The Australia-based Al Shareef Oudh clarifies this on its website, stating that: “For the pickers there is no time to lose; it is a race against time. As the blazing sun rises and moves higher the harsh rays cause precious oils to evaporate, so much so that by mid-day unpicked roses contain only half of the oil they had at dawn”[1].

 

Smelled up close, the oil smells surprisingly nothing like what you expect a rose to smell like, which makes sense given that a rose is made up of over 500 different aroma compounds. Two big ‘flavor’ constituents of rose are geraniol and citronellal – these smell sharply ‘green’ and sharply ‘citric’ respectively – and Taif rose oil happens to contain a lot of them. And because Taif rose oil is so rich in these citronellols and geraniols, it can come across as harsh in its top notes until the aroma settles.

 

I’ve smelled many Taif rose oils and blends, but all of them share that essential Taifi character of green, peppery, and lemony-sour. They are not, in my experience, lush, sweet, or particularly velvety. Consider them to be the Hindi ouds of the rose world – raw, strident, austere, but with a spiritually elevating facet that marks them out as nobler than the friendlier, sweeter Cambodis (or Turkish rose, in this case). These unique properties make the Taif rose a perfect counterpart to the smoky, fermented woodiness of pure oud oil. Thus this pairing occupies an honored place in Middle-Eastern perfumery.

 

Malik al Taif is very, very Taif. The polar opposite of rose jam, its rose is a steak of raw beef coated thickly with lemon zest and crushed back pepper, so fiercely aromatic it will draw saliva to your mouth (I find Taifi rose oils to be quite unami). Picture the sweet Turkish rose of something like Rose Flash by Tauer Perfumes as a voluptuous, naked woman reclining on a bed of red velvet, being fed sweetmeats by a eunuch; the tough Taif rose in Malik al Taif, on the other hand, is Laurence of Arabia emerging gaunt, hard, and starey-eyed from a long stint in the desert. A leathery, iodine-like saffron hones this impression to a fine point. If you’re not familiar with the specific characteristics of Taif rose oil, this presentation of rose might come as a bit of a shock; lovers of Amouage’s Homage, however, will adore the similarly silvery-green brightness of the Taif rose note here.

 

Personally, I find Taif rose to be hard going, its harsh brightness as unrelenting as the strobing glare of sunlight during a migraine. The tannic sourness of the oil, almost always emphasized with saffron, as here, leaves me with the aftertaste of over-brewed tea. But while I don’t particularly enjoy Taif roses, I can surely admire them as the bluestocking of the rose world. The note is rendered beautifully in Malik al Taif. A hint (just a hint) of the leathery bleu cheese of Hindi oud sits right underneath it, proving as always the perfect partner to the austere angularity of the Taif rose. This combination (Taif rose, saffron, Hindi oud) is classic for a reason: it just works.

 

The first hour of Malik al Taif, therefore, runs a very traditional gauntlet, along the well-travelled road of Hindi oud, saffron, and Taif rose – the original blueprint for the rose-oud pairing. Here, quality and provenance mean everything. The opening reminds me very much of some rose-oud blends by Rising Phoenix Perfumery and Al Shareef Oudh, two oil-based houses that specialize in the recreation of traditional attar and mukhallat blends (Al Ghaliyah and anything Al Ka’aba) using only the highest quality, most expensive naturals available. In other words, the authenticity of the rose-oud accord in Malik al Taif is top notch, and occupies the same hallowed rank as perfumes such as Homage.

 

Later on, a powdery amber-incense accord moves in, as well as the lusher, sweeter Indian rose notes, helping to soften the hard angles on that Taif-saffron-and-Hindi-oud opening. The rose begins to take on the vanillic, soda-cream softness of oils such as Rose TRO (Turkish Rose Otto) by Amouage, which is by far my favorite Amouage rose soliflore. The basmati-rice toastiness of the saffron comes out more strongly than before, nudging aside its inky iodine leather topnotes for an almost creamy, custardy facet.

 

The creamy benzoin and sandalwood drydown smells like creamed temple incense, born aloft by the same sort of sugared, orange-blossom-inflected deer musk as last experienced in Siberian Musk. For Taif rose enthusiasts (and those who love Homage), Malik al Taif should not be missed. And if you loved the candied, powdered clean-funky natural musks in Siberian Musk, then even better. It’s a real two-for-one.

 

 

Oud Luwak

 

Oud Luwak is a bone dry take on coffee and oud (more wood than oil, in my opinion) that alights on a slightly sweaty, musky cedarwood and vetiver base. Fans of rich but dry wood fragrances (think Chêne by Serge Lutens) will like it, but fans of woody scents that cross over into campfire smoke will adore it. It is clipped, minimalist, and unsentimental in structure, reminding me very much of stuff like Fireside Intense by Sonoma Scent Studio, Bois d’Ascese by Naomi Goodsir, and Black by Comme des Garcons (in the basenotes at least).

 

The coffee note Oud Luwak plays with up top is fresh and rich, avoiding outright bitterness or that nasty ‘over-brewed’ staleness that often afflict coffee-based scents. There’s also not a single drop of syrup or cream to blunt its dark, toasty impact. Most coffee notes leave me wanting to brew my own coffee and smell that instead; something is always too cloying, intense, or overly bitter (or conversely, overly sweetened) about coffee in perfumery. Thankfully, this is not the case here. Unfortunately, I find that the coffee note lasts only a short time before ceding to the woody, smoky basenotes.

 

Oud-wise, Oud Luwak has much more in common with Russian Adam’s first oud scent, Oud Zen, than with Russian Oud or Oud Piccante; it is neither savory-spicy (Oud Piccante) nor gourmand (Russian Oud), but streamlined and neutral in flavor, like Oud Zen. The coffee note is a great innovation, as is the smoke (I like the way both are treated in Oud Luwak). It is the most subtle and ethereal of the 4 fragrances this time around, lasting only 4 hours on my skin. However, it’s very wearable, discreet, and dapper, as oud fragrances go, so do keep it in mind if you’re looking for an oud you can take out and about without scaring the horses. If I were matching Oud Luwak to a face, it would be Doug Stamper in House of Cards –uncivilized darkness wrapped up in an elegantly self-contained package.

 

 

[1] https://www.alshareefoudh.com/product-detail.php?product_id=14

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