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The Attar Guide to Earth, Herbs, Spice & Aromatics: Reviews N-Z

12th October 2022

 

 

 

For a brief introduction to everything earthy, herbal, spicy or aromatic in attar, mukhallat and concentrated oil perfumery, see a handy primer here.  Now on to the reviews!

 

 

 

 

Nagi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

 

Nagi is based on nag champa incense.  Banish all thoughts of those five dollar packs of dusty Indian jossticks you might have seen around your local head shop or New Age store.  Instead, Nagi was inspired by the old, traditional way of making aromatic nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.

 

The original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such as champaca and rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, a rooty Indian herb.  These aromatic materials were bound by honey and halmaddi, a fragrant gum from the Ailanthus triphysa tree.  Important yogi would traditionally use nag champa in rituals, and it is still the prime component of any major Hindu event.  

 

Mass production and cost-cutting over the years has meant that the Indian pan masala incense you buy these days is usually very low quality and, indeed, possessed of that hippy vibe that tramples on any cachet the original nag champa once enjoyed.  Nagi Attar is Rising Phoenix Perfumery’s attempt to return nag champa to its former glory, re-building it entirely with natural, superb-quality raw materials, and recalibrating expectations of what nag champa can be.

 

If you expect nag champa anything to be sweet and powdery, then the opening of Nag Champa will be a bit of a shock.  The topnotes smell like a deeply fermented oud, redolent of rotting wood, rising damp, pressed apricot skins, and kimchi.  It is herbal and meaty all at once, a soup of things both alive and dead.

 

But suspend judgment and you will be rewarded by the sudden expansiveness of a creamy accord perched happily between banana custard and Eastern Orthodox resins powdered with mastic.  This accord is not smelled directly on the skin but rather in the trail you leave behind.  It is a moreish, welcoming kind of smell – like coming in from the cold to a kitchen fragrant with the scent of baking.  The creamy sweetness seems to swell in the air, powered by a combination of buttery Mysore sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, and ylang.

 

This surprising fruit-and-cream heart lasts a couple of hours at the most, but it demonstrates what I think is one of the signatures of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, namely, a way of composing mukhallats so that they present the wearer with little twists and turns that hold the interest all the way through.  There is thoughtfulness to the composition here that is unusual in the area of mukhallat perfumery.

 

The drydown returns to the leathery oud, only now it is bone-dry, incensey, and darkly smoky thanks to the addition of nagamortha root (cypriol oil).  In the far drydown, notes of sugared woodsmoke and powdered incense appear again, ensuring that the attar circles back fully to the nag champa incense theme.  Wear this if you want to know why nag champa was once considered the stuff of Gods.

 

 

 

Nesma (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nesma opens on a hot, oily note that makes me think of saffron mixed with Hindi oud.  Saffron is such a multifaceted material in perfumery, sometimes presenting as a dry, rubbery leather accord, and other times as iodine or hay.  But add vanilla or sandalwood, and suddenly you have a floral-spicy custard.  Place saffron adjacent to real oud, and you get something as pungent and as wild as the oud itself.  It is a marvelous shapeshifter of a material, and rarely showcased with the subtlety or careful handling it deserves.  But Nesma is the rare attar that gets it right.

 

Cycling as it does through several facets of saffron, Nesma is more complex and perfumey than other saffron-dominant attars.  To begin with, the saffron is pungent and sticky, gaining a fermented tone from the oud, reminiscent of the mild under-pantsy funk of another saffron-forward attar, namely the beautiful Mukhallat Najdi Maliki by Arabian Oud.

 

Nesma does not dwell in this mode for long, however, drying out into a fine-boned, snappy leather accord – think the thinnest book sleeve imaginable, supported by a range of dusty, papery notes that conjure up the collected smells of a rarely-visited library.  The bitter suede-like feel of the saffron is reminiscent of the leather note in Cuir de Lancôme.  However, this is much fiercer, drier, and does not have any soft, powdery florals with which to blunt the impact.  

 

Later, a sublime aroma of baked, toasted rice grains emerges, adding a delightful nuttiness and roundness to the scent.  Despite the rice note, however, Nesma is never sweet, creamy, or dessert-like – it leans firmly in the direction of austerity.  I recommend it highly to saffron fans interested in a nuanced take on the material without the distraction of florals and amber.

 

 

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

 

There is little from the hand of Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) that I don’t at least admire, and quite a few that I love.  One of the giants of natural perfumery, Dubrana has now rendered most of his fragrances in ‘attar’ format (strictly speaking, they are mukhallats), both in keeping with the brand’s original focus on natural perfumery and the rising popularity among consumers of high-end artisanal attars.

 

I have been testing the Abdes Salaam Attar  attars consistently over the past few years and can tell you that a) they are superb, and b) they solve the problem that plagues most of the catalog of La Via del Profumo and natural perfumery in general, i.e., that of extreme ephemerality.  The attar formats of favorite Abdes Salaam Attar scents are rich, strong, and long-lasting – paintings rendered in oil compared to the pastels of the regular eaux de toilette.

 

This is great news for anyone who might have loved the scents but hesitated over plunging $100+ into a fragrance that, while beautiful, rarely lasts more than three or four hours on the skin.  Lovers of natural perfumery understand and accept the trade-off between all-natural materials and their longevity.  But with Dubrana’s attars now offering fans the best of both worlds, we no longer have to compromise.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) is one of my favorite fragrances from La Via del Profumo, and in attar format, allows me hours of pleasure, rolling around and luxuriating in its ripped-from-nature goodness.  Far more a vetiver scent than an oakmoss, Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire.  It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory – playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.

 

Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze.  It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees.

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest.  And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort.

 

People have called Oakmoss formal, the kind of scent to wear with a business suit.  I can see that, especially in its clipped, almost monolithic elegance.  However, the attar is earthier, more sepulchral, and darker-green than the eau de toilette, and reminds me of the way Djedi (Guerlain) and Onda (Vero Profumo) make me feel.

 

Oakmoss possesses the vivid rawness of an outdoors scene, which is more special to me than a smell that is simply luxurious.  It is like both Annick Goutal’s Vetiver (the original) and Etro’s Vetiver, in that it features a salty, ferrous vetiver that pulls no punches.  Oakmoss will also appeal to lovers of vintage chypres, especially Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Givenchy’s Givenchy III.  In attar format, it also reminds me somewhat of the rooty, Middle-Earth solemnity of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).  Less of a perfume, more of an experience.

 

 

 

Palisander (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

There is something therapeutic about the smell of wood, isn’t there?  Rosewood, or palisander, is especially comforting, because it smells mostly like a freshly-split log of wood, but has steamy undercurrents of curry leaf, pressed rose petals, and chili pepper for interest.  Ava Luxe’s Palisander is an excellent representation of the rosewood note, the essential plainness of the wood dressed up with enough amber and incense to stop it smelling skeletal.

 

Palisander was one of the samples I grabbed when evacuating our house during Storm Emma in early 2018.  And I was enormously grateful for its plain, wholesome comfort as I struggled to lift my two little kids through the snow and up into the cabin of the tractor that my mother had flagged down, having waded through snowdrifts for hours to get to us.

 

It all seems a little extreme now, of course. The power came back on twelve hours after our dramatic rescue, and by the next morning, the roads had cleared enough to get us back home.  But it was a great comfort to be sitting in front of the fire in the house where I grew up, wrapped up in a warm blanket and wafts of Ava Luxe’s Palisander floating up at me from my sweater.  The best things are also the most basic of things.  A good fire, happy children, hot food, a working mobile phone, and the glorious smell of wood.

 

Rosewood has a particular significance for me, because I wore the oil neat as a teenager in the nineties. Nowadays, rosewood is almost as rare as Mysore sandalwood, having fallen victim to a similar over-exploitation.  The species that produces rosewood oil, Dalbergia nigra, is categorized as an Appendix I material under CITES, meaning that no rosewood produced after 1992 should be bought, sold, or traded. I have no idea whether Palisander by Ava Luxe actually contains rosewood or is just the artist’s representation, but it sure does smell like rosewood.

 

Palisander opens with the scent of a freshly-split plank of wood – raw, high-toned, and clean in a way that reminds me of industrial glue and binding products.  Were the scent to remain in this track for too long, it might start to wear on the nerves,  but soon the bland wood cracks open a little to reveal a host of interesting little details.  There is the faintly fecal, coffee-ish undertone of cedar, for example, as well as a plasticky red pepper note that recalls the hot rubber milkiness of fragrances such as Etro’s Etra and Hilde Soliani’s Hot Milk.

 

But there is an essential plainness to Palisander that cannot be denied, and for me, that is part of its appeal. The soporific character of the wood is close to that of scents such as Tam Dao (Diptyque) and Cadjmere (Parfumerie Generale), and under certain lights, you might even call it sandalwood-ish.  However, rosewood is softer, plainer, and a touch fruitier than sandalwood – a mixture of aromatic cypress wood, pulpy chili pepper, hot milk, and sawdust.  Either way, the result is a scent so relaxing it should be prescribed as therapy.

 

Palisander cycles on at a fair clip, shifting quickly from its raw lumber start to a pale wood heart full of sweet incense powder, amber, benzoin, and soft vanilla.  It finishes up as one of those elegant vanilla-woods combinations that always remind me of sweet Communion wafers, old books, and the tail end of Dzing.  A simple, but well-rendered scent for those of us who love the wholesomeness of wood because it signals the comfort of home.

 

 

 

Port Royal (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Spiced rum and ship’s wood mixed with the body-warmed trace of a prostitute’s perfume and a hint of salty sea air on the dry-down.

 

 

I have never smelled a prostitute’s perfume – not knowingly, at least – but I think that the rest of the description matches the scent perfectly.  However, one small point of clarification.  Rather than the sweet, boozy rum alluded to in the notes, Port Royal revolves around the notion of bay rum, the spicy clove-and-bay-leaf accord closely associated with old-fashioned male grooming rituals and wet shaving.  The original bay rum was a spicy, astringent lotion one slapped on after shaving, ostensibly to ‘close the pores’.  (Though, by now, I hope that we all know that pores do not close and open like trapdoors). 

 

Port Royal is therefore less drunken pirate and more herbal fougère with a brisk salty edge.  It would be very elegant on a man, as it is clean and bitter.  In the latter stages, a powdery amber accord moves in to soften the blunt edges of the scent and add a warming sweetness.  But, glanced by the lingering aromatics and either ginger or mint, the amber never becomes too sweet or sticky.  In all, Port Royal wears as a warm, full-bodied men’s aftershave.

 

The transitions between salty and bitter to warm and soft are intriguing.  Port Royal carries the same mysterious, hard-to-define allure of a woman wearing her boyfriend’s cologne to freshen up in the morning after a night out.  Its unusual combination of fresh androgyny and worn-at-the-edges glamour will have people falling over themselves to ask you what you’re wearing.  

 

 

 

Rasa (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Rasa has a fearsome reputation for being animalic, but either it has been gutted through reformulation or all the reviews for it were written in the pre-Salomé era.  Rasa is a basic model, the first Supercomputer, a pro-genitor of Skank – something that has been innovated on and subsequently surpassed by countless other things in the same track.  If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine how its rosy-saffron attar-lite façade might strike someone as deliciously exotic and dirty.  But to be truly blown away, you would have to be utterly unfamiliar with the cheap rosy-saffron-musk oils sitting behind the cash register in one of those Asian food emporia alongside the dried shrimp snacks and the Satya Sai Baba nag champa.  Because that is exactly what Rasa smells like. 

 

Rasa smells big and slightly cheap.  Its rosy mixture of musks, saffron, and ‘exotic’ spices feature in many fragrances seeking to evoke a vaguely souk-ish atmosphere.  This basic attar accord will be recognizable to anyone who has ever smelled Scent by Theo Fennell or even Agent Provocateur (the original EDP in the pink bottle).  Rasa is pungent in the spicy saffron way of these scents, and slightly animalic through the use of civet, which adds a nice shot of bitterness.  But Rasa’s original shock factor just doesn’t hold up in a day and age when modern niche perfume companies are falling over themselves to out-skank each other.

 

 

 

Royal Dream (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

I cannot locate the notes for this, but to my nose, Royal Dream is a somber patchouli chypre built around rose absolute and the leaf-sap dryness of immortelle.  An undercurrent of galbanum, hay, and scorched summer grasses lends a backdrop of dry, green velvet.

 

Don’t let these sunny-sounding, notes fool you though – Royal Dream is a nocturnal animal.  It feels formal, due to a curiously starchy, antiseptic note running through the composition, which is possibly saffron.  It pulls hard at a memory chord, although I fail to pinpoint why exactly.  It is likely that I’m reminded of some vintage chypre, but until someone names it, I’m at a loss.  Apologies for the near uselessness of this review.  

 

 

 

Royal Medina Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Medina Blend is a sharp, rather dour take on the theme of shamamatul amber, a traditionally Indian blend of amber, spices, woods, and flowers or herbs made according to family-owned recipes handed down through the generations.  The Royal Medina Blend take on shamama essentially spikes a musky, bitter cedarwood with equally astringent saffron, roses, sandalwood, and amber.  It bears some similarity to the spicy, smoky, and sour woody bone structure of the more famous 1001 Nights by Ajmal, although the ASAQ version tilts more towards vegetal amber than the spicy woods of the Ajmal.

 

Royal Medina Blend’s shamamatul amber base stands knee-deep in the funk of fermented, sour leather, woods, and spice, so it stands to reason that many will smell this and think they are smelling a raw, sharp Hindi oud.  This is a shamama to scare the horses, in other words, and therefore one that beginners should approach with caution.

 

 

 

Ruh Khus (Anglesey Organics)

Type: ruh (sort of)

 

 

The ruh khus from Anglesey Organics is much more refined than the Yam International version.  It does not display any of the sharply green, earthy, rooty, almost marshy aspects of vetiver, but instead showcases only the gentlest of nutty and woody undertones.  If it were a color, it would be a gray-olive green rather than a luridly bright, thick green.

 

To be frank, it doesn’t strike me as a true ‘ruh’, or steam-distilled essential oil.  However, the lack of purity or concentration here works to its advantage because it presents the vetiver in a gentler, more digestible format, which will please those who abhor the pungent rootiness of the pure stuff.  With its aura of softly mashed and cooked greens, nutty with olive oil and salt, there is something very soothing about this oil.  In the far reaches of the drydown, a pleasing hint of dry woodsmoke appears.  Smoothly unobjectionable, I recommend this ruh khus to people who think they dislike vetiver, because if anything is going to convert them, it is this.

 

 

 

Safran White Or (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

A potent saffron over a dark, rubied rose, Safran White Or unfurls like a length of thickly-embroidered fabric handed from one prince to another.  The saffron rings out as clear as a bell, a piercing diorama of freshly-tanned leather, orange peel, and iodine calling to mind both medicine and food.  But before the saffron note rides too high (it is a hellishly strong material), the plummy rose softens the spice, rounding it out into a rich Christmas cake accord.  There is something both bejeweled and clear about it, a sleight of hand possibly attributable to the ambergris lurking in the shallows beneath.  

 

 

 

Safwa (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

 

I never thought this would work for me, given the double whammy of cloves and camphor listed in the notes, but Safwa is a surprisingly sexy and comfortable wear.  The biting dose of camphor and metallic mix of clove and cardamom in the opening was a trial until I had figured out the game.   This is the mastic and cinnamon opening of Eau Lente, borrowed and repurposed in attar form – no longer an apothecary-style salve for middle Europeans but a genuine ‘soul of the souk’ affair. 

 

Twenty minutes in, and all other notes drop out of sight for a while, leaving an oily mint note floating weightlessly over a waxen patchouli.  It is not a fresh mint note, even, but strands of mint roots left to rot gently in a glass of water.  A most strange and unconventional opening to a Middle-Eastern mukhallat, I appreciate Safwa even more for not taking the tried and tested route towards exotica.

 

The pungent, spicy greenness up top acts as a necessary prelude to the main act, which is a muted patchouli so beautiful it makes me think of piles of red and brown leaves on a forest floor.  It shares with Patchouli Bohème by LM Parfums the same musky-ambery vanilla and sandalwood base that makes the patchouli note slightly edible.  

 

Further on, a smoky labdanum reveals itself, its grit roughing up the smooth woodiness of the vanilla, patchouli, and musk. The golden pool of amber and patchouli slowly becomes cross-contaminated with the black oiliness of uncured leather.  It is very sensual.  On balance, Safwa has much more development on my skin than any of the other high-end Al Haramain attars, and the only one where the complex list of notes bears out on the skin.

 

And you will have ample time to study Safwa’s development, by the way.  It has a half-life of decades.  Sillage is low at the beginning, however.  Don’t make the same mistake I did, which was to keep on applying more oil until suddenly I could smell it and I’d realized I had applied far too much.  My precious sample lived on my bookshelf for six months until it dropped into a crack between the wall and the shelf, never to appear again.  I have thought about it ever since.

 

 

 

Sajaro (Classic) (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sajaro Classic is a simple but pleasing riff on the traditional Arabian-style attar, namely a blend of saffron, rose, jasmine, and a dab of something oudy or musky in the base for support.  This kind of thing is barely interesting, let alone exotic to my nose anymore, but as with anything this ubiquitous, there are good examples and bad examples.  And this is a good example. 

 

The opening is sharply rosy, with a backing of spicy, leathery saffron forming that tart rose-saffron bridge used in most Arabian attars and co-opted for use in some very famous Western fragrances such as the original Agent Provocateur, Juliette Has a Gun Lady Vengeance, Diptyque Opône, and The People of the Labyrinths’ A. Maze.  Clearly, the rose-saffron pairing has legs.

 

And Sajaro, while by no means original, executes the theme with honesty and grace.  There is something satisfying about a plain thing done well.  Sajaro Classic differs from the Sajaro Imperial by containing only the basic qualities of rose oil, saffron, oud, and so on.  To get an idea of how different grades of the same raw materials can produce utterly different effects, wear Sajaro Classic and Sajaro Imperial side by side.  Sajaro Classic is sharper and brighter, with a dusty texture that feels like cracked leather – it plays true to the original attar theme.  Sajaro Imperial, on the other hand, is duskier, with a darker, more velvety feel.  In particular, there is a plummy quality to the rose that distinguishes it. 

 

 

 

Sballo (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Photo by Rei Yamazaki on Unsplash

 

Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian. Not in a ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word.  Which is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly seventies the Acampora oils smell.  Trippy, psychedelic, groovy – all words that fit the Acampora aesthetic like a glove.

 

Sballo is the banner-carrier for this seventies feel, so it goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.  It ain’t pretty, but it sure does smell authentic.  The main thrust is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style.  Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture.  An artisanal, homemade take on a commercial model.

 

The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by armfuls of dry, rustic grasses and hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.  Most modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.

 

But though there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some.  To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present.  Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco or black tea leaves.

 

The overall effect is gloomy and desiccated in the grand chypre tradition.  Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli.  The hoarseness of this accord is great.  It is like the rough, stubbled jaw of a brutish male thrust into your personal airspace, causing both discomfort and the thrill of secret excitement. 

 

 

 

Shamama (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amouage’s take on Shamama opens with a sharp antiseptic burst of iodine, spackling the olfactory landscape with gaudy daubs of saffron and henna flower.  The spice element is pungent, oily, and radiant, as if coriander and cardamom seeds were first roasted at high heat in a dry pan, and then tipped, piping hot, into the deg.

 

In keeping with the Indian tradition of making shamama, Amouage’s Shamama is not at all sweet or soft, but rather fierce, pungent, and alkaline.  There is also a light rubbery undertone, like hospital tubing, which we can probably attribute to the henna.  Shamama eventually mellows into a soft, muffled bed of amber, but because this is vegetal, herbal Indian amber rather than the sweet, resinous kind, it never becomes sweet or creamy. 

 

All in all, Shamama is not a bad rendition of traditional Indian shamama, but given its price point, it is not something to pursue above and beyond the more interesting and more reasonably priced shamama currently in production.

 

 

 

Shamama (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nemat’s version of the famous shamama attar is affable, sweet, and easy-going.  Like most other shamama attars, it opens with the slightly medicinal tinge of saffron or henna, but, fused to a sweet underpinning of amber or vanilla, this accord is never allowed to become too vegetally bitter.  Later, it develops a fruity muskiness that might strike some as slightly rude, possibly thanks to ambrette seed.  All in all, Nemat’s Shamama is a sweet, herbal-ambery shamama with a slightly raunchy trail.  A passable example of the species but not especially complex.

 

 

 

Shamama (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

Sultan Pasha’s take on the classic Indian shamama attar – a complex, blended attar consisting of over sixty different materials, herbs, spices, choyas, and other attars made according to closely-guarded secret family recipes – is an unusual one.  It twists the traditional format into a new shape.

 

The opening confuses as much as it delights, packed with as many dense aromas as a tin of the blackstrap molasses, but shot through with the antiseptic airiness of saffron.  The dual tracks of dark stickiness and explosive spice give the opening tremendous energy.  Quickly, the individual notes begin to pull apart a little so that you start to perceive them more easily.  Orange peel, saffron, henna paste, saltwater, toasted buckwheat, and chestnut honey all come to the fore.  These are all notes that teeter between savory and bitter, with only a thin ribbon of sugar calling a truce between them.

 

Compared to other shamama attars, the Sultan Pasha take is far darker, balmier, and smoother.  It is molten licorice to the sharply golden, leathery herbs of the others.  After the complex, packed feel of the start, the middle decompresses somewhat, flattening everything into a single layer of anise-flavored toffee, with hints of a dark chocolate musk, henna, and supple leather flitting in and out.  In fact, it would seem to combine the best of a traditional shamama attar with the damp, chewy chocolate sensuality of a good Darbar attar. 

 

Then, as if filmed in slow motion, the attar collapses into a slightly smoky, boozy amber with hints of dried fruit, leather, and incense, reminding me very much of Ambre Russe, a fragrance that Luca Turin called ‘the most nutritious amber in existence’.  There is a similar pain d’épices texturization at work here.  The mukhallat derives much of its richness from the scent of macerating raisins, brandy, damp tobacco, and plum pudding.  This develops further into a smoky, incense-laden amber accord, with the stained-glass window warmth of something like Amber Absolute.

 

What I love about Sultan Pasha’s take on shamama is that it preserves a core of tradition but twists it into a sleeker, more sensual format to appeal the modern taste.  It gives you the dusty, medicinal feel of a traditional Indian attar, with its exotic henna, herbs, spices, and innumerable Indian botanicals, while at the same time spinning you off into a more Middle Eastern direction, rife with sweet, smoky resins and balsams.  This is the 2.0 version of shamama, and my personal favorite of its genre.  Think of the licorice darkness of Slumberhouse’s Vikt unspooling into a thick, smoky-sweet incense amber, and you have an idea of the complexity at play here.

 

 

 

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Description: It is a blend of sandalwood, precious saffron threads, hot baked Earth, myrrh resin, spices and a touch of oud and jasmine which meld together to create a dry, woody, resinous and spicy scent representing the blisteringly hot desert, spice caravans and never ending sun scorched sand.

 

 

In general, Sirocco smells as advertized, except for the sandalwood, which is not a significant player.  First, a starburst of saffron, its astringent aroma redolent of hay, leather, and iodine.  This quickly gives way to the mitti, which here smells of wet soil rather than the drier, dustier earthy scent of true Indian mitti.  Last to emerge is the rubbery, mushroomy myrrh, which smells like the plain essential oil one picks up at the health store, i.e., bitter, saline, and musty.  Unfortunately, the myrrh dominates the scent completely. Once it pops its head around the door, it is here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

Top marks to Sirocco for smelling precisely of the notes promised in the notes list.  Just be aware that Sirocco is not really the hot, dry ‘desert’ scent billed in the description, but rather the damp and almost fungal scent of caves.  It is closer to the original Bat (Zoologist), for example, than to L’Air du Désert au Marocain (Tauer).  (It is especially tempting, based on the description alone, to expect something desiccated and toasty along the lines of L’Air du Désert Marocain, because who doesn’t want a version of that for a tenth of the price?).  But if you like the wet, fungal side of myrrh, and earthy, medicinal smells in general, then you will love Sirocco.

 

 

 

 

Supercell (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

Exploring the (mostly American) indie perfume oil sector from the viewpoint of the niche or mainstream perfume world often feels like a step backwards.  Sometimes this is because of a lack of polish and sometimes it is because of the gap between reality and the unfeasibly high expectations stirred up by the descriptions.  But where the indie perfume oil sector excels well over and above niche or mainstream perfumery is in creating perfumes that accurately recreate entire atmospheres, such as a spooky forest at night, a bonfire, or, as in the case of Sixteen92’s Supercell, the intensely green, mineralic scent of the air after a rainstorm.

 

Supercell, by perfumer Claire Baxter, who won the 2017 indie perfume award for her Bruise Violet at the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards in Berlin, is a greenish petrichor perfume.  It is not incredibly long-lasting, but its effect is so pleasing that I recommend it for cooling down on sweltering days.

 

The scent opens with wet, sweet grass, transitioning slowly to the electric smell of rain on hot asphalt and damp soil.  The name Supercell seems to refer to the ion-charged air particles present in the air just before or right after a storm breaks, and for once, the perfume lives up to the promise of its name.  It is both dewy and protein-rich.

 

 

 

Sycomore (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Vetiver is a funny material.  Depending on the varietal, source, and extraction method, it can display a wide range of nuances from roast hazelnuts to grass, campfire smoke, rose, and vase water.  It can be bitter, woody, smoky, or creamy, and sometimes all of those things at once.  That is why, even though vetiver is not the most expensive or precious raw material in the world, its nuances can be hard to match note for note.  On the other hand, vetiver always smells robustly and clearly of itself – you rarely mistake it for another material. 

 

This observation, generalizing as it may be, bears out here.  The vetiver used in the dupe smells much darker than the grassy vetiver used in Chanel Sycomore.  It is also a bit simpler, less textured – more like a simple ruh khus than a composed perfume.  However, vetiver is vetiver is vetiver, which means that if you love vetiver, then the chances are you will like this too.  

 

But while Sycomore is a complex perfume that corrals cypress, sandalwood, and juniper around a vetiver core, the dupe is mostly just vetiver.  There is a crystalline gin and tonic buzz to the topnotes of the original Sycomore that is not replicated in the dupe, and the dollop of very good quality sandalwood that renders the original creamy in its drydown is missing in the dupe.  Perhaps most importantly, Sycomore has a harsh, exciting smokiness that makes it an evocative perfume experience – the dupe emphatically does not.

 

Still, the vetiver used in the dupe produces the same relaxing, outdoorsy, and slightly narcotizing effect as Sycomore.  It does not adequately replace the original EDT, perhaps, but post-2016, even Sycomore is not truly itself anymore, so perhaps these are distinctions that matter less and less.  In summary, this is a good perfume oil in its own right and may appeal to hardcore vetiver fans.

 

 

 

Thebes I (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Natalie Comrie on Unsplash

 

Thebes is Sultan Pasha’s tribute to the fragrance he most reveres in the world – Guerlain’s infamous (and deeply unavailable) Djedi.  I am lucky enough to own a large sample of Thierry Wasser’s Djedi reconstruction, so, for the purposes of this review, wore both side by side.

 

Djedi is a dry vetiver chypre.  It is immediately arresting both to the nose and the imagination – dusty, rich, and shadowy, its greenness is more that of dried up lichen and creeping mold than of living plants and roots.  It has a crypt-like coldness to it that defies analysis.

 

Vetiver, dried flowers, moss, and ambergris – such a curt line-up of ingredients, and yet an entire underworld is called forth.  A dab of Djedi is transportative.  One can almost taste the thickness of the first gush of air that must have rushed out at Howard Carter when he prized open the tomb of Tutankhamen, a smell full of cool stone, ancient dust, dried-up herbs, ointment, and kyphi, a complex Egyptian incense made with spikenard, henna, mastic, and other aromatics.

 

The vetiver turns slightly creamy and almond-like later with the addition of orris and rose, but despite the listed notes of civet and ambergris, the reissue of Djedi is never animalic.  Its dry and salubrious demeanor drives the composition forward in a single-minded fashion.  There are echoes of Djedi in both Habanita by Molinard (minus the soft-focus vanilla and florals) as well as in Onda extrait by Vero Kern, which is perhaps its closest-living relative today.  A distinctive and memorable fragrance, Djedi is notable most of all for its total absence of warmth.

 

Thebes (both I and II) is an entirely different animal.  To my nose, it is a more complex version of Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens, cleverly balancing pungent animalics with sweet, plush roses, fur-like warmth, and sugar.

 

In the opening of Thebes I, there is a rush of oily, compressed florals that taken together smell like ancient, dusty wooden chests rubbed with linseed oil.  The aged wood and oily floral flatness make me think immediately of oud oil.  In fact, it is extraordinary that this effect is apparently achieved without a single drop of it.

 

The rose is most present to my nose, followed by lily of the valley.  But the florals are not fresh, crisp, or ‘living’.  Rather, they are a memory of scent clinging to flower petals pressed into old books by Victorians, then placed in an attar bottle to preserve them further.  Although I do not smell vetiver or moss strongly here, I am impressed that Pasha has arrived (via a completely different route) at the same sort of dusty, ancient-smelling accord featured in Djedi.

 

From there on in, however, the composition of Thebes I is overtaken by a wave of musk and ambergris.  The musk dominates at first, working with the dried jasmine to create an animal fur note with a creamy filth attached to its underbelly.  Very close to the fur effect in Muscs Khoublai Khan, the musk has the almost mouth-filling texture of wool.  The dance between clean fur and human filth makes me think of making hot, sweaty love to someone on a lion pelt in a medieval banqueting hall.  Overall, Thebes I is far furrier and thicker than Djedi.  But the key difference, I think, is that Thebes I has an almost animal warmth, while Djedi has none at all.

 

In the far stages of the dry down, there comes a wonderful surprise.  Vetiver – bone dry and smoky as hell – remerges phoenix-like from the ashes to mingle with the animal fur.  It is here, in the ashes of this rich, dusty vetiver that Thebes intersects most strongly with Djedi.  But still, where Djedi is ascetic, Thebes is sensual.

 

Using lesser qualities of rose, orris butter, and musks, Thebes II is a more cost-effective version of Thebes I.  To my nose, the opening is brighter and sharper, with the florals taking on a slightly more chemical character (especially the lily of the valley notes).  Thebes II suffers in comparison to Thebes I, but probably only if worn in a side by side wearing.  There is the same lovely, smoky fur-like quality in the drydown.

 

It is perhaps fairer to simply say that Thebes I will suit those who prefer their floral topnotes to be abstract, and Thebes II those who prefer the bright, laundry-fresh florals of mainstream perfumery.  In Thebes II, the additional space between the notes allows for a spicy powder to creep into the structure, a bonus for those who like the powdery, clove-tinted feel of the older Carons. 

 

 

 

Vasura (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Vasura is made with over forty different essential oils, ruhs, or absolutes, all of which pull in the direction of wet jungle earth.  The first impression is simply one of a cool, herbal freshness.  It mixes the bitter white floral crunch of a Borneo oud with pungent vetiver and aromatic sandalwood.  Zero cream, low calorie, but maximum flavor.

 

Further on, traces of Hindi oud bubble to the surface, bringing with them the acrid, smoky stench of fermenting leather.  But the Hindi is brought to heel by a damp blanket of velvety greenery, which lies on top and calms its fiery heat.  The result is a cool-toned, earthy leather aroma that is pleasurably easy to wear.

 

The delicate aroma of mitti – the attar that captures the smell of the first rains of the season on the red earth of India – is unfortunately lost in the mélange of stronger, earthier notes like oud, myrrh, and vetiver.  However, as the fresh, moist green notes wither away, they leave behind a mineralic dust accord that could quite conceivably be interpreted as the scent of soil after the rain.  Therefore, despite the disappointingly quiet role of the mitti, something of the Indian people’s longing for the rain has been captured in the golden, earthen mien of this scent.  And that is more than good enough for me.

 

 

 

Vert Gallant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Vert Gallant opens with an accord of fresh herbs shimmering over rank body odor that smells intensely animalic and arousing.  The sweaty, green topnotes glint evilly like petrol on water.  This effect is probably due to use of a specific lavender absolute that smells more like spikenard, which in turn smells rather like lavender with a subcutaneous layer of sheep fat.

 

Under this front of green, cuminy herb is a generous layer of labdanum massaged with sandalwood and vanilla.  Sweet, dusty, and strangely musky, Vert Gallant smells enticingly like the belly fur of a domestic animal, like a cat or guinea pig.  I suspect a judicious dose of costus somewhere in the mix, although this is not listed.  If you like intimate, human-skin-smelling fragrances such as Under My Skin (Francesca Bianchi) and L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), it is likely that you will also enjoy Vert Gallant.  I find its curious balance between the purity of herbs and the licentiousness of labdanum to be compelling. 

 

 

 

Volubilis (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Apurv Das on Unsplash

 

Many have extolled Volubilis as a beautiful expression of mint, black pepper, citrus, and rose.  Unfortunately, I experience it a true expression of its name, which translated from Latin, means ‘volume’.  Volubilis is doused in enough Iso E Super to achieve a stadium-filling reach, sacrificing the delicacy of its natural raw materials at the altar of radiance (that most modern of codenames for projection).

 

Note that I have been sensitized to certain aromachemicals over the years and tend to perceive them as a hair too highly pitched above the other voices in a chorus line.  Your experience may be entirely different.  And indeed, based on reviews available for Volubilis, I seem to be in the minority.  Most other reviews mention its fresh, sparkling mint and citrus duet, spiked with black pepper for interest.  If those notes sound appealing to you, then don’t let my experience put you off trying it.  Unless you’re as sensitive to woody ambers as I am, you are likely to experience the scent as it was intended to be.

 

 

 

Wicked (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Three vanillas, aged patchouli, almond buttercream

 

 

Wicked benefits from a long, hard aging.  When I first received the sample, the almond buttercream notes jumped up and bit me in the arse.  It was nauseating, like inhaling a blast of the cheap, cherry-scented nail polish remover you get in Poundland.  Sharp and unlovely, this greasy almond solvent note seemed to float gracelessly over a sea of headshoppy patchouli and ice-cream.

 

Reader: I tried it several times, each time with the same result.  I gave up and put all my Sixteen92 samples away in a dark drawer and forgot about them for eighteen months.  As it turns out, Sixteen92 perfume oils need far more than the recommended two weeks resting time, and eighteen months proved to be the magic number. (If you’re not the patient type, then perhaps avoid the American indie oil sector entirely.)

 

Although all my Sixteen92 samples benefitted from aging, Wicked emerged as the most improved.  Now, Wicked smells as it should – a creamy vanilla with moody patchouli giving it a dark and sexy earthiness.  There is a brief snap of cherry pit at the start, but this melts away so quickly that it barely registers.  I find the aged version of Wicked to be divinely rich and gorgeous.  If I could guarantee being spared the horror of its unaged self, I would buy a bottle in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

Zafraan Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Zafraan Blend takes an ultra-medicinal saffron and marries it to a subtle scaffolding of roses, musk, and sweet amber for support.  The star of the show, however, is that tannic saffron note.  You must love saffron to appreciate this attar, but if you do, then you’re in for a treat.  The saffron here smells dusty, red-gold, and vaguely iodine-like, with rich, woody tea notes lurking in the background.

 

Zafraan is a simple blend, with little to distract from the main note.  It starts and ends with the mysterious spice, fading out slowly into an austere, gold-tinged leather.  Its stark focus on saffron limits its usefulness as a standalone oil – one simply grows tired of its dogged purity after a while – but it is perfect for layering with rich ambers, vanillas, or even rose soliflores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Source of samples:  I purchased all the samples reviewed in this chapter, apart from the samples from Sultan Pasha Attars and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, which were gifted to me by either by the brand or a distributor for review purposes, and the Henry Jacques samples, which were part of a Basenotes sampling thread.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash 

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

Aromatic Attars & CPOs Fougere Green Herbal Mukhallats Oakmoss Review Saffron Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide to Earth, Herbs, Spice & Aromatics: Reviews D-M

10th October 2022

 

 

For a brief introduction to everything earthy, herbal, spicy or aromatic in attar, mukhallat and concentrated oil perfumery, see a handy primer here.  Now on to the reviews!

 

 

 

 

Dakkar (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

This smells like a more concentrated, mossier version of the Dakkar Noir currently on the shelves, thus making it perfect for men pining for it as it once was.  My cousin used to joke with me that his Dakkar Noir would put hairs on my chest.  Smelling this makes me a believer.  Absolutely terrifying. 

 

 

 

Dee (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Soft English leather, rosewood and tonka with a hint of incense, parchment and soft woods.

 

 

Yet another superbly evocative scent from BPAL.  Starting out with a raspy ‘male aftershave’ note that reminds me of Brut, Dee soon softens into a smoky vetiver masquerading as kid leather.  The rosewood note, authentically sour and rosy, adds body to the leather accord.  Dee grows sweeter and creamier once the tonka bean kicks in, the raw-silk heft of this material smoothing out the woodier edges of the vetiver.

 

Not enough is written about the value of ‘mustiness’ in fragrances: it is a quality that, for me, defines the peculiar appeal of both Onda (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).  Dee is a great example of why mustiness works.  One sniff and an entire library, complete with decaying paper and glue bindings, suddenly springs to life.

 

Mingling with the alluring whiff of a man’s well-worn leather jacket and cheap aftershave, this deeply atmospheric smell reminds us why American indie oils are so eternally popular – they unlock a secret trapdoor to the virtual world we once built in our heads but either abandoned or forgot.  Dee is the scent of learning, decrepitude, and long-ago love affairs all swirled into one. 

 

 

 

Denali (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Trà My on Unsplash

 

Denali opens with the green nutmeat of vetiver framed against a backdrop of dusty, aged wood.  These alluring hints of grass clippings and woodcutter’s shed fade away quietly, giving room to a juicy green leaf aroma that blooms suddenly at the heart of the scent.  Pops of dark, tart forest berries appear here and there through the waxy green leaf accord, making the wearer feel as if they are walking through a forest after a storm.  The smell of wet earth and torn greenery is intoxicating.  It feels flooded with ozone. 

 

The greenness of the aura is vivid and exciting: Denali exhibits the same Technicolor effect that comes out in Mellifluence attars whenever its creator works with vetiver and green Borneo-style oud oils.  Unfortunately, as is common in more naturally-composed blends, and especially those by Mellifluence, the initial effect does not last very long.  Here it fades and sheds color before finally settling on a nice but unexciting woody base with a smoky, ambery tinge.

 

 

 

Diaghilev (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

 

I ordered this dupe oil with the (rather unfair) intention of using it to illustrate the pitfalls of trying to dupe extremely complex perfumes, the pinnacle of which might very well be Roja Dove’s Diaghilev – regarded by many to be equal in construction to Guerlain’s Mitsouko, the fragrance it most closely resembles.

 

But the egg is on my face, because, at least in the first few minutes, there is little difference between them.  The dupe apes, with uncanny exactitude, the creamy oakmoss and bright, tart bergamot opening of the original.  Both are spiked with enough cumin and civet to produce that sensual skin note that makes Diaghilev warmer and more human, somehow, than Mitsouko.

 

My nose, alternating between the original on one hand and the dupe on the other, fails to pick up anything that separates one from the other.  For those first thrilling minutes, my heart is pounding with the possibility that I have stumbled upon a viable (and cheap) alternative to one of the most expensive perfumes on the planet.

 

You can almost see the ending coming, can’t you?  Yep, within minutes, the dupe leaves the orbit of the original, developing a sharply pitched citrus-pine note that smells like toilet cleaning fluid, while the original goes on to develop a core of silky, powdery floral notes such as ylang, peach, and rose.  The original is creamier, more velvety, and more softly musky, whereas the dupe remains sharply mossy-citrusy, with a sour pungency that proves difficult to shake off.

 

Do bear in mind, however, that this key difference emerges only when you wear both the original and the dupe in a side-by-side, real-time wearing.  The dupe performs almost exactly like the original when worn alone (and actually, this is something that may be said for dupes in general).  If you prefer not to have the illusion punctured, as ever, simply avoid ever wearing the original to compare the two.

 

Both the dupe and the original dry down to a matte, smoky marine ink note, which in the original is clearly oakmoss, and in the dupe is mostly vetiver (a long-stewed-greens variant that mimics oakmoss in all but its skankier, creamier facets).  Despite the slight differences in the texture of the mossy base, however, the drydown is where the two fragrances – the original and the dupe – converge once again.

 

Overall, this is a more than decent dupe for Diaghilev, with the proviso that you don’t actually wear it side by side with the real thing.  Of course, for many of us, especially those with regular-sized wallets, that should not be a problem.  

 

 

 

Eau du Soir (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Eau du Soir by Sisley is a green chypre perched between the chic formality of Chanel No. 19 and the rootiness of Scherrer I.  Decorated with a fruity ylang note in the heart and a ton of powdery musks in the drydown, it feels both dressed-up and sexy in a blousy, slightly overblown manner.  It possesses a sudsy aura akin to steam escaping from a lady’s bathroom who has been vigorously bathing with Amouage Gold Woman soap.  It is very eighties in feel.

 

Eau du Soir is as pretentiously priced as Sisley’s skincare, which says more about the brand’s targeting of professional women who equate price with value than it does to the intrinsic quality of its raw materials.  The price certainly has little to do with any oakmoss it may or may not contain, since the modern formula barely contains any.  Still, Eau du Soir has a committed fan base, and that, coupled with its high price, makes it a prime candidate for duping.   

 

Unfortunately, this particular Eau du Soir dupe fails miserably.  Dupes often stumble when complex accords like a chypre accord are attempted, because one needs to have all three legs of the chypre stool (moss, labdanum, bergamot) in place before the scent starts to smell like one.  Here, the mossy bitterness of the original has been substituted by a greasy-smelling patchouli and the bergamot by a sharp lime note that smells like bathroom cleaner.  In other words, this particular chypre stool is very wobbly indeed.  The original, like it or not, smells like a proper chypre.  The dupe does not. If you are a chypre lover, then you’ll probably stop reading here.  I don’t blame you.

 

Even though Eau du Soir itself doesn’t smell nearly as expensive as its price tag suggests (being possessed of a pungent, plasticky fruit note that smells like peach shampoo), the dupe smells distinctly bottom-of-the-barrel in direct comparison.  There is nothing pleasant about its sharp hotel soap notes or jarring citrus cleaner overlay.  If you love Eau de Soir, then swallow your pride and save your pennies for the real thing.

 

 

 

Egyptian Oasis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Earth, Cedar, Desert Rose, Neroli, Osmanthus, Indian Patchouli, Egyptian Desert Sand

 

 

A puzzling experience.  In a brand dedicated to ancient Egypt, one imagines that Egyptian Oasis would espouse everything the brand stood for – a sort of scented talisman for the entire line.  But if this scent encapsulates what NAVA thinks ancient Egypt smells like, then I am genuinely at a loss.  Because this perfume smells of little else other than dust.  And not even wood dust, which is at least identifiable as such, but more along the lines of radiator dust, or the dust in a closed-up school room.

 

The notes cite earth and desert sand.  Dried up soil is surely part of the dust bowl effect.  But there is nothing exotic, sand-like, or Egyptian about this dust – no redeeming spice, warmth, sweetness, no oud with which to lift the gloomy brownness of the accord.  It is simply dust, of the sort one sweeps out from underneath one’s sofa.

 

 

 

Encens Chypre (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by 선인장 on Unsplash

 

Encens Chypre is a formidably bitter, green chypre with a pungent oakmoss absolute that dominates the blend from its fresh, herbal top to its smoky, ambery incense base.  First off, there is a whoosh of sour bergamot, lemony elemi resin, and a mix of aromatics, underscored by a streak of bitter, inky oakmoss.  The bergamot is dry but rounded by a touch of something lightly peachy.  The aromatics in the opening are themselves naturally bitter, with artemisia and clary sage providing a dark green herbal tone that sings in the same register as the oakmoss.  At this stage, Encens Chypre reads as very masculine, its mossy timbre far more reminiscent of a traditional fougère than a chypre.

 

The second stage is a more floral heart, with hints of jasmine, iris, and rose unfolding shyly, but still nestled deep within the forest-like greenness of the oakmoss and aromatics.  Ultimately, though, the puny floral notes stand no chance against the dark green, mossy override of that oakmoss.

 

The third and final stage is stunning, a brew of incense resins and balsams replacing the usual labdanum or patchouli for a fantastically dry, smoky flourish at the end.  An extremely well-done mossy chypre, Encens Chypre raises the middle finger to IFRA so openly that it makes me wonder if it is entirely legal.

 

 

 

Encore Une Noir (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Supposedly composed before the attar maker had laid his nose on Lalique’s Encre Noir, Encore Une Noir is so-named because of the similarities he spotted between his own blend and the Lalique after he had finally smelled it.  It contains three types of vetiver oil, two of which are vintage oils aged seventeen years or more.

 

To my nose, however, Encore Une Noir attar does not smell as crisp or as clean as Encre Noir.  In fact, it smells rather musty and stale, like clods of wet grey clay taken out of a bog and left to dry until cracked in the sun, the memory of salt marsh and unclean water still clinging to their surface.  There is zero smoke and zero greenness with which to relieve the central mustiness of the accord.  Eventually, the sweet earthiness of aged patchouli strengthens to the point where it masks some of the more unattractive qualities of the vetiver oils.  Honestly?  Stick to the Lalique.

 

 

 

Et Pourtant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Et Pourtant, clearly masculine, opens with a blast of the kind of citrus and herbs one finds in old-fashioned eaux de cologne – lavender and lime, but also the urinous, grey-green strangeness of clary sage.  This particular combination of aromatics smells clean in a very French way, but also slightly rank (again, in a very French way).

 

Benzoin, tucked away in the base, turns the leather into the tight, citrusy powder of Eau Sauvage.  But the mossy petrol vibe of vintage Fahrenheit also haunts the composition, glossing the molecules with the bluebottle sheen of violet leaf.  In general, though, Et Pourtant is more Imperial Leather than petrol station forecourt.  I’d recommend this handsome scent for the wet shavers and traditionalist male groomers.

 

 

 

Floozy (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by feey on Unsplash

 

Company description: Silky opium smoked with boozy amber, dark vanilla, and sandalwood.

 

 

Floozy defies its rather exotic description by pairing a vinegary Australian sandalwood with light amber and something starchy, like freshly-ironed linens.  The astringency of the blend is startling, calling to mind as it does a spicy aftershave rather than anything oriental, dark, or sensual.  There is also an ocean of squeaky white musk here that, though not listed, plays a large part in keeping Floozy rully, rully soapy.

 

There is some carnation spiciness too, all dusty and verklempt, which I am assuming is the opium note.  Reviews for Floozy always mention how this scent smells like an opium den, which makes me wonder what a Venn diagram of indie perfume oil wearers and opiate users looks like.  Working on the assumption that the overlap in said Venn diagram is precisely zero, I took it upon myself to research what real opium smells like.

 

While I am still slightly traumatized by the dark corners of Reddit stumbled upon in my research (especially by a thread where the question ‘How do I take heroin safely’ received thirty-nine earnest answers), I can now report that real opium smells sticky, sweet, and floral.  It is a rich, focused smell, like a dried-up poppy, but not particularly – as is commonly ascribed to the word in perfume reviews – spicy or smoky.  In other words, the peppery carnation or clove notes largely taken as shorthand for opium in perfumery are all wrong.  (Someone ought to tell the execs at Yves Saint Laurent).  

 

So, there you have it.  Floozy is less the opiate-taking hedonist of its own imagining and more a dusty, floral carnation affair (with a sudsy sandalwood chaser).  For what it is worth, Floozy is a very good indie rendition of Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, which, in its original version, was a soapy sandalwood perfume with a massively dry carnation note running through it.  Floozy is, of course, a far less ornate scent.  But its very lack of fussiness is what makes it such an attractive alternative.

 

 

 

La Fougre / Fougère du Paradis (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

La Fougre, or Fougère du Paradis as it is now known, is an excellent masculine fougère with a smoky, resinous twist.  It starts off with a volley of bright, citrusy notes, and some very aromatic lavender and sage notes.  Cleverly, elemi resin has been used as a bridge between the opening notes, tying together the lemony, high-C notes of the herbs and citrus fruits.

 

After a while, the bright citrus and resin notes drop back a bit, allowing a creamy lavender and tonka heart to flesh out.  Unusually for a fougère, the base contains smoky, vanillic resins and a creamy white oud instead of oakmoss, so instead of the traditionally bitter, mossy finish, we have something that feels slightly more oriental.  The resins provide a sort of bitter nuance that substitutes nicely for oakmoss.  A nod in the direction of Jicky, therefore, rather than Azzaro Pour Homme.

 

This a nice option for young men looking for an updated version of a traditional fougère without the bitter, dated soapy mustiness that characterizes many old school barbershop masculines from the late seventies, or early eighties. This is clean, sharp, and masculine in a pleasing, non-confrontational way.

 

 

 

Geisha Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash

 

Unlike its flanker, Geisha Amber Rouge, the emphasis of the original Geisha Rouge is on the triumvirate of clove, star anise, and cinnamon commonly used to aromatize fine Japanese incense made with spikenard (jatamansi), powdered kyara (agarwood), and sandalwood.  There is also a faint undertone of dry tobacco leaf propping up the spice notes, replacing the sodden rooibos tea leaf of Geisha Amber Rouge.

 

The strongest note here, though, is the clove.  Star anise plays wingman, giving the blend a sweet and savory spice profile.  It is not chai, but something altogether rawer, like the hotly-spiced tsubaki oil – a blend of star anise, clove, and camellia oil – used by Samurai to oil their dagger sheathes.  A thematic line runs between this and Bushido Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery), though the Aroma M smells lighter, blunter, and less natural. 

 

A hint of plasticky red fruit in the drydown adds to that olfactory impression of ‘redness’ the oil is clearly aiming for.  Geisha Rouge may be a haiku rather than a novel, but there is something about its peppery freshness that is as attention-grabbing as a red-lipsticked mouth on a bare face. 

 

 

 

Haute Love (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Ginger, you say you want ginger? Like love it is hot and burns so beautifully! Imagine chocolate covered ginger which is forced to marry a gooey sticky sweet and all-consuming center. It is so clean…it is so very sinful! Haute Love will remind you of that guy you knew who was so polite around your parents but was such a wildman once you left the house. Or was that you, the prim little lady in public, the wildcat in private? That’s Haute Love. 

 

 

I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that Possets use an oil carrier that goes rancid within a year or so.  It is not possible to predict which perfumes will go off quicker than others – some of my Possets samples are still perfectly fine, for example, while three to four of them are clearly rancid.  After a brief and very pleasant hit of powdered ginger, Haute Love quickly unravels into the scent of stale vegetable oil, through which has been stirred a tablespoon of chocolate-orange cake flavoring syrup.  It is a dusty, cloying smell, and most unfortunate in a perfume.

 

 

 

Hayati (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

There must have been a mistake in filling my sample because whereas the published notes for Hayati uniformly cite musk, amber, agarwood, sugar, rose, and saffron, I smell acid-bright lemon smeared over a sweaty combination of vetiver, pine, and fir balsam.  Beneath this rather masculine fougère-ish opening, an unclean musk lurks uncleanly, sharpened with the halitosis stink of black ambergris or civet paste.  The marketing blurb mentions nothing of this, so I am putting this down to a sample mix up.  Hayati itself sounds like it smells good, but whatever it is that I tested most emphatically does not.

 

 

 

Incendere (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Incendere means ‘to burn’ in several Romance languages, so I was expecting this to be a very smoky affair.  However, while there is some smoke in the opening notes, it is more the pure, green smoke of wet pine needles thrown on a bonfire than the black char of burning meat or ashes.  Think the sappy greenness of the fir balsam in Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal) rather than the hammy guaiac of Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio) or the cade-heavy A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors). 

 

This central accord feels invigorating, like walking through a Northern fir forest in the snow and comes across a dying campfire.  Sadly, these atmospheric notes do not last, giving way all too rapidly to an ambery drydown marked, as usual, by the caramelic tones of the wonderful twenty-year-old Cretan labdanum absolute used by the brand.  Still, not a bad option for hiking and all sorts of wholesome outdoors activities.

 

 

 

Ikigai (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

 

In the opening, a rich but weathered, almost crumbling rose breaks ground.  Mellifluence’s signature earthy, smoky Sumatran vetiver talks all over the rose.  It smells like a length of green velvet brought out of a cedar armoire after half a century of storage.

 

For those who love the atmospheric smell of decrepitude, Ikigai is a gift – a tug on a memory chord.  It smells like a mansion close to ruin, with ghosts of a more splendid past hiding in the corners.  The tobacco leaf, which takes a long time to emerge from behind the rose and vetiver curtains, adds to the idea of faded grandeur with its gently dry and ashy tones.

 

Ikigai eschews the Christmas cake sweetness of most tobacco-based perfumes, settling instead for a dusty sourness.  Assisted by the cedar, it throws only its most masculine, astringent qualities into the mix.  Although the tobacco does grow stronger and sweeter in the base, it never becomes syrupy.  In fact, this is one tobacco blend that I don’t hesitate to recommend to (especially) men wary of the more sugary, vanillic, or clove-heavy treatments of the material.  Ikigai sidesteps all the usual problems inherent in the genre and does so elegantly.

 

 

 

Indian Saffron (Mellifluence)

Type: ruh

 

 

Pure Indian saffron oil is hellishly strong.  Like saffron threads sniffed from the jar, it smells pungently medicinal and astringent, but in oil form, there seems to be an unwelcome addition in the form of a poisonously rooty, camphoraceous note.  Its level of intensity is evil, making it unwearable alone on the skin.  It begs plaintively for the relief of either mixing or dilution.

 

Once the opening, headache-inducing blast of terpenes and iodine banks down, a divine trail of pure red saffron begins to suffuse the air around one’s warm skin.  A word of warning –  make sure to sniff this on the air and not directly from your skin.  (Dear God, do not smell it directly from the skin).

 

Smelling this ruh is a timely reminder that although saffron is a wonderful raw material, it calls out for sensitive handling in its pure oil format.  I recommend keeping a vial of this on hand as a reference material.  I have not smelled saffron oil as pure as this before and am not entirely sure I ever want to again.  Even just thinking about it is enough to bring the headache back.

 

 

 

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Iranzol is astonishing – a perfectly-preserved time capsule of a time in perfumery when perfumers were free to use the stinkiest of floral absolutes, plant oils, and resins in their perfumes.  Iranzol smells like the seventies, which makes perfect sense because it was launched in the seventies.  What is extraordinary is that the formula seems to have remained unchanged since then; this is the perfume in its original form.  In a day and age when brands reformulate every few years to keep up with IFRA recommendations, it is a small wonder that something like Iranzol can and does still exist.

 

The opening is as damply mushroomy as Acampora’s own Musc, brimming with wet soil, freshly-cut mushrooms, raw patchouli oil, and possibly some salty Italian kitchen herbs, like dried lavender and fennel root.  There is definitely some myrrh oil in the blend somewhere, helping those wet earth notes along.

 

Clove is also suspected, because there is an accord here that is half-claggy, half-dusty, like the sour, unwashed smell of sheets folded away while still damp.  This accord is both medicinal (clean) and animalic (unwashed, dusty, stale), which, although not entirely pleasant to my nose, is effective at creating an atmosphere of gloomy, faded grandeur.  One imagines a dusty chaise longue in an abandoned mansion by the sea somewhere.

 

The drydown diverges from the central accords found in Musc by finishing up in a dry amber and sandalwood base.  This never runs too sweet, retaining as most of Acampora’s oils do, that brusque connection to the earthier, more aromatic smells of the seventies, when men wore either Jovan Musk or barbershop fougères and shaved with proper soap.  In other words, the sandalwood is dry and astringent, and the amber downright vegetal.  No cream, sugar, or butter anywhere in sight.  You might have to adjust your television set when attempting Iranzol for the first time – it is neither modern nor easy.  It is an anachronism, an earthy scent for those who like the pungent, untouched smells of nature and their fellow human beings.

 

 

 

Istanbul (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Saffron lovers, roll up, roll up!  Istanbul features the fearsomely medicinal twang of real saffron, its ‘freshly tanned leather’ draped fetchingly over a lemony white rose (rosa alba) frame.  The combination gives rise to a pleasingly antiseptic bitterness reminiscent of those old-fashioned antibiotic syrups whose sweetness fails to entirely mask the ferrous bite of the medicine.

 

Saffron always donates an austere, mysterious character to a scent, and this is no exception.  The push-and-pull between the rose and saffron works because of the play of sweet against dry, feminine against masculine, flower against medicine.

 

The listed peach does not show up on my skin, and for the most part, the mukhallat continues in this duet between sweet rose and medicinal saffron.  It becomes sweeter in the base when the Turkish rose enters left stage, kicks the lemony, fresh white rose into the wings, and telling everyone to ‘calm the hell down, dear’ while it eats bonbons on a chaise-longue.  There is even a hint of a soapy, ‘perfumery’ blandness in the background.  But in general, this is a simple, linear, and enjoyable rose and saffron mukhallat that will satisfy those interested in this most ancient of pairings.

 

 

 

Jannataul Firdaus (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Alecsander Alves on Unsplash

 

Nemat’s version of the famous blended Indian attar, Jannataul Firdaus (Garden of Eden), is decent, which, considering the abominations committed under this attar’s name by other companies, is praise indeed.  The opening slaps you around the face with a fresh, oily vetiver root and bitter moss.  Although it has the aldehydic freshness of a six a.m. scrubdown in cold water with a bar of good old Irish Spring soap, it skips the harsh cheapness of other Jannataul Firdaus attars.  Clean and fresh, but not luxurious, this is a nice little oil with which to cool one’s skin on a hot summer’s day.

 

It is worth mentioning that Jannataul Firdaus follows the same path as every other attar of its ilk, drying down into the exact smell of those little green Chandrika Ayurvedic soaps one gets when ordering anything from India.  Indeed, given that 95% of the attars produced in Kannauj end up in the soap, food flavoring, and tobacco industry, it is entirely possible that most of the Jannataul Firdaus-type attars actually do end up in the Chandrika soaps, hence the association.  This type of attar is, dare I say, a pretty masculine preserve.

 

 

 

Jardin de Minuit (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Jardin de Minuit is a dark, wild, and slightly rougher ancestor of the original Jardin d’Borneo attar used in the base of the others in the Jardin series.  It focuses more on the camphoric, bitter green aspects rather than the creamy florals of its offspring and contains an inky oakmoss character that gives it a fairytale, European forest feel that is very seductive.  A current of pungent green tuberose oil runs through the attar, so antiseptic it approaches the idea of chlorine.

 

An invigorating tiger balm and eucalyptus accord lends a medicinal, spicy freshness that elevates the attar and turns it into an excoriating balm one might wear as protection when visiting someone in hospital.  The musky, bitter cedarwood provides an enticing hint of smoke and spice.  The thrilling green pungency of the start softens and melts into a sweeter base later on, but never gets floral or creamy, making this the perfect attar for the floral-averse and perhaps most men.

 

 

Kāmānala (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: luxuriant spices, beeswax laden honeycomb, northwoods fir, bay, cedar, and smoked incense resins. From this, we added a piquant veil of red saffron over a bed of specially aged red Cambodian oud, Haitian vetiver, cuir accord, allspice berries, Eritrean bdellium, Ho wood, and Aji Rojo infused guaiac incense wood. 

 

 

Kāmānala was the first in Alkemia’s series of exotic perfume oils referencing traditional Indian attar perfumery, and as such has a much higher content load of naturals and is priced accordingly ($30 for five milliliters).  This perfume oil marks a shift for Alkemia towards a more serious, attar-style manner of perfume making, presaging a greater focus on natural raw materials and higher quality overall.

 

Kāmānala certainly smells very authentic, presenting at first sniff a very pungent, fierce saffron note layered over smoky woods and a spicy rose-oud accord.  The saffron is very Indian-smelling: leathery, iodine-like, spicy, and tannic, like a stream of golden needle tea.  Once the strong saffron note fades, a rather simple structure is revealed, featuring mostly powdery woods, an old-fashioned Bulgarian rose, and a medicinal oud note.

 

Overall, Kāmānala does smell very much like a traditional Indian attar.  My only complaint would be that the saffron note leans a hair too aggressive and might be refined slightly to allow the other notes to shine.  But, other than that, Kāmānala represents a step forward in complexity and intent on the part of Alkemia.  Very nice work indeed.

 

 

 

Karnak (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Laura Nyhuis on Unsplash

 

Company description: Cinnamon, Cardamom, Citrus, Egyptian Amber, Red Egyptian Musk

 

 

Karnak smells like a cheap Christmas spice candle, complete with the aroma of melted beeswax.

 Brimming with cinnamon, clove, and either red apple or raisins, this is a watery facsimile of Tobacco Vanille without the tobacco or indeed the vanille.  In other words, all the parts of Tobacco Vanille that even people who love Tobacco Vanille complain about.

 

As with most NAVAs I have smelled, there is a faintly waxen layer over the spices, dimming their glow.  Either NAVA perfumes don’t age well or that dusty floor wax vibe is simply part and parcel of their signature.  Anyway, Karnak smells fruity, spicy, and a bit soul-destroying, like the inside of a candle store around Christmas.  Later on, a metallic honey note, like sediment in a glass of white wine, sets in to spoil the ‘festive mood’ even further.  There may people for whom this sounds like pure heaven, but none of those people would be me.

 

 

 

Kashka (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kashka is one of the most popular attars for women in the Swiss Arabian range, and apparently comes in several different (numbered) variants.  It is bright and woodsy, with a bitter marigold note up that glitters like a newly-minted gold coin.  Marigold, or tagetes, is something I always think of as an English garden variant of saffron, in that it is similarly spicy and medicinal, but far wetter and greener.

 

The tagetes in Kashka reminds me of the tagetes-saffron pairing in Aramis Calligraphy Saffron, which cleverly pairs the iodine-like astringency of both notes in an East-meets-West marriage of equals.  In Kashka, the simultaneously wet and dusty tagetes floats over a base of ‘aged woods’ and saffron that will be instantly familiar to those who love Swiss Arabian’s own Mukhallat Maliki (above).  I recommend Kashka to those who love the earthy medicinal mustiness of marigold, saffron, and dusty woods.

 

 

 

Khus (Yam International)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Yam International’s take on the traditional khus attar is a creditable, if not particularly exciting, one.  Past the usual grassy freshness of the vetiver that sparkles up top, the attar draws upon the almost flat, mineralic clay-like facets of vetiver root to convey a somber, serious character.  It has a cooling effect on the senses and would probably work brilliantly under a white shirt for long, hot meetings in the summertime.  Vetiver fans will appreciate this one both for its initial lime-peel freshness and its subsequent marshy, clay-like dankness.  It captures the recalcitrant, Victor Meldrew-ish character of vetiver quite well.

 

 

 

Lady and a Baby Unicorn (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A wonderful combination. Using the right type and right amount and right dilution, vetiver (that sultry, earthy, wild, and dominant part) becomes positively docile, sweet, and innocent…almost fruity in the presence of three vanillas (dry, fat, and sweet). It is like the renewal of its virginity.

 

Dear God with the renewal of virginity thing in the description.  Anyway, don’t worry about drumming up the money to pay for hymen restoration in China because it is unlikely anyone will come within ten feet of you if you’re wearing Lady and a Baby Unicorn.  It starts out with a greasy fruit-and-fuel note – mashed bananas smeared into melting plastic from a chemical spill at a factory, a grape Kool-Aid note swimming around and striking at random intervals.

 

What it turns into is rather miraculous, considering its terrifying opening – an earthy, grassy vetiver massaged into the shape of a fudge bonbon by industrial quantities of vanilla and – I suspect – tonka bean.  The vetiver is very gourmand, reminding me somewhat of Vetiver Tonka (Hermes) without any of that scent’s more interesting burnt sugar and hazelnut edges.

 

The pungent fruit-fuel accord hangs around for much of the ride, though, imbuing the vetiver fudge with a hilariously poisonous character.  Sniffing it up close will give you a solvent high and possibly third degree chemical burns.  Still, Lady and a Baby Unicorn is the rare indie oil unafraid to take the gnarly earthiness of vetiver head on, and for that, I have to give it props.   

 

 

 

Lutalica (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

           

 

 

Lutalica is something that I think illustrates a teething problem common to young artisan attar makers, which is the difficulty in securing the right raw materials to create the desired effect.  If you are not living in the country where the oil is distilled, or you have no means to distill it yourself, or even oversee the process, then it becomes a Sisyphean task to guarantee quality and purity.

 

Lutalica clearly aims to capture the naturalistic, herbal feel of authentic traditional Indian attars.  It contains several traditional Indian raw materials such as henna, saffron, jasmine sambac, Indian oud, and Mysore sandalwood.  However, the resulting perfume smells less like a genuine Indian attar and more like an indie perfume oil that might have come out of a house like NAVA.  It smells sweet, low-key, and above-all, oily in a bland way, as if a less than excellent quality of Mysore oil had been used.  This is surely not what was intended, illustrating the crapshoot that raw material sourcing can be for young artisan outfits with no financial backing and few to no capital reserves.

 

 

 

Mitti Attar (Aromata Mirabilia)

Type: traditional distilled attar   

 

 

This mitti is expensive, but so patently the real deal that it would be rude to begrudge the price.  Appointing oneself with this oil feels holy, such is its purity.  Upon application, there is a wave of rich, dry earth the likes of which one imagines might have escaped from Tutankhamen’s tomb when Carter first opened it up.  It is an attractively musty smell, redolent of a reddish dust mixed with millennia-old damp.

 

Then come the nutty, golden tones of a true santalum album oil.  It unfolds in a linear fashion, the earth and sandalwood notes pursuing at first two separate tracks and then merging together to form a carpet of golden and terracotta tones.  The mitti from Aromata Mirabilia is so beautiful that I can imagine people using it for meditation purposes in much the same way as they do pure Mysore sandalwood or pure Hindi oud oil.  Very highly recommended, if only as a baseline.

 

 

 

Mitti (Mellifluence)

Type: traditional distilled attar

 

 

The Mellifluence take on mitti attar is quite pleasant.  It opens with an oily, peanut-like aroma, like the clear oil that floats on top of a newly-opened jar of 100% natural peanut butter before you mix it back in.  This oily peanut odor is characteristic of some santalum album oils, and a nice little side effect for people who love milky, nutty smells.  The peanutty sandalwood aroma eventually settles into a softly earthy accord that emphasizes the pale, rooty (mineralic) facets of wet clay.

 

In trajectory, it seems to reverse the journey of the Aromata Mirabilis take on mitti, which began with earth and ended with sandalwood.  The quality is much less impressive here than in the Aromata Mirabilia oil, but it is a nice option if you’re looking for a snapshot of mitti rather than the full panorama. 

 

 

 

Mukhallat Malaki (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A very good mukhallat and representative of its genre.  This is one of the lower-priced perfumes that I find to be much better than its price tag suggests.  Mukhallat Malaki is a masculine-leaning, aromatic-woody fragrance with the leather-bound bookishness of saffron, a desiccated rose, and quite a lot of musky cedar.

 

The notes for this would have you thinking along the lines of a traditional rose-oud fragrance.  But think again.  This is far more about the delightful dustiness of neglected spaces than it is the age-old siren call of rose and oud.  Yet, Mukhallat Malaki smells unmistakably exotic to the Western nose.  Musty and potent, one drop goes a long way.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Najdi Maliki (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Vera De on Unsplash

 

Featuring notes of amber, Hindi oud, saffron, and Taifi rose, Mukhallat Najdi Maliki is a terrifically potent little thing.  The fearsome funkiness of its opening is not coming from the Indian oud, because probably only a tiny amount has been used, but rather from the combination of a saffron note so medicinal it could clean a wound out in under five seconds and the sharp, honeyed pissiness of an unlisted orange blossom or neroli note.  It is, shall we say, rather crotchy.  A friend of mine wore this one night and was promptly relegated to the couch by his wife.  It is not oud – but it has something of its unsettling funk.

 

But wait for it, because soon the mukhallat mellows out into a sweet, creamy saffron dessert.  Picture pools of bright yellow Indian custard spiked with saffron threads and cardamom.  At this stage, it resembles the creamy saffron vibe of both White Aoud by Montale and Safran Troublant by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  Since Safran Troublant is rather quiet, I like to layer it over Najdi Maliki to become a walking, talking vat of kulfi.  It also works wonderfully under Anubis by Papillon, the saffron in the attar serving to amplify the smoky, leathery saffron in the perfume.  For saffron fans, Mukhallat Najdi Maliki is a must try.

 

 

 

Musk Amber (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nemat’s Musk Amber has gained quite a bit of praise in the fragrance community for being a solid amber that could quite possibly stand in as a replacement for Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan.  However, either Musk Amber has been reformulated or my sample is off, because I smell nothing of the rich, mouth-watering spice and herbs of Ambre Sultan.

 

Instead, Musk Amber is rather medicinal and vegetal out of the bottle, with the faintly iodine-like mustiness of saffron or henna.  Its astringency identifies it as more of an Indian-style amber than an Arabian souk style typified by the Lutens.  Arabian souk ambers are sweeter and thicker, fluffed out by spices, benzoin, labdanum, and lots of vanilla.  Indian ambers, on the other hand, tend to be austere, spicy, and built using lots of leathery saffron.  Musk Amber is very much the latter.

 

As the saffron dies away, the blend becomes much sweeter, and closer to what many people would associate with a classic souk amber aroma.  It is faintly vegetal all the way through, but the warmth of the drydown is a nice payoff.  For a fairly-priced ambery attar, one could do worse, although one must appreciate saffron or henna to get through the opening phase.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Source of samples:  I purchased all the samples reviewed in this chapter, apart from the samples from Sultan Pasha Attars, which were gifted to me by the brand for Attar Guide review purposes, and the Henry Jacques samples, which were part of a Basenotes sampling thread.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Natasha Furst on Unsplash  

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

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Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection (Fragrances): Reviews

4th October 2022

 

The first release in the History of Attar Collection was a set of traditionally-distilled attars specifically commissioned by Areej Le Dore to give its customers an idea of what Indian attars are (thoughts and reviews of the attar set here).  This release, on the other hand, is a collection of spray-based fragrances (not oils) made by Russian Adam himself, rather than commissioned from an attar distiller.  Since their composition do revolve around the use and theme of Indian attars, however, it might be useful for readers to read my previous article describing the attar set first.  

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

Photo by Maksym Sirman on Unsplash

 

I wrote about the new generation of Amouage attars (2021) a while back, but in trying to couch my disappointment in terms of market realities, I skipped over the sense of loss – emotional and patrilineal – of never seeing the likes of Badr al Badour, Al Shomukh, and Al Molook again.  These were mukhallats that successfully positioned feral ouds against the softening backdrops of rose, ambergris, and musk, stoking a love for oud among the heretofore uninitiated.  The first sniff of Beauty and the Beast makes me realize, with great joy, that cultural ‘scent’ patrimony is never lost entirely, but rather, constantly over-written by new entrants like this.   

 

Based on the age-old Middle Eastern custom of pairing the sometimes challengingly sour, regal animalism of Hindi oud (the Beast) with the soft, winey sweetness of rose (the Beauty), Beauty and the Beast doesn’t deviate too dramatically from the basic rose-oud template.  When the starring raw materials are this good, you don’t need to.  The Hindi oud and the rose oils used here are so complex in and of themselves that an experienced perfumer chooses wisely when they leave them alone to work their synergistic magic on each other. 

 

Interestingly, the ouds in Beauty and the Beast have been distilled using rose hydrosols, meaning that the water normally loaded into the still with the oud chips has been replaced with rosewater, the natural by-product of distilling roses.  I am not sure that this makes a difference to the resulting oud oil, but the environmentalist in me likes the thinking around circular economy it implies.  

 

The balancing act the materials perform is nothing short of magisterial.  When the Hindi oud at first challenges the senses with its pungent, feral qualities – think beasts of burden steaming together in a barn, old saddles piled on old wooden barrels in the corner, piss-soaked straw matted into the dirt floor – the rose (not Taifi, for sure, but more likely something like Rosa bourboniana, used to distill attar of roses, or Rosa damascena, used to distill ruh gulab, or a mix) is there merely to soften and sweeten things.  Later, however, when there is more room to breathe, the rose offers up a kaleidoscope of different ‘flavors’, cycling through wine and chocolate to raspberry liquor, Turkish delight, truffles, and finally, that traditional rose-sandalwood ‘attar’ scent.

 

But it is crucial to note that these nuances all unfold in sequence, matching step for step the series of nuances emerging from the Hindi oud.  So, when the oud reveals that regal, spicy leather underpinning so typical of high-quality Hindi ouds, the rose offers up its truffles and wine.  The two materials continue to evolve and in doing so, change the character of the rose-oud pairing we are smelling.  First, the character is pungent and sweet, then it is leathery and winey, then it is dry, woody-spicy and jellied-loukhoum-like.  This evolution, this symbiotic dance, lasts for a whole 24 hours, so you have ample time to luxuriate in its every transition.

 

There is nothing really new or innovative about the rose-oud pairing, but Beauty and the Beast is worth your time and money if you are looking for an exemplar of the heights it can scale when only truly excellent materials are used.  It is strong, rich, long-lasting, but most of all, interesting and beautiful from every angle, from top to toe.  In terms of what is still available in this style today, I would rank Beauty and the Beast alongside The Night (Frederic Malle), Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq (Ajmal), Al Hareem (Sultan Pasha Attars), and Al Noukhba Elite Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi).  In other words, the fragrances that best capture the feral but regal nature of Hindi oud, balancing it perfectly against dark, sweet roses.  For what it’s worth, my husband, who is a hardcore oud enthusiast, kept muttering stuff, “Good Lord, that is good,” and “Oh, that smells insanely good” all day long every time I wore it.

  

 

 

Ambre de Coco

 

Photo:   Aromatics, spice, and dried plant material for a shamama distillation being loaded into the deg. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor. 

 

Coming across a genuine shamama attar in the wild is like thumbing through a library of slim poetry books and pulling out a tome with the girth of a Ulysses.  Shamama attars, which can take two months of continuous distilling and over 60 separate fragrant materials to make, are so bewilderingly complex that even reading about how they are made is exhausting.  I’ve written about the process here, but in case you haven’t come prepared with sandwiches, a flask of tea, and a map, then let me just tl;dr it for you: an even more aromatic MAAI, wearing a bear pelt.

 

But Ambre de Coco takes it one step further – there is a shamama attar at its heart, but it is wrapped up in a dark, almost bitter, but superbly plush cocoa powder note, stone fruit accords, and a deeply furry impression that suggests that deer musk grains might have been involved at some point.  Complexity-wise, this is like taking Ulysses and wrapping it in a layer of Finnegan’s Wake.

 

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the amber.  Forget the idea of those cozy-vanillic-resinous ambers like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) or Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier).  This is Indian amber, or what they call shamamatul amber, which is green, mossy, and astringent as hell, as if amber resin was not a resin after all but a stalk of rhubarb or a copper penny.  Indian ambers are lean and a bit stern – there is zero fat on their bones.  Inside this carnivorous structure, the rest of these 50-odd raw materials flow as a swirl of tastes and impressions rather than identifiable notes.  Aromatic grasses mingle with bitter, mossy aromas, wet-smelling herbs, roasted roots, dried berries, calligraphy ink, floral bath salts, and all sorts of dried lichens, leaves, and twigs.  It smells more like something a traditional Chinese medicine man would brew up to cure an infection than a perfume.

 

Now, imagine all this soaked in a rich cocoa powder that softens all the pointy, jangly bits that threaten to poke your eye out, and you get an impression of being plunged into the warm embrace of fur – both animal and human.  The cocoa is not at all edible – fold away any expectations you might have of something gourmandy and sweet.  Rather, its powdery texture cleverly replicates the stale chocolate bitterness-dustiness that is a natural feature of real deer musk tinctures.  Shamama attars and shamama-based perfumes can often be animalic, even when they lean exclusively on plant-based materials (Ajmal’s 1001 Nights being a case in point), relying on the natural funkiness of the aromatics or woods or moss to create something that, in some quarters, might be termed a Parfum de Fourrure (a fur perfume).  Here, Ambre de Coco leans a little on oud and ambergris to boost that effect, but in spirit and intent, it joins the ranks of other glorious Indian shamama-inspired perfumes, such as 1001 Nights (Al Lail) by Ajmal and Jardin de Shalimar by Agarscents Bazaar.

 

Photo:  Charila, a type of Indian lichen that is similar to oakmoss. Photo by Pranjal Kapoor

 

The drydown is suitably bitter-musky-tobacco-ish in the way of these Indian shamamatul ambers, but I am not sure whether this is because of the additional dose of oakmoss and ambergris, or because of the naturally aromatic aspects of charila, an inky-smelling moss material from India that is oakmoss-adjacent and also the first material to be distilled in the shamama recipe.  Either way, my comment about MAAI wearing a fur coat stands.  This is a two-day affair and can be smelled on the skin even after a hot shower.  Considering that genuine shamama attars can take two months to distill and starts at a minimum of $2,000 a kilo for one that’s been distilled into real sandalwood oil, $360 for a 48ml bottle of perfume that not only does justice to shamama but elevates it to the small pantheon of shamama greats that exist on the market today, Ambre de Coco is both beautiful and superb value for money.          

 

 

 

Malik Al Motia

 

Photo by Bibi Pace on Unsplash

 

First, a bit of etymology. Motia (or alternatively mogra) is Urdu for Sambac jasmine, which itself is popularly known as ‘Arabian jasmine’, distinguishing it from Jasminum grandiflorum, the more classical jasmine grown in France and India.  You can buy motia in two forms – as an attar al motia, which involves jasmine petals distilled directly over a base of pure sandalwood, or as a ruh al motia, which is the pure essence of the flower, no sandalwood base.   Malik means, loosely, owner or King in Arabic, which I guess suggests that Malik al Motia is supposed to be the Supreme Boss of all Jasmines.  

 

But if you think that means you’re getting something loud, you would be wrong.  Russian Adam mentioned an interesting fact about traditional attars that I hadn’t known, which is that attar wallahs distilling in the old Indian manner produce essences that are pitched at a perfectly modulated mid-tone point, meaning that the final aroma is never too loud or too quiet.  And I find Malik Al Motia to be a perfect example of what he means.

 

This is jasmine with all the lights switched off.  It starts out as dusky, velvety, and slightly indolic in tone, similar to the darkened jasmine found in Ruh al Motia (Nemat) as well as to the soft, magic market indoles of Cèdre Sambac (Hermes).   But the leathery indoles are smoothed out by a judicious touch of the grandiflorum variety of jasmine, whose luscious sweetness and full-bodied charm sands down any rough edges on that Sambac.  Hints of overripe, boozy fruit – like an overblown banana liquor – lend a steamy tone but remain firmly in the background.  Oddly, Malik al Motia smells far more like jasmine than the Motia attar from the attar set that has presumably been used somewhere in the mix. 

 

There are resins and woods in the base, even some oud.  But these just act as the dimmer switch on the jasmine, making sure that everything, even the parts of jasmine that are naturally sunny, are subsumed into the folds of that black velvet olfactory curtain.  The rich, honeyed ‘just-licked skin’ tones of Sambac come through at the end and linger plaintively for hours.  Similar to the now discontinued Gelsomino triple extract by Santa Maria Novella, the natural end to any Sambac is that rich, skanky sourness of your wrist trapped under a leather watch-band all day under intense heat.

 

Yet Malik al Motia remains intensely floral.  Wearing feels like waking up in a field of jasmine at dusk, the air still redolent with scent.  It is not especially feminine and clearly not a soliflore.  The material’s rich indoles lend a slightly dirty feel, as does the mealy woods in the base (reading more cedar-ish than sandalwoody to my nose), but it manages to be darkly, sensually ‘adult’ without ever tipping over into full frontal territory.  Soft, black-purple velvet, a hushed ambience, your heels sinking into deep carpet.  Makes wish I still had someone to seduce.   

 

 

 

Al Majmua

 

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

Al Majmua is based on the famous majmua attar, a traditional Indian blend of four other already-distilled attars and ruhs, namely, ruh khus (vetiver root), ruh kewra (pandanus, or pandan leaf), mitti attar (a distillation of hand-made clay bowls), and kadam attar (distilled from the small, yellow bushy flowers of the Anthocephalus cadamba).   Together, these attars combine to mimic the lush, earthy fragrance of India during the rainy season.  In Al Majmua, it is the green, foresty tones of the ruh khus that dominate, at least at first.  Its rugged, earthy aroma smells like the roots of a tree dipped into a classic men’s fougère, something green and bitter enough to put hairs on your chest.  In fact, there is a chalky galbanum-like note here that links Al Majmua, at least superficially, with the front half of Incenza Mysore.

 

But what I love about majmua attars, and hence also about Al Majmua, is that the juicy-sharp bitterness of the opening tends to soften into an earthy, dusty bitterness – nature’s slide, perhaps, from vetiver root to mitti.  

 

This earthy, aromatic aroma is complex and ever-shifting, sometimes letting the slightly minty yellow floral of the kadam attar peek through, sometimes the piercing, fruity-vanillic, yet funky aroma of pandanus leaf (kewra attar), which Russian Adam has cleverly accentuated by adding a cat-pissy blackcurrant up front.  But what really predominates is the earthy wholesomeness of soil and dust, emphasized with patchouli, and given a spicy, armpitty warmth by a sturdy cedarwood in the base that believes itself to be a musk of some sort.  Though the notes don’t include musk or even a naturally musky material like costus, there is an aspect to Al Majmua that smells like the creamed, stale skin at the base of a woman’s neck.  A perfumer friend of mine, Omer Pekji, recommended to me long ago to wear a swipe of Majmua attar under my Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), and I wonder if the reason this particular layering combination works so well is because muskiness forms the bridge between the two perfumes.

 

What I admire the most about Al Majmua is the way that the perfumer chose to simply frame the majmua attar at the center (since it is a complex-smelling thing in and of itself) and then arrange other, complementary materials around it to draw out and emphasize certain aspects of the attar’s character.  For example, a silvery-powdery iris is placed in just the right place to highlight the dustiness of mitti, the cedarwood to underline the majmua’s slight bodily funk, the patchouli to draw even longer 5 o’ clock shadows under the jaw of the ruh khus, and so on.   

 

Fresh over animalic.  Earthy but not pungent.  Imagine Green Irish Tweed sprayed over a deer musk attar that faded down a long time ago.  Indians love majmua attars for their complex, aromatic character and so do I, but I like Al Majmua the best when it is almost done.  Because, just as the slow, gentle fade-to-grey starts to happen, there is a magnificent moment where the natural sandalwood smells like – similar to some parts of Musk Lave and Jicky – idealized male skin.   Meaning, skin after a hot shave, application of an old-fashioned but honest sandalwood tonic (Geo F. Trumpers, say), and then an hour of gentle exertion in the cold air.

 

 

 

Mysore Incenza

 

 

Adjust your expectations.  You see, I know what you’re thinking.  You see the words ‘Mysore’ and ‘incense’ and, like Pavlov’s dog, you immediately salivate, expecting something warm, ambered, and resinous, like Sahara Noir or Amber Absolute mixed with the best, creamiest version of Bois des Iles or Bois Noir (Chanel) that ever existed, but somehow better, you know, because it is all artisanal and therefore deeper, richer, more authentic than anything you can buy on the shelves of your local department store or even niche perfumery.

 

Mysore Incenza is not that.  In fact, so large was the gap between my expectations and reality that I had to wear it five times in a row to come to terms with what it is rather than what I thought it was going to be.   In pairing the extremely high-pitched, dusty, lime-peel notes of frankincense with the extremely soft, ‘neutral’ woody tones of the vintage Mysore sandalwood (from 2000) included in the attar set (read my review here), a transubstantiation of sorts is performed, and something else entirely emerges.

 

Specifically, this new creature is born in the surprising mold of Chanel No. 19 or Heure Exquise (Annick Goutal), with one small toe dipped into the Grey Flannel genepool on the way.  At least at first.  It glitters in this high, pure register, an explosion of Grappa, lime peel, and wood alcohol chased by baby powder, a striking frankincense, and what smells to me like the dusky, cut-bell-pepper dryness of galbanum and the slightly shrill smell of violet leaf.  This creates a dry, clean, woody aroma that smells purified and ascetic.  This kind of frankincense, perhaps changed by the presence of the sandalwood, smells unlit – slightly waxy, slightly powdered, and definitely not smoky, although it occurs to me that the perception of smokiness is as personal and nuanced as your political beliefs.

 

There is no warmth, no sweetness, and no comfort at all.  Don’t look towards the sandalwood to provide any relief, either.  Mysore Incenza is cleansing, angular, and ‘holy’ in the same way as other famously austere scents in incense canon are, such as Incense Extreme (Tauer), Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), and Ambra (Lorenzo Villoresi).  These are all fragrances that steer away from softening the jutting sharpness of frankincense with amber or vanilla or flowers, choosing instead to focus on the dry, musky-soapy, ‘hard core’ character of resin that radiates hard, like tiny particles of mica or dust leaping off the bible when the priest thumps it to make a point in the angriest of angry sermons.   Mysore Incenza keeps you kneeling straight, anxiously waiting for the priest to say that you can sit back down again.

 

Although technically beautiful, it is most definitely not my kind of thing.  My personal tastes run towards hedonism and gluttony rather than asceticism.  I put the hair shirt away a long time ago.  People who loved Grandenia will also love Mysore Incenza, as there is something of the same vibe.    

 

 

 

Le Mitti

 

Photo: The clay bowls of Indian earth loaded into the still to make mitti attar.  Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, with full permission to use.

 

As Russian Adam warns, Le Mitti is less of a perfume and more of a bottled emotion, so expect a maelstrom with a short but dramatic trajectory from start to finish.  Like Mitti from Oudologie (review here), Le Mitti is a departure from the mineralic, petrichor effect of very traditional mitti attars, in that it is smoky to the point of smelling charred.  I like this way of approaching mitti, as it feels more modern and exciting.  What is lost in all this delicious smoke, however, is that essential feeling of something wet (rain) hitting something dry (the parched red soil of India), which in effect activates the geosmin in the earth and makes that pure ‘after the rain’ effect ring out.  Try Après L’Ondée, if that’s what you’re looking for, or a traditional mitti attar.  But remember that Le Mitti is a perfume, not an attar, and is therefore more of an imaginative interpretation than a dogged replication.

 

So, what does Le Mitti smell like?  Like a perfect storm of peanut dust, tar, soot – charred remnants of a wood fire, soot snaking up the wall in black streaks.  It is Comme des Garcons Black without the anise or the clove.  I love it.  But it is definitely a hybrid mitti rather than a pureline one.  It joins the earthy red dust of Indian clay bowls to the dry, sooty scent of an Irish cottage without ventilation.  As you might imagine, it is hilariously atmospheric.  Don’t wear it unless you’re prepared for people to ask if you’ve been near an open fire recently.

 

 

 

Gul Hina

 

Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

 

Gul Hina, or Gul Heena, or sometimes even Attar Mehndi, meaning ‘flower of henna’, is an attar derived from distilling henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis) directly into sandalwood oil.   As you might guess from the name, the attar comes from the same plant as the popular red dye that is used to paint elaborate patterns onto the hands and face of brides in most Indian weddings, be it a Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh ceremony.  There is also a Ruh Mehndi, but since it is very expensive at $43,000 per kilogram (while the attar ranges between $500 and $5,000 per kilogram), it is rarely used commercially.  Well, to be honest, neither the attar or ruh of henna is well known outside of India and is therefore under-utilized in Western niche or artisanal perfumery.   Strangelove NYC’s fallintostars is an exception – it uses a heena attar distilled by M.L. Ramnarain.  (Review here).  

 

Gul Hina by Areej Le Doré is an entirely different experience to most Gul Hina attars I have tried.  The scent of mehndi attar is that of earth, hay, flower petals, ink, baked clay, and iodine.  (The ruh smells greener, with a  tobacco-ish facet).  It can smell rather austere.  But the Areej Le Doré approach to Gul Hina is to bathe the henna flower in the prettiest of magnolia blossoms, rose, and jasmine, so that what emerges is a sort of Venus on a Half Shell – a pearlescent, creamy, and indubitably feminine experience.  This is not the hot baked earth and hay that I am used to in mehndi.  And I’m not complaining.

 

It strikes me that this would be perfect for a bride, especially one that is also getting those intricate henna patterns painted onto her hands and face.  Henna on the arms and face; Gul Hina on the wrists and neck.  A synchronicity of henna for good health and a happy marriage.

 

First, Gul Hina smells vaguely candied, but indirectly so, like floral gummies rolled in dust and lint.  Then you notice the magnolia petals floating in a pool of cream.  Unlike in other takes on magnolia, there is no lemony freshness and no juicy, metallic greenery at its heart.  Here, the petals feel impregnated with the cream in which it floats, like biscuits or croissants dipped into condensed milk before baking a bread pudding.  These sweet, milky notes mingling with the clearly floral elements of magnolia remind me of some aspects of Remember Me (Jovoy).

 

The jasmine is next to break free of this creamy mass.  Clear as a bell, this is a naturalistic jasmine, like jasmine petals dropping and wilting off a vine in high summer.  Petals fully open, a ripe smell, with something fecund and though not quite clean, not exactly indolic either.  Still, it is enough to give the pretty magnolia some much-needed kick.  A little funk in your cream.  The rose, when it emerges, is extremely subtle.  Rose rarely plays such a back seat, but here it plays nicely in floral tandem with jasmine and magnolia that it approaches that ‘mixed floral bouquet’ effect that Creed puts in all its older feminines, like Vanisia and Fleurissimo.      

 

To be honest, I am not sure what to think about the far drydown.  With the white musk and the sandalwood, there is a nice element of perfumey, musky bitterness that creeps in.  On the one hand, this sort of drydown is always very pretty (think Coco Mademoiselle, without the patchouli), but on the other, it doesn’t sit well with the magnolia cream pudding aspect, which in consequence begins to smell a little less like a milky dessert and more like that fake croissant scent they pump around the supermarket to get shoppers moving towards the baked goods section.

 

But even if it is ultimately not quite my thing, I can’t imagine why Gul Hina wouldn’t be a huge success with brides to be, women who like pretty florals, and fans of milky floral gourmands in general.  Overall, I admire Gul Hina for being a symbolic scent pairing to the more pungent smell of henna ink painted onto a woman’s body on her wedding day.  It doesn’t smell like any mehndi attar I have ever smelled before, but my experience with mehndi is limited and I fully expect someone who is fully familiar with it to smell this and say, but of course, this is pure mehndi!

 

 

Source of samples:  My samples were sent free of charge by the brand.  This does not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash 

Animalic Chypre Citrus Cult of Raw Materials Floral Independent Perfumery Oakmoss Orange Blossom Review Spicy Floral Tuberose White Floral Woods Ylang ylang

Casablanca by St. Clair Scents

13th June 2022

 

 

I don’t wear fully floral perfumes very often, but when I do, I swing wildly between two extremes – the dependable, if sedate, beauty of established classics like L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or Farnesiana (Caron) and the odd but thought-provoking experiments that are indie-made perfumes, like Cornaline (Anatole LeBreton), Quasi Una Absurdia (Chris Rusak), Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery), Romanza (Masque Milano), or Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids).  When I wear perfumes from the first group, I miss the element of surprise (and often discomfort) that indie perfumes bring.  When I wear perfumes from the latter, I miss the polish and reassuring solidity of construction represented by the classics.

 

Casablanca by St. Clair Scents blows me away because it bridges the divide.  The buttery, vegetal tuberose and other white floral notes never get a chance to weigh the perfume down because they are lifted in the short term by a fizzy, spicy medicinal note that smells like a vaporization of Clovis toothpaste and Epsom bath salts, and over the longer term by a bright citrus accord that smells like someone peeling an orange through a dense thicket of white flowers, spraying its petals with volatile peel oils.

 

The effect is extraordinarily rich, voluptuous, and delicious, yet fizzy and upbeat in a way that I rarely find white flowers to be.  To me, white flowers usually smell solemn and ‘posh’, their natural environment seemingly more that of an achingly hip vase in a luxury hotel than anything that grows in actual soil.  But Casablanca takes white florals out of the hotel environment and into the boudoir.  It is both artificial and natural.  By this, I mean that while Casablanca smells very natural, with several expensive floral absolutes clustered together for effect, there is no way one would mistake its naturalness for an absence of design.  

 

The minty-spicy Listerine effect upfront, for example, is a klaxon sounded to jerk the white flowers out of their creamy stupor, and the sexy civet-laced minerals running through the base have been deliberately placed there to give it a retro feel.  And though I suppose there are parallels to similar effects achieved in other non-mainstream perfumes  – the toothpasty mothball vibe in both Tubéreuse Criminelle (Serge Lutens) and Flos Mortis (Rogue Perfumery) for one, the dusty floral civet floor of both Mardi Gras (Olympic Orchids) and Lost in Heaven (Francesca Bianchi) for another – there is not much out there that replicates the total effect of Casablanca, which is to say its rich, warm density that holds all elements (rich white flowers, civet, Listerine, blood orange soda) in balance for so long and with such grace.  It has this slightly smudgy, smeary texture that I love, like flowers seen through glasses steamed up and knocked askew by an illicit embrace. 

 

I am late to the Casablanca party, but better late than never, right?  My only regret is that St. Clair’s Scents perfumes do not seem to have a distributor outside of the United States, and so, a large part of the perfume-consuming market will probably miss out on getting to know it.   And that’s a shame, because I think anyone who loves full-blooded, smutty but still slightly edgy white floral bombs would love Casablanca.

 

 

 

Source of Sample:  My sample was sent to me by Diane St. Clair free of charge.  I understand my privilege as a EU-based perfume journalist, believe me, and am very grateful for the chance to smell perfumes that would normally be out of reach to consumers living where I do.  

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Joeyy Lee on Unsplash 

 

 

Aromatic Chypre Citrus Green Independent Perfumery Leather Masculine Musk Neroli Oakmoss Review Woods

Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi

8th June 2022

 

 

Over the years, I have built a scent library in my head, where I keep extensive files on all the different smells I have smelled.  So when I smell a new perfume, I can usually dip into the shelves of this library and pull out a reference or two that helps me put it into context.  Smelling Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi makes me realize that there is a huge gap in the shelves where the classics of masculine perfumery should be.  I am able to tell you what Libertine Neroli smells like to me – fresh, dark, bitter musky-woody – but will be rather useless when it comes to placing it in the broader context of masculine classics.  Sorry.

 

I only hope I can do it the justice it deserves, because Libertine Neroli is fantastic.  My husband, who wore the sample three or four times (I wore it twice), said it reminded him very much of the old school, masculine grooming products men used in the Balkans back when he was growing up.  These were mostly Italian brands of colognes, shaving creams, or talc like Felce Azzura and Pino Silvestre.  Old Spice even (yes, yes, not Italian – don’t be pedantic).

 

But while there is certainly some retro-styling going on here  (I knew I was on the right track when, after testing and writing the bones of this review, I finally checked the promo materials and saw photos of 1950s Italy, all Anita Eckberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain and Marcello Mastroianni living his best, most suave life), Libertine Neroli is determinedly modern.

 

For every 1950s move this scent makes, therefore, there is a sly, sexy Francesca Bianchi ‘made-in-2022’ move to counterbalance it.  The topnotes are classic neroli cologne – fresh, balmy, redolent of the waxy emerald leaves of the orange tree.  But immediately under this there is an animalic, leathery thickness that is pure Bianchi.  It smells bright and clean, but also murky and therefore a bit sinister.  Water clouded with dirt.  

 

And while Libertine is as musky and as soapy as you’d expect a neroli fragrance to be, the bitterness of the ‘fern’ (oakmoss) note has been bulked up in the basenotes by what smells to me like a bit of Ambroxan or some other woody musk.  This creates the same drift-in-drift-out effect noticeable in other fragrances with a slightly Ambroxinated drydown, like Jubilation XV (Amouage).  What this means is that sometimes you can smell Libertine Neroli on yourself, and sometimes you suspect it is ghosting you.  But rest assured that others around you can still smell it.  It seems to become part of your pores, so you smell great but not necessarily like you are wearing fragrance.       

 

The oakmoss note in Libertine Neroli is stunning.  Inky, woody, and astringent as hell, it has the effect of sucking you into the grey-green shade of an oak tree.  Now, don’t hear oakmoss and think of the damp, lush green moss clambering over trees in Northern European forests.  This is the scent of desiccation – the melancholic, sun-bleached dryness of Balkan forests by the Adriatic, dotted sparsely with reedy umbrella pines and Holm oaks, bent over sideways and battered by the Sirocco or Bora gales.   This makes sense, as much of the world’s oakmoss comes from lichen scraped off Balkan oaks. 

 

The only modern oakmoss fragrance I think Libertine Neroli’s oakmoss reminds me of is New York (Parfums de Nicolai), but that one is far more formal, more French.  If this were a Mills and Boon novel, New York would be the stern, slightly stuffy (but absolutely hot) CEO-slash-Daddy, while Libertine Neroli is the sexily louche younger brother who runs off to the Italian Riviera with your heart and half your fortune. 

 

But this is not a Mills and Boon novel.  This is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epitome of the type of male beauty that is both charming and arrogant in its unassailability.  It is dapper from top to toe and yet is by no means a simple retread of the old school masculine trope.  This is 1950s masculine perfumery as seen through a female gaze in 2022, and that is what makes it feel so right for right now.

 

Interested in oakmoss?  Read my essay on oakmoss and a round-up of excellent oakmoss fragrances here

 

 

Source of sample:  Sent to me gratis by the brand for review.

 

Cover Image: Still from the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf (courtesy of The Rakish Gent)

 

Aldehydes Ambergris Animalic Attars & CPOs Chocolate Civet Cult of Raw Materials Floral Honey Independent Perfumery Jasmine Leather Musk Oakmoss Review Tobacco Ylang ylang

Civet de Nuit by Areej Le Doré X Sultan Pasha 

28th April 2022

 

 

When reviewing a collaboration between two well-known figures in the indie-artisan scene, especially two friends with ten years of cross-pollination of ideas between them, the question becomes whether to review the fragrance for the small band of fans of people already intimately familiar with the styles of both Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha respectively, or for the broader group of people who just want to know what the perfume smells like.  Because I think the hardcore indie fans of both brands are well catered to by Basenotes threads here and here, I write this review for anyone who wandered in off the Google high street.  

 

Civet de Nuit is a retro-style floral musk featuring antique civet and a powdery oakmoss and amber drydown.  It is something of a Picasso, cycling through different color periods.  The opening is its Blue Period, a plush, anisic eddy of old-school florals inside the wistful heliotrope-and-violet powder room of L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain), albeit one reimagined through the lens of a dense indie musk – all licked skin, honeyed, damp cocoa powder.

 

In its heart, Civet de Nuit slides into a Yellow Period, dominated by an animalic acacia honey, sandalwood, and ylang combination.  Fans of Montaigne (Caron) will especially like this part.  The ylang in Civet de Nuit does not particularly of banana itself or of banana custard, but more like the animalic, fuel-like gassiness of a banana stem degrading in a brown paper bag.  It is simultaneously sharp and doughy.

 

In its very last stretches, Civet de Nuit enters its Brown Period, where the florals desiccate to a musty, leathery oakmoss (withered brown dust) that recalls the far drydown of both Bal à Versailles (Jean Desprez) and Miss Balmain (Balmain), an indeterminate ‘brown’ woodiness, glimpses here and there of amber resin, and a stale, saliva-ish accord that might be tobacco (but is rather similar to the brackish honey note present in Onda by Vero Profumo).   

 

The civet in Civet de Nuit is actually very subtle, reading more like a powdery deer musk than the jutting floral sharpness of civet paste.  It is likely that, being vintage civet, it has mellowed over time and lost all its urinousness.  Civet de Nuit is a complex fragrance that cycles through multiple stages on the skin, with the last occurring a full 24 hours after the first spray.

 

Honestly, though I think Civet de Nuit smells amazing, I find it hard to categorize because it seems never to smell the same on me twice.  I’m sure that after this review is published, I’ll wear it again and kick myself for missing something really important.  On my first test, I felt sure I had this pegged as a doughy floral honey scent, with the same burnt, yeasty cocoa effect as Sultan Pasha’s own Mielfleurs.   It smelled to me like all parts of honey production – propolis, pollen, chestnut honey, the bee’s arse, the wildflowers in the meadow, the wooden frame.  A hint of Slowdive (Hiram Green), perhaps?  Yet – and this is the head scratcher – there is no honey listed anywhere.  

 

On my first wearing, I also noticed something of the ‘corn masa’ nuance of Seville à L’Aube (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and the floral cream-of-wheat effect of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle), Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar), and Pheromone 4 (Agarscents Bazaar), produced by a combination of a white floral like orange blossom or jasmine with ambergris or sandalwood.  I love this malty, wheaten effect.  It smells granular and salty, like a knob of Irish butter set to melt in a bowl of hot porridge.    

 

On my second test, the powder came out to play in a way it hadn’t previously.  In particular, a thick Nag Champa indie-style musk.  I’d made sure to wear Mielfleurs (Sultan Pasha Attars) on one hand and Civet de Nuit on the other, to see if the floral honey comparison was right.  But while they certainly land in a similar place (crusty artisanal honey, left to stale pleasantly on the skin), the Mielfleurs attar was immediately smoky, thick, and chocolatey, while Civet de Nuit was a diffuse haze of floral powders and stick incense lifting off the skin.  I think I am only able to smell the sparkling lift effect of Civet de Nuit’s aldehydes when placed next to something with no aldehydes at all.  On this test, I thought Civet de Nuit felt particularly gauzy and gentle.

 

On my third test, I wore Civet de Nuit on one hand and vintage Bal à Versailles parfum on the other.  Though they are both retro civety florals, they are completely different fragrances for 80% of the ride.  Whereas Civet de Nuit had felt aldehyded and powdery on previous tests, side by side with Bal à Versailles, it becomes clear that its aldehydes are a mere spritz compared to the fierce Coca Cola-like effervescence of the Jean Desprez perfume.  While both perfumes feature civet as a headlining note, Civet de Nuit cloaks it in a velvety glaze of dark cocoa and a caramel amber sheen, weighing it down in that thick artisanal musk, and setting the temperature dial to an Evening in Paris.  By comparison, Bal à Versailles, despite the 30 years it has on Civet de Nuit, smells like that Fragonard painting of the girl on the swing with her slipper flying off – a sherbety fizz of bright florals, civet, and soap.  Interestingly, however, in the far drydown, Civet de Nuit and Bal à Versailles do seem to converge.  There is a slightly astringent, leathery ‘Miss Balmain’-esque oakmoss element to both, although at times it also smells like a dusty, rubbery myrrh.     

 

Only on my third wearing was I able to identify Civet de Nuit as having a clearly ylang character.  Ylang can be difficult to control in a fragrance because of its assertively fruity-sour nature and gassy, benzene-like properties.  One drop too many and you get something too mature, too 1980s.  Ylang can age a scent backwards like no other.  Here, it is slightly banana-ish (again, more gaseous decaying banana stem than banana custard) but quite a lot of its bitter, leathery nuances have also been left in.  Not a tropical take, therefore, but more along the lines of how Thierry Wasser used ylang in his Mitsouko reformulation of 2017-2018, lending a discreet cuir de Russie accent.  Nonetheless, the ylang does give Civet de Nuit that slightly bitter, perfumeyness that constitutes its retro floral character.  

 

Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha both have identifiable signatures that run through their work – powdery, pungent floral musks in Russian Adam’s case and funky honey-tobacco accords in Sultan Pasha’s – and both signatures are present in Civet de Nuit.  But I hadn’t realized until I tested Civet de Nuit just how similar their styles actually are.  Civet de Nuit fits seamlessly into the Sultan Pasha Attar stable beside Sohan d’Iris and Mielfleurs, both of which lean on an animalic floral honey for their pulse.  But it fits just as seamlessly into Areej Le Doré canon, right beside the musky, Nag Champa floral stylings of Koh-I-Noor and the delicious, powdery funk of War and Peace.

 

On balance, though, Civet de Nuit is far lighter and less bombastically-styled than any of these forbears on either side of the aisle. Elegant and almost soft, I highly recommend it to anyone who not only loves retro florals but the furred weight of the real musks, sandalwood, and oakmoss used in the artisanal indie perfumer scene these days.   

 

 

Source of Sample: A 10ml bottle of Civet de Nuit was sent to me free of charge by the brand for review (I paid customs). This did not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo my own.  Please do not use or replicate without my permission.

 

 

Aromatic Cult of Raw Materials Independent Perfumery Musk Oakmoss Round-Ups Single note exploration

Rule Evernia: An (Ormonde Jayne) Essay on Oakmoss

22nd September 2021

Evernia by Ormonde Jayne takes its name from Evernia prunastri, the species of lichen from which oakmoss absolute – the star ingredient here – is obtained.   It is interesting that Ormonde Jayne, one of the rare fragrance houses to successfully straddle the sprawling No Man’s Land between the minuscule community of esoteric, quirk-seeking fragrance wearers and the larger group of ‘normal’ fragrance wearers who just want to smell great, has chosen to focus on oakmoss.

 

Not because oakmoss is particularly challenging for those outside the inner circle of perfume fanatics.  In and of itself, oakmoss absolute is a fantastic-smelling raw material.   As you might imagine for something distilled from lichen growing on oak trees, it smells earthy and bitter, like a forest floor distilled into a dark green sludge, but with a beguilingly velvety, almost creamy depth to it that has the effect of sucking you into its shadows.   Perfumery has long leaned on those properties as a fixative to anchor flightier, more volatile notes like bergamot, lavender, geranium, and carnation (while building a fougère) or to give the sweet, ambery parts of a chypre enough backbone to keep it standing straight.

 

But its value as the third leg to the triadic structure of a chypre or a fougère has meant that oakmoss has largely remained in the shadows, consigned to the role of a reliable basenote.   Bringing it out into the light is further complicated by the uncertain status in today’s fragrance regulatory environment.   As it turns out, oakmoss absolute contains two naturally-occurring molecules, or more accurately degradation products (i.e., substances produced or emphasized by the distillation process) called chloroatranol and atranol, which are allergens known to cause sensitivity in 1-3% of the population.   For this reason, the EU, on the advice of IFRA, the International Fragrance Association[1], has banned chloroatranol and atranol outright, while oakmoss as a whole (the absolute) is restricted to similar levels as other materials deemed a bit dodgy (like coumarin and geraniol) i.e., 0.001%.

 

Anything over that percentage is technically permissible, by the way – but manufacturers are required to include the full ingredient list, with the percentage levels of each material used, as a sort of ‘health and safety’ warning akin to the skull and bones images on cigarettes.   Since no perfume brand in their right mind wants to taint what is essentially a luxury product with an association – whether real or imagined – with the picture of skin breaking out in angry red boils or crumbling off our wrists in flakes the size of a small baby,  most major fragrance houses with oakmoss-heavy heritage perfumes, for example, Guerlain (Mitsouko), have simply reformulated using one or more of the commercially-viable alternative to oakmoss absolute, i.e., low- or zero-atranol oakmoss (first developed by Robertet), tree moss (which smells like a thinner, pine-ier oakmoss), or at the very least, some combination of a synthetic replacer like Evernyl Veramoss (an IFF captive) with some vetiver or celery seed to put back some of the oakmoss ‘flavor’.

 

That all raises the question: why oakmoss for Ormonde Jayne?  Why now?   After all, it is a material that has largely fallen from favor, both in the regulatory sense, and in terms of broader consumer tastes (there is a mustiness, or ‘old furniture and floor wax’ vibe to oakmoss that, though alluring to fragrance aficionados, can smell rather dated and old-fashioned to a modern nose raised on Ambroxan and that sweet, sweet tonka bean).   And how does Evernia compare to other notably oakmossy scents on the market?

 

Right away, you are able to tell that Evernia is quite recognizably an Ormonde Jayne take on oakmoss.   By which I mean that the oakmoss has been stripped out, pared down, and framed in an elegantly sparse structure featuring several of the brand’s signatures, for example, the fizzy brightness of cardamom and other ghost spices, a peppery-metallic lift in the topnotes, a touch of freesia or peony in the basenotes for that touch of clean rubber sneaker to push back against any creaminess that edges into excess.   And Iso E Super?   Sure – this is radiant, musky stuff.   But that’s all by the by. Because Evernia never lets us get distracted from the oakmoss.

 

In Evernia, Ormonde Jayne has highlighted the savory aspects of natural oakmoss rather than its more pungent or bitter facets.   Though the two perfumes are ultimately very different, the oakmoss in Evernia reminds me very much of the one used in Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, in that they both have that soft, earthy ‘slow-cooked greens’ element to them that calls to mind the vapors of celery cooked to the point of collapse, clinging to the fibers of one’s angora sweater in a warm, steamy kitchen.   While the Guerlain surrounds its oakmoss with heaps of animalic narcissus, piercing bergamot, and that plush Guerlainade of vanilla and balsams, the Ormonde Jayne emphasizes the vegetal savoriness of its oakmoss with a cardamom-tinged musk so buttery that it feels like vaporized Kerrygold.

 

I’m almost sure that low-atranol oakmoss has been used here rather than a synthetic replacer, but as Thierry Wasser, Master Perfumer of Guerlain, has pointed out, if “you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn’t want any more, then you create an olfactive hole.  So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it’s smelling real oakmoss.  You have to cheat by using other things”.   So perhaps the perfumer has leaned on other materials to fill this ‘hole in Evernia too’, something like jasmone (which often smells like a cross between immortelle and celery to me), or a touch of mastic oil to anchor the greenness and weigh it down.   It could even be the same supporting cast as seen in Ormonde Woman (or Man), i.e., that greenish, coniferous mélange of cardamom oil, juniper, and hemlock (though Evernia is far less sweet).

 

Unlike Ormonde Woman, Evernia doesn’t end in a gingerbread amber, nor does it wind up in the scratchy oud-wood place occupied by Ormonde Man (though it clearly belongs fits into the ‘core collection’ of Ormonde Jayne, alongside these stalwarts).   Instead, Evernia shakes off the deep, earthy-saline creaminess that dominates for much of its life, and takes on the pale, woody sourness of linen washed in rainwater and hung out to dry in a cold, sharp wind.  It is metallic and mineralic, the faint ‘freshly-poured-concrete’ scent of cashmeran whipping it dry.   Though I’m personally less enamored by the drydown than I am with the first 75% sprawl of Evernia, I recognize that in its absence of sweet amber, creamy sandalwood, or warming resins, the entire scent maintains this cool, modern spareness throughout that makes it an attractive choice for both sexes.

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is aidan-hodel-iUoftl9mlow-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

Photo by Aidan Hodel on Unsplash

How does Evernia compare to some of the other oakmoss-centric fragrances out there?   Here’s a small selection of other mossy scents with which I am personally familiar.  (By the way, for some stretches of its lifespan, Evernia reminds me a little of a less weird Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur.   This must be because of the savory-cooked-celery aspects the two have in common.)

 

Encens Chypre by Sultan Pasha Attars:   Encens Chypre, compared to Evernia, is a less civilized take on oakmoss.   It doesn’t strip out any of the material’s bitterness or grunge, but rather, emphasizes it.   Encens Chypre is a formidably bitter, green smell, dominated by a pungent oakmoss absolute running right down the line from its fresh, herbal top to its smoky incense base.  I think what makes it work is the way the metallic, inky bitterness of oakmoss absolute has been matched with an equally pungent array of elemi and herbs.   The aromatics in the opening are themselves naturally bitter, with artemisia and clary sage providing a dark green herbal tone that sings in the same register as the oakmoss.   

 

For the most part, Encens Chypre’s mossy timbre is actually far more reminiscent of a traditional fougère than a chypre.   The drydown adds in touches of jasmine, iris, and rose.   Ultimately, however, the shy floral presence stands no chance against the predominantly dark, mossy override of that oakmoss.   A thick brew of incense resins and balsams replaces the usual labdanum or patchouli for a fantastically dry and smoky finish.   An extremely well-done mossy chypre, Encens Chypre raises the middle finger to IFRA so openly that it makes me wonder if it’s entirely legal.

 

Chypre Siam by Rogue Perfumery:  Unlike Evernia, the whole premise of Chypre Siam (and indeed of Rogue Perfumery) is that it uses natural oakmoss absolute in contravention of IFRA recommendations.   Man, I am so tired of the overarching F%*k IFRA! narrative among some American indies.   To put things very plainly: since Rogue Perfumery is an American indie that doesn’t intend to sell its perfumes in the EU anyway and isn’t a member of IFRA, there is actually no requirement – legal, moral, or otherwise – for them not to use natural oakmoss, should they so desire.   In other words, Rogue telling IFRA to stick their oakmoss ban where the sun don’t shine is like a housewife in Madison, Wisconsin stoutly declaring that she will not be following the Taliban’s requirement for women to wear the hijab in public the next time she’s out for a pint of milk, thank you very much. 

 

Little rant aside, Chypre Siam is a pretty great perfume.  But less because of its real oakmoss than for its clever updating of the chypre model with Asian notes such as kaffir lime and basil.   Strangely, after the rivetingly sour opening of lime and oakmoss, I find that Chypre Siam settles very quickly into a soft, powdered-leather affair (more vegetal violet leaf than an animalic leather), the lime maintaining the bitterness of the chypre style when the oakmoss runs out of steam.   Though beautiful, I find Chypre Siam to be delicate to the point of being wan, which is odd given that it uses the unadulterated stuff (compared to modern Mitsouko, which uses low-atranol oakmoss and yet smells very rich in comparison).   As always with indies, I have to ask myself if Chypre Siam does something so different or so much more satisfying than a mainstream perfume that I will brave the extra time, international shipping, and custom fees involved in getting a bottle of it to Ireland.   And in the case of Chypre Siam, the answer is, regrettably, no.   Not when I can just buy a bottle of Mitsouko eau de toilette for €60 in full confidence that it will smell great, and despite its reformulation woes, also reliably oakmossy.

 

Sballo by Bruno Acampora:   Funnily enough, Sballo doesn’t list oakmoss in its notes, but that doesn’t stop this from being one of the most joyfully oakmossy fragrances I’ve ever smelled.   Unlike Evernia, the oakmoss in Sballo is dry, herbal, and hay-like, rather than creamy or earthy.  Sballo means ‘trip’ in Italian.   Not in the ‘trip to the seaside’ sense of the word, but in the ‘I ate some funny-looking mushrooms and now your face is a rainbow’ sense of the word.  (The name is appropriate when you consider how mind-bendingly 1970s the original Acampora aesthetic was).   Sballo goes heavy on the aromatics, hay, patchouli, and oakmoss.   It ain’t pretty or cleaned up, but it sure does smell authentic. 

 

The main thrust of this scent is a patchouli-rose chypre in the Bernard Chant style.   Think Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900, but richer and rougher in texture.   An artisanal, homemade take on a commercially-fluted model.   The rose is brilliant and red, but quickly smothered by a wave of dry grasses, a rustic hay note acting in tandem with oakmoss and patchouli.   Some modern chypre scents fake the bitterness of oakmoss in the traditional chypre accord via other materials that share a similarly ashen dryness, like denatured patchouli aromachemicals (Akigalawood), hay, galbanum, or even saffron.   But although there is no oakmoss listed for Sballo, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t actually contain at least some.  To my nose, the shadowy dankness of the material is unmistakably present.   Sballo shores up this oakmoss effect by flanking it with equally dank or earthy-dry materials such as hay, clove, patchouli, and a material that smells like tobacco.  The overall effect is gloomy and dusty, but also abstractedly perfumey in the grand chypre tradition.   Saving it from a classic ‘ladies who lunch’ formality of the chypre structure is the rough, almost burnt-ashy texture of the moss and patchouli.

 

Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Attar:  Oakmoss is one of my favorite fragrances from Abdes Salaam Attar, but compared to Evernia, it is an altogether wetter, earthier, and more vivid scent – more an experience than a perfume.   It is also as much a vetiver scent as it is an oakmoss one, though, arguably, it conjures up the ‘forest floor’ aspect of oakmoss just as effectively as oakmoss absolute does.   Oakmoss at first smells like wet leaves, upturned soil, bark, wild mint, the air after a rainstorm, and potatoes buried deep in the ashes of a campfire.  It plugs me directly into a powerful current of memory – playing War with my brothers and neighborhood friends in the sprawling ditches and orchards once attached to our Famine Era home.   Slowly, the sodden smell of tree sap, mulch, and root dries out, ceding some ground (but not all) to an incensey, blond oakwood note, which is probably cedar but reminds me very much of the aromatic woodiness of Chêne (Serge Lutens) minus the booze.   It smells more like split logs drying in a shed and woodsmoke than the oozing wetness of living trees. 

 

The oakmoss has a bitter velvety softness that calls to mind the furred green carpets creeping over the roots and trunks of old oaks in some less trodden part of the forest.  And while Oakmoss is far from sweet or creamy, the nuttiness of Dubrana’s famous Mysore sandalwood gives it a rounded warmth that speaks to comfort.

 

Ayuthia by Mellifluence:  Ayuthia shares a similar forest floor effect with Evernia but deepens the shadows with an animalic oud.   The first note out of the bottle is most definitely the oud – a wave of wet, rotting wood, mixed with woodsmoke, camphor, and sharp fruit.   However, this settles quickly, segueing into a dry, woody heart with lots of grounding patchouli, green leaves, and bitter oakmoss.   Although never sweet, the earth and wood notes are made rounder with a hint of something soft and giving, like vanilla.   Not enough to make it sweet, just to sand off the edges.   The Chanthaburi oud oil vibrates thickly in every fiber of this mukhallat.   Lightly smoky, it sews a thread of fermentation through the fabric of the blend.   Though oud is the main driver, the base develops a velvety green dampness that is very forest floor-ish.   The inky oakmoss note expands to meet the mossy mintiness of a Borneo-style oud, completing the picture.   Hours later, the minerality of the oakmoss and the smoky woodiness of the oud melt away, leaving only the lively bitterness of camphor on the tongue.

 

Diaghilev by Roja Dove:   Diaghilev is often dismissed as a Mitsouko knock-off at five times the price, but Diaghilev is actually far heavier on the oakmoss than Mitsouko.   I don’t know if that’s simply because Mitsouko’s peach lactones have been stripped out, or if Dove simply used more oakmoss in the formula.   But the result speaks for itself – if Mitsouko is a brilliant rust-gold-brown, then Diaghilev is a deep forest green.   Furthermore, its opening of creamy, bitter oakmoss and tart bergamot is laced with enough cumin or civet to produce a sensual skin note that makes Diaghilev warmer and more human, somehow, than Mitsouko.   The heart of Diaghilev layers in a chorus of buttery floral notes such as ylang, peach, and rose, flanked by powdery musks, which emphasizes the velvety plushness of the moss.   Where Diaghilev dovetails with Evernia is mostly in the drydown, where it shares with the Ormonde Jayne fragrance a similarly matte, almost smoky marine ink (mineralic) note.

 

Givenchy III by Givenchy:   Luca Turin referred to Givenchy III as ‘good, honest earth’, and with its one-two punch of patchouli and oakmoss, I can see what he means.   I was lucky enough to find a jeroboam-sized bottle of the vintage stuff on eBay, and once you get past the slightly decayed, coffee-and-greasy-coconut hairspray vibes of the opening blast, it does settle into a smell that can be described as spray-on forest floor.   Earthy, grungy, and with quite a bit of that lank, mint-stems-in-vase-water aroma that denotes real oakmoss (it pops up in both my vintage Diorella and Dune by Dior too), my Givenchy III doesn’t seem to have held on very well to any of the softening florals (hyacinth) or the citrusy sharpness of bergamot, aside from a general fustiness that vintage chypres generally display.   But I value Givenchy III precisely for this slightly fusty, old-fashioned oakmoss vibe.   It is the direct opposite of the modern, streamlined version of oakmoss presented in Evernia.   I like the idea of these two fragrances forming neat bookends to the story of oakmoss, with one very traditional and one very modern.

 

Bergamoss by Aftelier:   Bergamoss – an all-natural solid perfume – consists of sweet orange, oakmoss absolute, antique civet, and clary sage suspended in beeswax.   Though the name cleverly suggests a marriage of bergamot and oakmoss, and therefore a chypre, this really doesn’t smell like a chypre to me.   Expecting the familiar, rich brightness of bergamot, I am momentarily disoriented by a sharp lemongrass note (from the citronellal facet of geranium or rose, I guess), overlaid on a very vegetal, savory-rooty oakmoss whose funk has been emphasized by real civet paste.   It smells more like a real forest floor than an idealized one, therefore, with hints of pungent hay, urinous herbs, the natural dankness of moss soaked in two feet of rainwater, and perhaps even the slowly-decaying body of a small woodland creature.   Unexpectedly, I rather love Bergamoss, though more for its artistic weirdness and refusal to be pretty than for the bucolic picture the copy (and most reviews) promise.   Its only intersection with Evernia is on the shared emphasis on the vegetal, savory nature of oakmoss.

 

Source of samples/bottles:  I purchased samples and/or full bottles of Givenchy III, Oakmoss EDT, Chypre Siam, Ayuthia, and Sballo.  Samples of Bergamoss, Encens Chypre, and Evernia were provide gratis by the brands, though with no expectation of a review.  The sample of Diaghilev was kindly given to me by the lovely Josie of Oswald NYC as a gift-with-purchase when I bought my bottle of Khôl de Bahreïn in October 2017.  

Cover Image: Photo by Alexx Cooper on Unsplash 

[1] IFRA not a regulatory body but a voluntary membership organisation along the same lines of, say, the Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club.  However, because it represents the interests of the fragrance industry as a whole, from raw materials producers to consumers of all things fragranced, it is a hugely influential body within the health and safety sphere.  When the EU passes anything into law under the EU Cosmetics Directive (products applied directly to the skin like fine fragrance, cosmetics, soap, and toothpaste), or under the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation (functional fragrance products such as laundry detergents and air care), it consults with various expert bodies, chief among them IFRA and the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).   IFRA recommendations are therefore generally regarded as pre-law, a weird, pre-regulatory state of play you might sum up as a ‘it’s just a recommendation now but it’s likely to be a law later, so I’d better get my arse into gear’ kind of situation.  Any cosmetic product that comes into contact with skin, like fragrance, gets classified under the EU Cosmetics Directive, and in order for it to be sold or marketed in the EU, it must first earn an EU Cosmetics Safety Certificate.  This certificate guarantees that each component of the formula is safe for contact with human skin.  Safety assessors request evidence that the company is IFRA-compliant as part of the assessment protocol.  Thus, being IFRA-compliant is a de facto requirement for selling fragrance goods in the EU market, whether one is an IFRA member or not.