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Aftelier Ancient Resins, Oud Luban, and Leonard Cohen

December 5, 2016
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“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”

 

Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.

 

This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.

 

I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.

 

In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.

 

Never got a rise out of him.

 

Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.

 

Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.

 

Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops.

 

I’m not sure it makes much sense to analyze this beautiful oil too much – just let it wash over you in a peaceful wave, just like Cohen’s music – because it is, at heart, just a collection of resinous basenotes. And yet, the total effect is uplifting in a way that belies the simplicity of the blend.

 

Balm of Gilead is a note that jumps out at me, though, for its unusual biblical associations. Looking it up, it seems that the name refers (in religious history) to a balsam that was used as a spiritual balm to weary souls in Talmudic, Old Testament, and Muslim/Arabic history. Sources differ over what species of tree actually produced this balsam, although it seems to be either from mastic (green, herbal-smelling), pine, or terebinth /turpentine trees.

 

Although the opening notes of the oil are indeed very pine-like, I assume that this comes from the terpenes naturally present in the frankincense, because Mandy After clarifies that the Balm of Gilead note in Ancient Resins comes from poplar buds, from the Populus species of tree. These trees produce a nicely balmy scent on the white undersides of their leaves, and are used to produce the modern-day versions of the Balm of Gilead – basically, a wound- and spirit-healing balm.

 

And Ancient Resins is healing. It is healing and calming and restorative. I can see why Leonard Cohen reportedly wore this every day of his life. I was, coincidentally, wearing Ancient Resins in my hair when I heard that he had passed away. I had been using it almost every day since I received a generous sample of it, because the American elections had just taken place and I was feeling stressed out. Ancient Resins seems to have the power to right everywhere that is wrong in the world, just like Cohen’s music seemed to be doing in Bosnia that day. A knitting together of things that have been fractured.

 

I like to think that when he died, Leonard Cohen was laid naked in a white shroud, anointed from head to toe in Ancient Resins, and then burned on a pyre that floats off down the Ganges. But recently, I learned that Cohen loved more than one of Mandy Aftel’s creations. In fact, Mandy Aftel told me that Cohen wouldn’t go out without a drop of her Oud Luban on his person.

 

Learning that made me reassess my imagining of Leonard Cohen as a gloomy, depressive poet, anointed with the biblical-smelling Ancient Resins. Because Oud Luban is an oud fragrance that takes what Luca Turin mentioned as an “inherent brown study grimness” characteristic of the material and shoots it through with a light-strobing blood orange note that makes it feel like liquid late-afternoon sunshine.

 

Superior, Hojari-grade frankincense from the Dhofar desert in Oman adds a bright, terpenic freshness that sidles up to the citrus and supports it – think crushed pine needles, with their juicy, lemony, green scent on your fingers after you touch them. And all this against a very smoky, leathery oud oil that is darkness personified. A superb, natural-smelling, joyful balancing of dark and light, Oud Luban displays a sort of switching-on-of-the-Christmas-lights effect. I don’t think I have ever smelled a perfume that works oud quite like this. The smoky, growly undertones of real oud are there alright – no mistaking this for a synthetic variant – but its usual tendency to spread its gravel-voiced gloominess over everything has been reined in by the bright, citrusy resin elements. I think of it as humorous and hopeful.

 

And maybe this humorous, fey thing is a truer portrait of Leonard Cohen than my historic, mental imagining of his character. My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party. He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.

Incense Independent Perfumery Resins Review Round-Ups Smoke White Floral Woods

The SAUF triptych of incenses

October 29, 2016
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Filippo Sorcinelli created quite the stir with his first three fragrances, launched under the brand of UNUM, namely Opus 1144, LAVS, and Rosa Nigra (I never smelled his later two, Symphonie-Passion and Ennui-Noir). I loved and bought Opus 1144, but I find it kind of difficult to wear. Truth be told, I rather regret the purchase. That’s neither here nor there, of course.

Now he’s launched a second brand (why?) called SAUF and a collection of fragrances inspired by the fusion of organ music and church incense associated with High Mass. Specifically, each of the scents in the collection refers to individual organ stops or the wood of the Grand Orgue of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which Sorcinelli, as tailor to the pope and a fervent organist himself, was allowed the rare honor of photographing and studying.

I have no doubt that Filippo Sorcinelli is sincerely an artist. What I mean is that he’s quite clearly not one of those niche con artists who throw words like “art” and “spirituality” around and charge us $290 for the honor. No, look at Filippo Sorcinelli’s social media feed, his comfort with nudity, and his rambling, incoherent interviews and you come to the conclusion that the guy is clearly a genuine artist, because only artists are ok with sounding this batshit crazy.

His first instinct when launching the SAUF trio at Pitti this year was to organize an organ concert in a local Basilica with a famous soprano, Laura Catrani. The event was called “Vox in Organo – sound and olfactory improvisations”. This is someone who bleeds, sweats, and excretes art out of every pore and he wants us all to understand it, participate in it. I really like that.

But what of his perfumes? Of course, there’s never any guarantee that because someone excels at one art they will be equally adept in another. I doubt that he himself is the perfumer for the brand, because I see no formal training as a perfumer listed anywhere. But in general, whoever is doing the perfumes for both UNUM and SAUF (and if this is truly Filippo Sorcinelli himself, then I apologize), they know what they are doing. There’s not a bad one in the bunch. In fact, if I had the money, I would buy all three of the UNUM perfumes I have tried, plus the SAUF trio, before I’d buy similarly priced fragrances such as the Tom Ford exclusive line, because they are all rich, competent, even beautiful, and unlike the Tom Fords, possess a soul.

Of the SAUF trio, Contre Bombarde 32 is the clear standout and my personal favorite. I see this fragrance as an improvement over LAVS, which although soaring and celestial, was too soapy and cold for my taste. It also had a hollowed-out feel to it that made it slightly depressing to wear. Contre Bombarde 32, a name that just trips off the tongue, takes the beautiful incense from LAVS and layers it with an immense, sugared amber with burned sugar edges and sweet, dirty old church pew wood, giving it a far more satisfying, chewy texture that fills the mouth. The opening is quite bitter and green, zinging with unburned, lemony elemi resin, bitter orange, and a brusque, sourish cedar, but quickly it becomes creamy with amber, sugar, and resin-rubbed woods. Think LAVS crossed with Amber Absolute crossed with the unctuous gourmandise of Rosarium by Angela Ciampagna and you can begin to imagine what a toothsome experience this is.

Voix Humaine 8, inspired by an organ stop called Vox Humana that imitates a human voice, layers a very bare-bones incense accord with a host of creamy, sweet white flowers, chief among them orange blossom. I don’t care much for the rather skeletal, modern Iso E Super incense accord here, but the chemical taste in my mouth recedes when the sugar, milky floral accords are drip fed into the composition. There’s a very pleasant meringue-like airiness to the florals here, like rice grains puffed up to double their size in hot milk and sugar. It’s an interesting fragrance because it’s basically a pared-down Buxton or Schoen-type incense exoskeleton layered with a sweet, sugar white floral like By Kilian Love. Ultimately, it turns a little too soapy and clean on me to enjoy fully but I appreciate the attempt to land a white floral incense without immediately calling to mind Chanel No. 22 or Passage d’Enfer.

Plein Jeu III-V (no way I’m remembering that without an index card) was supposedly inspired by a flight of angels, and in many ways is the clearest link to LAVS, because it employs the same peppery, slightly soapy incense accord. Plein Jeu makes great use of aromatics and citrus, with the contrast between the hot ginger, zingy citruses, and cold, waxy/green frankincense providing a lively, interesting start. There is jasmine in the heart, of the cool, fresh variety, but the note doesn’t really hold its own against the peppery, oily frankincense that dominates. It is nicely smoky, pure, ethereal, and there is a slight creaminess that links it clearly to the other two in the collection: Contre Bombarde is ambery-creamy, Voix Humaine is floral-creamy, and Plein Jeu is black peppery-creamy. By running so close to the sacred church frankincense theme, however, Plein Jeu risks being muddled up in the same category with other, perhaps greater peppery, cold church incense fragrances such as Avignon, Bois d’Encens, and even LAVs.

Verdict – not that anyone does or should care about my opinion – the new SAUF trio is a beautifully done set of creamy incenses, each playing on a slightly different variation (or to use the music analogy, different chords). Incense freaks should run, not walk to sample these. I think they are extremely well-made and soulful. I’d buy Contre Bombarde in a heartbeat.

Amber Floral Oriental Incense Resins Review Sandalwood Vanilla Woods

Creed Angelique Encens

May 26, 2016
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A few days ago, I received a mysterious package in the post which continued four largish samples of what even I recognized as rare Creeds – Cuir de Russie, Angelique Encens, Bayrhum Vetiver, and Verveine Narcisse. Spotting the name of the sender, I realized what must have happened – a friend who was kind enough to send me some samples of rare Ensar Oud oils had obviously sent my ouds off to someone else, and I had received instead these Creeds. Somewhere, right now, in Northern Europe, some poor guy is peering at three tiny vials of a brown sticky substance and wondering if the Creeds are so old that they’ve dried up (possible).

Don’t worry, I told my panicked friend, I will send these samples off to yer man. It will be like one of those hostage situations: I release the Creeds if he releases the ouds, etc. I won’t even spray them, I said, obviously lying through my teeth.

I don’t know if Creed Angelique Encens is really that special, but it is so exactly to my tastes that I can’t help but think of it as a masterpiece. Creamy woods, smoky vanilla, resins, smoke, brushed with tender florals and kissed into being by baby angels. Ok, I exaggerate. It’s perhaps not the Second Coming. But it’s pretty damn close to perfection to my mind.

I’m not terribly into straight-up, liturgical incenses like Cardinal, LAVS, or Avignon. I find them initially compelling, but quickly too literal for my liking. My time at Mass was spent daydreaming of it ending, so I am not in any particular hurry to hurry back there in my olfactory memory. Of course, paradoxically, like most everyone else, I find the smell of frankincense and myrrh burning on a censer to be a wonderful smell – raw and primal; spiritually-uplifting even. I just don’t want to wear High Mass on my skin.

The three types of incense that I do like better in perfumery are (a) the thick, dark resin bombs like Sahara Noir and Balsamo della Mecca that evoke something ancient and primal, but not exactly churchy, (b) florals with incense that read as sultry but not High Mass-like, such as Exultat, Sacrebleue Intense, and Chanel No. 22, and, lastly, (c) ambery woody scents with a light touch of incense that are the equivalent of a comfort blanket.

Angelique Encens falls squarely into this third category. When I first put it on – not that I tested this more than five times, by the way, seven at the very most – I get a very clear image in my head of sparkling amber crystals forming on my skin, like salt on bare shoulders after a long day at the beach. The angelica lends the amber crystals a unique herbal, green-stalk-like tone. I am reminded slightly of Iris Oriental, if only for this brief impression of amber crystals forming on the skin, which is something I clearly visualize when wearing the Parfumerie Generale scent too.

The salty brightness and herbalcy of the opening dissipates rather quickly, clearing the way for a woody, creamy amber with hints of powdery incense. This begins to swell and bloom on the skin, growing fuller with every minute instead of thinning out, as one might reasonably expect. In a way, Angelique Encens is constructed in a manner that is completely opposite to most modern scents, which create shock and awe with their massive saturation of aromas in the first few minutes, only to collapse into a lethargic, pale base one hour in. Angelique Encens, on the other hand, grows into its beauty. It fluffs out, like an angora sweater laid to dry in front of an open fire.

No, unlike most modern fragrances, the start really is just the amouse bouche for the most amazing dinner that features no actual dinner per se but the most sensational dessert stretched out over ten courses. What Creed pulled off here was to turn crème brulee into a fragrance, infuse it with smoke, and sprinkle it with the same blue-purple flowers that make the dry downs of L’Heure Bleue, Shem El Nessim, and Farnesiana linger so long in the mind’s eye – heliotrope, violets, a touch of iris perhaps. It is not technically a floriental, though – it has the same elegant woody, ambery feel of Bois d’Armenie and Ambre 114. An incense floriental woody, maybe?

It’s the drydown of my dreams, and one they so rarely make these days. Achieved through what means, I cannot say exactly, but there is surely a very good vanilla absolute here, one that leans more towards smoke than to dessert, ambergris, flowers, and the type of creamy sandalwood you thought was already all bought up by Chanel for Bois des Iles. I also detect – surely – a fat cushion of benzoin further fluffing out the amber, vanilla, and creamy sandalwood.

Nothing too unusual, you’d think, nothing to see here, let’s move along, alright? Except it turns out to have the same full-bodied, voluptuous, soul-stirring beauty as vintage Shalimar or a less rosy Bois des Iles. So here I am, powerless to heed its siren call.

You’d think I’d have learned by now, but no. As it happens, I would be perfectly content to exclusively wear – for the rest of my life – fragrances that are just an inch to the left of Shalimar, one shade darker or lighter than L’Heure Bleue, a fragment of Bois des Iles. My tastes are Catholic, but not Catholic enough.

Angelique Encens is soul food to me. But lusting after it is like going back to the buffet knowing that I’m too stuffed to eat another bite. Technically, I don’t need it. I know it’s going to make me fat. But I sure do want it.

 

via GIPHY

Amber Floral Oriental Independent Perfumery Leather Oriental Resins Suede

Hiram Green Voyage

February 2, 2016
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Hiram Green Voyage has an opening that is both strange and familiar to me. It features a sour (but also candied) citrus note dusted so thickly with the powder of a saffron-like spice that it doesn’t register as fresh or sharp the way hesperidic notes normally do. The effect is of a golden sun shining through a dust cloud of vanilla and spice, with something bright lurking underneath.

Sometimes I spray this on and I get a hint of the tannic peach skin, moss, and spices from Shangri La, and it’s like unwrapping a tiny sliver of chypre hidden in the folds of a dusty, oriental brocade. Sometimes I get no fruit, but a rubbery suede. It is murky and intimate, like the smell of a moist wrist directly under a rubber watch.

Very beautiful and very familiar. Where do I know this scent from?

Immediately, I race off through the library of smells in my brain to see if I can place it, but it remains frustratingly out of reach. I don’t think it is a perfume that I’m remembering so much as a chord in a larger orchestra of smell. Or maybe it’s the whole orchestra of a smell funneled through one chord, I don’t know.

The best I can do is say that the opening has an interesting dissonance to it that reminds of the older Guerlains – Jicky perhaps most of all, with its stomach-churning clash of cymbals between the fresh, clean lavender and the rich, civet-soaked vanilla crème. But there is also the dark rye bourbon bitterness of Mitsouko’s cooked peach skin. Voyage is much simpler and more direct than these perfumes, of course, but it shares with them the impression of a ribbon of bright gold slicing through plush velvet darkness.

The dry down only confirms the familiarity (and the appeal) of this style of retro perfumery – it is a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with what seems to me to be a heavy dose of heliotrope and perhaps orange blossom, although these notes are not listed. It has something of the spicy, floral vanilla feel of L’Heure Bleue, albeit less pastry-like in tone and more tending towards the more resinous, cinnamon-inflected Tolu or Peru balsams. I have to admit that I do not pick up on much of the patchouli – to my nose, if it’s there, then it is only there to add shade and earth to the vanillic dry down.

In a way, Voyage reminds me of Ciel de Gum, by Maison Francis Kurkdijan, not for any similarity in the way they smell necessarily, but for the retro manner in which they present the vanilla note – not clean or sweet, but fudgy with spice, civet and indolic flowers. There is a close, intimate feel to vanillas like this that recall human skin to skin contact. Voyage, Ciel de Gum, Opus 1144 (UNUM), and even Musc Ravaguer all hark back to that Guerlain-like clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, musks, indolic flowers, and civet).

It’s this clash what makes Jicky, L’Heure Bleue, and Shalimar such masterpieces even today – at first so repellent and odd that wonder what kind of drugs the perfumer was taking, and then everything suddenly “works” in the perfume and you think it’s great – addicting almost. Hiram Green’s Voyage has that clash down nicely, and this is why it works. I love this perfume because it gives me a taste of what I love about the classics but in a stripped-down, more legible format that doesn’t make me feel as if I am wearing an entire history of grand perfume on my back. Which is sometimes what I want.

Amber Animalic Incense Leather Oriental Resins Smoke Tonka Vanilla

Guerlain Shalimar

November 22, 2015
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Ah, Guerlain Shalimar, the ur-Oriental. Sitting down to write a review of Shalimar kind of feels like looking up at the top of Mount Everest and wondering how the hell even to begin the ascent. It seems to cover (in one single bottle) a lot of the themes and notes people go looking for in separate perfumes – you want vanilla, it’s the textbook example, you want smoke and incense, well you got that too, you want amber, it is the mother of all modern ambers, you want animalics and leather, ditto. If you also happen to be the type of person who is interested in freaky notes, like baby diaper, burning tires, tar, and slightly rancid butter, then, why yes, Shalimar also has you covered.

It’s not an easy perfume to love right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Shalimar is easy to love, but the actual falling in love bit is not immediate. It took me ten days of wearing it before I could even tolerate it, let alone love it, but I got there and in end, it clicked for me, and that was it. Pure love. The everlasting kind. Whenever I see someone saying, oh I just don’t get Shalimar, or oh Shalimar hates my skin, you know what I am thinking? You’re just not trying hard enough. Put your back into it. If you can’t commit a week or ten days out of your life to understanding Shalimar, then not only are you cheating yourself out of experiencing one of the best perfumes ever made, you are also missing the opportunity to “get” most orientals that came after Shalimar.

For, once you unlock Shalimar, you start to see that Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is just a snapshot of a portion of Shalimar (principally the amber and herbes de provence) blown up 150% and turned sideways. Etro’s Shaal Nur is an abbreviated essay on the incense and opoponax in Shalimar. Mono di Orio’s excellent Vanille is a modern take on the woodsy vanilla of Shalimar. You can spot echoes of Shalimar in Chypre Palatin (vanilla and animalics), Fate Woman (bergamot and powder) and Bulgari Black (vanilla, rubber, smoke). Whether perfumers are aware of it or not, most of today’s grand orientals refer at least in part back to the ur-Mother Oriental herself.

Forgive my wittering on. For all of that, Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening, as I’ve mentioned, is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off.

Here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome”

After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet ultra-sexual at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. Yes, the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, but we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else. For me, it is true love, and a top five perfume forever. It is like my second skin.

Amber Animalic Resins Review Smoke Spice Tobacco Woods

Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods

October 7, 2015
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Anything by Sonoma Scent Studio is as rare as a hen’s tooth over here in Europe (distribution problems) so when I got the chance to buy a decant of Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods untested, I just had to go for it. I rarely buy blind anymore, but I’m a committed fan of anything Laurie Erickson does, so I knew that the risk factor was low.

In the end, I think I’m going to have to ask one of my U.S. friends for a big (and perhaps illegal?) favor, because 4mls of this dark elixir is just not going to be enough. I need more. How much more? Technically, let’s say it has to be enough to stop those feelings of helpless rage and sorrow every time I see the level in that decant bottle dip any further.

Winter Woods goes on with a whomp-whomp of a hot, dirty castoreum note married to the cool, sticky, almost mentholated smell of fir balsam. Immediately, you are plunged deep into a dark woods at night, all around you silence and the sticky emanations of sap and balsam and gum from the trees. There is an animal panting softly nearby – you don’t see him, but you can smell his fur and his breath.

But it is warm and safe there in the woods. As a warm, cinnamon-flecked amber rises from the base and melds with the animalics and the woods, the scent becomes bathed in a toffee-colored light. There is sweetness and spice here. It smells like Christmas, and of the pleasure of breathing in icy cold air when you are wrapped up, all warm and cozy.

In the heart, a touch of birch tar adds a smoky, “blackened” Russian leather accent, and this has the effect of fusing the heavy, sweet amber with a waft of sweet incense smoke. It’s as if someone has opened a valve of SSS’s own Incense Pure in the middle of the woods – a dry, smoky outdoors incense for a pagan ceremony perhaps. I also sense some dry tobacco leaves here, reminiscent of Tabac Aurea, another SSS classic.

I love the way that the heavy layers of the fragrance – amber, woods, animalics, labdanum, and incense smoke – have been knitted together to form one big angora wool sweater of a scent. It is heavy, but smooth, and a total pleasure to wear. If I could get my hands on it, I would buy a big bottle of it in a heartbeat.

Gourmand Oriental Oud Resins Review Rose Spice

Amouage Epic Woman

September 18, 2015
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Anybody here remember Opal Fruits? The tagline was: “Made to make your mouth water” – and sure enough whenever an ad for those tangy, sherbet-y little suckers came on TV, my mouth would begin pumping out saliva. Like Pavlov’s dog.

Well, I just have to glance at my dark green bottle of Amouage Epic Woman for my mouth to start to water. Like pickles, umeboshi, and sourpatch gummies, there is an almost physical pleasure to be had in a wincingly tart flavor. It is a credit to Amouage that Epic Woman contains so many piquant green notes and still manages to be so inviting. It smells like something pickled in brine! And yet sweet!

Every part of Epic Woman is as satisfying to me as a good meal – the lip-smacking savor of kimchi leading into a meaty, smoked rose and finally a few spoonfuls of thin crème anglaise, just enough to sweeten the tongue.

Many people say that Epic Woman belongs to the same oriental woody perfume family as Chanel’s Bois des Iles, Molinard Habanita, and even Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles. But I always get the feeling that putting those perfumes in the same sentence as something like Epic Woman is like saying tomatoes = strawberries because they are both fruits. Needless to say, Epic Woman is neither a tomato nor a strawberry. Clearly, it’s a salted plum.

I’m always trying to figure out where Epic Woman fits in the general scheme of things. No doubt about it, it is an oriental perfume. However, it lacks the plush sweetness and creamy roundness of most other orientals. After much thought, I’ve come to realize that the head space it occupies (for me, at least) is the same as for Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais and YSL’s vintage Nu EDP – smoky incense perfumes with a phenomenally sour streak of flavor running through them that prickle the saliva glands. In case you haven’t picked up on my feeling about this sourness – it’s good! I love it actually. It’s the tart streak in these perfumes that stops them from melting into the characterless vanilla-amber-sandalwood sludge that sometimes plagues the category.

Epic Woman balances the hot and the sour and the sweet as masterfully as a delicate Chinese dish – the heat from the black pepper and cinnamon, the green pickling spices (caraway), and the soft-but-oh-so-vinegary oud are the major players here. But there is also a diffuse sweetness, coming off the pink rose that blooms behind the sour opening notes and what feels like a mixture of powdered cinnamon and vanilla. I can’t say that I smell black tea, but maybe I’m just not picking out the tea tannins when placed up against a smoky guaic wood, incense, and other woody notes.

The vanilla in the base is extremely subtle – a thimbleful of creme anglaise rather than an ice-cream sundae – and spiked with just enough sugar added to round out the sourness of the oud wood. The sourness and the delicate spices surrounding the rose persist all through the perfume, though, and keep me smacking my lips.

In short, this is a perfume to be savored like a good Chinese sweet and sour dish, or the snap of a cold dill pickle straight from the jar when you’re starving. It is a wholly appetizing perfume – almost gourmand in the pleasure it affords me.

Floral Oriental Oriental Patchouli Resins Rose White Floral

Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer

September 9, 2015
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I’ve been wearing my sample of Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer for the last six nights running and it’s about to run dry – but I’m still not sure I have a handle on it.

I know what I expected – a thick, balmy floral oriental with a head-shop vibe. And for the most part, that’s what I get. But damn, this thing is mercurial. It never reads the same way twice on my skin. Over the six times I’ve tested this so far, I’ve picked up on (variously): unburned incense cones, amber cubes, floor disinfectant, indolic jasmine, antiseptic lavender, shoe polish, mandarin oranges, gasoline, sweet gooey amber, rubber, candy, tuberose, leather, orange blossoms, and, once, the dry, sweet smell of a paper grocery bag.

It’s totally weird. It is slutty and deep and weird. I think I love it. But maybe I hate it though. I’m a bit all over the place with this all-over-the-place perfume.

Part of my confusion comes from the fact that Le Maroc is the least “Andy Tauer” Andy Tauer perfume I’ve ever smelled.  Although it does feature a fizzing Indian incense-and-rose pairing that recalls the Coca Cola twang of Incense Rose, it has nothing of the crystalline, hot-arid feel that runs through his others like a watermark. Andy Tauer perfumes are passionate, but also highly curated. You get the impression that every nuance is fine-tuned with the precision of a Swiss clock.

Le Maroc Pour Elle is not Swiss clock-precise. It is messy as hell, like a five year old child who’s smeared her mother’s red lipstick all over her mouth.

It begins with a clash. A syrupy, medicinal lavender note immediately butts heads with the howling shoe-polish stink of a serious jasmine overload.  Hyper-clean lavender versus a carnal jasmine – no contest. The animal fur stink of jasmine, once the petroleum fumes die down, is just gorgeous. It melts down into a waxy note that doesn’t smell truly of rose but of something sweet, soft, and pink. I know there’s scads of high quality rose oil in this, but the incense and the jasmine twist its delicate smell into a form I don’t recognize. I suspect the rose is just there to soften the jutting hips of the jasmine so that the overall effect is sweetly, thickly lush.

On other occasions, I have picked up a rather pungent, sharp orange blossom note, which, when combined with the honey and the flowers, creates a softly urinous aroma that does indeed recall the orange blossom, honey, and civet of Bal a Versailles (as Luca Turin so aptly pointed out in The Guide).

I even got a strong tuberose note once or twice – at first clipped and green, then creamy, and slightly rubbery. How talented Andy Tauer is, to combine rose and jasmine absolutes and do it in such a way that they conjure up the vivid, breathing form of other flowers. This is the part of the perfume that feels classically French to me – that weave of expensive-smelling flowers and female skank.

But most of the perfume feels like an attar to me. It is a dark brown perfume, and stains the skin. Every time I wear my sample, I feel like I should be anointing myself with it carefully, like I would a concentrated perfume oil or pure parfum, applying it in minute drops to my wrists instead of spraying it. I feel it sink into my skin and become part of my natural scent, mixing with my own skin oils and musk.

The backing tape to it all is a fizzing, cheap Indian incense smell, almost identical to the smell of unburned incense cones and amber cubes. A deep brown, 1970’s style patchouli adds just the right amount of head shop grunginess to rough up the florals and ground them a little. Combined with the mandarin oil, it’s like having a tiny drop of Karma (by Lush) wrapped up in the heart of the perfume, surrounded by expensive rose and jasmine absolutes. Le Maroc swings between smelling ultra-expensive and French to cheap and hippy-ish and back again. I’m confused (and intrigued).

The mixture of expensive, attar-like oils and cheap, low-quality incense is oddly intoxicating. That’s not a criticism, by the way – the appearance of a cheap note propped up against a sea of expensive, luxe notes is an effective way to draw attention to the expensive stuff, kind of like a bas relief effect. I’ve noticed this cheap-expensive combination in other perfumes such as Noir de Noir (a cheap rosewater note against expensive dark chocolate) and Traversee du Bosphore (a painfully artificial apple and pomegranate syrup accord that’s counteracted by lush lokum and suede).

I’m starting to see the kind of person who wears this perfume and wears it right. In my mind’s eye, I see a woman in a dirndl skirt and a baby tied at her voluminous hip, wandering through a health food store, picking up incense sticks, smelling them, and dabbing all sorts of essential oils on her skin. She has laughter lines on her suntanned face and a smile that makes men melt. Her smoker’s laugh contains some kind of sexmagic. No doubt about it, Le Maroc is a zaftig perfume, a husky thing with child-bearing hips and a crude sensuality about it.

I am not quite sure I have the sexual confidence to pull this off, even if I do have the child-bearing hips thing down flat. Still, I can’t get this weird, sensual, earthy, head-twisting perfume out of my head, and that spells trouble.

Amber Masculine Resins Review Spice

L’Air du Desert Marocain by Andy Tauer

September 9, 2015
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There’s nothing in this world that smells quite like L’Air du Desert Marocain by Andy Tauer, except for, well, the actual air above the desert that inspired it, I suppose. Trying to describe how it smells is almost as challenging as wearing it.

The best way I can put it is this: it smells like someone went out to the desert, collected a pile of rough, ancient amber resin, boulders, fallen meteorites, and minerals, sandblasted them all down to a fine dust, loaded it up into a canon and shot it into space. Now imagine you are floating above the earth’s ozone layer, just where the daylight of earth fades into the deep navy of outer space, and you breathe in this space dust. L’Air du Desert Marocain smells like this. Not directly of the sandblasted materials themselves but of the thin, dry, almost electric air surrounding the particles.

Then, later on, it smells of hot, arid paper, with its cedar and vanilla-resin notes.

You are standing in a paper factory. The air conditioning machines are short-circuiting and are blowing the stacks of A4 printer paper off the tables and into the air. The employees look up in dismay – their work for the day, thousands and thousands of sheets of paper floating around their heads! But they breathe in deeply, unable to resist the peculiar pleasure there is to be had in huffing the smell of newly-minted paper and the slightly sweet, dry smell of drying chemicals and lignin it leaves on the air around them.

L’Air du Desert Marocain is a masterpiece of modern perfumery, and perhaps the first perfume I’d recommend to anybody wishing to experience what perfume beyond the shelves of their local Sephora can be. It is an evocative, beautiful travelogue perfume that’s scaled to Laurence of Arabia proportions.

As a personal perfume, though, I find it to be kind of difficult to wear on a regular basis. Its dry spices and resins are so monolithic and all-encompassing – so full of its own personality – that it doesn’t allow me to impose any of my own.

There’s also a sweaty moment in the perfume that always sneaks up on me unawares – the cumin and coriander, I guess. It smells specifically of a male sweat. It’s not unpleasant, just startling. Timbuktu has a similar, ghostly apparition in its development, a lurch so sudden towards the smell of a male (or a male aftershave) that I keep looking around the room to make sure that I am, in fact, still alone.

But I own this beauty, oh yes I do. Sometimes, I just take the bottle cap and huff it throughout the day, like a junkie in withdrawal doling out teaspoons from a bottle of cough syrup. Other days, I commit myself 100% to its mood-shifting, transporting character and put six to eight sprays of it on, all the time knowing that this is all I will smell of for the next 48 hours. Either way, there’s  no middle way with a perfume as uncompromising as L’Air du Desert Marocain.

Resins Review Scent Memory Spicy Floral Summer Woods

Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain

June 29, 2015
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Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain is one of the reasons I am glad I don’t have access to many new perfumes where I live. It was greeted with such dismissal in the blogosphere – a collective sneer or a collective yawn depending on which blog you read – that it might well have colored my judgment had I been able to test it there and then. Instead, as always, I came to this perfume several years after it was released and with absolutely no expectations one way or another.

I first smelled it in a department store in Dublin in August 2013, heavily pregnant and making a mad dash around the shops to collect “essentials” before my two-year-old son awoke from his nap. We had left him in the car with his grandmother, whom I absolutely insist volunteered for the job (no matter what she says). It was my first real crack at a well-stocked perfume department in years, because, as I think I’ve mentioned, I live in Montenegro, which is about ten thousand kilometers away from the nearest niche perfumery.

Anyway, on that occasion, I walked out with Tam Dao, purely because that’s what I’d walked in to get and I’m a stubborn cow. I had never smelled Tam Dao before, but all the reviews mentioned a calming wood scent, and I was in desperate need of some calm. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with it, but I bought it anyway. But I also sprayed some 34 Boulevard St. Germain on a silky cardigan I was wearing. I thought it was sharp and woody, almost like a men’s aromatic fougere, and I filed it away under the mental category “for men only”.

Hours later, I caught a whiff of the most gorgeous and entrancing aroma of rose, grapefruit, blackcurrants, green leaves, woods, and cinnamon wafting up from my cardigan. As a total smell, it beat the relatively plain and linear Tam Dao right out of the water with a big ole stick. I wore the cardigan for the next few days, to keep enjoying the scent. It was our last night in Ireland before returning to Montenegro, so I knew I had missed my chance to get it.

Over a year later, when I had discovered that the Internet could be used for far more than reading The Guardian (and the Daily Mail, for, you know, balance), I ordered a small decant of 34 Boulevard St. Germain. I had not been able to wipe it from my mind, even though I knew I might feel differently about it, after all that time. No need to worry – I still loved it. I soaked myself with my small decant, again and again, day in and day out, until it was all gone and I knew that I needed a full bottle of it.

I’m glad it happened this way, because I think sometimes the rush to analyze something new and place it in the wider context of a house’s releases or the forward momentum of perfumery in general can obscure a very basic question: does the perfume smell good? Does it please us? Does a perfume always have to be moving the genre forward?

For me, a perfume doesn’t have to necessarily say something new or revolutionary. It’s enough if it’s beautiful. And 34 Boulevard Saint Germain sure is beautiful.

The complaint at the time, among critics, was that, with 34 Boulevard, Diptyque were basically doing a rehash of all their early perfumes rather than something new, and that as a house, it was somehow failing to live up to the artistic boldness of their earlier releases. Well, I have either owned or tried most of their early releases, and I personally find 34 Boulevard St. Germain is actually far more complex and accomplished than most of them.

Maybe it’s because this perfume is abstract, rather than an essay on just one or two notes together, like many of Diptyque’s most famous perfumes. To my taste, early favorites were either too linear (Tam Dao), watery/pungent (Do Son), or screechy (L’Ombre Dans L’Eau). Far from the feeling of breaking through to a star-lit sky as promised by Luca Turin in The Guide, Eau Lente choked me with cinnamon sticks. I got the impression that most of them would work better as room sprays than as personal perfumes. They were bold and natural-smelling, true – but personally, I found them too crafty, unsubtle, and not sophisticated enough.

34 Boulevard smells better to me, because it feels like a more fully-fleshed out perfume than its predecessors, and at the same time does not lose sight of the house signature, which is a sort of a very natural, almost botanical approach to perfume. Like an old apothecary selling all manner of dried herbs, flowers, and spices to cure what ails you. But this is apothecary style a la Parisian chic.

The idea behind the perfume was simple but genius: create a perfume that recreated the odors seeping out of the wood panels in the Diptyque boutique on 34 Boulevard St. Germain in Paris – a sort of mélange of the scents from the various perfumes and candles in the store.

By all rights, it should have been a hot mess. But despite being made up of bits of other Diptyque perfumes, it turns out to have a lively, definite personality all of its own. The top notes are a clever re-working of the best bits of L’Ombre Dans L’Eau – the tart berries and vivid, snapped-stem greens of the opening (without the lurid raspberry rose jam), and the milky green fig leaf of the luscious Philosykos. Quickly joined by a faintly urinous grapefruit and soft pink rose, the fig leaf, blackcurrants, and green notes seem to glow like rubies against a backdrop of woods and resins. The top notes and early heart have this energizing sourness to them that really quenches my thirst for something zesty and alive-feeling on a warm spring day.

The heart is rose and grapefruit, insistently spiced with either clove or cinnamon (hello Eau Lente!). Thankfully, unlike Eau Lente, it doesn’t make you think of Red Hots. There is even a faint, watery tuberose note in the heart that may be a reference to Do Son. The base is woods and resins – the wonderfully natural Diptyque cedar, and an almost creamy, lavender-inflected oppoponax.

And oh, that cedar. Only Diptyque and Serge Lutens do cedar this well. I mean that it smells like fresh, sappy wood, and is utterly free of the insistent radiance of Iso E Super or Norlimbanol. Because the woods don’t have their life not extended by synthetic boosters, the longevity on 34 is average at best. Never mind – we can’t have it all, can we?

I should mention that 34 Boulevard St. Germain doesn’t move me, particularly. But I find it so pleasing to wear that I can’t begrudge it a spot in my wardrobe. Unlike other perfumes that cause a lump in my throat when I wear them (Une Fleur de Cassie, Lyric Woman) or distract me with their bombastic sexiness (Red Aoud) or make me lose hours me wondering how it is made (Jubilation XXV), I get the feeling that I will wear the hell out of 34 Boulevard St. Germain instead of letting it sit, gathering dust in my perfume cabinet. It’s a great little everyday performer that I don’t have to think too much about. I know that I’ll smell great wearing it, and that’s all that matters.