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The Attar Guide: Sandalwood Reviews P-S

28th March 2022

Hello fellow sandalwood freaks!  Remember to read the introduction here and the sandalwood primer here.  Also, Part I of the sandalwood reviews (0-M) here

 

 

Precious Woods (April Aromatics)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Precious Woods is a contender for the best woody perfume on the market today.  Although natural perfumes can sometimes be muddy, this one has impressive scope.  The top notes are dark and oily, almost pungent, with a full helping of aromatic fir balsam, pine, and the lactic sourness of sandalwood.  It ain’t pretty, but it is real.  As lung-filling as walking through a forest densely knotted with fir and cedarwood trees, the opening almost recreates the effect of the topnotes of Norne by Slumberhouse – while they do not smell alike, there is the same general sense of notes crowding in on you too thickly.


Soon, though, the initial tension dissipates.  Through the camphorous murk comes a wisp of incense smoke, weaving in and out, cutting the density, and paring back the oily balsams until you see the real subject matter of the scent standing there unobscured, namely the richest cedar in existence.  For much of the mid-section of Precious Woods, there is an almost equal dance between cedar and incense.

 

It smells richly spiced, slightly smoky, and muscular.  I am reminded, whenever I wear this, of the discipline it must take to direct attention to one material, without feathering off into extraneous detailing or piling just one more thing on.  If you have ever worn a perfume and lamented the perfumer’s inability to ‘leave well enough alone’, then try Precious Woods to see what curation smells like.

 

The best part of the scent is the aromatic, creamy brown sandalwood that rises up from the base.  It has the same spiced gingerbread sweetness and dairy-rich mouthfeel as in Neela Vermeire’s first three fragrances or vintage Bois des Îles (Chanel), other sandalwood-rich scents.  Precious Woods is admittedly an expensive choice for when you want a woody perfume, but if you really, really want a woody perfume, go straight in at the top end with Precious Woods and you won’t regret it.

 

The oil is also remarkable, but quite different from the eau de parfum.  It opens with an oud-like note, which is to say wood that is a little leathery and sour.  There is also a plasticky nuance to this topnote, like wood varnish or the terpenic whoosh from a newly-opened can of latex paint.  Right behind this accord is the gluey, peanutty rawness of freshly-split lumber, pointing to the presence of sandalwood.  But there is also quite a lot of cedarwood, its damp armpitty nuance reminding us of why so many perceive cedar as smelling a bit funky.

 

All the basic building blocks of the eau de parfum are present and correct in the oil, but the difference is that, in the oil version, they are all there at once, rather than unfolding gradually.  Crucially, an oud-like note replaces the coniferous balsam opening of the original.  With the fecal, coffee-ish properties of cedarwood on full display, the Precious Woods perfume oil initially smells quite like The Body Shop Sandalwood oil designed with higher quality materials and a much bigger budget.

 

Soon, however, the Precious Woods oil segues into a long mid-section that is roughly similar to that of the eau de parfum.  Thanks to the patchouli, cistus, and buddha wood, the dark aridity of the cedarwood is fleshed out and thickened by nuances of whiskey, amber, and woodsmoke.  This gives the wood a slightly sweeter, more relaxed character.

 

In the oil, the general impression is that of a log of wood fluffing out in anticipation of its serving of double-cream sandalwood.  Does this arrive?  Actually, no – or at least not to the extent it does in the original eau de parfum.  If you want a more sandalwood-focused experience, therefore, choose the eau de parfum.  If you are looking for a rich, smoky cedarwood experience, then the oil version of Precious Woods is the better option.  Both are insanely good. 

 

 

 

Pure Sandal (Al Haramain)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The name must be one of the cheekiest pieces of misdirection in the business, but though it is neither pure nor sandal, Al Haramain’s Pure Sandal is a pleasing little thing.  It at least makes a valiant effort to recreate something of the sweet-and-sour aspects of a Mysore oil using synthetic sandalwood molecules, which is more than can be said for many other oils with sandalwood in the name. 

 

The first clue to its synthetic construction lies in the booming sillage of the perfume when first applied to the skin.  It immediately fills the room with a loud woodiness in a way that no pure sandalwood oil does.  Rich and sour at first, the scent eventually develops a slightly sweet, powdery finish that nonetheless remains fresh.  Men could easily wear this.  Pure Sandal is a reasonably pleasant attempt at a sandalwood aroma, one that, if you are into layering, will do a creditable job of lending simple rose oils or attars a ‘sandalwoody’ boost.

 

Apart from the obvious tomfoolery over the name, this is not a bad option for those who want a sandalwood fix but who find themselves on a tight budget.  Personally, I would just adjust the name to read Al Haramain ‘Pure Sandal’ rather than Al Haramain Pure Sandal because those inverted commas convey a more honest message.

 

 

Photo by Abby Savage on Unsplash

 

Royal Parvati (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Royal Parvati is Jicky (Guerlain) as seen through an indie sandalwood haze.  The resemblance to civet-laden Guerlain classics is helped along by (I suspect) either a dollop of black-brown ambergris, with its intimate, halitosis-like funk, or a synthetic civet material.

 

The lime-peel brightness in the opening recreates with eerie accuracy the famous ‘curdled cream’ topnote of both Jicky and Shalimar.  In the case of Jicky and Shalimar, it is the meeting of lemon and vanillin that prompts this effect.  In Royal Parvati, it is likely the cream of the sandalwood interacting with the silvery, high-toned topnotes of the Peru balsam or orris root.  It never fails to amaze me that the complex note interactions that makes a Jicky or a Shalimar so distinctive can be arrived at – whether accidentally or otherwise – by smashing other materials with broadly similar effects into each other at high velocity.

 

Over time, the filthy ambergris or civet swells up even further, impregnating every fiber of the creamy woods.  Royal Parvati eventually settles on the aroma of split logs in an Indian sandalwood forest – humid and milky – but with the crotchy funk of a hot woodsman who has marked his territory by rubbing his nether regions into the grain of the wood.  The result is a deeply musky, civety wood scent that gives you all the naughty bits of an unneutered Guerlain without weighing you down in baby powder.  In my humble opinion, Royal Parvati is one of the true standouts of indie oil perfumery.

 

 

 

Sandal 100k (FeelOud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Sandal 100k is distilled from the buried roots of old Santalum album trees harvested and cleared from land in Indonesia.  Completely forgotten about, the rootstock of these noble old trees lay in the ground until the locals figured out there was precious oil in them there roots!  Sandal 100k was distilled by Russian Adam of FeelOud, one of those oud pioneers who upped and left a comfortable, suburban life in the West to spend their lives distilling precious oils in the humid, fly-ridden jungles of the Far East, simply for the love of real oud and sandalwood oils.

 

To make the oil, the roots of old trees – all aged at least between eighty and a hundred years – were dug up, cleaned off, and set out to dry.  The roots were then broken down into small shards, and finally, pulped into a sawdust-type mixture which was placed in the distilling pot.  Technically, S. album roots enjoy the same sandalwood bragging rights as heartwood from a one hundred year old s. album tree because it is both the right species (S. album) and the right age.

 

Sandal 100k smells bright, greenish, and terpene-rich at the offset, with all the nutty, savory sourness characteristic of Santalum album perched just behind it.  The green rootiness dies back quickly, allowing the salty, buttery sides of the oil to emerge.  For the first part of the ride, therefore, the oil lingers in the aromatic, fresh category of Santalum album, but as time goes on, it reveals a rich, sweet nuttiness that qualifies it as the perfect sandalwood for everyday use.

 

 

 

Sandal (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Sandal is a blend of Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and Australian sandalwood (Santalum spiccatum), cleverly mixed to ensure that one fills out the gaps in the other.  The Australian sandalwood adds a rugged, hearty aromatic body that gives the soft, pale, creamy Indian sandalwood a backbone, and the milkiness of the Indian sandalwood tones down the blunt, piney greenness of the Aussie stuff.  The idea is carried off to perfection.  It is sweet, creamy, and incensey in the Mysore fashion, but also nicely outdoorsy and fresh.  The two oils complement each other very well, and neither dominates.

 

If you like the musky, armpitty feel of the cedar-sandalwood blend in Tam Dao EdP by Diptyque or the brusque creaminess of Wonderwood by Comme des Garcons, then know that Sandal by Al Shareef Oudh shares a similar aroma profile.  It is sweet, nutty, and aromatic, but also blandly creamy – a perfect balance of the rough and the smooth.  Unlike the commercial Diptyque fragrance, however, Sandal’s central accord is durable, meaning that it hits its stride and stays there for the entire day.  Doubtless Sandal would not satisfy a Mysore purist, but as an everyday sandalwood wear, it is a great option.

 

 

 

Sandalwood (Nemat)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The Nemat version of sandalwood is famous for being a good, hippy-style representation of what sandalwood smells like.  However, to my nose, it smells like amyris or another wood oil with some creamy sandalwood synthetics thrown in for volume.  It smells good but generic.  The creamy loudness of the sandalwood synthetics masks a certain varnishy, pinesol tone to the underlying wood.  The best one can say about it is that it develops a rather attractive raisin-like sweetness in the drydown.

 

 

Photo by Austin Wilcox on Unsplash

 

Sandalwood Spirit (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

ASAQ’s Sandalwood is a lush, tropical version of sandalwood, its generously humid wood fleshed out by notes of coconut milk and flaked coconut.  The faintly gluey nuances up top are markers of authenticity, as is the oil’s quietness.  However, it would not surprise me to learn there was a synthetic smoother or two in the mix here, helping to create the perfectly rounded impression of what smells like expensive European sunscreen.

 

Soft, milky, with coconut cream notes dissolved in a clean, white musk trail, Sandalwood Spirit wears more like a finished perfume than an essential oil.  It is quite powdery in the drydown, and even features a hint of rose hidden within its folds.  It will win over anybody who prefers discreet smells over loud or pungent ones, even if that means making a few concessions on the purity front. 

 

 

Photo by Sam Hojati on Unsplash

 

Santal Carmin (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Santal Carmin by Atelier Cologne is a wonderful and slightly odd sandalwood fragrance that smells more like hot milk, Petit Beurre biscuits, and the inside of a new car than actual sandalwood.  Its creaminess is slightly generic, featuring a paint-by-numbers porridge accord that one often experiences in more gourmandy sandalwoods.  But it has its attractions too, such as the flash of something citric up top to lift the scent into the air, and that guilty-pleasure nursery pudding facet in the drydown.

 

The dupe smells just as chemically-engineered as the original and follows the same basic blueprint with regards to texture, structure, and development.  The sweet saffron-laced milk-and-biscuit accord kicks in a touch earlier in the original, while a very tart lime topnote extends the impression of freshness for far longer in the dupe.  The original is more creamily suede, whereas the dupe is more creamily pleather.  But these are minor differences.  If you enjoy Santal Carmin but don’t fancy the price tag (and who does?), then this dupe is an excellent substitute.

 

 

 

Santal Mysore (Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: tincture

 

 

This sample is a tincture, not a distillation, so there is a blast of perfumer’s alcohol to contend with at the start.  This makes sense, as Dominique Dubrana makes all-natural, spray-based perfumes, and thus makes all his tinctures by hand too.  Experiencing a material like Mysore sandalwood through the medium of a tincture rather than an oil allows one to glimpse facets of the material that might escape notice in a pure oil.  It is almost as if the tincturing liquid stretches out the space between the molecules, allowing us to see them more clearly in isolation.

 

The Santal Mysore from La Via del Profumo reveals a surprisingly floral nuance to the sandalwood, a mélange of rose and gardenia over a salted butter and cream version of the famed wood.  It is savory and nutty, with a texture close to cream cheese.  It is beautiful but ephemeral.  I find myself applying it over and over to rewind to the moment where that gardenia bomb detonates.

 

 

Photo by Maude Frédérique Lavoie on Unsplash

 

Santal 33 (Le Labo)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Famously the signature scent of thousands of hipsters in certain areas of Manhattan, Santal 33 by Le Labo has become a bit of a design cliché – the olfactory equivalent of the Barcelona chair or the man bun.  But just because everyone is wearing it doesn’t make it a bad fragrance.  It is maybe even a darned good fragrance, as long as you are able to park your expectations at the door.


For one thing, despite the name, Santal 33 is really a leather-focused scent, with a salty, green cucumberish quality that is almost aquatic.  It opens with a powerful blast of chemical violet, salt, leather, and that aqueous herbal element, making me think of vetivers like Fleur de Sel by Miller Harris.  But focusing too closely on the individual elements is of little use here because the total effect is so forceful that you just have to give yourself over for the ride.  Santal 33 is intensely masculine: full of raw oily leather, cedar, and balsam.  It makes me think of a lifestyle concept store – one of those cavernous, white empty studio spaces where they place a tangle of parched white driftwood in one corner and a red pleather couch in the other.


Only much later on does the typical aroma of Australian sandalwood makes it presence known, with its light green aroma of dried coconut husks and freshly-hewn cedar logs.  In general, this is a dry, woody-leathery scent with a green, sea frond aspect, rather than the lactonic sandalwood its name seems to suggest.  It smells slightly of books, the raw, harsh chemical breeze of salt and Iso E Super whitewashing the scent until the grain of newly-printed paper appears.

 

The perfume oil of Santal 33 is, for me, infinitely preferable to the eau de parfum.  It smells immediately of the scent’s most vital elements, namely that tough, violety leather and green coconut, but with all the petrochemical harshness removed.  If you like Santal 33 but are nervous of its chemical-driven loudness, then allow me to beckon you over to the perfume oil corner.  Good stuff.

 

 

 

Santal Royale (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Unlike Santal Sultan below, Santal Royale is a pure Mysore oil, distilled from vintage stock (thirty to forty years old) of red Mysore heartwood.  Also, in contrast to Sultan, which has been aging in the bottle since 2005, Santal Royale is a relatively young oil, having been produced in 2013.  It is a very interesting experiment, therefore, to compare the two oils, seeing as one comes from non-Mysore s. album but has been aged for almost fifteen years, while the other comes from a vintage Mysore stock of wood but is a relative ‘young pup’ in the bottle.

And aroma-wise, there is a difference.  Whereas aging has rendered the Sultan smooth and buttery, Santal Royale still retains the lively sparkle of freshly-cut wood.  This is especially apparent in the topnotes, which are fresh and silvery, with hints of menthol, crushed peanut shells, and rubber.  Above all, it is bright, sandalwood floodlit from all sides, little veins of sap and salt sparkling like diamonds in the grain of the wood.

There is zero greenness, and no camphor or pine.  There is a hint of mint at the start, but the cushioned mintiness of a menthol cigarette more than fresh herb.  The main characteristic defining the heart is a very salty, bright blond wood note.  On his website, Ensar mentions that it possesses notes that could remind people variously of ambergris or musk.  It does not remind me of deer musk at all, but I can see where the ambergris comparison comes in, in that they share a sparkling minerality characteristic of white ambergris.

It is not as dark or as velvety as Santal Sultan, but with its bright, tenacious ‘salty peanut shell’ aroma, Santal Royale probably comes across to people as more sandalwood-ish at its core.  In the drydown, a sugared thread of incense crystals dances in and out of the savory, nutty aroma.  Texture-wise, it is far more robust and tenacious than Santal Sultan and might even be described as invigorating.  It has a lively, movement-filled presence on the skin.  

 

 

 

Santal Sultan (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Santal Sultan proves that santalum album grown outside of the Mysore region can be every bit as luscious as anything grown in Mysore itself, providing that care is taken with the quality of the wood and the distillation process.  When I say quality, I mean oil distilled from properly mature s. album heartwood or roots – over a hundred years old for preference – and by careful distillation, I mean someone who knows how to supplement elements that might be missing to make up the traditional Mysore flavor profile.

Santal Sultan is an oil that meets all these criteria.  It is made from a distillation of a hundred-year-old roots of santalum album trees in Aceh, a semi-autonomous Indonesian region located on the northernmost tip of Sumatra – which takes care of the age issue.  Then, the robust reddish-brown depth missing from the pale rooty oil was added back via a co-distillation of the Aceh roots with red heartwood from wild Tanzanian sandalwood trees, which lends the oil a rich, almost incensey depth.  Taken together, the two woods create a true Mysore aroma.  Now that is alchemy.

Note-wise, Santal Sultan opens with a smoky, rooty smell that recalls a mixture of orris butter, green wood, burning rubber, and leathery oud oil.  There is an almost vaporous, solvent-like quality to the topnotes that risks getting you high if you sniff too closely.  This collection of aromas, which might be loosely categorized as antiseptic, gives the oil a medicinal austerity that remains lightly present throughout.

The oil settles quickly thereafter into a classic Mysore profile: buttery, salty, savory-sweet, with a faint backbone of reddish, aromatic wood dust and the sort of ambery warmth associated with labdanum.  It is rich and smooth, like a piece of wholemeal toast slathered with a soft salted butter and a pinch of cassonade.  There is also a noticeable vein of spice running through the oil – nutmeg pulsed lightly with black pepper. For all its buttery, spicy, incensey richness, however, this oil is also very soft.  This is the oil I would buy for meditation and yoga, were I constitutionally suited to any of those sitting-still-for-long-periods activities.

If I were to point a beginner in the direction of one oil that demonstrated – reliably – all the classic characteristics of a Mysore sandalwood oil, then Santal Sultan would be it.  In the absence of Mysore-grown oils that have been properly matured, this oil is probably the best example of a Mysore-type sandalwood oil on the market today. 

 

 

Photo by Max Griss on Unsplash

 

Serenity Sandalwood Oudh (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Beautifully raw and aged Sandalwood from India and Egypt with Fossilized Sandalwood all blended into a deep, smokey Indian Oudh with hints of our originally named: Arabian Oudh and Egyptian Temple Oudh (from the original ICONS series).

 

Setting aside the fact that sandalwood does not grow in Egypt and that fossilized sandalwood is not a material used in perfumery, Serenity Sandalwood Oudh smells neither like real sandalwood nor the fantasy kind.  Rather, it follows almost to a T the lines of the idea put forth in Alkemia’s Arabesque, i.e., a creamy, woodsy amber with a moreish crystalized sugar finish.  More crème brulée than wood, in other words.

 

Don’t get me wrong – Serenity Sandalwood Oudh smells absolutely delicious, and for those specifically looking for a sparkly, sugary ‘white’ amber (creamy rather than resinous), this will not disappoint.  But if you are looking for an authentic Indian sandalwood aroma or a glimpse of the famed, er, Egyptian sandalwood?  Look elsewhere.  This is a pretty ambery-woody affair with an effervescent, powdery finish.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  It just does not do what it says on the tin.

 

 

 

Sondos (Sandal Rose) (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

I would be shocked to discover that Sondos (otherwise known as Sandal Rose) contained any real sandalwood or indeed, any real rose.  Nonetheless, every time I smell this cheap little perfume oil, my nose is fooled into thinking it is smelling a light, delicate Indian sandalwood kissed by a bright rose.

 

The sandalwood note is remarkable for its fineness, by which I mean that it does not contain any of the brutish, terpenic sourness of Australian sandalwood.  It just smells soft, slightly golden, clear, and sweet-nutty.  This points to the use of a synthetic sandalwood molecule such as Javanol or Ebanol in the mix somewhere.  But really, when the effect is as pleasurable as this, who cares if the sandalwood is real or not?  At this price, I certainly don’t.  

 

The rose note has been well chosen too.  Fresh but gently rounded, with nary a hint of harsh lemon or hotel soap, it exists purely to add an innocent flush to the cheeks of the sandalwood.

 

But be sure to inhale quickly, for this is an experience that lasts scarcely ten minutes before disappearing completely.  A delight for rose and sandalwood lovers, you will forgive its short duration in exchange for its unassuming prettiness and shockingly low price.

 

 

 

Wild Mysore Sandalwood Sample (via Sultan Pasha)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This sample was provided to me as part of a larger sampler that included Sultan Pasha attars as well as samples of certain raw materials, such as oud and sandalwood.  It is a vintage, wild Mysore sandalwood oil (exact age unknown), and, during my research, served as a reliable baseline for how Mysore should smell.  The aroma profile of this sample is gentle, blond, with an olfactory range stretching from raw wood and lightly toasted peanut shells to a warm, dry-creamy aromatic aroma with some sourish, lactonic notes.  It is the quietest of all the sandalwood oil samples I own.  However, its shyness and delicacy are part of its charm.

 

 

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 samples from Ava Luxe, NAVA, Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics, Abdes Salaam Attar, Al Rehab, Nemat, Al Haramain, Sultan Pasha Attars, and Le Labo. The samples from Ensar Oud, FeelOud, Al Shareef Oudh, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and April Aromatics were sent to me free of charge either by the brands or a distributor.  

 

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Review Round-Ups Sandalwood Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Sandalwood Reviews 0-M

24th March 2022

 

Hello fellow sandalwood freaks!  Remember to read the introduction here and the sandalwood primer here.

 

 

2016 Mysore Special Reserve (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Opening with the milky peanut shell aroma characteristic of Mysore, complete with gluey, solvent-like topnotes, the 2016 Mysore Special Reserve quickly segues into a heart of aromatic sandalwood with zero sweetness or creaminess.  Imagine a log of sandalwood split open with an axe, the air suddenly fizzing with camphor, mint, and red dust.

 

Later, there are hints of sweet milk and yoghurt, as well as green rose petals.  Its general character is clean, aromatic, and tending more towards camphoraceous-minty than creamy-sweet.  Sinewy, therefore, rather than voluptuous.  2016 Mysore Special Reserve also smells undeniably young.  Its minty rawness will likely gain more depth and creaminess with careful aging.  However, there is tenderness in its sedate, peanutty milkiness, which is what makes it a beautiful choice to wear right now.  Subtle and fresh, 2016 Mysore Special Reserve is a great option for those who want the luxury of wearing a Mysore oil every day without the fuss or distraction of a more aged oil. 

 

 

 

2017 Deep & Buttery Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This is a result of a very interesting experiment whereby JK DeLapp wondered if sandalwood could be treated or distilled to smell like an oud.  He gave the sandalwood chips a good long soak in water before distilling, a method usually reserved for Hindi-style oud oil distillations.  Disturbingly, the experiment works.

 

What started out life as a blameless sandalwood has been pressed and massaged into the shape of a particularly feral oud oil distilled from wood that has been soaked for over fourteen days.  The fermented flavor is exactly that of Hindi, and indeed, this oil could easily be mistaken for one were it not for the fact that, behind the initial wave of funk, there is no hay or smoke, only the aromatic blondness of Mysore sandalwood.

 

Despite the name, this oil is not particularly creamy, deep, or buttery.  Rather, it is all freshly-stripped bark and crushed pinecones.  With an undercurrent of bile duct secretion.   

 

Further on, the oil develops a leathery facet, like the cured leather of horse saddles in a tack room.  Mingling with the piney, silvery freshness of the wood, the outcome is one of green leather with a camphoraceous undertone.  But there is a lingering pungency that never lets you forget about that long, moldy soak.

 

A Mysore sandalwood that smells like a Hindi oud oil, huh.  The phrase ‘who asked for this?’ comes to mind.  This is definitely worth testing if you want to see what is possible when you experiment with different soaking times and distillation methods (not to mention different woods).  However, if you are looking for the classic, buttery Mysore sandalwood profile, then look elsewhere.  For my personal tastes, this is an interesting experiment but also a waste of perfectly good Mysore sandalwood.

 

 

 

2017 Royal Reserve Mysore (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: essential oil

 

 

The 2017 Royal Reserve Mysore begins in much the same vein as the 2016 version, with a gluey, peanut-shell delicacy that is all silvery topnotes and little else.  But it soon develops a robust heart that diverges sharply from the 2016 version by way of a phenomenal myrrh note that smells like wet, loamy earth, freshly-sliced mushrooms, and resin.  The age-old loveliness of the typical Mysore aroma – aromatic dryness tugging against creamy sweetness – follows on the heels of this myrrhic wave.

 

Oddly enough, for a younger oil, the 2017 version does not smell as green or as minty-fresh as the 2016 batch, but rather, earthy, rich, and spicy.  Whether you prefer one over the other will depend on whether you favor fresh and green over earthy and ‘red’, or vice versa.  My preference is for the 2017 batch.

 

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Absolute Sandalwood combines an ashy tobacco note with aromatic sandalwood and a whole pain d’épices worth of rich spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and clove) for a result that splits the difference between Egoïste (Chanel) and Journey for Men (Amouage).

 

If you are looking for sweet and creamy a la Bois des Îles (Chanel) or Samsara (Guerlain), then know that this is not that.  But if you like a spicy, rugged masculine take on sandalwood, then Absolute Sandalwood is a winner.  With the Coca Cola richness of Egoïste coming to play, and a touch of warm resin flirting around the basenotes, this is the sort of stuff that might reasonably be described as ‘handsome’.

 

It is rich, warm, and thoroughly satisfying.  Absolute Sandalwood remains true to the Clive Christian approach with this line of concentrated perfume oils, which is to say it is relatively sugar-free and tending towards the masculine side of the spectrum.

 

 

 

Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash

 

Alec d’Urberville (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The profligate essence of an aristocratic libertine. Amber resin, charred Madagascar vanilla, French cognac, clove, sandalwood, and dark musk. Limited Edition.

 

 

Alec d’Urberville is a turbo-powered fist bump of sweaty-metallic clove and rugged sandalwood, with a thick, gooey molasses accord tucked into its trunk.  The interplay between sour, sweet, and burnt spice gives it an interestingly smoky char.  It continues on in this vein for most of the ride before quieting down to a dank sandalwood with liquor and vanilla bean paste rubbed into the grain.

 

For fans of spicy-woody perfumes, Alec d’Urberville is an interesting proposition.  Understand that you must be able to tolerate clove notes in order to make it past the first hour or so.  To me, it reads like an easy-going perfume oil version of Diptyque’s cinnamon-and-opoponax masterpiece, Eau Lente.  I recommend it highly to people who spend a lot of time outdoors, because, when mixed with the musk of one’s own body after physical exertion, it forms a halo of fiery woods and golden vanilla around its wearer that is sustenance onto itself.

 

 

 

Arabesque (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: An exquisitely spiritual blend of beautifully aged Arabian sandalwood, Mysore sandalwood, precious Egyptian kyphi, sweet orris root, benzoin resin, cassia, and blessed spikenard.

 

 

Despite the initial blast of clean, terpenic wood, Arabesque is not an especially sandalwood-forward blend.  After the blond woodiness of the topnotes fades, it develops into a powdery benzoin-driven amber with the glitter of iris and lemon sugar on top.  This is Alkemia’s most popular blend, and I can see why.  It is sweet, sparkling, and soapy – a freshly powdered Siamese kitten in scent form.

 

But it is not sandalwood.  Instead, it is the interaction between the iris (dusty, silvery) and the benzoin (vanillic, lemony, cinnamon-spicy) that really drives this car.  Kyphi, the ancient Egyptian version of barkhour – compressed incense blocks of powdered sandalwood, resins, and aromatics – contributes a vaguely gummy, incensey sweetness that underpins the benzoin and iris.

 

It is a lovely perfume.  But the whole ‘aged Arabian sandalwood’ backstory makes my palms itch.  Arabian sandalwood, aged or otherwise, does not exist because sandalwood trees do not grow in the Middle East.  There are, of course, Arabian sandalwood perfume oils.  These are largely cheap sandalwood synthetics mixed with other oils to achieve a certain ‘Arabian’-flavored exoticism.  Although most of the fragrance world is driven by fantasy and make-believe, indie companies like Alkemia and Nava – another serial offender – really ought to stop flogging the idea of exclusivity or rarity in connection to materials bought off the rack at The Perfumer’s Apprentice.  

 

Of course, as consumers, we should also try harder not to fall quite so hard or so fast for marketing guff like this.  Given the current cost and rarity of real Mysore sandalwood oil, we should all assume that a blend costing about twenty dollars for fifteen milliliters will not contain any of it. 

 

And to be fair, for Alkemia, and most of the American indie oil sector, sandalwood is more a fantasy of a precious raw material than the precious raw material itself.  Which, by the way, is fine.  It is the premise of the World Wrestling Entertainment, i.e., if we are all willingly involved in the suspension of disbelief, then nobody gets hurt. But sprinkling the word ‘Mysore sandalwood’ in the notes list willy nilly like that?  Quit your bullshit, Jan.

 

Rant aside, Arabesque is a thoroughly loveable perfume oil and will please fans of soft spicy-ambery scents that purr rather than roar.  It shares some ground with Iris Oriental (Parfumerie Generale), Fleur Oriental (Miller Harris), and even Sideris (Maria Candida Gentile), albeit far simpler than any of these.

 

 

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

 

Arrival of The Queen of Sheba (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Mysore sandalwood, suede, frankincense, patchouli, 4 vanillas. This blend is tough and tender at the same time, like the queen herself. This one makes vanilla turn tricks as an oriental ingredient and all of the fabulous elements get along so well. It is an instant sex classic.

 

 

Let’s be clear.  Not a single drop of Mysore sandalwood oil was harmed in the production of Arrival of The Queen of Sheba.  Like many fragrance fans, I care more about the magic a talented perfumer can pull off in a composition than whether the materials they use are natural or synthetic.  The most stunning perfumes in the world – Mitsouko, Shalimar, Chanel No. 5 – are a mix of synthetic and natural materials, but blended in such a complex, abstract manner that you only notice their overall beauty.

 

I do not have a particular fetish for all-natural perfumes, or perfumes that mythologize one of the constituent raw materials.  But I do not particularly agree with the widespread practice of being disingenuous with customers over the naturalness or source of certain materials.  None of the American indie oil perfume houses can afford to import or buy genuine Mysore sandalwood oil in the quantity or price required to make perfumes that sell at twenty dollars per six milliliters.  One might argue that the Mysore sandalwood narrative so frequently used in the American indie sector is a harmless piece of fiction – a social pact between company and customer.  Still, the fake sourcing narratives rankle with those who have smelled the genuine materials or know even a little about the difficulty of obtaining them.  

 

Marketing shenanigans aside, Arrival of The Queen of Sheba opens with a blast of photograph-drying chemicals, momentarily catching me off guard and making me wonder if I am in for a bit of a wild ride here.  But no.  While Sheba boasts four types of vanilla, one molecule less or one molecule more makes not even the slightest bit of difference to the creamy blandness of the outcome.  Don’t get me wrong – The Queen of Sheba is genuinely very nice, drying down to a pale woodsy affair with soft milky suede accents.  But for the price, it is not doing very much.

 

I think the main problem in Arrival of The Queen of Sheba is that it features the signature Possets vanilla (or four different variations on it) in a starring role instead of relegating it to the back where it can do no harm.  When pushed to the fore, you can see plainly that it is the sort of vanilla that smells a bit plasticky, like melted ice-cream or a vanilla candle at the Yankee Candle store.  It is not offensive or jarring, but it does smell slightly cheap.

 

 

 

Bois Exotique (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Bois Exotique is a puzzle.  It features a sharp, almost rooty sandalwood note (surely synthetic) over an amber and patchouli base that reads as creamy, soapy, and vaguely minty.  The balmy mouthfeel of the sweetened patchouli is close to the waxy white chocolate texture of Hiram Green’s wonderful Arbolé Arbolé.  (In terms of overall aroma, however, they are nothing alike).

 

There is also an attractive Coca Cola note at the beginning, common to many superb sandalwood fragrances such as Bois des Îles and Egoïste, both by Chanel.  Yet, undeniably, the quality and density of this scent places Bois Exotique in the same category as other indie perfume oils rather than alongside those belonging to classic perfumery.  There is both a handmade quality and a loose, casual structure to Bois Exotique that reminds me of popular ‘sandalwoody’ indie oils, such as Alkemia’s Arabesque or Nava’s Santalum.

 

Still, no shade intended.  There is something deeply pleasing about the dichotomy in Bois Exotique between the bitter, woody facets and the sweet waxy-milky facets.  Powdery incense notes shift in like a sprinkling of crystallized sugar on top of plain bread.  The combination of bitter and sweet adds a frisson to the scent.  At points, it is as moreish as chocolate.

 

It is this clever counter-posing of notes that helps me to finally settle the overall place of Ava Luxe in the pecking order as somewhere between the American indie oil sector and niche.  Her work is more nuanced than most indie oil companies, and she is deeply beloved by her loyal customer base.  Yet the uneven quality and low quality of some of the raw materials rank her output at just slightly below other American indie perfume brands such as DSH Perfumes, Aftelier, and Sonoma Scent Studio.  Still, when something works, it really works.  And on balance, Bois Exotique works.

 

 

 

Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood)  

Type: essential oil

 

 

Dabur sandalwood oil is pure Santalum album from India, though not from the Mysore region.  It is sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than a perfume, a fact many sandalwood fans (including me) choose to ignore, using it as perfume instead.  It comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, but for perfume purposes, it is highly advisable that, once opened, you decant the oil into another container so as to avoid contamination from the rubber cap.  Personally, I am not that meticulous, so my bottle of Dabur oil sits happily in its original bottle, and if there is a little rubbery taint to the topnotes, well then I do not mind.  It adds character.

 

Dabur is a solid Santalum album oil, as equally unpretentious in aroma as it is in price.  The topnotes are tainted with a bitter, smoky rubber overtone, which I genuinely enjoy.  Once past that, the oil settles into a sweet, buttery sandal aroma with miles of depth.  Like all s. album oils, it is not loud, but it is certainly a great deal more robust than more delicate artisanal oils.  It is also not as linear, thanks to those notes of rubber, smoke, and fuel exhaust.  I do not know if the supply of this oil is sustainable, so I am planning to stock up.  Though it works brilliantly under commercial perfumes that need a sandalwood boost, it is also a thoroughly satisfying wear on its own.

 

 

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

 

Khaliji (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Khaliji is the most daring fragrance in the Al Rehab rollerball line-up.  In pairing a fresh, aromatic lemongrass with an armpitty cumin, it arrives at a compromise between a good Southeast Asian curry and the undershirt of a Cairo taxi driver in high summer.  It is equally repellent and attractive, which is, of course, precisely what makes it interesting.

 

Its vegetally-green cardamom note momentarily recalls the water-logged ‘figgy’ sandalwood of Le Labo’s Santal 33.  But in truth, the strongest point of comparison is to the aromatic, cumin-flecked woody notes of Le Labo’s Rose 31.  In case that comparison got your hopes up, let me equivocate.  First, there is no rose in the Al Rehab (some will not miss it).  Second, the scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical that defines the Le Labo is absent, replaced by a smooth, featureless sandalwood accord.  Third, the curried-armpit nuance is stronger in the Al Rehab. 

 

I find Khaliji to be a striking fragrance, with a deeply aromatic drydown that lasts forever on the skin.  Get past the shock of the cumin-and-lemon tandem in the opening and you are good to go.  It would make for an excellent masculine, its swampy, spice-laden woodiness blooming beautifully on sweaty male skin in summer.  The juxtaposition between the fresher aromatic notes (lemongrass, cardamom) and the warmer, dustier ones (cumin, sandalwood) is very well handled, especially for a low-budget oil perfume such as this.  The final impression it leaves is that of savory bread pudding made entirely of creamed woods.

 

 

 

Majan (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Majan is a sort of twin to Molook, except where Molook is a duet between Hindi oud and ambergris, Majan is a duet between sandalwood and ambergris.  As in Molook, the quality of the ambergris used in Majan is sublime – softly fecal, marine, warm, deep, and with tobacco and leather tonalities for depth and vigor.  Something about it feels aged, like the pages of an old manuscript, but there is a feathery sweetness there too.  The vintage feel is enhanced by the slight civet-like undertone of the ambergris.  Wearing it may remind vintage lovers of older ambergris- and civet-heavy fragrances such as Patou Joy parfum and Dioressence.

 

Working backwards from the base – ambergris – to the top, the first half of this attar is almost purely sandalwood, with a side of musky rose.  The sandalwood used in Majan is very high quality.  There is quite possibly some amount of Mysore sandalwood here, although it is might also be oil from the newer Santalum album plantations in Australia mixed with a sandalwood synthetic or two to get it to sing.  Whatever the material, the opening is a joyously creamy sandalwood affair that will tug on the heartstrings of any sandalwood aficionado.

 

The prevalent aroma, to start with, is slightly oily, peanut-like, and raw, like a freshly-split log of wood, which is typical of genuine Mysore sandalwood.  The lumberyard notes soon soften as they melt into a warm, rosy, milky aroma associated with fine sandalwood.  Rose adds a flush to the cheeks of the wood, and vanilla a sweet creaminess – but these are bit players, there just to help flesh out the aroma of the sandalwood.

 

At some point in the life of the attar, the sandalwood and rose drop away completely, revealing the warm saltwater taffy of that wonderful ambergris.  The switch is complete, leaving very little overlap between the first layer (sandalwood-rose) and the second (ambergris).  However, when the two main players of any attar are as incredible as natural sandalwood and ambergris, then it matters not if they aren’t seamlessly knitted together.  Majan is first rate work, and my personal favorite from the older Amouage line just behind Badr al Badour.

 

 

 

Memphis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Spicey [sic] Berries, Egyptian Musk, Citrus, Heliotrope

 

 

I am beginning to suspect that the strangely waxy-gluey nuance at the top of most NAVA blends is their version of sandalwood.  Pitched halfway between furniture polish and vegetable oil, it casts an unattractive layer of sealing wax over the other notes, obscuring and muffling their sound to such an extent that one sometimes smells very little indeed.  I am at a loss to name what natural or synthetic sandalwood smells like this, but its blond, pale nature does indeed suggest a sandalwood note of some derivation.

 

As with most NAVA blends, the muffling wax ladled over the opening of Memphis eventually dissipates somewhat to reveal something of the underlying structure, which here consists of sharp fruit, citrus, and an accord that I would describe as ‘generic men’s aftershave’.  Mixing with the blandly oily sandalwood, this forms an accord that is both fresh-bitter and milky-gluey.  This might have been a better perfume had the dial been moved more definitively towards one or the other, but as it is, Memphis is the epitome of ‘almost there-ness’.  I don’t think Elvis would have been particularly moved by this either. 

 

 

 

Mysore 1984 (Ensar Oud)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This oil, a vintage Mysore oil unearthed and verified by Ensar Oud himself, was allegedly stored for decades in a rusty old tin by a guy who had no idea he was sitting on a pot of gold.  (Maybe it is true, I don’t know. In the artisanal sector, swallowing a bit of guff comes with the territory).  Anyway, in what seems to be an almost predictable piece of good fortune, the same vendor managed to unearth a second tin of the same oil, sold it to Ensar, and is now once again available for purchase.  As ever, once it is gone, it is gone.  Perhaps by the time this Guide finally gets published, it is already a relic.

 

Griping about implausible backstory aside, the 1984 Mysore from Ensar Oud is, for me, the epitome of what a Mysore sandalwood oil should smell like.  Most people smelling Mysore sandalwood for the first time are surprised at how distant it is from the fantasy version presented in commercial perfumery, where a cocktail of sandalwood synthetics and vanilla are used to fluff out its proportions to stadium-filling volume.

 

Having said that, Mysore 1984 smells more like the fantasy of Mysore sandalwood long held in my head than any of my other Mysore samples, meaning it skips completely over the blond “peanutty” and terpenic portions of Mysore to get straight to the meat of the aroma.  It is boomingly sweet, indecently rich, red-brown in aroma, and possessed of an incensey depth suggestive of resin and amber.

 

In fact, this oil does not possess any peanut-shell rawness at all, displaying instead a gouty roundness suggestive of maturity.  It teeters between sweet and salty, perhaps tipping the scales a little more towards sugar than the salt.  But it contains just enough resin and wood notes to counter the sweetness, and so everything is held in perfect balance.   Later, the oil develops that dry-creamy push-pull effect so characteristic of fine Mysore – the buttery, sour cream facets pushing back against the dry, aromatic dustiness inherent to sandalwood.  I love it in the wistful, quasi-resentful way one loves any non-renewable resource.  

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: essential oil

 

 

At first, this oil is quite sharp, green, and bitter.  It also smells smoky, as if the oil has crossed paths with a campfire. Immediately detectable are the keenly terpenic, head-spinning rawness that sandalwood shares with industrial glue, which makes me think that the oil is genuine but just needs to settle a bit.

 

The next stage is more characteristic of Santalum album, with its salted peanut savor and cloudy milkiness.  However, it lacks the fatty, double-creamed body of the other samples, and comes across as a sort of de-fatted version of the real thing.  With its brusque, astringent woodiness, it reminds me more of the inside of a wood carver’s workshop than a true Mysore.  It is perfectly nice, but not worth the price I paid for it, which was $25 for one milliliter.

 

 

 

Mysore Sandalwood (via Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse)

Type: essential oil

 

 

Josh Lobb very kindly included a sample of Mysore sandalwood oil in an order I made with him in 2017, presumably the same sandalwood he uses in Slumberhouse blends that feature it prominently, such as Grev.  It is always interesting to smell the oils and absolutes that artisanal, small-batch perfumers use in their perfumes, because if the customer is not going to be wearing it neat, then the raw material or essential oil itself does not have to display the same range of nuances or subtleties – it just has to be strong enough to make its voice heard over a cacophony of other materials.

 

This is the case here: the sample smells rather pungent and cheesey, like a Laotian plantation oud oil with lots of stale, dusty ‘off notes’ that might make wearing it neat a bit of a trial.  However, in a blend, it is potent and creamy enough to broadcast a message of ‘sandalwood’ in large neon letters, which is all that is really required of it.  Worn neat, the drydown of the oil smells furry and slightly foul, as if cross-contaminated with deer musk or ambergris.

 

 

 

Mystery Indian Oil

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Kindly included in a care package of attar and oil samples sent to me by an American-Indian friend, this oil seems to be a no-name oil picked up in one of the perfume shops in Mumbai or Delhi, of which there are hundreds.  I include it here because, although its provenance is murky, its aroma is somewhat typical of what one might expect of an oil like this, and therefore my description might be of use.

 

The topnotes smell tainted, as if it has encountered heavy metals, rubber tubing, and smoke, before being filtered to remove most – but not all – of the impurities.  Many sandalwood oils, especially the cheaper ones, smell contaminated in this manner, but with a bit of patience, one can learn to tolerate and even appreciate the odd little bits of detritus floating in and around the pure sandal aroma.  Similarly, one of my favorite Western niche sandalwood perfumes – Etro’s Sandalo eau de cologne – smells like an industrial accident at first but ultimately manages to frame it as an elegant quirk rather than a defect.

 

What makes the mystery Indian oil a bit different, however, is its strong current of sour, greenish terpenes and nail varnish, making me suspect that the oil has been cut with paraffin, D.O.P., or a low quality santalum spiccatum.  This ‘inferior wood’ impression dissipates after a while, allowing us to glimpse the smoky, buttery sandal aroma lurking underneath.  It is more sandalwood-ish than truly sandalwoody, but again, I have smelled far worse.

 

The best way to describe the sandal oils one buys in Indian shops is that they put on a good impression of real sandalwood oil, but only in fits and bursts.  This oil is no exception.  Its smoky-creamy midsection is genuinely pleasing, but when a sharp, aftershavey base arrives to obscure the sandal, it gives up any pretense of being real sandalwood.  Still, the fresh, almost bitter shaving foam finish to this oil would make it a good option for men who prefer barbershop-style sandalwoods over the sweet, creamy version that women instinctively prefer.

 

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 samples from Ava Luxe, Oil of Sandalwood, Arcana, NAVA, Possets, Alkemia, Amouage, Al Rehab, and Gulab Singh Johrimal. The samples from Ensar Oud, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Clive Christian were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. Other samples were kindly donated to me by Josh Lobb and Basenotes friends. 

 

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Sandalwood Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Sandalwood: A Primer

23rd March 2022

 

 

After the brief introduction to sandalwood here, let’s take a deeper dive into this God of All Woods.

 

Why is Santalum album so magical?

 

Santalum album, meaning ‘white sandalwood’, is not the only species of sandalwood on the planet.  But it is widely considered to be the best.  Why is that?

 

Thanks to scientific analysis, we now know that Santalum album smells richer and more intense than any other type of sandalwood because it contains the highest percentage (between seventy and ninety percent[i]) of santalol, the molecule responsible for the characteristically complex aroma of sandalwood, which darts between woody, creamy, lactic-sour, fragrant, sweet, rosy, and milky-green.

 

Other species of sandalwood, such as Australian Santalum spicatum, for example, contain a much lower concentration of santalols (between thirty-five and thirty-nine percent) and therefore feature far less of that characteristic sandalwood aroma.  They produce an effect that, while still pleasant, does not scale the heights of Santalum album oil.

 

 

Can I still smell Santalum album? Or am I too late?

 

Not too late at all!  Remember, as stated here, while real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a genuine rarity, its species – Santalum album – is not.  Santalum album is the species of the sandalwood tree traditionally grown in Mysore, but it can also grow (and thrive) in regions other than Mysore, where climate conditions are optimal.  These places include Indonesia, Tamil Nadu, and Northern Australia.  Naturally, when the Santalum album species of tree is grown in an area or country other than the Mysore region, it is not technically Mysore sandalwood.  It is, however, still Santalum album.  And it is still absolutely gorgeous.

 

Can I still get my hands on Mysore sandalwood oil, though?

 

Yes, but tread carefully.  For reasons outlined here, export of Mysore sandalwood outside of the borders of India is technically illegal.

 

It is, of course, still possible to buy small quantities of real Mysore sandalwood oil.  But given that demand far outstrips supply, be aware that the risk of adulteration is high.  Seek out small samples of Mysore sandalwood oil that comes from old, wild trees and that has benefited from aging.  Sandalwood oil is like oud oil in that it smells the best when it comes from old trees (between eighty to a hundred years for preference) growing in the wild and has been allowed to age in the bottle.

 

Instead of taking your chances on eBay and or Etsy, buy directly from trusted artisan and small-batch distillers like Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Ensar Oud, Feel Oud, and Al Shareef Oudh.  These artisans distill oil from vintage stocks of Mysore, but also from new trees being grown on the Mysore plantations. 

 

 

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Unsplash

 

Is that Mysore sandalwood in my attar?

 

Honestly? Probably not.

 

Beyond the pure essential oil itself, most attars, mukhallats and concentrated perfume oils boasting the presence of Mysore sandalwood do not contain even a drop of the real thing.  This is also true of commercial or niche perfumes that claim to feature Mysore sandalwood.  Santalum album, its species?  Yes, sure.  The actual species itself is not in short supply.  But actual Mysore sandalwood oil?  Fuhgeddaboudit.

 

So learn to treat all mention of Mysore with a healthy dose of side eye.  The only attars that genuinely contain Mysore Santalum album are either vintage attars from the 1990s (or earlier), or modern attars produced by small-batch artisan attar makers, such as Sultan Pasha, Ensar Oud, Rising Phoenix Perfumer, et al, all of whom understand their customers and know that they will pay a premium for attars made with even minute quantities of Mysore sandalwood.

 

These days, Indian attar-making families and distilleries still making attars in the traditional manner (deg and bhapka) likely use a different variety of sandalwood oil for the bases of their attars, such as the Australian variant or even amyris, which is not even sandalwood.  However, the modern attar and fragrance factories of Mumbai likely use cheap filler oils like paraffin or D.O.P. 

 

 

What does real Mysore sandalwood smell like anyway?

 

 

People are almost always surprised when they smell real Mysore sandalwood oil. Mysore sandalwood’s fêted role in big 1980s compositions such as Guerlain’s Samsara or Amouage’s Ubar leads to its common misdiagnosis as something that projects creamily and loudly across a room.  If a Westerner were to describe the smell of Mysore sandalwood, they would probably use words such as powdery, sweet, buttery, and creamy.

 

But in fact, this is an effect almost always created using sandalwood synthetics rather than the raw material itself.  Western perfumery has always leaned on a complex array of aromachemicals to get the sandalwood oil to speak up in a composition, nudging its naturally shy aroma into a rich sonic boom.  The same rings true for its use in attars and mukhallats.

 

The quietness (or loudness) of sandalwood in any attar very much depends on the role it plays in the overall composition.  In complex attars such as shamama and majmua, it is very difficult to identify the aroma of sandalwood, as its ‘library’ voice tends to be overridden by the stronger spices, aromatic, and florals.  However, in single-material attars such as motia or mitti, the quiet creaminess of the sandalwood carrier oil is a vital part of the composition.  Some attars and mukhallats place the aroma of sandalwood at the heart of a composition, choosing to highlight its tender beauty.  For example, Amouage not only has Sandal, a sandalwood soli-wood, so to speak, but also Majan (ambergris and sandalwood) and Ayoon al Maha (sandalwood and rose).

 

A good rule of thumb for spotting a sandalwood synth is that if a perfume – be it an attar or Western spray – smells immediately of rich, loud, creamy sandalwood, then you may be reasonably sure that there is some sandalwood synthetic somewhere in the mix, boosting the aroma of the natural oil.  Some people are sensitive to sandalwood synthetics and can pick them out of a line-up.  I personally cannot, and therefore even mukhallats featuring sandalwood synthetics smell good to me.

 

After long exposure to the fake, loud sandalwood that passes for ‘Mysore’ in most commercial perfumes and modern mukhallats, the reality of what the essential oil smells like is eye-opening.  At first, the prevailing aroma is slightly raw and pale, the scent of a freshly-cut log of wood and nothing more. It smells streamlined, shorn of extraneous detail or fuzz.  The topnotes feature a steamy, vaporous texture akin to the haze of molecules that fizzes from the top of a container of industrial glue or ethanol.  These vapors have an almost hallucinogenic effect on the senses.

 

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not uncommon to find fresh, silvery, or green topnotes in Mysore oil, depending on the age of the heartwood from which it was distilled, and the number of years spent maturing in the bottle.  Mysore often displays some of the terpenic (pine- or camphor-like) greenness associated with Australian sandalwood (s. spicatum).  However, where they do appear, the terpenes in Santalum album are much softer than in the Australian type – a gentle, almost milky green freshness rather than the solvent-like screech of lemon and pine.

 

There is also a clear peanut-like odor inherent to the scent of Mysore sandalwood oil, less the aroma of the nut itself than its papery husk and skin.  There may also be a scent of neutral oil, like vegetable or sunflower oil, which, when mixed with the peanut aroma, produces a flattened, roasted-nutty effect.  The overall texture is at first vaporous, then cloudy.  It is not immediately creamy, although it will increase in creaminess.  The aroma is very quiet and does not project far off the skin.

 

Later, the aroma becomes slightly deeper and more complex, with a milky undertone developing.  It is still not fatty or creamy, tending instead towards the scent of lightly soured milk or yoghurt.  The thin, lactic sourness is given body by a nutty texture akin to crushed, pounded peanut shells, husks, and nuts.  It remains acidic and greenish for some time, but there is now a hint of rose in the milk.

 

Further still, most s. album sandalwood oils – even those that are not Mysore – gain a toasty depth more suggestive of thick, red-brown logs than light, raw blond wood.  Although never as spicy or as musky as modern sandalwood bases in perfumery, the oil does develop some mild nutmeg-like elements and becomes increasingly creamy.  In some sandalwood oils, a sweaty spice note can appear, a nuance often replicated in Western perfumery via the use of cumin, funky-musky cedarwood, or even carrot seed (a good example being Santal Blush by Tom Ford).  This nuance is why some perceive sandalwood as smelling of body odor.

 

The aroma of Mysore sandalwood is soft and calming.  It takes its own sweet time to cycle through different facets: raw lumber, blond peanut shells, green roses, buttermilk, salted butter, and finally a reddish-brown depth, aromatic (dry) wood, incense, hints of amber, spice, and full-fat cream.  Texturally, Mysore displays the same push-pull between aromatic-dry and creamy-sweet common to all Santalum album oils.

 

Compared to, say, oud oil, S. album sandalwood oil is far more linear. It can be as complex as oud, but its range of complexity is spread out across a shallower line than that of oud.  If oud and sandalwood oils were charted on a graph, for example, the sandalwood would be performing a small but complex series of movements between points one and four, while the oud would be making jagged leaps between one and ten and back to five, and so on. Both materials can be superb, and a preference for one or the other might depend on one’s appetite for turbulence and drama (oud oil) or gentle, unassuming beauty (sandalwood oil).

 

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

 

The Other Sandalwoods: If Not Mysore, then What?

 

If you are a Mysore freak, then feel free to skip this part.  But if you are even a little curious about what the other, non-Mysore variants of sandalwood oil smell like, then read on!  Invest in a sampler from Eden Botanicals to get your nose on most of these.

 

 

Santalum album – Tamil Nadu type

 

 

Santalum album grown in the Tamil Nadu region of India. Warm, woody, and sweet, with no rough edges, Tamil Nadu oil is relatively close to the aroma of vintage Mysore sandalwood oil and does not contain any of the harshness of Vanuatu types of sandalwood.

 

Aroma: Creamy, sweet, with a Mysore tonality.

 

 

 

Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum)

 

 

A different species than Santalum album, the Santalum spicatum is a species native to Australia and grown sustainably in plantations there.  It is not as rich in santalols as santalum album and therefore does not smell as nutty or as creamy.  Most commercial perfumes employing a sandalwood effect use the Australian type of sandalwood (in conjunction with sandalwood synthetics).  It is much cheaper than Santalum album species, but most would also say that it is also markedly inferior to Mysore, with a sharp, yoghurty aroma, and sawdusty texture.  Most will also pick up strong terpenic (pine-like) notes in the aroma profile.

 

However, because it is sustainably managed and therefore in abundant supply, Australian sandalwood is enormously useful in perfumery.  With clever positioning of sandalwood synthetics and other notes such as rose or vanilla, it can achieve a very credible sandalwood result in a finished perfume.

 

Aroma: A cedar-adjacent aroma profile, with the sourness of a freshly-split pine log.

 

 

 

Santalum austrocaledonicum (Vanuatu and New Caledonia types)

 

 

Native to the islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the South Pacific, Santalum austrocaledonicum is a light, fragrantly woody species of Santalum that possess a surprisingly high proportion of santalols (approximately sixty percent).  However, there is a blunt, sour smokiness to its aroma that many people find off-putting.  It eventually evens out into a creamy, fragrant ‘true sandalwood’ aroma but the journey to get there is kind of rough. 

 

Aroma: fragrant, but slightly harsh, sour, and smoky.

 

 

Australian plantation-grown Santalum album

 

 

This is not Mysore, but rather the same species of tree (Santalum album) grown in plantations in Australia.  The oil is sustainably produced, and in aroma is quite close to the aroma of Mysore oil, namely, soft, sweet, warm, woody, gentle, creamy-milky, and full-bodied.  It is unknown whether the Santalum album species grown in Australia will ever match the depth and beauty of Mysore Santalum album, but first reports are positive.  Due to the crucial matter of aging, Santalum album oil from new plantations will not smell as richly golden as older specimens of Mysore oil now, but in time, it is likely that they will.

 

Aroma: milky, sweet, with a true Santalum album ‘flavor’.

 

 

Amyris balsamifera

 

 

Not a sandalwood at all, but an entirely different species of wood that exudes a highly-fragrant oleoresin.  Oil produced using amyris smells a little terpenic (pine-like), fragrantly bitter, and smoky.  It is pleasant on its own, and often used as a replacer oil for sandalwood, although in truth, it is no match for the complexity of the Mysore aroma.

 

Aroma: clean, terpenic, with bitter, smoky topnotes

 

 

 

Sandalwood synthetics

 

 

The main synthetics used to amplify or replace natural sandalwood oil are Ebanol, Javanol, Sandalore (all by Givaudan), and Polysantol (by Firmenich).  Though the specifics are not all that important to the layman, it is important to note that they each provide a slightly different effect.  For example, Ebanol is used when a soapy-musky dimension to the sandalwood is sought, Sandalore apes the creamy aspect of sandalwood, and Polysantol is used for maximum diffusion and amplification of the sandalwood aroma.

 

The use of sandalwood synthetics is so prevalent in the fragrance industry that their aroma has become intertwined with that of natural sandalwood oil in the minds of fragrance wearers.  For example, vintage Samsara (Guerlain) once contained great quantities of real Mysore sandalwood oil – some say up to forty percent of its composition.  But there are, and have always been, huge amounts of Polysantol in the formula too, making it very difficult to separate the loud, booming creaminess of the synthetic from the quieter savory-nutty aroma of the natural sandalwood. 

 

 

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.

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

 

[i] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Demise-of-sandalwood/articleshow/12078008.cms

Attars & CPOs Floral Green Floral Mukhallats Orange Blossom Osmanthus Review Rose Sandalwood Spicy Floral The Attar Guide Tuberose Violet White Floral Ylang ylang

The Attar Guide: Floral Reviews (0-A)

1st December 2021

 

 

007 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 007 is a little bum fluff of a thing – a peachy honeysuckle that leans waxy rather than green or fresh.  Orange blossom adds a candied edge, like marshmallow and honey whipped together for a sweet, foamy ‘mouthfeel’.  The coconut stays firmly in the background for most of the scent’s trajectory, allowing the peach and honeysuckle notes to shine.  The subtlety of the coconut note means that this never turns into a beach fest, instead keeping its toes firmly tucked inside the fruity-floral category.

 

Further on, angelica adds a watery greenness that sharpens the scent up a bit, adding some much-needed definition to the fuzzy honeysuckle.  All too soon, however, the scent unravels into a sweet, cottony floral musk that is pleasant but ultimately a little too eau de department store for a genre that promises something a little quirkier.

 

No. 007 is a soft fruity-floral musk that will appeal to young women who do not want to be challenged by their scent and yet who also do not want to smell like every other gal in town.  Sometimes, pretty is all one wants, and in this respect, No. 007 certainly fits the bill.  However, if you are going to the trouble of ordering an indie over the Internet, why settle for something that smells like something you would get on the high street?

 

 

 

008 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 008’s citrusy jasmine opening says super femme, but a sudden wave of spicy bay rum takes everything to a darker, more masculine place.  Bay rum, a traditional component of men’s aftershaves, draws on the moody bitterness of bay leaf as well as the sweet darkness of fine Jamaican rum.  Spiced heavily with black pepper and sometimes clove, this note is associated with classic male perfumes such as Pinaud Clubman Virgin Island Bay Rum and Aramis Havana.   Here, the bay rum accord acts upon the syrupy, purple jasmine note to give it a sexy, nocturnal edge.  Booze, spice, and indolic white flowers – what’s not to like?

 

There is light in the murk of this spicy jasmine oriental, however, in the form of wafts of fresh, powdery heliotrope and rose.  These small-petalled, almost babyish floral notes take all the sting out of the bay rum, rendering it more conventionally feminine in feel.  In fact, No. 008 has all the bones of an eighties powerhouse.  The manner in which its salt-flecked base of sandalwood and Ambroxan supports the spicy, musky jasmine is quite close to that of one of Creed’s best fragrances, Jasmin Impératrice Eugenie.  However, a beguiling hint of industrial rubber ensures that No. 008 feels modern and up to date.  Interesting stuff, and, well, big.

 

 

 

009 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Mmm, creamy coconut shampoo.  Rinse and repeat.  No. 009 smells almost exactly like one of those fruity monoï shampoos you get from Yves Rocher, crossed with the ambered sweetness of an Argan oil hair product like Moroccan Oil.  Note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to smell like a lush hair product.  Scents that smell like personal care products are both insanely evocative and comforting.  Look at the number of people who want to find a perfume that recreates the smell of 1970s Revlon Flex.

 

No. 009 has the same creamy, solar feel as Intense Tiaré by Montale, so if you like smelling beachy, keep your eyes peeled for this.  It might also be a good one to test if you love Oud Jaune Intense by Fragrance du Bois, but your wallet does not.

 

 

 

 

013 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Wintergreen toothpaste!  Germolene!  Ylang has a medicinal, camphoraceous aspect not often emphasized in perfumery, but here, the perfumers seemed to have rolled the dice and won.  The opening of No. 013 delivers the same Listerine slap to the face as Serge Lutens’ great Tubéreuse Criminelle.  Indeed, in Britain, Listerine is known as TCP, which happens to have the same initials as Tubéreuse Criminelle Parfum (coincidence? I think not).

 

The tiger balm mintiness of the ylang softens but never dissipates completely.  It freshens up the earthy, almost metallic breath of a lei of mixed tropical flowers – jasmine, orchid, gardenia, as well as ylang.  This combination of creamy and medicinal notes means that the fragrance has a sultry tropical feel, but also the nipped-in waist of proper corsetry.  Clods of earthy patchouli in the drydown provide a humid soil pillow for the florals in much the same fashion as Manoumalia (Les Nez).

 

No. 013 is a balmy tropical floral that feeds you all the earthier, leafier parts of the island experience, and very little of the sugar or cream that normally accompanies it.  It might be just the thing to convert a self-avowed tropical floral hater.  A hint of dark cocoa and amber in the tail is further inducement, should you need it.     

 

 

 

Absolute Jasmine (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Absolute Jasmine opens with a Lanolin-like note, lending the composition a strange waxy texture and an oily aroma that has more in common with the fishy smell of pure silk than with floral absolutes.  This (to me) beguiling topnote melts away into a bitter, peppery leather accord with dark plum and cinnamon undertones plumping it out from beneath.

 

A spicy Coca Cola-like note is next to pull free, reminding me of the moment in Jasmin de Nuit (The Different Company) when the dark jasmine butts up against the rose, star anise, and cardamom to create a sweet, fizzing soda note that tickles the nose.  In Absolute Jasmine, the tone is much more astringent – nothing sweet or creamy here – but in the meeting of jasmine and spice, much the same effect is achieved.

 

Absolute Jasmine is a dark, serious perfume with a masculine edge.  In a way, it does for jasmine what Tom Ford’s Black Violet did for violets, which was to marry the girlish sweetness of violets to a phenomenally bitter, mossy drydown – a sort of mash up between flowers and aftershave.  Absolute Jasmine is a sugar-free jasmine Coca Cola perfume oil for sugar-free adults.

 

 

 

Absolute Orris (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Orris can be twisted in several different directions, depending on the material used and the composition of the perfume.  It can be pulled into a waxy-lipsticky direction, most commonly used in perfumes evoking the smell of cosmetics, like Chanel’s Misia and Histoires de Parfum’s Moulin Rouge.  Some orris materials smell more like violets than iris, as evidenced by Iris by Santa Maria Novella and, to some extent, Heeley’s Iris de Nuit.  Iris also has rooty, metallic facets that can be accentuated, the most famous example of this type being Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens.  But many perfumes choose to accentuate the doughy suede elements of iris, and this is the direction taken by Clive Christian for Absolute Orris.

 

The opening of Absolute Orris is a stark representation of orris root – wet newspapers, carrots, soil, and ice, mixed with stranger elements such as glue and the plastic backing on industrial carpets.  Running through this opening accord is a shoal of bright, silvery notes, which on paper read as citrusy, but on the skin turns out to be something between black pepper, mint, and metal.

 

Absolute Orris evolves into a smooth, buttery suede but retains a certain bitterness inherent to the material.  Admirably, the perfume does not attempt to cover this with sweet or creamy supporting notes, but instead just leaves it there, as stark and uncompromising as the stone heads on Easter Island.  This accord is both luxurious and straightforward, shorn of noise and distraction.  Highly recommended for professionals of any gender with a taste for quiet but forceful luxury. 

 

 

 

Absolute Osmanthus (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Absolute Osmanthus comes with an overdose of woody aromachemicals that obscures the delicate beauty of the osmanthus, making it virtually impossible to evaluate on the skin.  On paper, however, there are hints of what I feel I am missing – apricot jam, buttery leather, and sappy green leaf notes that inject a mood of brightness into the entire affair.  Those who are less sensitive to woody ambers will probably enjoy this in full on their skin.

 

 

 

Absolute Rose (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Revolving around the bright rose de mai varietal, Absolute Rose is a sun-lit take on a garden rose framed by accents of citrus, herbs, and spice.  A tart lime-peel bergamot lifts the topnotes, leading into a heart that smells like a pale pink rose plucked from a rain-soaked garden.  Geranium leaf boosts the green rosiness inherent to this varietal, but also injects a delightful hint of garden mint, green leaves, and rhubarb stalks.

 

This sits at the opposite spectrum to the dark, syrupy roses of most Middle Eastern perfumery.  It is a young rose, content to simply sparkle against a backdrop of garden greenery.  Saffron adds a hint of earthy leather in the base, but generally, the wet herbal feel of the rose and geranium is what dominates.  Think Galop (Hermès) dialed back by a factor of seven.

 

The fresh dew of the rose has been preserved throughout and not allowed to suffocate under a blanket of smoky resin or syrupy amber.  This treatment imbues Absolute Rose with an almost Victorian sense of elegance.  Men and women looking for a dandified take on a garden rose should seek out a sample of this.  Its lack of embellishment and sweetness makes it perfectly suitable for men who are wary of flowers, and roses in particular.  This is a particularly unsentimental take on rose that won’t remind anyone of their grandmother. 

 

 

 

Akaber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A massively-upholstered floral vanilla attar with an anisic-amaretto tint, Akaber recalls – with suspicious fidelity – the most popular floral vanilla gourmands of the late nineties, i.e., Hypnotic Poison and Dior Addict.

 

 

 

Al’Ghaliyah (Kyara Zen)      

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al’Ghaliyah is so beautiful that it is difficult to describe it without gushing.  Ghaliyah mukhallats are common in Middle-Eastern perfumery but the bulk of them are harsh and synthetic in aroma.  I do not know if Kyara Zen’s version of it is completely natural, but it sure smells like it might be.

 

Kyara Zen’s Al’Ghaliyah is one of the very few rose-oud mukhallats that manages to achieve perfect balance between the elements in the blend – a rich, perfumey oud that smells like liquid calf leather, a winey rose with no sourness or sharp corners, and what smells like a golden nectar of apricots, peaches, plums, and osmanthus soaking into all the other notes.

 

All the elements reach the nose at once, cresting over each over continuously like the swell of a wave.  The bright rose runs straight through the blend like a piece of thread, so even in the basenotes you can sense its rich, red presence glowing like pulp through the oud and musk.  It is unclear whether the succulent fruit notes are emanating from the oud or the rose, but there is a cornucopia of winey, autumnal fruits to savor here.  The fruit notes fade away gently, leaving the rich rose to proceed on its own.

 

According to Kyara Zen’s Instagram feed, it appears that genuine deer musk grains were macerated and then added to the final blend.  If that is true, then it is a clever vehicle to demonstrate to people that genuine deer musk does not smell as dirty or as fecal as its recreations sometimes make it out to be.  Rather, it is unobtrusively musky, with all the pleasing warmth of a clean, furred animal. 

 

Overall, the richness and depth of this mukhallat is astounding.  I applaud the skill of the perfumer who managed to corral two or three of the most commonly-used raw materials in mukhallat perfumery and shape them into a form that smells, if not new exactly, then a hundred times better than other iterations of the same materials.  The liquid embodiment of a piece of gold-threaded brocade, Al’Ghaliyah is one of the most beautiful things I have smelled on my journey.

 

 

 

Al Ghar Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Ghar is what I feel comfortable calling a girly, gourmand take on the rose-oud mukhallat theme.  Al Ghar’s prettiness is so understated that it is easy to miss entirely.  A creamy, woodsy blend dusted with rose powder, it takes on the theme of oud in a way that is teasingly subtle, its soft, abstract nature making it difficult to identify and place all the disparate elements.  But this is a scent that rewards patience.

 

The oud, saffron, and rose opening is medicinal, but not challenging to anyone who has ever sat out the opening of a Montale.  The oud used here, although purportedly real, has a band-aid twang common to the synthetic oud used in most Western oud fragrances.  The oud note is lightly handled, extended at one side by an astringent, leathery saffron and on the other, dusty woods.  The rose takes shape as a powdery potpourri note that peeks out shyly from behind the other notes.

 

A few hours later, creamy, ambery warmth starts stealing over the medicinal opening, flickering in and out over the top, like someone spreading a lace cloth over a table and then whipping it off again.  The caramel sweetness of labdanum mingles with the dry, medicinal oud and saffron to create a wonderful saltwater taffy note.  This hazy, golden oud-amber-saffron accord stretches out in the base like a cat, picking up an alluring dash of black pepper or clove as it goes on – just enough to warm the tongue but not to make anyone sneeze.

 

The base features a milky sandalwood that is far more of a texture than an aroma.  It is unclear whether Mysore or Australian sandalwood has been used here, but it doesn’t matter because the only thing it is asked to do here is to hand over its cream and be quick about it.  

 

I really like Al Ghar.  It is the definition of something delicate for when one is feeling, well, delicate.  It calls to mind the comfort of a caramel latte or a cube of milk chocolate sprinkled with salt – piquant, but at the same time, soothing.  Coming close in mouthfeel to both White Oud (Montale) and Red Aoud (Montale), I recommend it highly to those looking for a sweet, quasi gourmand take on the traditional ‘attar’ smell of saffron, rose, oud, and sandalwood.  It also smells a little like pandan, which is a good thing in my book.

 

 

 

Al Hareem Blanc (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Despite the name, Al Hareem Blanc neither bears any relation to the original Al Hareem nor contains anything truly blanc-feeling in the composition, apart from a tiny dab of heliotrope which immediately gets gobbled up by the other more powerful notes.  The opening is dominated by a beefed-up, muscle-bound tuberose with an acetone edge so powerful that it gives you the same head rush as sniffing an open can of paint thinner.  It is a startling, unique opening, if not entirely pleasant.

 

Slowly, as the nose adjusts, it becomes clear that the benzene honk is that of a very pure, very strong tuberose absolute, whose aroma may be further broken down into its constituent parts of fuel, glue, rubber, and the decaying pear notes of nail polish remover.  Dry woods, smoke, leather, and engine oil follow, making this one of the rare tuberose-dominated scents that men might feel comfortable wearing.

 

Men, if you are looking for a butch floral and are scared to death that someone in the grocery store might accuse you of wearing, gasp, a white floral, then get yourself this.  Al Hareem Blanc is unambiguously male.  It is a leather bomb made up of metal splinters of an equally tough, rugged flower.  Actually, the tuberose in Al Hareem Blanc is really less a flower and more assless chaps.

 

 

 

Al Lail (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Lail, meaning The Night, is Sultan Pasha’s tribute to one of the stinkiest, civet-laden fragrances of all time, the notorious La Nuit (The Night) by Paco Rabanne.  However, Al Lail is not a literal copy.  It sidesteps, for example, the immensely sharp pissiness of the honey-civet in the original, and replaces it with a dusty, spicy floral musk that owes more to carnation-heavy feminine classics such as Caron’s Bellodgia and YSL Opium than to La Nuit.

 

The opening also diverges from its inspiration by plumping for the botanical freshness of a kitchen garden over the rather dated narcissus greenness of the original.  The opening is juicy and fresh – clusters of orange, rose, mint, and white jasmine, freshly picked and with dew still on them.  A striking artemisia note offers the kind of green bitterness that you can almost feel on your tongue.  Going into this expecting a re-do of the immediately funky La Nuit, I was surprised and charmed by this freshness.  It is a diversion, but a clever one, serving to juxtapose what comes next.

 

In Act Two, Al Lail promptly shakes off the sunny innocence of its ‘ripped from nature’ topnotes and settles into a smoky carnation and oakmoss gunpowder, the jasmine deepening into black marker pen indole.  The notes all dry up into a floral potpourri of dried carnation and rose petals, with a note in the background that smells pleasantly of yellowing book paper.

 

Stuffed to the brim with greasy, vintage-style musks, there is almost a suffocating effect to the perfume that reminds me of Charogne by État Libre d’Orange.  Wearing it chokes me slightly, like a mink stole tightened too carelessly around my throat, or the acrid fug of air that rushes out at you in a bar that still allows smoking.

 

Al Lail smells less like La Nuit and more like Bellodgia and Tabac Blond with their spicy, powdery clove-tinted glove leather.  However, that reference leaves out the most crucial piece of information, which is that this powdered carnation-leather accord is wrapped up tight in a straitjacket of rude musks, civet, and salty, grungy body odor – a sort of animalic distortion of the Caron ideal.

 

The heavily musky ‘old’ honey accord in the base is very similar to that of Sohan d’Iris, so if you love that one, you may also love Al Lail.  Personally, I could never wear Al Lail, for pretty much the same reason I cannot wear La Nuit – while I appreciate the genius of their construction, their heavy animalism is hard to wear elegantly.  However, my tolerance for animalics might be lower than yours, in which case, take the chance.

 

All in all, Al Lail is a proper little stinker made with love for those who revere the huge, floral-animalic fragrances of the past such as Ubar by Amouage, Joy parfum by Patou, Jasmin Eugenie Impératrice by Creed, and indeed any of the older Carons (especially Acaciosa and Bellodgia).  Just imagine any of these scents with their current filthiness multiplied by a factor of ten and you have an idea of where Al Lail stands on the old skank-o-meter.

 

 

 

Al Maqam Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Maqam Blend is a limited edition perfume oil produced to commemorate ASAQ’s Diamond Jubilee.  In my experience, the words ‘rare’ or ‘limited supply’ do not necessarily translate to amazing, and unfortunately, this is the case here.  Al Maqam Blend is perfectly nice but does not reach the exceptional heights that some of the other blends in the ASAQ range.  And at this price, it really should.

 

The basic structure of the scent involves an amorphous blur of flowers over a base of sweetish amber and musk, with a blob of oud making a shy appearance and then absconding far too soon.  What flowers or fruits, exactly?  It is hard to tell.  But the sticky, bubblegummy fruitiness of the opening suggest the presence of ASAQ’s gooey jasmine and orange blossom jam, a blend that seems to bulk out many of the house’s lower-priced oils.

 

ASAQ lists wildflowers as part of the blend, but since real meadows are in short supply in Saudi Arabia, it is reasonable to assume that this particular bouquet of flowers was birthed in a test tube.   In general, whenever you see wildflowers listed for an ASAQ blend, it is shorthand for a fruity-musky blur of flowers that could be anything from freesia to jasmine.  The amber-musk base is pleasantly ‘fuzzy’ in texture, but not in the least bit distinctive.  It also does nothing to counteract the tremendous sweetness of the florals.

 

Midway through, a smoky oud note appears, briefly giving the fruity florals a sheen of something respectably woody.  More reminiscent of the scent of agarwood chips being heated on an incense burner than the scent of the oil, the oud note comes across as attractively dry and smoky. Somewhat similar to the smoky oud woodchip nuance in Dior’s Leather Oud and Guerlain’s Songe d’Un Bois d’Eté, but far less animalic, this note is the high point of the scent.  This is also the only time it feels like someone over the age of twenty-one could viably pull it off.  Too soon, however, the oud notes float right out of the scent, leaving behind a trail of sugary white florals over a generic, musky amber.  Al Maqam is an uneven, even frustrating experience.  When it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is wicked.

 

 

 

Al Sharquiah (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

This is for those nights when you want to leave a loud, sweet fug of rose and oud in the air as a calling card for the opposite sex. It is about as subtle as a baboon’s arse, but there is something about the sweet, sour, and rotting notes in Al Sharquiah that gets people to lean in and sniff you twice.  It smells like the fumes from a bag of slowly rotting Medjool dates mingling with oud, wilted roses, cooked rose jam, a hint of metallic smoke, and a bit of funk in the base courtesy of spiced-up woods.

 

Although it is admittedly a quick snapshot of all the major themes in Arabian perfumery rather than the full deck, Al Sharquiah is a reasonable substitute for far more expensive Western takes on the rose-oud theme, such as Rose Nacrée du Desert by Guerlain or Velvet Rose & Oud by Jo Malone.  All for four dollars a bottle?  Hell yeah.  I’ll have me some of that, thank you very much.

 

 

 

Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: essential oil

 

 

This was the first pure rose oil I ever tried, and it was a surprise to me in many ways.  By pure, I mean that it was derived through slowly distilling Ta’ifi roses in the traditional manner, syringing the pure, clear oil off the hydrosol after distillation, and storing the resulting otto in a small leather flacon to rest and mature.

 

Ta’ifi roses are gathered at first morning light, before the sun causes the flowers to open fully, thus preserving their immensely fresh, spicy, green scent.  Harvesting is an enormously labor-intensive process, requiring rose petals from 30-50 roses to produce just one drop of pure rose otto[i].  Al Shareef Oudh clarifies that: ‘For the pickers there is no time to lose; it is a race against time. As the blazing sun rises and moves higher the harsh rays cause precious oils to evaporate, so much so that by mid-day unpicked roses contain only half of the oil they had at dawn’[ii].

 

Smelled up close, the oil smells surprisingly nothing like what you expect a rose to smell like –which makes sense given that a rose is made up of over 500 different aroma compounds.  The two main ‘flavor’ constituents of rose are geraniol and citronellal, which smell sharply ‘green’ and sharply ‘citric’ respectively.  Thus, when I smell Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous up close, I mostly smell a piercing lemony note and a lurid green note.  These notes present so acidic that it feels like you just peeled a lemon and squirted it into your eye.

 

The aroma is jagged, and almost animalic in its spiciness.  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  I am willing to wager good money that in a blind smelling test, most people would never guess that this was rose – at least not right away.

 

Forty minutes in, the brightness fades and the first notes that we collectively understand as ‘rose’ begin to coalesce on the skin, clustering the individual building blocks of honey, lemon, geranium, cinnamon, and pink petal notes used to construct a rose aroma in modern perfumery.  Unfortunately, pure rose ottos are extremely volatile and short-lived, so this glorious trajectory is cut short, the scent disappearing through the skin barrier and into the bloodstream within the hour.  Still, to experience real beauty, no matter how ephemeral, is always a blessing.

 

 

 

Aroosah (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

How can marigolds be indolic?  Well, in Aroosah, as you will see, they just are.  Fresh, earthy, slightly bitter – all the hallmarks of tagetes are there in the topnotes, giving off a brief impression of a freshly-cleaned toilet.  But as the fragrance unfolds, so too does a wave of oily indoles similar to those clinging to the inside of Easter lilies, the smell of life and death repeating on itself like a bad meal.

 

In the later stages of the oil’s development, a heavily-greased almond undertone begins to intrude on proceedings, making things infinitely worse.  If you’ve been manfully suffering through the experience thus far, then brace yourself, Bridget.  The almond note, when paired with the grassy hay notes from the chamomile, marigold, and saffron, presents the nose with a real challenge: pungency.

 

Aroosah is not fresh or natural-smelling in the least, being far more redolent of bathroom cleaning detergents than anything botanical in origin.  Nonetheless, its soapy, medicinal-herbal aroma is authentically Indian in nature.  Not for the faint of heart, or indeed, stomach.

 

 

 

Asala Murakkaz (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Asala Murakkaz is a nice if not particularly impressive mukhallat situated at the lower end of the Arabian Oud price range.  It opens with a pleasingly sweet, almost honeyed mix of florals, notably orange blossom and rose, accentuated with a fruity (peachy) undertone.

 

This is not a narcotic floral extravaganza built in the old manner, but rather a playful, modern take.  I can see this appealing tremendously to young women who love the clean, musky sweetness of fruitchoulis and gourmand florals such as Miss Dior Cherie.  The honeyed florals merge with a plush ‘pink’ musk in the far drydown, for a result that leans more towards a mass market Western fragrance than anything more authentically Eastern in nature.  Oh, and in case you were worried – zero oud in evidence here.  Asala Murakkaz is strictly for fans of candied, musky florals denuded of any rude bits or sharp edges.

 

 

 

Ashjan (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ashjan marries an orange-tinted rose to a heavy musk that runs right up to the edge of animalic before pulling back at the last moment.  The rose notes are juicy and dessert-like, forming a mouthwatering counterpoint to the velvety, thickly-furred musk.  Given its heavy-breathing character, Ashjan is perhaps not the best choice to be worn in polite company, but it is one to consider if you need something frankly suggestive for the third date.  (Of course, this is all moot, because Ashjan is near to impossible to find now).

 

 

 

Asrar (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Asrar is a pot of orange blossom-scented marmalade, heavily spiced with saffron, left to desiccate, uncovered, on a shelf in the larder until only fruit leather remains.  In the first hour or so, it is syrupy and densely-spiced to the point of being overwhelming. Orange blossom is not listed anywhere in the notes but take my word for it – Asrar is orange blossom boiled down into a medicinal unguent so sweet that it is bitter.  The astringent woodiness of saffron and oud cuts through the waterfall of syrup somewhat, for a pungent undertone that is necessary as an opposing force.

 

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the attar to loosen the stays on its restrictive orange blossom-honey corset, allowing a bright, winey rose to bloom in the background.  The rose expands to fill the room, joining forces with a dark, woody oud note to form a traditional rose-oud accord.  It is at this point that the attar smells like a gourmand-ish take on Montale’s Black Aoud.  The slightly candied, juicy quality in this stage of Asrar’s development is an appealing update to a rather tired template.

 

Hours in, the scent seems to do a volte face, morphing into a smoky, woodsy affair centering around a nugget of vetiver, cedar, and leather.  This part of the attar is almost charcoal-matte in effect.  In summary, Asrar kind of smells like a dab of Tribute on the tail end of Serge Lutens’ Fleur d’Oranger, with a brief detour to Black Aoud territory in the middle.  Whether this payoff is worth trudging through the tiresome syrup clogging the veins of the scent’s the first hour is up to you.  Plenty of people hold Asrar in as high regard as Homage or Tribute, but for me, the opening is too treacly to enjoy.  Still, there is no denying that Asrar is one of Amouage’s most characterful attars.

 

 

 

Atifa Blanche (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Blanche is an excellent word to describe this scent.  It is indeed a ‘white’ scent.  There is something so softly chewy about the topnotes of Atifa Blanche that I instantly visualized the scent as a white silk pillowcase stuffed with flower petals, marshmallows, meringues, and clouds of whipped cream.  It has the straight-forward beauty of a bride coming down the aisle, the sunlight behind her framing her head in an impossible halo of light.

 

The oil opens with a trio of sparkling citrus notes – mandarin, lemon, and lime peel – their sharpness nicely rounded out by the slightly creamy lily and rose.  There is also a noticeable lipstick note in the heart, thanks to a touch of violet.  Think the same ballpark as Chanel Misia (which is more matronly) or Putain des Palaces (which is skankier) – big, violet-y powder puff scents.  Atifa Blanche has a weird, doughy cashmeran note that distinguishes it as something that does a bit more than just lookin’ pretty.

 

No tuberose or jasmine, to my poor nose, but yes to a hint of rubbery, fertile ylang.  Still, there is nothing sub-tropical or Big White Floral in feel here.  If the white flowers are here, then they are have been sheared of all indole, sharpness, and that lingering ‘ladies-who-lunch’ element that seems to cling to the genre.  Atifa Blanche is a fresh, steam-cleaned floral that favors the lipsticky combination of rose and violet over its heavier white floral components.

 

The notes list an ozonic accord in the topnotes, but there is nothing overtly aquatic here, unless you share Luca Turin’s perception of lily as saltwater-ish.  The only real complaint that can be laid at its door is that it is slightly too squeaky clean, and a bit chemically cheap, with a muskiness that feels a bit like a freshly-starched collar.  However, bathed in this radiant aura of sweet lipstick wax, Atifa Blanche can be forgiven almost anything.  It is both innocently retro and almost (but not quite) edible.  A hundred times better than By Killian Love

 

 

 

Ayoon al Maha (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ayoon al Maha is a gently powdery take on the traditional attar smell of sandalwood and roses.  It takes a fresh, tart damask rose and grafts it onto a dusty-creamy sandalwood rootstock.  The opening is bright and lush, the green and citrusy facets of rosa damascena brought forward for their moment in the sun.  The opening feels quite traditional in that it is true to the scent of the Bulgarian rose, an aroma with which many will be familiar from their childhood.  More English in feel than Arabian, therefore – at least at the beginning.

 

In the base, a lightly toasted, buttery sandalwood note nips at the sharp, fresh rose, covering it in cream and brown sugar.  This is likely not pure vintage Mysore sandalwood oil but rather, a good quality santalum album oil boosted with an enhancer like Sandalore (its voice rings out a little louder and sweeter than that of pure, natural sandalwood oil).

 

Nonetheless, Ayoon al Maha is a truly enjoyable sandalwood experience with a rich, almost caramelized facet that will make your mouth water.  There is supposedly some oud oil here, but its presence is so subtle that it is not worth mentioning.  Anyone looking for a beautiful rendition of the sandal-rose attar theme should make sampling (or even blind buying) Ayoon al Maha a priority.

 

 

 

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 samples from Hyde & Alchemy, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Al Haramain, Amouage, Al Rehab, and Arabian Oud.  The samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi, KyaraZen, Clive Christian, and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor.

 

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

[i]Andrea Butje, The Heart of Aromatherapy (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2017), 6, via Aroma Web at https://www.aromaweb.com/articles/essential-oil-yields.asp

[ii]http://www.alshareefoudh.com/product-detail.php?product_id=14

 

Attars & CPOs Sandalwood The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Foundational Essential Oils: Part 1 (Sandalwood)

10th November 2021

 

Sandalwood and oud are truly essential oils, in that they are the building blocks of their respective styles of perfumery.  In traditional Indian attar perfumery, fragrant materials are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, while in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, the Arabian passion for oud means that a blend that doesn’t feature it is considered a poor excuse for a perfume.  Furthermore, both sandalwood and oud feature such complex aroma profiles that they wear more like a complete perfume than an essential oil.

 

Although I will be doing a much deeper dive on both sandalwood and oud in their respective sections, I wanted to use this chapter and the next as an introduction to the two essential oils that are so important to attar and mukhallat perfumery.  First, sandalwood.

 

 

Sandalwood: The Elephant in the Room

 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is isaac-martin-Jewkfj03OUU-unsplash-819x1024.jpg

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

When we talk about traditional Indian distilled attars, the elephant in the room is the one carved in sandalwood.  Sandalwood is a key component of attars because attars are botanicals, woods, and resins distilled directly into sandalwood oil.  To be less technical about it, it is at least fifty percent of the magic.  

 

Until a few decades ago, sandalwood oil would have certainly meant Santalum album oil from the Mysore region of India.  However, thanks illegal poaching, over-harvesting, and careless disregard for sustainability, the famed Mysore sandalwood oil is now largely unavailable.  Supply to the traditional attar making industry has dried to a trickle.

 

Mysore sandalwood is, or was, one of India’s most precious natural resources.  Accordingly, depletion of this resource seems to have caused a national-level paroxysm of anguish.  The right to harvest the dwindling number of sacred giants in Mysore is a privilege restricted to individuals or outfits with the proper state licenses, which are difficult to obtain.  The totality of the crackdown on sandalwood initially resulted in a spate of illegal harvesting, smuggling, violence, and corruption of government officials, most acutely in Karnataka state – but these issues seem to have abated somewhat in recent years.  The consensus seems to be that the sandalwood trade is now quite firmly under the control of the government. 

 

Due to its status as a key national resource, the Indian government has legal ownership rights over all sandalwood trees on the territory of India, even those growing on private land.  People often have sandalwood trees growing in their backyard, but if they chop it down to sell or make oil, a quarter of the proceeds must be tithed to the Government[i].

 

 

About Availability

 

 

When I say that Mysore sandalwood is no longer available, I should clarify that this does not mean that Mysore oil is not being produced at all.  Small-scale harvesting does continue in certain areas of India where it is still allowed, and several large French perfume houses have contracts with private plantations in India to supply oil.  However, it is not available in commercially significant quantities, i.e., it is not available in quantities that would satisfy the need of the commercial perfume and attar industry.  

 

In an interview[ii] with me for Basenotes in 2017, attar maker JK DeLapp explained the issue of availability thus:  ‘It is my understanding that 50 or so tons of sandalwood oil are produced in India every year. Not necessarily all from the Mysore region, but they are producing.  Global annual demand is closer to 400-600 tons of sandalwood oil, which is why Indian sandalwood is generally not used any longer. From an industry perspective, it “no longer exists”.  What that really means is that demand exceeds availability, hence the newer Australian and Hawaiian Sandalwood oils filling in to satisfy demand’.

 

What this means is that the flow of Mysore sandalwood oil outside of India’s national borders is extremely limited.  Whatever is left in the forests of Mysore is controlled by the Indian government, and export of the oil outside of India is technically illegal.  Furthermore, India consumes roughly ninety percent of the essential oils and attars it produces, be it kadam, kewra, or sandalwood oil, further staunching the flow of sandalwood outside its borders.

 

Naturally, the sandalwood supply problem has greatly affected the traditional attar-making sector within India.  The flow of oil to domestic attar production has slowed to a trickle, with the rising costs of what oil is still available forcing traditional attar makers to turn to cheaper synthetic solvents (such as IPM), or traditionally less valued wood species such as Australian sandalwood oil (Santalum spicatum).  By corollary, the past three decades has seen the number of attar houses in Kannauj fall by nearly 80%.  More on that here.  

 

Small amounts of Mysore oil are still available locally through the state-run Cauvery[iii] Silk Emporium shops in the Karnataka district of Mysore, but unless one is lucky enough to find a trusted local intermediary, this oil is largely inaccessible.  It is also not available in the quantities required for attar-making and distillation.  Furthermore, the purity and provenance of the oil is difficult to verify.  Given the high prices fetched for Mysore oil outside of India and the huge demand for it in perfumery, adulteration is more a probability than a possibility.

 

Trygve Harris, respected owner of Enfleurage in New York and a distiller of frankincense in Salalah, Oman, confirms this, stating that the oil she tested in 2012 from the Cauvery Silk Emporium had clearly been adulterated.  In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris described the oil as follows: ‘It didn’t even try to smell like sandalwood — it was some floral-ish perfume. It was hideous, the product of an ill-employed bureaucrat who imagines it is what tourists want to smell. And there was only 7 ml in the bottle as well.  Really disappointing.  It was an outrage, actually’[iv].

 

 

Is it Mysore sandalwood or Santalum album that is rare?

 

 

Here is the good news. While real Mysore sandalwood oil from vintage, well-aged stock is a rarity, its species – Santalum album – is not.  Santalum album is the species of the sandalwood tree traditionally grown in Mysore, but it can also grow (and thrive) in regions other than Mysore, where climate conditions are optimal. These places include Indonesia, Tamil Nadu (Southern India), and Northern Australia.  Naturally, when the santalum album species of tree is grown in an area or country other than the Mysore region, it is not technically Mysore sandalwood.  It is, however, still santalum album.

 

A positive thing to have emerged from the current scarcity of, and restrictions on Mysore santalum album, is a renewed awareness of just how good santalum album is. The demand for santalum album is as robust as ever.  Individual consumers want it.  So do the big perfume companies like Chanel, Guerlain, and Frederic Malle. And where there is demand, there is a way.

 

Currently, there are plantations of a new generation of santalum album being grown under controlled conditions in Australia, meaning that there will be a future supply of santalum album available to the market. And although the trees are still too young to compare the quality of the output to the original Mysore stock, the first results are promising. Many expert noses report the scent of santalum album grown in Australia to be exquisite, with the same creamy, soft, santalol-rich aroma characteristic of Mysore sandalwood.

 

The only differences at this stage are likely to be that of aging, both of the tree itself (specifically, its heartwood) and of the oil in the bottle. Aging works wonders for the quality of santalum album oil.  Oil from heartwood that has been allowed to develop inside the tree for two decades or more will naturally be richer and more complete in aroma than heartwood cut out of a six-year-old tree. Still, these new santalum album plantations are good news for both attar and Western perfumery, as well as for sandalwood enthusiasts.

 

A word of caution[v] from JK DeLapp about the new santalum album coming out of the Australian plantations (though it is likely that only diehard Mysore enthusiasts will care about this):

 

‘The Australian s. album quality is good, if we are looking at the total santalol content (santalols being the benchmark for sandalwood quality testing). A Grade Australian s. album tests at a consistent 90% total santalol load (our own Rising Phoenix sandalwood oils test at an average 91-93% total santalol load, for comparison sakes). I think the new Australian material is pretty close to this benchmark, although the trees are 20 or so years old, which is young for sandalwood. That means that you can distill it in good conscience, but its tone will lack the subtle nuances present oils drawn from the heartwood of older sandalwood trees.

 

One thing I’ve noticed with the new Australian album oils, though, is that they tend to smell like popcorn. If you like buttered popcorn, then great, you’re in luck. But it is a different type of “buttery” aroma that you get in older Mysore oils or in Rising Phoenix oils, which tends to be deeper and more sandalwoody (yes, that’s a word). Sandalwood enthusiasts will grasp immediately what I mean by that. For casual sandalwood oil users, I doubt the difference will matter much.

 

The upshot is that for large-scale compounding, I think the Australian album material is a great replacement for the Mysore oils of yore. But on its own, as a perfume for personal use, it won’t quite hit your sandalwood sweet spot in the same way. Therefore, globally, Australian plantation s. album is great news for larger scale perfumery, but it won’t satisfy customers in the small-batch, artisanal production sense.’

 

The same note of caution is sounded by Trygve Harris. Having visited the Mysore plantations twice – once in the late 1990s and again in 2012 – she is familiar with the oil coming out of India and how it compares to the newer Australian plantation s. album.

 

In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Harris noted: ‘The Australian album trees are quite young but are already being harvested and I think the odor profile matches the traditional one for sandalwood grown in Mysore. It is not the same, but if you are enquiring only if Santalum album will once again be available, then yes, I think it is already, and it smells good. And, if they keep up the plantations, then it will probably be better in a few years. But will we ever again smell that magical being from Karnataka? I don’t see it. Nature is patient. And nature is magic. And while plantation trees or laboratory Petri dishes might yield an ultimately adequate product, they won’t yield an exquisite or magical one’[vi].

 

 

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.

 

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! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

[i] http://www.enfleurage.com/pages/Sandalwood%252dThe-Great-Receiver.html

[ii] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[iii]Sometimes written as Kauvery

[iv] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

[v] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[vi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3570-conversations-with-the-artisan-trygve-harris-of-enfleurage

Animalic Citrus Floral Fruity Scents Gourmand Honey Independent Perfumery Orange Blossom Patchouli Review Sandalwood Vanilla White Floral Woods

Anamcara by Parfums Dusita

6th October 2021

 

The fact that something as weird and borderline confrontational as Anamcara by Parfums Dusita was workshopped in a Facebook group known for its strict ‘say something nice or don’t say anything at all’ policy is hilarious to me.  This is a humongous, syrupy fruity-floral that lurches at you with a pina colada in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.  Though striking, it is more feral than pretty.  Think less Juliette Binoche and more Béatrice Dalle.  

 

If you are familiar with the pungency of some floral absolutes in the raw, like jasmine, with its grapey nail solvent highnotes, or ylang, with its banana fuel-spill aspect, then you’re going to love Anamcara, because it features a massive overload of natural orange blossom.  If you’re unfamiliar with just how jolie laide naturals can smell or are new to the more artistic corners of niche-dom in general, however, Anamcara could be something of a shibboleth.

 

Because this is not the polite orange blossom of, say, Orange Blossom (Jo Malone) or Eau des Sens (Diptyque).  Rather, this is the weirdly medicinal gunk of cough syrups, hard-boiled orange throat lozenges, and vitamin C gummy bears sold in rickety little apothecaries all throughout Provence.  It reminds me very much of a holiday in Uzès, where everything from the ice-cream, honey, and chocolate to the bread (gibassier) seemed to be expensively infused with orange blossom or lavender essences and hyrosols.  I think of this perfumey oddness as distinctly French.

 

In Anamcara’s opening notes, I smell a dense ‘brown’ floral syrup diluted with a pour of carbonated water for an uplift that reminds me of the orangey Coca Cola fizz of Incense Rosé (Tauer). This is shot through with the fresh, lime-green bite of petitgrain, which also smells very French to me, recalling the openings to both Eau Sauvage and Diorella (Dior) as well as the later Mito (Vero Kern).   I can’t think of anything that smells quite like Anamcara in its totality, though.  I suppose that Rubj (Vero Kern again) in eau de parfum format is the fragrance that comes the closest, in terms of a shared focus on the medicinal ‘boiled sweet’ aspect of orange blossom.  But where Rubj piles on the sensuality with a shocking cumin seed note, Anamcara focuses on the weirdness of orange blossom alone.  There is also a savory or umami element to Anamcara, possibly from the sandalwood, that reads as more Asian than European.

 

If I had a criticism, it would be that Anamcara is overdosed (on something) to the point of being oppressive, a monolith of floral muck so densely muscled that it’s hard to make out the shape of any of the tendons or veins.  This will be somebody’s idea of floral bliss, no doubt, just not mine.  I can’t wear fragrances like this – they wear me down, defying my attempt to parse them out.  I do, however, respect the hell out of Pissara Umavijani’s refusal to color inside the lines on this one.  Despite the ‘rainbows and unicorns’ vibe of its origin story, Anamcara will push buttons as well as boundaries.

 

 

Note: As widely reported, Anamcara translates roughly to ‘soul friend’ in Irish (and Scots Gaelic, which is similar), though ‘soul mate’ is probably closer in modern parlance. As an Irish person (and Irish speaker) myself, I can tell you that the vocative form of ‘cara’ is used very often in day to day speech, i.e.,  ‘mo chara’ to say ‘yo my fine friend’ and ‘a chara’ to mean Dear Sir/Modom when writing a letter to the Irish Times complaining that last week’s crossword puzzle was wrong or that the banks are running this country into the ground, etc. So it’s funny to see these words appear on a fancy French perfume. 

 

Source of sample: Sent to me free of charge by the brand. My review and thoughts are my own.

 

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

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Kerosene Part 2: Blackmail and R’Oud Elements

16th November 2020

Mining the same marshmallow-meets-campfire vein as By the Fireplace by Maison Martin Margiela, albeit only about a hundred times more pleasant and natural-smelling, Blackmail captures that exciting feeling of anticipation your tummy gets at a country fair, the promise of something deep-fried and sugary vibrating on the air like a wind chime.

The luscious berry-tipped incense topnote is a cruel tease – smell it once and then it’s gone, but not before introducing the central block of fruit-over-smoked-oakwood that hangs around for the rest of the ride.

Though distinguished by a wonderfully sour streak of sodden, fermenting oud chips, Blackmail eventually settles into a shape not a million miles away from Broken Theories. They don’t smell alike note for note, but make no mistake – these guys happily fill the same gap in a well-curated wardrobe.

My own personal preferences lean more towards sandalwoody woodsmoke than burnt marshmallow, so I’m currently only tempted by Broken Theories. But, honestly, either would do in a pinch for when I am craving something sweet n’ smoky in that slightly blocky style of Kerosene. And that, really, is my one bone to pick with Blackmail and all fragrances like it. They are always more set pieces – big wooden panels you move around in each scene to achieve a specific effect – than the kind of thing that sets the imagination alight. Mind you, that’s not to say,  as we limp across the finish line of 2020, that there isn’t value to walking around with your own personal country-fair-meets-campfire soundtrack playing on a constant loop over your head.

Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash

R’Oud Elements is a total wow for me – just wow! Pairing a bitter orange note (itself lurching charmingly from the naturalness of a freshly-peeled orange to the artificiality of a vitamin C drink) with a savory sandalwood standing in for oud, it has much the same effect as Many Aftel’s Oud Luban, in that it throws open the windows and floods a dark material (oud) with citrusy light.

R’Oud Elements turns the traditional treatment of oud – almost reverential, lengthening the shadows of its dankness with similarly deep, brown flavors, or countering them with truffled rose notes – on its head, making it sing out in hot orange-gold tones. R’Oud Elements is so bright it’s blinding – fizzy, zesty, and slightly mineralic. It smells like someone spilled freshly-squeezed orange juice on a grungy old brown leather sofa, which is all the better for it. The scent stops just short of achieving maximum creamsicle, the bitter orange never quite bridging it all the way to the creaminess set free by the sandal in the base. But feel good? God, yes.

Many people on Fragrantica say that this smells like M7 (Yves Saint Laurent), one of the first commercial fragrances in the West to feature oud. And I suppose that’s fair, though it is the sour, nutty mealiness of cedarwood (or even vetiver), rather than amber, painting an exotic picture of oudiness here. But what this reminds of the most – in effect, if not smell – is that low-high contrast between the aromatic, fizzy ‘dustiness’ of Italian herbs and the satiny, sour-cream umami-ness of sandalwood that runs through much of Lorenzo Villoresi’s work, particularly that of Sandalo and Musk. Something about the rub of something sharp or aromatic (saffron, lavender, orange peel) against something tartly lactonic (musk, sandalwood), fleshed out by an intensely powdery cedar, creates in all three scents the impression of cream lightly curdled by a squirt of lemon juice.

If I didn’t already own Musk (Lorenzo Villoresi) and vintage Sandalo (Etro) to satisfy my aromatic tart-sour-creamy woody needs, I would be setting my cap hard at R’Oud Elements. As it is, I’m still thinking about R’Oud Elements long after my sample is gone.  

Source of Sample: I purchased my Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse, Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua, because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras too.

Cover Image: Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

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Kerosene Part 1: Copper Skies and Broken Theories

20th October 2020

Copper Skies

Sometimes you want a silky pâté that rolls around velvetily in your mouth for a few seconds before dissolving into perfumed air, and sometimes you want the thick, meaty savor of a butcher’s organic pork sausage slathered in fried onions and enough hot yellow mustard to guarantee a ruined shirt. Copper Skies is the pork sausage of the amber genre.

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

Cleverly balancing the gooey resinousness of amber and tobacco with a close-fitting sheath of basil that splits the difference between mint and black licorice, it scratches my itch for the kind of big, gutsy flavors that make my mouth throb and my heart sing. The amber smells more like incense to me, with a rich, deep sort of bitterness that probably originates with the tobacco leaf. Worth noting that Copper Skies doesn’t smell particularly like tobacco leaf to me per se, probably because the usual cinnamon and dried fruits aspect is missing, replaced by that surprisingly fresh, anisic topnote. But there is a chewy, toasty quality to Copper Skies that certainly hints at tobacco.    

Copper Skies is not what you’d call refined, but that’s the point. Its flashes of industrial rubber wiring, sharp incense, and hot metal are what keep my salivary glands pumping and the juices running unchecked down my chin. It turns on a coin; sometimes it smells like just another rich, sweet incensey amber (quite Amber Absolute-like), and other times like a herbal, leafy thing that has more in common with licorice root tea than resin.

Amber is one of those accords that smells so good in and of itself that that it is difficult to innovate on the theme without losing the plot somewhere. The more of them I smell, the more I appreciate the ones that retain the affability of amber while doing something quirky and original to keep us all from slumping over into that over-stated torpor that follows a rich pudding. Copper Skies is not particularly subtle or ‘worked out’, but to my mind, it absolutely succeeds in giving you the full satisfaction of amber without sending you to sleep.

Photo by Graham Padmore on Unsplash

Broken Theories

Broken Theories speaks directly to my fantasy of trekking home through snowy woods towards my rustic-but-architect-designed log cabin, in Fair Isle leggings that miraculously don’t make my legs look like two ham hocks in a sack, a Golden lab at my side, and the pink-tinged winter sky above my head tilting slowly towards indigo. A thread of sweet, tarry woodsmoke – from a far-off campfire, perhaps, or even the wood burning stove lit by my husband, Mads Mikkelsen – hangs in the cold, crisp air.

Pause and there is the heady scent of scattered forest homes gearing up for the night. Someone is revving their jeep to check if the winter tires are ok. Someone else is smoking a cigar while peeling an orange. Someone is smoking vanilla pods in their shed for some fancy artisanal market niche I’m not aware of. There’s an illicit coal fire in the mix too – not terribly environmental, the neighbors bitch, while surreptitiously gulping in lungfuls of the familiar charred scent of their childhood like junkies.

But the best thing about these aromas in that they are too far off in the distance to distinguish as one thing or another. Sandalwood, leather, oud, tobacco, vanilla, woodsmoke, burning sugar, dried kelp, and tar all melt down into one delicious aroma that is definitely more a collective of environmental ‘smells’ than perfume.

I love Broken Theories and really want a bottle. But the sweet woodsmoke-campfire genre is a crowded one, and bitter experience compels me to be clear-eyed about where this fits in the pecking order. First of all, let me admit that Broken Theories smell very, very indie, and by indie, I mean it smells like a number of popular woodsmoke perfume oils from companies such as Solstice Scents (especially Manor, Manor Fire, Grey’s Cabin, and Inquisitor) and Alkemia (especially Smoke and Mirrors and Fumé Oud à la Vanille). I’m fine with the association but all the same, the indie vanilla-woodsmoke theme (a) does tend to smell a bit samey from brand to brand, (b) is gummily (albeit enjoyably) indistinct, like several woodsmoke stock oils or ‘house notes’ thrown into a jerrycan, and (c) doesn’t carry quite the same degree of elegance as a masstige or luxury perfume featuring woodsmoke, e.g., Bois d’Armenie by Guerlain or Bois d’Ascèse by Naomi Goodsir. That I smell this type of ‘indie-ness’ in the vanilla-woodsmoke aspect of Broken Theories makes me hesitate.

However, I can think of many other perfumes – some of them luxury, some of them prestigious indies -that Broken Theories beats into a corner with a stick, and on balance, that tips the whole decision into the yes direction. For example, while I like Fireside Intense (Sonoma Scent Studio), it is too bitter-smoky for me to wear on the regular without me feeling like I am wearing a hair shirt. Bois d’Ascèse has a similar problem, in that there is a harsh woody aromachemical in the base that makes wearing it a chore – there is no such problem in Broken Theories, which beds down the tougher smoke and oud-leather notes in a balmy vanilla softness that feels as comfy as those fantasy Fair Isle leggings. And Broken Theories is infinitely preferable to the popular By the Fireplace (Marson Martin Margiela), a perfume whose sharp, burnt sugar and viscous campfire or wood aromachemical makes me physically nauseous.

Broken Theories is, however, not as good as Jeke (Slumberhouse) or Black No. 1 (House of Matriarch), other perfumes with a strong campfire or woodsmoke element. But it is cheaper, lighter, and easier to obtain. It is roughly similar – both in quality and execution – to the wonderful Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio, and by process of elimination, I guess I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between this and that.

Conclusion: Broken Theories is one of the best woodsmoke scents on the market today. But it only makes sense if you don’t already have a plethora of other woodsmoke scents to fill that particular niche. My fantasy self and I will be having words.  

Source of Sample: I purchased my Kerosene samples from the wonderful Polish website Lulua. I have used Lulua many times over the past five years to sample American or Canadian indies, such as Slumberhouse, Zoologist, Olympic Orchids, and now, Kerosene, which can be extremely difficult for European customers to track down and smell. I am 100% happy to recommend Lulua, because they provide a terrific service for not too much money, have the best packaging I’ve ever seen for samples-only orders, and they always throw in a few extras too.

Cover Image: Photo by Siim Lukka on Unsplash

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Areej Le Doré Agar de Noir, Musk Lave, Cuir de Russie, Grandenia, & Santal Galore

28th September 2020

The challenge for any reviewer in reviewing the Areej Le Doré releases is that (a) either you’re late and the perfumes you’re writing about are no longer available to buy, or (b) you’re on time for a full bottle release, but you are talking only to the group of three to six hundred people that are buying them, a tiny circle of devotees that seems to get tighter and more closed-off with each successive release from the house.

I can certainly see why many people in perfume-land might be attracted by the fantastic raw materials on offer by Areej Le Doré but turned off by the feverish fandom that has sprung up around the brand. If you’re not willing to set your timer to bumfuck o’ clock Thailand time or duke it out with the scalpers, then the whole thing can feel like the most fearsome clique from high school. And when anyone feels excluded, there is the natural tendency to grumble to yourself, “Well, if I’m not in, then I’m sure as hell out…of this hot, culty mess.”   

While this is certainly not a problem for Areej Le Doré itself – selling everything you produce is the dream, after all – I wonder if the lack of new entrants into the inner circle of devotees represents a problem over the longer term. Fresh perspectives on your work are essential whether you are making a car or a perfume because they stop you from drowning in the reflecting pool of constant and uncritical adoration. They also safeguard the perfumer against the danger of becoming essentially a private label or custom outfit dancing to the whim of a small but intimidatingly vocal group of buyers, none of whom I’d particularly like to meet in a dark alley. Just kidding, just kidding (sort of).

Anyway, this review goes out to anyone who has an interest in Areej Le Doré fragrances but has, for one reason or another, avoided actually buying them, either in sample or full bottle form. This might be someone who loves natural raw materials, for example, or someone who loves and misses the rich orientals of yesteryear that boasted real sandalwood or expensive floral absolutes. Or it might be people who are into perfumes in general and have the money to invest in the really good examples, but zero stomach for the clusterfuckery around the brand itself. If that’s you, and you’re reading right now, then let me tell you that this particular Areej Le Doré collection is the one to dip your toes into, if you were reluctant before.

Here’s why I think this collection is a good entry point for newcomers to Areej Le Doré. First, the perfumes in this collection are noticeably lighter and more refined than previous cycles, making them easier and more pleasant to wear, especially for women.

Second, none of the perfumes in this collection are marred by the heavy, almost seedy animalic undertone that has dogged other collections. For example, I loved Plumeria de Orris from one of the previous collections, however, once the buttery orris and frangipani burned off, the fragrance was dragged under the gutters by a honeyed civet or musk that smelled disturbingly like dried saliva. Koh-i-Noor was my absolute favorite of a previous generation, but a greasy costus-laden musk gave it an old-man’s-crotch vibe that I couldn’t quite shake. But in this collection, even the musk- and oud-heavy perfumes are not overly heavy, greasy, or saliva-ish.

Third, and probably the most important one: I think that this collection is Russian Adam’s best yet. If you don’t know already, each Areej Le Doré collection usually contains variations on a basic line-up of a (i) musk (usually natural deer musk-based), (ii) an oud, (iii) a humongous mixed oriental floral, (iv) a ‘soliflore’, (v) an ambergris, and/or (vi) a leather or sandalwood. Although there doesn’t seem to be an ambergris-focused scent this time around, the others are all either superlative or really good examples of their respective ‘theme’. If you love natural raw materials like oud and sandalwood, then pull up a chair: brands like Areej Le Doré are the last holdout for exquisite raw materials in a world that is increasingly sanitized and lab-molecule-dependent.   

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

Rather confusingly, Santal Galore is the kaleidoscopic floral nag champa extravaganza this time around, rather than the sandalwood you might be expecting (which is actually to be found in the equally-confusingly-named Musk Lave). My vial leaked in transit, but after smashing it open and swabbing the gooey remnants onto my skin with a Q-Tip, I can tell you that this is the one I’d crawl over hot coals to smell again. Oh God, grant me the unlimited funds to buy the few perfumes that smell as good as this. It opens with a big, creamy swirl of aromas that you imagine emanating from a Persian carpet or a well-oiled antique from a souk, soaked in multiple generations’ worth of glossy, fruity Cambodi oud oils, rosy-sandal attars, and the sweetness of smoke from decades of burning Indian Chandan sticks and barkhour.

This perfume carries that full romantic sweep of Orientalia in its bosom that Westerners like me find so irresistible but that usually come out mawkish and kind of cheap-smelling. Santal Galore deftly matches the slightly gummy-floral sweetness of nag champa with a savory cream cheese background that seems to encompass the smoked Easter Ham aroma of guaiacol and a salty-minty oakmoss. Eventually winding down to the lovely smell of a freshly-struck match, Santal Galore performs the same trick as Santal de Mysore in that it is suggestive of the spiced warmth of real sandalwood without smelling directly of it.   

For my personal taste, this is the best floral/woody/musky thing that Areej Le Doré has ever done. There are no analogs in the commercial or niche world, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons that will make sense to those new to the brand. But if pushed, I would mention Le Maroc Pour Elle (Tauer Perfumes) or Daphne (Comme des Garcons) as scents that occupy the same scentoverse ideologically speaking.  Less helpfully perhaps for newcomers, but more so for people who have bought into the brand since its inception, Santal Galore is roughly in the same ballpark as Ottoman Empire, with which it shares a similar nag champa floral richness, and Koh-I-Noor, for that same almost claustrophobic rush of dense, heavily-packed-in floral notes and that texture that is both creamy and powdery (although Santal Galore is not as animalic or as costus-laden).  It has been a while, but there could also be a line drawn to the sharp, almost oily Flux de Fleurs, though Santal Galore is a far gentler, rounder affair.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Musk Lave has one of the best real sandalwood finishes I have smelled outside of attar and mukhallat perfumery. For fans of real sandalwood, the real treasure lies here, and not in Santal Galore. But be aware that this is the type of musky, spicy, masculine-leaning sandalwood that used to feature in high quality ‘barbershop’ fougères before Indian sandalwood became generally unavailable to commercial perfumery in the late eighties, and before entire carpets of beige, sweetish tonka bean were conscripted to fill the gap.

In other words, though it certainly smells rich and incensey, like all good sandalwood should, this sandalwood is the handsome, rugged version that smells more like good wood and bay rum spices than a creamy dessert that will send you into a stupor. The invigorating sparkle of the sandalwood is beefed up by a nice lump of labdanum, so you get the full balance of aromatic-dry and sweet-incensey that the very best examples of sandalwood possess, e.g., the Mysore 1984 by Ensar Oud, which, because it is aged, has developed that rich, incensey sonic boom ‘loudness of voice’ that would be most unusual for a pure sandalwood more freshly distilled.

Winding back to the start, Musk Lave opens with a fresh, powdery lemon and lavender accord, which would be a naturally lean kind of thing were it not for the immediate upswell of an unctuously buttery musk or tonka that adds richness, like a pat of yellow Irish butter melted over a salad. Think Jicky but with real sandalwood and musk dialled in for that naughty ‘skin musk’ feel, writing over the rather sharp, sometimes foul-smelling synthetic civet of the Guerlain. Given that Jicky is my favorite fragrance in the world, hopefully you’ll take my word for it that Musk Lave is the upgrade nobody knew was in the wings but immediately presses the install button on.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Agar de Noir (can’t you just feel Luca Turin squirming?) is the oud in the collection and is quite the departure for Russian Adam for two reasons. First, although the oud is the real deal, it does not smell like any one particular terroir or style of oud (as opposed to Antiquity, which smelled almost entirely of the beautiful Cambodi oud oil used) but rather presents as a generalized picture of ‘oudiness’ that’s been cleaned up for public consumption. So, you get the characteristic smell of damp, fermenting wood chips and the dusty scent of old wood varnish, but not the shriekingly sour hay and leather highnotes of a Hindi, or the hyper-treacly stickiness of a Trat, or the wolf-fur wooliness and ambergris-saltiness of a Chinese oud. The oud is there merely as a signpost planted in the scent to suck you deep into the shadows, where the equally dusty darkness of ground coffee is waiting, deepening the gloom.

The opening reminds me more of Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens) than any of the other Areej Le Dore oud-dominated fragrances, due to that ‘brown’ dustiness; Oud Luwak also used coffee as a note, but it felt much more like an oud-focused affair than Agar de Noir, which feels more floral. It does share with Oud Luwak that dark, airy elegance of structure – like an expensive bar of chocolate that makes a satisfyingly clean ‘snap’ noise when you break it. The gloom of these brown notes has been lifted by the chalky brightness of violets, which create a sort of pastel-colored clearing in the Agar de Noir forest. I like the civilizing effect the violets exert on the oud: they add an unexpected foppish lightness that could be read, in some lights, as ‘dandified’. This tangy, balmy oud-and-violet accord makes what is essentially a floral leather sort of thing – like Jolie Madame (Balmain) with an oudy twist.

The second way in which I find Agar de Noir a departure is in its overall lightness of feel. The light-on-dark, violet-on-oud-leather thing is super elegant while it lasts but after two hours, the show is essentially over, save for the cinder toffee-like sweetness of the labdanum that brings up the rear.

The labdanum persists for hours beyond this, of course – it is a traditional basenote for a reason and has been the finish of choice for Russian Adam in all his oud blends after Oud Zen. But compared to Russian Oud and Oud Piccante, the labdanum absolute used here is of a much lighter weight – a judicious smear of incensey, golden toffee, but unencumbered by the sheep fat unctuousness of the labdanum in Oud Piccante or the chocolatey amberiness in Russian Oud. Personally, this ‘middle’ weight of labdanum suits me just fine; Oud Piccante is too savory-fatty for my tastes, and Russian Oud too gourmand. Agar de Noir is lighter, shorter, more attenuated, and is all the better for it. However, oud heads who want their oud to be perceptible past the third hour mark, Agar de Noir might be one sacrifice too far in the name of elegance.

For anyone not already inducted into the Areej Le Doré oud hall of fame mentioned here, just picture an oudified Jolie Madame and you’re on the right track. I think this would also be a particularly friendly oud for beginners, and because of its soft, ‘thin’ floral mien that restrains the brutishness of the oud, it may also be a better pick for women. Dark, dapper, and mysterious in a Victorian gentle-person kind of way, Agar de Noir is my pick of the Areej ouds, barring Oud Zen, which was similarly minimalist and ‘legible’.         

Image by Pitsch from Pixabay

Grandenia suggests that it might be going big on the famously creamy, mushroomy lushness of gardenia, but this is not the case. Rather, this is a tightly-wound, stiffly-starched green floral that starts out at the data point of a citrusy-piney frankincense – a resin that here smells like a freshly-stripped piece of Silver Birch – and winds up in Chandrika soap territory.

I find this pinched, freshly-scrubbed sort of floral a chore to wear, but it may appeal to people who like Antonia by Puredistance. I also want to acknowledge that this would be a good white floral for men, as it is completely devoid of the soft, candied creaminess and tinned-fruit syrupiness of most white florals. It is clipped and pure; the sort of thing to stiffen the spine. A very good wood accord develops in the base that smells more like sandalwood soap than oud or sandalwood per se. And then, finally, in the last gasps – a ghostly imprint of gardenia, with that slightly glassy, freshly-cut-mushroom quality it shares with myrrh.

Image by HG-Fotografie from Pixabay

Cuir de Russie is a scent to spray on fabric rather than on your skin, but I have done both to no ill effect (if you have sensitive skin, just obey the damn instructions). This is not the Chanel kind of Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), but rather, a leather-ish note in a minor key nestled inside a massively cheesy and then baby-powdery deer musk. On the skin, the chalky, innocent pallor of violets peeks out shyly, but not to the extent where you would define the scent as floral (or feminine, or soft, or indeed any of the usual descriptors used for flowers). On fabric, it is the rude, smeary honk of deer musk that dominates, stepping firmly down on the neck of any floral note that threatens to make a break for it.

Given that Cuir de Russie has real deer musk in it, it stands to reason that it is very, very powdery and clings to the inside of the nostrils for days. If you want to know what real deer musk smells like, by the way, please read my article ‘The Murky Matter of Muskhere. Many people think that real musk smells foul or fecal. It does not. It does smell intimate, like the morning breath of someone you love, or a clean perineum, but it is more often than not quiet, powdery, and quite sweet, its odor clinging to skin, hair, and fabrics for many days (deer musk was one of the four great animalic fixatives of perfumery).

The musk in Cuir de Russie is somewhat similar to the musk in War and Peace, which I loved for the way its musk was so dry that it smelled like smoke from a just-fired gun (some people interpreted the dryness as baby powder). But Cuir de Russie also doesn’t have the almost pretty smuttiness of the musk in War and Peace, nor its sultry sweetness; it is more butch and a bit rough around the edges, despite the inch-thick layer of powder.   

I like Cuir de Russie but wouldn’t particularly recommend it to a newcomer seeking an entry point to the brand. There’s always the danger that leather fans might roll up and expect leather (crazy, right?) and right now, before the full whack of aging and maceration, Cuir de Russie is mostly musk. Birch tar fans, of which I am one, might be disappointed at its subtlety in CdR – there is zero BBQ meat or ‘just threw a leather jacket on a campfire’ smokiness here. Cuir de Russie is primarily a very rich, powdery musk that ultimately leans a bit too hard on the intrinsic complexity of its naturals to fill in the olfactory blanks.

This is probably going to mature into something stunning, along the lines of Koh-i-Noor. But it is a high risk investment for a bottle of something whose materials might veer off into directions that not even its perfumer can predict with 100% certainty. For those signed up to the rare natural materials pledge, this is is part of the thrill; for the rest of us, contained within the unfixed, mutable nature of these raw materials is the warning that the perfume might also change for the worse.  

Source of Samples: Kindly sent to me free of charge by the brand. My opinion are my own.

Cover Image: Thanapat Pirmphol from Pixabay

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Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi

19th August 2020

The more I wear Sticky Fingers by Francesca Bianchi, the more I’m convinced it is the Bengale Rouge of the Bianchi line, by which I mean a deliciously thicc n’ fuzzy oriental that’s characterful without being challenging – the much-loved woolly sweater your hand reaches for over the stark, uncompromising Ann Demeulemeester gilet you bought in a factory sale but could never figure out where the arm holes were. The thing these perfumes have in common is their sense of familiarity – they remind you (vaguely) of scents you already know and love. They wear like old friends even if you’ve just been introduced.

Just like Bengale Rouge is a more ‘people-pleasing’ option for people who would never wear Salome, Sticky Fingers is the perfect ‘out’ for people who want to own a Bianchi but find Sex and The Sea or The Lover’s Tale too heavy on the harsh orris-leather accord that has become the Bianchi calling card. That’s not to say that there’s none of Francesca in this perfume, because women with strong personalities always spill over into their art. You’d know, for example, that Sticky Fingers is a Bianchi creation as surely as you can tell Bengale Rouge is a Liz Moores one.

But Sticky Fingers is not going to ruffle any feathers. It is a cosy, feel-good diorama of Francesca Bianchi’s back catalogue with most of the hard edges sanded down and its already duvet-thick volume fluffed up by a mille-feuille of chocolatey patchouli, resins, amber, tonka bean, and vanilla.  

My own sticky fingers hover over the ‘buy’ button on Sticky Fingers mostly for the last two thirds of its life, which is when it turns into that combination of smells perfume lovers know as ‘sweater mélange’ – that sweet, lived-in aroma of a fabric like wool or coat collar or seatbelt exhaling, like a sigh, the breath of multiple perfumes last worn God knows when. Or that lovely and as-individual-as-a-fingerprint nuclear cloud that rushes up at you when you open a box of your favorite perfumes or cosmetics.

To wit, Sticky Fingers smells like the heady, third-day fug imprinted on my bathrobe after several days of wearing some of Francesca Bianchi’s other perfumes; especially The Dark Side with its honeyed resins, The Lover’s Tale with its sharp leather, and Lost in Heaven for its simultaneously urinous and sherbety civet-iris accord that is practically the Bianchi DNA. Yet Sticky Fingers is much softer and gauzier than any of these. It’s like all of these perfumes mingling together and blown in at you through an air vent from another room.  

Digging down into the detail, there are muffled echoes of something of the choco-wheat-cereal notes from indie perfumes of the last few years (like Ummagumma by Bruno Fazzolari, Café Cacao by En Voyage, or Amber Chocolate by Abdes Salaam Attar), but also a spicy tobacco gingerbread (Tan d’Epices), and a thick ‘white’ note like sandalwood creamed with benzoin (Santal Blush perhaps). I sprayed some Ta’if (Ormonde Jayne) over the tail end of Sticky Fingers once and could have sworn to the presence of smoky, caramelized marshmallow (Amber Absolute by Tom Ford). To be clear, Sticky Fingers doesn’t smell like any one of these perfumes. It’s just a delicious, jumbled up funk of rich woody or resinous orientals that have been worn at some point in the past two or three weeks, and have left an indelible, if undefined, impression.

In essence, Sticky Fingers is a patchouli perfume. But through a glass darkly. Think of the patchouli as the soloist leading the charge in a huge orchestra, drawing in supporting riffs from the strings and the bass until the music swells up from a hundred different sources, creating an incredibly rich, harmonious sound that fills all the air pockets in the room. The patchouli starts out solo, a musty, stale, and fruity rendition of pure earth. But almost immediately it calls in the high notes of the string section, in the form of those acidulated orris-leather tones of the Bianchi DNA, and to counter that, the bass tones of grainy tobacco leaf, shredded into tiny pieces and soaked in a glass of cold, floral-anisic Chinese tea. This combination of notes and ‘sounds’ has the effect of roughing up the patchouli, turning it into a hessian cloth accord of earth, stewed tea, and tobacco, back-lit by the yellow streak of ureic civet-iris that runs through Bianchi’s work like battery acid.  

This opening act is attention-catching but, focused on two or three accords that ride bullishly over everything else, it feels like we are all waiting this part out until the quieter, richer sound of the rest of the orchestra can spot an opening and rise to fill it. Eventually this happens, a whole chorus of dusty spices and sandblasted resins and micas ‘blooming’ in unison, softening the sharp edges of the Bianchi iris and blurring the outline of the patchouli. If I like the scent thus far, then I start to love it now, just as the central accord thickens up like a custard with the addition of tonka, sandalwood, vanilla, and tons of sparkly resin. This is when the perfume becomes a comforting ‘sweater mélange’.

The older the get, the more I enjoy scents that envelop me in a billowing cloud of warm, toasty goodness powered by the natural expansiveness of their resins, flowers, or sandalwood, as opposed to the fake radiance of Ambroxan or the forced volume achieved by over-spraying.  The most naturally ‘wafty’ fragrances in my arsenal are the big balsamic orientals like L’Heure Bleue parfum (Guerlain), Opus 1144 (UNUM), Bengale Rouge (Papillon), Coromandel (Chanel), Farnesiana (Caron), and Taklamakan (777 SHL), which wear like a delicious ‘gold-brown’ scent cloud that moves with me, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Sticky Fingers – welcome to the fold.

Source of Sample: Free with my purchase of Under My Skin from the Francesca Bianchi website.

Photo by Dmitriy Frantsev on Unsplash