I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: “Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.”
Funny gif aside, he is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.
This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West. I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the Orient simply because they originated there. This is rubbish, of course.
First of all, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West. I’d estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about 5-10% of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery. Unfortunately, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is psychologically primed to find them amazing even if they’re aren’t. Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.
Second, it’s not the where (the East) that counts, it’s the who. The best quality attars out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing. Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.
I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is actually mostly Westerners that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials. I like to think that they are taking a certain Western propensity towards precision, authenticity, and attention to detail to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.
And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group. In a way, it’s a natural fit: Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending an attar) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.
Attar AT is excellent work. It succeeds both as an attar and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner; it contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East. It opens up as an extract of pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.
But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes. The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus. There is no Tauerade. It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear. A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.
As an aside, it’s funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud. I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather. However, at a distance and at certain points of the attar’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil. In general, I think it’s fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.
Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour. It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note; if you know the sappy, sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose. Dusty, dark woods in the base only confirm this impression. There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.
As an attar, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter. It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much. However, longevity is excellent. So far, so standard for an attar. But people will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT: my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all, but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic. The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.
Masculine? Yes. I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky. Attar AT is more evocative (for me) of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone. This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.
Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them. Overall, this is a great *masculine* attar for a very reasonable price, and also yet another addition to the attar genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentically, genuinely good.
Notes: animalic leather, birch tar, Java vetiver, dark dry woods, sandalwood, hints of Jasmine, cistus, and castoreum