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Couteau de Poche – Fumabat: A Review

October 25, 2017

 

Couteau de Poche means pocket knife in French, a name you’d think has little connection to an American niche perfume brand until you realize they’re based in Brooklyn and suddenly it all makes sense. The brand’s first perfume, Fumabat, costs a hefty $160 for 50mls, which I’m only paying if it’s served to me in a mason jar by a trustafarian with a man bun.

 

No, no, forgive my good-natured joshing: I’ve only recently let go of my outrage, you see, of having to pay $18 for a spinach frittata the size of an ash tray in Williamsburg earlier this month – it’s not that I don’t understand that the price is the new normal, for both the area and the artisanal side of the niche perfume market.

 

Regular fragrance fans would find that expensive, but for the trendy young hipster with a job, Fumabat is probably justified as a one-off investment into something that will make them feel unique and offbeat. What we in the fragrance community tend to forget is that while we often buy more than one fragrance per month, there’s a whole market of people out there who don’t buy more than one fragrance per year. And since we’re talking about a high value segment of the market – young professionals with a strong need for differentiation and individuality – as a brand it makes sense to hit them up hard on that one transaction.

 

Working through on that logic, does it follow that because Fumabat is not aimed at me, I won’t find it special or noteworthy?

 

Actually, I think Fumabat is pretty striking, although probably not in the way the brand intended. You can read the notes list at the end of this short review if you like, but despite everything pointing to a smoky incense oriental along the same lines as Black Afgano or Sombre Negra, Fumabat actually smells like vintage Opium, specifically the last droplets of vintage parfum that’s evaporated over time until only a smear of brown sludge is left in the vial. Now, what on earth could be going on in this modern, urban, hipster-y perfume to give off such a pronounced retro flavor?

 

Well, let’s break it down. When first applied, the topnotes smells pleasantly of stale but minty furniture lacquer on old furniture or decorative Chinese fans that have been left to fester in a damp, closed-up room for decades. The slightly airless, varnishy smell make me think of certain aged oud oils at first, but then I realize that the notes are triggering a scent memory that goes further back, to my childhood. It takes me a while to pick apart the associations: there is the handsome smell of soap bars kept in clothing drawers, incense sticks, little sandalwood elephants, patchouli oil, and winter coats with last year’s woodsmoke still embedded in the wool.

 

Slowly, I follow the train of thought to my stepmother, a half-Danish, half-Macedonian woman with a gypsy spirit and a talent for making every abode smell like her within minutes of arriving. Her name is Snežana, or Snow White, and for me, the smell of vintage Opium is the closest thing in perfume form that matches the exotic-but-homely maelstrom of aroma that accompanies her. She smells of sandalwood, soap, colorful wool, and incense sticks, and so does Opium.

 

In Fumabat, the direct link is found in its soapy pine and varnishy incense notes, but also quite strongly in the spicy, powdery carnation note that gives Fumabat (and Opium) its balsamic warmth. Actually, from a technical standpoint, it’s possible that the heavy patchouli and oakmoss in the drydown places Fumabat closer to scents such as Paloma Picasso or Norma Kamali Perfume (original) than Opium, but let’s not quibble. The fact is that the strangely vintage “grande dame” perfume vibe will surely strike a familiar chord for anyone that wears or collects the classic patch or spicy sandalwood bombs of the 1970’s.

 

Oddly, as the perfume hits the base, it shakes off the corduroy-brown glaze of the 1970’s, and stepping out from behind its bushy sideburns, reveals itself to be the smoky frankincense scent I thought it was always going to be, based on the notes. With a dry, sooty Somalian frankincense as matte as charcoal, it reminds me very much of Comme des Garcons’ Black, right down to the licorice twist. Lovely, smoky, satisfying stuff….albeit with zero connection to anything that had gone before.

 

On a more basic level, Fumabat is a great WTF perfume. You know, one of those madcap, slightly screwy perfumes that play mind games with you, making you wonder if you’ve got your frame of reference right. As a writer, these moments of self-doubt and “lost-ness” are essential to stop myself from crawling too far up my own arse. It’s possible that I return to this a few months down the line and realize that it’s not even that interesting, let alone good, but at least this review will be here to remind me that Fumabat got me going today.

 

Either way, Fumabat hit right at my emotional gut and connected, which was unexpected, considering the source. I’ll be back in Brooklyn in January, hopefully, so perhaps I’ll swallow the awful indignity of being awkward and un-cool in achingly hip Brooklyn and head round to their place to see them in situ. Let’s just hope they don’t read this poor excuse of a review and block the door.

 

Notes: green tea, galbanum, mint absolute, Bulgarian black pine, carnation, Somalian frankincense, vetiver root, leather, oakmoss, patchouli

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Zoologist Camel: A Review

October 17, 2017

There’s a famous delicatessen in Milan by the name of Peck. Established in 1883, it’s a Mecca for food enthusiasts, its shelves stocked with the finest cured meats, cheeses, wines, and truffles of Italy. When I lived nearby, I would often take the train down to Milan at the weekend, and walk through the store, drinking in the unami-rich air. I remember in particular huge glass jars of mostarda – neon-colored orbs of fruit preserved in a clear mustard seed pickling juice. When the afternoon light caught them at the right angle, they glowed like the gaudiest of paste jewelry: emerald, yellow, and orange.

 

The guys behind the counter would goad me into taking a little with my prosciutto and salami snack, and they’d laugh as I gingerly nibbled at the edges, the virgin blandness of an Irish diet having ill-equipped me to deal with the gush of hot, sour, sweet, and savory flavors on my tongue. When I first tried Arabie by Serge Lutens, its dried fruits over a sour asafetida base reminded me immediately of my trips to Peck. But although the association charmed me, Arabie proved too syrup-saturated for regular wear, so I passed it by.

 

I’ll admit that when I read the notes for Zoologist Camel, I thought we were looking at a re-tread of Arabie. But while the dried fruits and dates in the topnotes give a rush of sweetness, Camel is far more sour and savory than it is sweet, and thus reminds me more authentically of Peck and its mostarda than does Arabie.

 

I think that Victor Wong, as a creative director, is not afraid of a little earthy sourness in the perfumes he commissions. In a sea of sweet niche releases designed to appeal to a mass sweet tooth, he doesn’t mind going sugar-free every now and then. And I like that about him.

 

Perhaps his bravery with salty-savory flavors comes from an inherent love of unami or the sweet-salty-sour balance in Chinese culinary tradition. I will always remember Victor’s review of M/ Mink for his blog, Sillyage, where he discusses the link between M/Mink’s bleachy opening notes and the smell of Chinese calligraphy ink and dried shellfish. It was the first review of M/Mink that ever made sense to me, because he was able to place it in the context of non-traditionally perfumey things like salt, iodine, and fish. Through his words, I came to understand and finally love that perfume.

 

Camel has a streak of kimchi running through the dried fruit, amber, and orange blossom, which stops the perfume from tipping into a syrupy cliché of Arabian perfumery. Forget the ad copy about deserts and camels. There is a brief hit of booze, dried fruit, and rose up front, but the frankincense here is limey and tart, and there’s a layer of sealing wax over everything to mute the fervent glow of the fruit. It is rich, but astringent, like a vin jaune from the Alps.

 

The sourness is given an extra boost in its rather classically French (or so it seems to me) heart of civety jasmine over a pillow of powdery musks. The jasmine is greenish and as fizzy as a vitamin tablet dropped into a glass of water, later developing the leathery profile of sambac jasmine. There is something here that resembles the moist skin under a wristwatch after a long day in the sun. The griminess of the jasmine stands shoulder to shoulder with its gritty, soapy cleanliness, giving the perfume an almost aldehydic buzz.

 

This tart, soapy, tightly-woven stage of Camel makes me think that Malle’s Superstitious (2016) must indeed have been quite influential on the perfumery scene. There are clear parallels between the Malle and Camel, especially in the acidulated jasmine, the slight raunchiness (without warmth), and its general angularity. Jardin d’Ombre by Ormonde Jayne, which came out in October 2016, the same month as Superstitious, also strikes me as a variation on the theme. In all three perfumes, one might read the notes and think “warmth” or “sweetness”, but the actual scent in each case is of the opposite of lush: astringent, cool-blooded, and definitely more French than oriental in tone.

 

I admire Superstitious greatly but prefer to gaze upon it from a distance, like watching Joan Crawford rehearse from the safety of a locked wardrobe. Camel, with its pert charm, has fewer pretensions to greatness and is therefore much more approachable. Despite the orientalism of its composition and ad copy, Camel avoids every cliché inherent to the genre, particularly the cheap rosy feel of most modern oriental releases. Its soapy (but dirty) jasmine, musk, and civet combo imbues what might otherwise have been a heavy “souk” amber with weightlessness, as well as a certain French je ne sais quoi.

 

As long as you’re ok with a little salty-sour funk, Camel might be the modern twist on an oriental you’re missing in your collection. Camel is predominantly French in character, but there is perhaps also something a little Chinese or even Peck-ian in its balance between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and unami.

 

Notes: dried fruits, frankincense, palm date, rose, amber, cedar, cinnamon, incense, jasmine, myrrh, orange blossom, civet, musk, sandalwood, oud, tonka, vanilla, vetiver

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Areej Le Doré: Translating Attar Perfumery into Extrait Form

May 13, 2017

Guys, if you want to smell something truly great, then buy the Areej Le Doré sample set. Costing $40 for samples of three beautiful perfumes that contain real oud oil, santalum album sandalwood, and genuine deer musk, it’s a small price to have your mind blown and eyes opened as to what can be achieved when superlative raw materials meet a talent for composition.

 

Fear not: Areej le Doré is not one of those brands set up in the West to take advantage of the current fashion for haute-luxe Arabian perfumery. It is, in fact, a natural extension of FeelOud, an outfit based in the Far East that has been artisan-distilling wild oud oils for several years now. Led by Russian Adam, a name that will be familiar to real oud oil fans all over the world, FeelOud focuses on producing quite wild, almost feral-smelling oud oils in the old school manner, with little concession made to  who take their oud oil smooth and with a bit of sugar.

 

FeelOud recently diversified into the area of sandalwood oil, recently producing a superb santalum album oil distilled from the buried rootstock of old santalum album trees (long since felled and harvested), the age of which is estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old. The resulting oil, called Sandal 100k, sold out in 24 hours when it was put up on the FeelOud site. It’s beautiful; I give a description of it further on.

 

First, a bit of background on this mysterious-sounding Russian Adam chap. I’ve been sampling Adam’s wares for quite a few years now, at first buying from his Book of Oud store when he was still based in the UK, and then testing a wide cross-section of oud oils produced by FeelOud, which he set up when he moved to the Far East to be an artisan oud distiller.

 

In his trajectory, Adam is following in the footsteps of people like Taha Syed of Agar Aura and Ensar of Ensar Oud, both of whom also relocated from comfortable, middle-class environments in the West (Canada and America, respectively) to the steamy, flea-ridden jungles of the Far East so they could distill wild oud oil on the ground. It’s the only way to do it if you want to ensure a good result, but by all accounts, it is an often times hard life, fraught with frustration and danger. I don’t envy these oud artisans, but I sure as hell respect them for what they do.

 

But now, onto Areej Le Doré. The name itself appears to be a blending of the Arabic name for a girl, Areej, which means “the fragrance from under an orange tree”, and the French phrase for “the golden one”. The ethos behind the brand is to create fragrances that are luxurious explorations of the raw materials with which Adam frequently comes into contact as an artisan. In terms of business strategy, there is a clear evolution here from distilling raw materials (oud and sandalwood) to developing value-added products that blend the raw materials in a complex, abstract composition.

 

And having tested all three perfumes extensively over the last few weeks, I can tell you that these are not some ham-fisted throwing together of a few essential oils – there is evidently a real skill for composition at work here. Each of the perfumes feel “finished” and refined to a high technical degree. In fact, in terms of overall positioning, I would place Areej Le Doré perfumes alongside the first three perfumes by Parfums Dusita, perfumes that are similarly priced and beautifully blended to the same high polish. Dusita is phenomenally successful, and deservedly so: now I wish the same sort of brand trajectory for Areej Le Doré.

 

The Areej Le Doré fragrances are as follows: Siberian Musk, Ottoman Empire, and Oud Zen. They are all technically extraits de parfum, but I would define them more as rich, dense attars translated to spray form through the addition of some indentured alcohol. Also thinning out the attar format are hydrosols distilled by Russian Adam himself – a hydrosol being the water left over after hydro-distillation of some fragrant material like rose or oud wood, and after the essential oils have been separated from the distilling water. After having been passed several times through the fragrant material, the hydrosol is itself highly fragrant and useful in perfumery.

 

Siberian Musk is the one I tried first, and it resulted in the sort of jaw-dropping-to-the-floor awe that happens very rarely in the life of this particular perfume writer. After a bright citrus and pine start, the scent settles quickly into a full-fat, clotted-cream musk redolent of rosy beeswax, apricots, orange blossom, and the salty intimacy of a post-coital embrace.

 

The musk component manages to be seriously filthy but in a refined way, with a buttery floral purr that typifies a French sort of polish. I have smelled quite a few samples of genuine deer musk before, including a 20-year-old Himalayan musk so frighteningly feral that I thought a herd of sweaty goats had taken up residence in my nostrils. This is not that. The musk here is authentically sensual and animal-like, but it comes across as a creamy, rounded smell, not sharply urinous or sweaty. Texture-wise, it has the silky density of yellow fat skimmed off the top of raw milk. Think Muscs Khoublai Khan crossed with the decaying roses and adiposal wax of Rose de Nuit, backlit by the subtle glow of resin, orange blossom, and citrus peel. The contrast between the fresh notes and the fatty, un-fresh musk is perfectly pitched.

 

As the scent progresses, the musk deepens and smolders, like a Persian cat stretching in the sun. Sultan Pasha once described the smell of deer musk to me as saccharine sweet, almost cloying, a smell that clings to the hairs of your nostrils for hours after you’ve smelled it. I sense the same clinging depth of the musk here, and there is a faintly sugared quality to the florals that help the impression along. But it is never cloying (and I agree with Sultan that some deer musks – depending on their geographical provenance, age, and level of heat used during the tincturing process – can be almost claustrophobically sweet).

 

Let me be clear: the musk used here is genuine deer musk, a raw material never used in commercial perfumery these days. Apart from the various legal and ethical concerns, there is the problem of sourcing the darned stuff: perhaps 99% of all deer musk goes straight into the hungry gaping hole that is Chinese medicine, with the remaining 1% trickling down as crumbs to the poor man’s table of perfumery. In terms of perfumery, therefore, only small-batch, artisanal attar makers and perfumers can viably access and use real deer musk. Furthermore, within the artisan attar making community itself, only a few are open about their use of the material.

 

I am writing an article about the issue of musk, which will be published later on this year, but for the moment I will say that Adam’s use of Siberian deer musk here is both ethically and legally fine, because it comes from legal hunting in Siberia, sanctioned and controlled by the Russian Government through seasonal licenses and hunting lotteries. Every part of the deer is used – the meat, the hooves, the skin, everything – and the hunting helps support the incomes of local hunting families.

 

In other words, don’t be afraid that by buying this perfume you might be contributing to illegal hunting or unethical trading practices. Yes, the musk deer still dies to give up his musk – but he is not dying specifically because of the perfume sector. (You might want to start asking the Chinese medical sector some hard questions, though.)

 

The second perfume, Ottoman Empire, is also stunning, but in a different way. Although I suppose technically it is a rose-oud, containing as it does real Assam oud oil and expensive rose absolutes from Afghanistan, India, and Bulgaria, it does not really come across as a typical rose-oud. Instead, it reads more as a buttery rose chypre with a dark, mossy drydown that reminds me of the hippy, retro floriental style of Neil Morris, especially his Rose of Kali, which is a rose slowly left to molder and wither in a damp church basement. In other words, there’s a fair bit of myrrh here. There is also the chocolate-rich dustiness of closed-up spaces and old books, which makes me think of the 70’s style of the original Norma Kamali perfume (not Incense, the namesake perfume itself).

 

The rose oils used in Ottoman Empire are beautiful, and display a wide range of nuances ranging from the fruity apricot hue of the Afghani rose to the sour earwax quality of the Bulgarian. In the context of the blend, the roses are largely subdued by the resins and oakmoss in the base, but their essentially rosy character burns brightly through the blend, like a heat lamp under layers of parchment.  The oakmoss used here, by the way, is real and unneutered: firstly, because it is Indian oakmoss (charila), a lacy oakmoss-like material covering trees in the forests of the Himalayas, and secondly, because, well, Adam is not based in Europe and doesn’t have to be IFRA-compliant.

 

In summary, then, Ottoman Empire is a waxy, mossy rose chypre crossed with souk perfumery (oud and spices) crossed again with a certain hippy, 1970’s style as espoused by certain American indie perfumers. If I’ve made that sound confusing, then don’t worry – the perfume makes perfect sense on the skin. Wear it and see for yourself.

 

The third and last perfume is Oud Zen. People who are a bit wary about the oud note need not worry; the Indian oud oil is authentic (and smells authentic) but it is not nearly as animalic or as feral as uncut Hindi oils can be, when worn neat on the skin. Instead, right from the start, the leathery, sourish smoke of the Indian oud is folded into sweet, smoky woods and vetiver that together smell rather like the saltwater taffy of labdanum. The Hindi oud oil is also moderated by the fresher, more sparkling aspects of a Papuan oud, a variety that often displays surprisingly hints of green tea, mango, and flowers.

 

The main impression is woody, smoky, and leathery, with the Hindi elements of fermentation slowly fading away in the heart, leaving a trail of cool, ashy woods. I suppose it is a traditionally masculine perfume, but I think any woman who wants to could certainly rock it.

 

Interestingly, just as I think the perfume has given up its last breath, it revives and puffs out its chest in a death display of feral honey, vetiver, and dry leather, a combination very much in the vein of Vero Profumo’s Onda Voile d’Extrait or the far reaches of vintage Habanita when the powdery florals have burned off. An extraordinary finish, and one that gets me spraying again and again, just to arrive at the same destination.

 

Lastly, a word about Sandal 100k, FeelOud’s first venture into sandalwood distilling. Sandal 100k was distilled by Russian Adam himself using wood from the buried roots of old santalum album trees that had long been harvested and cleared from land in Indonesia. Forgotten about, the rootstock of these noble old trees lay in the ground until the locals figured out there was precious oil in them there roots!

 

To make the oil, the roots of old trees, all aged around 100 years, are dug up, cleaned off, and left to dry out. Then the roots are broken down into small shards, and finally into a sawdust-type mixture which is put in the distilling pot. The wood was sent from Indonesia to Russian Adam in Thailand, which is where he distilled it himself.

 

To all extents and purposes, the root stock has the same value as heartwood from 100-year old santalum album trees: experts have determined that the age of the santalum album species chosen for distilling is more important to the aroma profile than where the tree actually grows. Therefore, while this oil is not Mysore because the tree (and its roots) was not harvested in the Mysore region of India, it is an incredible santalum album oil because of the age of the heartwood from which it was distilled.

 

Sandal 100k smells bright, greenish, and terpene-rich at the offset, with all the nutty, savory sourness characteristic of santalum album perched just behind it. The slight green bitterness dies back quickly, allowing the salty, buttery sides of the oil to emerge. For the first part of the ride, I’d place this oil in the aromatic, fresh category of santalum album, but as time goes on, the oil gathers force and bursts into full being as the perfect sandalwood – rich, nutty, creamy, salty-sweet, and almost meaty in terms of body. It’s absolutely beautiful, and I urge people to buy it when the second batch of oil is ready for sale. Since my personal ne-plus-ultra of sandalwood oil, Ensar’s 1984 Mysore, is no longer available, this is the next best thing.

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Aftelier Ancient Resins, Oud Luban, and Leonard Cohen

December 5, 2016

“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”.

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The SAUF triptych of incenses

October 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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