As of 2023, anyone stumbling onto Areej Le Doré for the first time might be a bit confused about what the house does and what it stands for. After all, there are regular perfumes but also mukhallats (oils), a series of attars commissioned from traditional attar makers, and now, a series of attars that the brand has distilled or mixed itself. A newcomer would be forgiven for wondering if Russian Adam is a perfumer, a distiller, an educator, or a patron of traditional attar wallahs.
In fact, he wears all of those hats, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes separately. His evolution from the small, two-person ‘Book of Oud’ oil outfit in London (circa 2013) to the artisan oud distillery of FeelOud (circa 2015) to the luxury French-inspired, but Eastern materials-based operation of Areej Le Doré (circa 2016) is a trajectory worthy of study and admiration.
For the perfume enthusiast, though, it is worth taking a moment to unpack the context of any new Areej Le Doré ‘drop’. The original spray-based perfumes released by the brand in collections of four or five perfumes each year (which normally follow the pattern of an oud, a musk, an ambergris, and a floral) were where most of the brand’s fan base came on board, and where most of the support still pools. These annual collections see Russian Adam in full-on compositional mode, mixing his own distillations and those of others into precise formulas of bases and accords for a result that reads as perfumey as a Guerlain.
But 2022 saw Russian Adam launch a passion project that was both a stylistic and commercial departure, namely, a series of traditionally distilled Indian attars (which he did not make himself but entrusted to an experienced attar distiller), quickly followed by a set of spray-based perfumes that used traditional Indian attar perfumery as a springboard into something more conventionally perfume-like.
The traditional Indian attars (thoughts and reviews here) were Russian Adam with his educator hat on and his perfumer hat off. Deeply passionate about Indian attar perfumery, he wanted to give his followers (yes, I use the term ‘followers’ deliberately) a set of benchmarks for what a rose (gulab) or jasmine (motia) smells like when distilled into sandalwood in the old Indian manner. Pure, linear, and delicate, these attars were less perfumes than they were a teaching moment. If you smelled anything complex in them, it was more because the raw materials themselves are naturally complex than any compositional skill (since traditional attars are distilled rather than composed). These attars were intended to serve as a primer on the building blocks of ancient Eastern perfumery for the attar-based spray perfumes to follow. But they were also a gentle reminder to attar enthusiasts that a rose gulab produced laboriously and painstakingly in a deg and bhapka is absolutely not the same thing as the ‘rose gulab’ you can get off IndiaMart for $8 a liter.
The spray-based perfumes produced as part of the History of Attar collection (reviews here) were not so much an extension of the Indian attars as they were riffs on a theme. Here, Russian Adam put his perfumer hat back on and took the more complex Indian distilled attars like shamama and majmua – involving multiple co-distillations, add-ins of choyas and macerations – as the starting point for an artistic exploration that, while still remaining true to the essence of traditional Indian perfumery, were far more in line with the perfumeyness of Areej Le Doré’s core annual collections to date.
It is difficult to get a read on how successful a collection is based on online critical reception alone, but if the Basenotes thread is anything to go by, the History of Attar collection was not popular with the core group of enthusiasts who onboarded the Areej Le Doré train for its Siberian Musk and Russian Oud-type output. Which is not that surprising, really. If your buy-in to a brand is big, rich, Arabian-style compositions, then there is bound to be some whiplash if one year your supplier brings out a product based on Indian simplicity and purity instead. On the face of things, we all want the artisan perfumers we support to be free to pursue their artistic passions and vision. But where the money from one collection fuels the purchase, sourcing, and commissioning of rare raw materials and distillations for the next, the stakes are high indeed. When a product veers this close to being bespoke, you have to listen to what your customers want, or they take themselves and their wallets off to find another altar of rare essences to worship at.
Personally, I think the History of Attar spray-based fragrance collection was one of the brand’s best and most accomplished. This may be partially due to the fact that I already loved and had studied traditional Indian attars, so understood what it was that Russian Adam was trying to do. But even from the perspective of a bog-standard fragrance reviewer, Ambre de Coco, Al Majmua, and Beauty and the Beast were not only an incredibly artistic re-imagining of age-old Indian attar perfumery themes but improvements on earlier perfumes in terms of clarity and intentionality. For example, though I liked Antiquity, I found it impressive due more to the quality of the Cambodi oud oil that had been used rather than for its composition. Ambre de Coco, which shares something of the same nutty-smutty-smeary texture of yaks in a barn, uses shamama co-distillations of over 50-60 plant-based materials, deer musks, and cocoa to arrive at a picture of warm fur. It is more complete, a fuller fleshing out of a similar vision, yet conveyed in a less ‘muddy’ or cluttered frame. I believe that, in time, history will judge this collection more clear-sightedly and it will settle favorably into the deep lines of our experience with Areej Le Doré.
So, where does the Exclusive Attar collection fall against this backdrop? In terms of simplicity and intent, this may be viewed as an extension of the History of Attar attar collection but nudged strongly in the direction of a mukhallat-based style of perfumery by focusing on raw materials more commonly found in Middle Eastern or Arabian perfumery, such as Taifi rose, deer musk, and ambergris. This is Russian Adam in distiller mode, inching back to the interests and preferences of his core fan base but still working in a style that is as minimalistic as the Indian attars. Wait for the next core collection if you were not a fan of the History of Attar collection or if you prefer the brand’s core collections of spray-based perfumes. The Exclusive Attar collection is for aesthetes for whom hours of contemplation of the simple beauty of vintage musks or aged ambergris muddled together in a thimbleful of vintage sandalwood is the point of the exercise.
To wit, the perfumes in this collection are all rather soft and linear, relying on the inherent complexity of the raw materials to do all the heavy lifting rather than the composition itself. In other words, if any of these ever come across as perfumey or strong, it is due to some innate characteristic of the material used rather than any conscious arrangement. This collection would also work for people who just love natural, aged Indian sandalwood because the twenty-year-old sandalwood these attars are mixed into is insanely rich (sometimes even taking over the blend entirely). But even if you are a big fan of Middle Eastern mukhallats and already own a few examples of the genres explored here, the reasonable price point for high quality stuff like chocolatey vintage musks, sparkling white ambergris, and aged sandalwood oil makes the Exclusive Attar collection a pretty good investment.
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Musk de Taif
Beautiful and moving in its simplicity – a gentle blur of Taif roses folded into cushiony musks and creamy sandalwood. It reminds me a lot of Rose TRO by Amouage, which follows a similar model (roses + creamy woods), but with the zestier, more peppery Taif rose from Saudi Arabia rather than with the Turkish rose otto used in the Amouage. To a newcomer or to anyone with zero perfume experience at all, this will simply smell like the exotic, Eastern ideal of a rosy attar we all hold vaguely in our heads without thinking too much about it. The aroma here is a classically pleasing one. The bright, lemony green and black pepper nuances of the Taif rose send sparks flying against the creamy background, which in turn softens the sharp, fiery edges of the rose. The deer musks here are more of a textural agent than a major contributor to the scent profile – they feather the outer lines of the rose and woods into one fluffy, amorphous mass.
Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash
Not only are animalic aromas are not a monolith but how you process them will vary according to individual experience with animalic smells in general. Smells come to all of us filtered through our childhood memories, mental associations, and biases. For example, because I worked on a farm, most deer musk smells warm and round and alive to me, even though the animal from whence it came is long dead. Castoreum always smells dry to the point of being parched, which is why I like it less. For a long time, I found some force-aged Hindi oils to smell like bile and billy goat, an association I had to work hard to get past.
But civet? The most difficult of all for me, but of course, because these perceptions are so individual, perhaps maybe not difficult at all for someone else. To me, civet smells really sharp, leathery, and foul, perhaps a bit floral in dilution. The word that usually comes to mind for me when smelling civet paste is ‘unholy’.
But while those properties are definitely present in Civet Bomb, two things save it for me. First, the civet paste has been co-distilled with rose, meaning that the sharpness of its funk has been softened somewhat. Second, the co-distillation has accentuated the geraniol content of the rose, so there is this minty-camphoraceous greenness floating over the civet paste note that lifts it and freshens its breath. Sharpness is exchanged for a lively bitterness, and this is a good trade off.
Be forewarned that the animalic quality of civet paste is still very much in evidence, but its inherent foulness comes more from the ‘staleness’ of well-rotted leather or wood or old radiators rather than from the anal secretion of a civet cat. As with all of these attars, Civet Bomb ends up wrapped in a thick blanket of that buttery old sandalwood Russian Adam is using here. In the far drydown – if attars can be said to have a proper drydown at all – the lingering civet and sandalwood aroma reminds me of the handsome maleness of Jicky or Mouchoir de Monsieur in their far reaches, albeit much simpler and less mossy-herbal.
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Like Hemmingway’s writing, Royal Musk boasts a structure that is straight-forward and devoid of frills, yet still manages to wring an imagined wealth of feeling and depth from the one or two elements it contains. Made from stirring a tincture of a deer musk pod so old and dried out that all the urinous, sharper edges have long disappeared into that old, deep, buttery Indian Government sandalwood oil that the house is using, this is the rare musk-based attar that might be described as delicious.
The opening notes are raisiny, with dried fruit mingling with dark chocolate (or actually cocoa) for a slight panforte impression. There are no animalic notes whatsoever, yet you can tell that it is deer musk, mostly because of the hint of plastic around the topnotes and its subtly furry, velvety texture, but also because if you are patient and quiet enough, you can also smell a hint of booziness from the tincture. This is really very nice – dark and sensuous, with that cocoa-and-dried-fruit aspect that makes me think of the pleasures of deep winter, like drowsing under a blanket with a cat or watching the light flicker in the coals of a dying fire.
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Here, the intensely buttery, savory vintage sandalwood oil initially overwhelms the composition, for once much stronger than the element with which it is paired, here, a piece of white ambergris from the West of Ireland ground to a fine powder. Sandalwood is usually the quiet portion of an attar, carrying the other natural essences and adding only a depth and warmth that would otherwise be missing. Here, however, as well as in the other attars, the age of the sandalwood oil used means that its santalols have deepened into this rich, buttery, concentrated essence of wood that asserts its own character and quite forcefully too. It smells sweet and savory at once and feels as thickly resinous as an amber accord. As a sandalwood fan, I am not complaining. However, part of me does wonder if using a younger, less venerable quality of sandalwood would have allowed the other materials, such as this delicate ambergris, to shine through more clearly.
The tart, rubbery ping of the wood esters at the tippy top of the sandalwood oil interact with something briny in the ambergris to create an opening that smells momentarily iodic, like those dark iron syrups you take to correct anemia. Then the rich, sweet sandalwood notes settle in and start spreading their warmth. For the longest time, I can’t smell the ambergris. Until you take your nose and attention off it, and then return, and yes, there it is.
Smelling white ambergris – the oldest, most aged specimen of ambergris that has been cured for decades in the ocean and under the sun – is a notoriously peekaboo experience. There is a faint smattering of nuances so ephemeral and fleeting that they tend to exist like flashes of light at the outer edges of your field of smell-o-vision, making you doubt your own nose. Here, it smells subtly of sweet, sun-dried minerals and salt on female skin and old newspapers and also a little of morning breath. The darker you go with ambergris, the marshier the mammalian funk. In Royal Amber, the only truly animalic part of the experience is the hint of halitosis that sometimes appears and sometimes does not, so mostly what you smell here is the sweet, bright, dusty minerals, mica, and salt-encrusted skin.
Ambergris is not amber resin, of course, but the resinousness of that buttery sandalwood does ultimately create an amber-like impression. The powdery salinity of the ambergris gently strafes the ‘amberiness’ of the drydown, lifting and aerating what might otherwise have been very heavy. A note about the powderiness here, as powder is a trigger word for some. It is subtle but perceptible, like the gilded baby powder of Shalimar’s ambery drydown, but not as dense as Teint de Neige. The slight brininess of the ambergris also offsets the powder somewhat, leavening as deftly as it does the buttered sandalwood.
Overall, though, this is a subtle, soft scent that is far simpler than my description suggests. But I do find it gentle kaleidoscope of nuances entrancing. It is a private sort of experience on its own; as a layering agent, I imagine that it would act like a bellows on a dying fire, breathing new life and dimension into whatever scent you wear on top. The more perfume-like equivalent to Royal Amber might be Yeti Ambergris Attar 2012 by Rising Phoenix Perfumery.
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Although this attar is said to be the most complex and perfumey of the entire collection, I personally don’t perceive it as such. Zam Zam features a fiercely medicinal saffron distillation mixed into the vintage sandalwood used throughout the collection, and oddly, I find that the two materials bring out the worst in each other. The high-toned wood esters fizzing at the top of the sandalwood accentuate the iodine-like properties of the saffron, so what I mostly smell is a slightly pitchy, medicinal accord that is too astringent to allow me to relax into the experience. Once the vaporousness of the topnotes settle, the sandalwood heart notes bank everything down in a fine, brown layer of woody warmth, which in turn allows the saffron to play more of its traditional ‘exoticizing’ role for the sweet, buttery amber-woods. I don’t smell anything particularly floral. The saffron, a ferociously strong material, is able to keep a vein of something metallic coursing through the creaminess from top to toe, like a flash of electricity. I find it Zam Zam striking, but angular and again, simpler than its billing suggests.
 To be precise, Russian Adam made two of the collection’s attars (Civet Comb and Zam Zam) by distilling the materials into the sandalwood oil carrier, while the other three attars (Musk de Taif, Royal Amber, and Royal Musk) were composed by macerating materials in oil and mixing these macerations into tinctures and sandalwood oil to complete the compositions.
Source of Sample: Sent to me for free by the brand for review.
Cover Image: Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash