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Sundowner by Tauer Perfumes: A Review

14th December 2022

 

Sundowner is interesting because, despite the much advertized chocolate and orange notes, it gets the salivary glands working without being foody.  The first blast is a foghorn of amber, spices, booze, and veiny pipe tobacco, but there is an undertow of medicinal sourness that smells like wood chips left to ferment in a rusty barrel.  The Tauer signature is strong, namely the rubbery smoke reminiscent of freshly creosote-ed fences, the brash salty amber, the piercing cinnamon, all set against a watery floral note that might be rose.  There are, at least initially, some parallels to PHI Une Rose de Kandahar, minus the fruity apricot conserve, and to the muscular expansiveness of L’Air du Desert Marocain.   

 

But the more I wear it, the more I think Sundowner does something special.  In draping the front end with all this almost fermented, grungy funk, Tauer sets the stage for the tobacco note to emerge through a new curtain rather than the usual one of dried fruit, gingerbread, and vanilla.   And, as it turns out, sour is better than sweet when it comes to carving out the true scent of tobacco leaf because Sundowner features one of the best, most true to life renditions of tobacco that I have ever smelled.  It is briny, rich, tart, and sweet all at once.  How this was accomplished, I neither know nor care.  When you find the spirit of tobacco bottled, you just buy it and let it take you on a magic carpet ride every time.

 

 

Source of Sample: I first sampled this in Bertozzini in Rome when I was back for a month in March this year. I bought a full bottle in November from ParfuMarija in Dublin.  

 

Cover Image:   Photo by Ilya Chunin on Unsplash         

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

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

12th October 2022

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Nagi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Nesma (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Palisander (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Port Royal (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Rasa (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Royal Dream (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Royal Medina Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ruh Khus (Anglesey Organics)

Type: ruh (sort of)

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Safran White Or (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Safwa (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sajaro (Classic) (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sballo (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Photo by Rei Yamazaki on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Supercell (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sycomore (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Thebes I (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Natalie Comrie on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Vasura (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Vert Gallant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Volubilis (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Apurv Das on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Wicked (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Three vanillas, aged patchouli, almond buttercream

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Zafraan Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash 

 

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

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

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

10th October 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Dakkar (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Dee (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Denali (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Trà My on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Diaghilev (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Eau du Soir (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Egyptian Oasis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Encens Chypre (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by 선인장 on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Encore Une Noir (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Et Pourtant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Floozy (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by feey on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

La Fougre / Fougère du Paradis (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Geisha Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Haute Love (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Hayati (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Incendere (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ikigai (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Indian Saffron (Mellifluence)

Type: ruh

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Istanbul (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Jannataul Firdaus (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Alecsander Alves on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Jardin de Minuit (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Kāmānala (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Karnak (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Laura Nyhuis on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Kashka (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Khus (Yam International)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Lady and a Baby Unicorn (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Lutalica (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

           

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mitti Attar (Aromata Mirabilia)

Type: traditional distilled attar   

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mitti (Mellifluence)

Type: traditional distilled attar

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Malaki (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Najdi Maliki (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Vera De on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Musk Amber (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Natasha Furst on Unsplash  

 

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

 

Aromatic Attars & CPOs Fougere Green Herbal Lavender Mukhallats Oudy Concentrated Perfume Oils Oudy mukhallats Patchouli Review Saffron Spice The Attar Guide Vetiver

The Attar Guide Earth, Herbs, Spice & Aromatics: Reviews A-C

10th October 2022

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

017 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 017 is an unusual scent.  It opens with a strikingly dirty mint-citrus accord, which manages to feel both fresh and dilapidated at the same time.  It then unravels into a semi-poisonous cherry and clove drop heart.  It smells see-through, like a boiled candy, flavor RED in all caps.

 

Many BPAL perfumes treat cinnamon notes in this syrupy, bitter manner, with a lurid intensity that signals a lack of sophistication.  This is no different.  Unlike BPAL perfumes, to be fair, there is a minty effervescence in the background that smells different and attractive.  But the composition would clearly have been better served if either the listed birch or patchouli had turned up and done their part.   

 

 

 

026 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 026 is a fresh, foresty affair that initially feels like placing your nose against a frost-covered window.  Bergamot, lavender, and pine show off the coldest, most bracing parts of their collective character, creating a dry ice effect that has been cleverly pinned against a dusty, warm cedarwood accord for contrast.  Cedarwood is not listed, but its presence is felt far more strongly here than the advertized sandalwood, which doesn’t even bother sticking its head around the door.

 

There is a strange, but not unwelcome, hint of staleness to the dusty woods here, like the scent of a log cabin being kicked back into life at the start of the summer season.  Radiator dust, stale-smelling sheets, clean wood, unwashed hair, and the burnt-sugar crackle of homemade caramel popcorn on the stove.  I like that this scent encompasses both the smells of the forest and the comforts of the inside.

 

Cozy and reassuring, No. 026 would work well for hikers, naturalists, and crusty dads who just want to go up to the summer cabin with the kids and not have to shower for a week straight.

 

 

 

019 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

There is no patchouli listed here.  And yet, weirdly, the opening is all patchouli, momentarily spinning me back in time to when I slathered the oil neat onto my skin as a teenager, staining my t-shirt cuffs a dirty nicotine-yellow.  The musty patch note subsides quickly enough to make me question my own sanity, leaving in its place a minty lavender and iris combo that smells mineralic, like water flowing over stones.

 

In an unusual effect, No. 019 smells both crystalline and foggy, as if the stream of water is catching here and there on nuggets of golden amber resin strewn over the riverbed.  The scent’s herbal overlay gains warmth and body from the amber, but is not weighed down, remaining bright all the way through.

 

I like No. 019 because, unlike many of the Hyde & Alchemy oils, it is not afraid to make a statement.  The patch-heavy opening admittedly smells a little headshoppy.  But the lavender and iris materials can be perceived quite distinctly, and it is these more sophisticated elements that shift the scent out of the headshop and into ‘earth-mother-and-CEO’ mode. 

 

 

 

1001 Nights, or Alf Lail o Lail (Ajmal)

Type: concentrated perfume oil, based on the traditional distilled attar known as ‘shamama’

 

Photo by Joshuva Daniel on Unsplash

 

1001 Nights is a smoky, woody-animalic take on the idea of shamama, the traditional Indian attar that combines over sixty different notes and materials, and for which the recipe varies from family to family, attar company to attar company.  It is difficult to pinpoint the main features of shamama attar, such is its complexity, but traditionally, a shamama will contain an array of (vegetal) amber notes, aromatics, flowers, spices, bitter herbs, musk, and saffron.  Some shamama attars smell earthy, sweet, and grassy, whereas others are damp, medicinal, and woody.  All are very rich, sharp, and potent.

 

This is the only shamama attar I have ever smelled, however, that transmutes the vegetal into the animal.  1001 Nights takes the foundation of shamama and twists it into the semblance of civet-soaked piece of wood, whose basic aroma mimics that of raw Hindi oud oil.  The opening reeks of sour barnyard, smoke, damp hay, urine, and freshly tanned leather, keening like a banshee with a high-pitched bile note as effective as amyl nitrate in snapping the wearer to attention.

 

Given time, the sharp Hindi opening slowly drifts into a complex series of interlocking notes such as hay strewn with bitter green herbs, dry aged woods, smoky vetiver, grass, and spicy red pepper.  Henna and saffron feature too, their mustiness adding a dulled, ochre-yellow spice tonality.  1001 Nights smells erotic, troubling, and naughty.

 

Spiritual?  Yes, that too, particularly if you already use Hindi oud for meditative or spiritual purposes.  1001 Nights smells as ancient as the red earth on the banks of the Ganges and as piercingly animalic as the hordes of people gathering there, in Varanasi, for Diwali.  There is an awkward type of beauty here for those patient enough to listen to, and catch, all the nuances of the perfume.  By corollary, 1001 Nights is not for the faint of heart or for those looking for a dumbed-down, non-confrontational snapshot of the genre.

 

 

 

Aanandha (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Gul-hina Flowers and Rare Mitti Earth – A special blend for perfume connoisseurs combining concentrated extraits of Mitti and Hina blossoms in meadowfoam oil. 

 

 

Aanandha is the second in Alkemia’s series of tributes to traditional Indian attar perfumery, this time focusing on the pairing of gul hina, an attar distilled from henna flower, and mitti, an attar distilled from dry Indian earth.  The opening is pure hina in all its plasticky, vegetal sweetness and for about ten minutes, it reminds me of the start to some Nemat oils, most of which have a vague petrochemical feel to them, as if the botanical aromas are fighting to get through a miasma of melting plastic, vegetable oil, and banana skin.  In case you were wondering, all this means is that Aanandha captures the weirdness of henna flowers quite accurately.  It might not be something Westerners are used to, or even like, but the tone is spot on.

 

Given time to settle, the oil evens out into bodacious rosy-resinous amber identifiable only as a typical ‘attar’ type of smell, meaning a half-syrupy, half-powdery mixture of rose, sandalwood, and amber, with a chaser of something unidentifiable to maintain the allure of the exotic.  The mitti, or whatever was there of it to begin with, is completely lost in the mix.  Mitti has a very delicate scent profile that doesn’t stand up well to powerful notes such as henna or rose.  Still, this is a beautiful tribute to a style of attar making that is sadly endangered these days, and more than adequately justifies its price tag of $30 for five milliliters.

 

 

 

Absolute Oakwood (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

On the skin, Oakwood opens with the lanolin-like oiliness that characterizes the opening of many of the Clive Christian oils, before drying down to a dusty wood threaded with tiny seams of dark chocolate, plum, and metallic clove.  On paper, it reveals itself to be even more complex, with notes of creamy mint, cinnamon, tonka, and dark rum emerging slowly in the background.

 

Absolute Oakwood is more evolved than most of the other Absolute oils (with the notable exception of Absolute Sandalwood, which is on par with this).  It presents quite an abstract, blurred picture of the star player.  Oakwood, as a raw material, can smell as pungent as cheese, raw milk, or even fecal matter.  Needless to say, Clive Christian does not allow any of these less desirable features to leak into Absolute Oakwood.

 

Instead, an idealized version of dry, toasty wood appears, made autumnal with plummy fruits and a boozy thickness.  It operates in the same general arena as Chêne by Serge Lutens, though nowhere near as dry or as minimalistic.  There is also a sheen of woody radiance – Iso E Super perhaps – that renders Absolute Oakwood’s voice audible at thirty paces.

 

 

 

Absolute Vetiver (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

 

Absolute Vetiver accentuates the fresher aspects of vetiver root with topnotes of bergamot, lemon, and what smells to me like bitter orange or lime.  The effervescent sparkle of the citruses is a perfection introduction for the earthy vetiver note that arrives to take up the central stake in the fragrance.  Together, these notes form an accord that is more freshly-cut grass than dank, marshy root.  Further on, a note of medicinal clay appears, giving an impression of soft leather rubbed with medicinal salve.

 

Many modern vetiver fragrances soften the impact of a rooty vetiver with creamy florals, burned sugar, and hazelnut notes, perhaps aiming for an entire generation of men raised on tonkified masculines.  But Absolute Vetiver stays clean and fresh, tucking its heels in and staying close to the more classical vetivers such as Vetiver Extraordinaire by Frederic Malle or Guerlain’s Vetiver.

 

Like the Malle in particular, there is a metallic radiance to the central accord that signposts the presence of modern aromachemicals and woody ambers.  This synthetic breeze runs through most, if not all, of the Clive Christian Absolute oils, but varies in how strongly it presents to the nose based on the individual scent.  Absolute Amber, Absolute Osmanthus, and Absolute Oakwood are woody amber behemoths, while Absolute Orris and Absolute Rose make far more judicious use of them. 

 

Absolute Vetiver sits comfortably at the midway point.  The woody ambers are present enough to make you notice the radiance of the scent, but not so aggressive as to take over the scent or obscure its more delicate notes.  I mention this only as a useful reference for people who might be buying blind, and who are looking for oils specifically featuring this type of woody radiance (or indeed, like me, trying to avoid it).

 

 

 

Al Andalus (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Famously one half of the most exalted Amouage attar – Homage – Al Andalus is a bright aromatic fougère that can be worn by women and men alike.  Stuffed to the brim with green herbs such as clary sage and rosemary, the opening feels like being awoken from a peaceful sleep by someone slapping you across the face with a bunch of dripping wet herbs.  Underscoring the herbs is a bright citrus accent and a velvety, mossy base that smells like the inside of a cool, damp forest.  The bitterness of the herbs, citrus, and moss is softened by a pinch of sandalwood, but this is not your average thick, sweet Middle-Eastern attar.

 

Al Andalus is not overly complex or rich, but its refreshing herbal qualities make it an excellent choice in hot summer months.  It is basically the attar equivalent of a bar of Irish Spring.

 

 

 

Alhambra (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description:  Recline in the shadow of the Alhambra with this Moorish blend of pomegranate juice, fresh Spanish rosemary, aged patchouli and golden beeswax.  Made with skin-soothing coconut milk, safflower petals and tussah silk. The Court of the Lions beckons.

 

 

The opening to Alhambra is a mash-up of my least favorite notes in perfumery and is therefore difficult for me to write about with much objectivity.  An onion-sweat clove joins with a rosemary note so camphoraceously bitter that it smells like straight eucalyptus oil.  The result is simply unholy – a stinking miasma of sharp, urinous notes of headache-inducing proportions and volume.  There is a metallic blood-like nuance flitting in and out that adds to the misery, creating an overall impression of unclean air clinging to the clothes of someone suffering from a chronic illness.

 

I cannot imagine anyone wanting to have this on their skin, but, of course, taste is subjective.  Alhambra dries down to a grungy red musk and patchouli combo that, while still sour and marginally unpleasant, does tug us back into more familiar territory.

 

Needless to say, nothing in this bears any relation to pomegranate, either real or imagined.  Pomegranate in perfumery is always interpreted through synthetics, which invariably smell like cherries filtered through industrial soap.  But Alhambra does not even have the grace to smell like cherries or soap.  This perfume is a personal Armageddon, so it is possible that others might have a more positive experience.  In which case, forgive me and ignore this review.  

 

 

 

Al Mas (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Jyoti Singh on Unsplash

 

Al Mas has a uniquely calm, sweet demeanor.  It successfully balances two very distinct accords – one, a saffron-rose-sandalwood accord that smells like an exotic floral custard, the other, a bitter but refreshing mélange of fern-like herbs, oud, rosemary, and citrus.  In a way, therefore, Al Mas is a playful mash-up between rose jam and a fougère.  I remember the late, great Conor McTeague calling Mon Guerlain a ‘taffy fougère’ for its fun combination of a masculine lavender with sweet, candied notes borrowed from feminine perfumery: the same definition might apply to Al Mas.  Taking the best from both genres, Al Mas knits everything together into a scent that smells exotic in the most approachable way possible.

 

Al Mas bears some similarity to Asrar in that they both revolve around saffron, but in replacing the gummy orange blossom with roses and sandalwood, it improves on the model.  The attar opens on a toasted, dusty-sweet saffron accord dotted with rose petals, spice, and nuggets of golden, salted caramel, i.e., the ambergris.  It suggests that this might be a gourmand spin on the traditional rosy attar smell.

 

Almost immediately, however, the taffy-like saffron-rose combination is counterpointed by a remarkably dank oud note and a clutch of damp herbs, greenery, and forest leaves.  The oud smells very natural here, and if it is not genuine oud oil, then it is a stunning reconstruction of its inky, leathery aroma, with zero trace of the tanning chemical sharpness that dogs other oud compositions.  The sandalwood is dry but creamy and textured with spiky rosemary.  Together, these notes form a dark, fragrant base suggestive of dark green velvet spread under yellow gold.

 

Medicinal, sweet, sour, creamy, and dusty – every nuance in Al Mas has been carefully positioned to counter-balance the other.  In sense of range, radiance, and balance, I am tempted to say that Al Mas could be Jubilation XXV in attar form.

 

 

 

Al Souqh (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Souqh opens on a rich, medicinal haze of oud, a sort of terpenic woodiness that instantly lifts the mood.  But almost immediately a very odd accord moves in – and it is quite unpleasantly animalic, like the dirty, rotting smell of a j-cloth left to rot in a damp sink, or metallic dust gathered at the back of a disused radiator.  The smell is that of staleness, or inert air.  It is also intensely spicy, suggesting the cloying antiseptic dirtiness of clove or carnation when overdosed in a blend.

 

This accord dissipates mercifully quickly, clearing the way for an astringent black tea note that is astonishingly true to life – rich, smoky, and salubrious.  Its dark, dry tenor is shot through with sparks of fiery hot spices and smoke, licking around the oud like flames around a stone in an open grate.  Out of the smoke, a shape slowly emerges, revealing itself to be a rose.  Not a fresh, sweet rose, but an austere flower with dried-out petals and a potpourri-ish surround sound system of cinnamon bark, black pepper, tea, and cloves.  Fans of red-hot spice orientals such as the original Comme des Garcons EDP, Comme des Garcons White, Diptyque’s Eau Lente, and, to a certain extent, Costes, will appreciate this stage of the attar.

 

A sweet rose-honey accord blooms around the dry spices, and the smoke recedes into the background just enough to allow the dried berry nuances of the Cambodi-style oud to emerge.  An amber rich in plummy, dried fruit and incense notes brings up the rear, with very pleasant echoes of amber stalwarts such as the legendary Amber Absolute by Tom Ford.  A rocky start, therefore, but one that rewards patience.  

 

 

 

The Antikythera Mechanism (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Bronze gears spin inside a polished wooden case, and an entire universe dances within. Teakwood, oak, black vanilla, and tobacco.

 

 

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of those instances where my nose refuses to acknowledge the official notes list and insists that, based on experience, it is smelling something else entirely.  To my rebellious nose, this is earthy patchouli with the same cocoa-brown dustiness of Serge Lutens’ Borneo 1834 or Parfumerie Generale’s Coze.  But nobody else seems to perceive it as such.

 

There is a pinch of tobacco leaf underneath the dusty, dark-chocolate patchouli accord, but it registers as a fleeting soapiness rather than as something more distinct.  That dark, earthy chocolate patchouli – if that is indeed what it is – is gorgeous.  Rich in a myriad of facets that reveal themselves slowly, it turns on a dime from bitter coffee grounds to nuts, booze, wood, and camphor.

 

It is not edible or gourmand in any way.  Neither is it particularly ambery or balsamic.  But it does run in the same track as Borneo 1834 and Coze, so fans of those scents may want to sample this.  To me, and possibly no-one else, the Antikythera Mechanism is a dusty patch with intent.

 

 

 

Arcana (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The essence of magickal [sic] enigmas and long-forgotten esoteric mysteries. Frankincense, rosemary, lavender, neroli, and verbena.

 

 

Pungent, oily lavender in all its aromatic glory.  If you don’t enjoy lavender, quietly skip this one.  The green-blue sharpness of the opening calls to mind the blue skies of Provence, an image further underscored by a strong rosemary note.

 

Despite the headlining frankincense, this is a fresh herbal scent, rather than an ambery or resinous one.  Only the lemony, fresh pine aspects of frankincense have been emphasized so that it forms a logical bridge with the bright herbs and aromatics.  Arcana is a good stab at that elusive ‘fern’ flavor, but its medicinal undertone limits its appeal to hardcore fans of aromatic fougères.  For everyone else, the relentless brightness could prove a bit of a chore.

 

 

 

Arcanum (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: An enigmatic yet compelling blend of seductive eastern spices, aged patchouli, and sandalwood. Frankincense, nag champa, and dragons blood deepen the mystery.

 

 

Arcanum is a balsamic amber that runs close in feel to Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, with a spicy, soapy sandalwood note recalling incense, prayer beads, and dried cloves.  Some will interpret these accords as potpourri-ish, but those enamored of the earthy spice of Opium will rejoice.  The dried fruit element is nicely lightened with a cool, minty patch, making me think of Boney M and men in brown corduroy jeans.  It dries down to nag champa with a chaser of that sweet, soapy sandalwood that Alkemia likes to use.

 

Arcanum evokes vague, Western notions of the East, sure, but infuses it with a self-consciously retro, seventies vibe that is totally groovy.  Flower children of the world, unite and buy stock in this wonderful little thing.

 

 

 

Ar Ruqya (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

 

Less of a mukhallat, really, than an unguent to ward off jinn (evil spirit), Ar Ruqya is an all-natural blend of raw materials celebrated for their cleansing or spiritual properties in India.  It opens with the spicy floral-medicinal ointment feel common to most traditional Indian attars, which is likely a function of the combination of spikenard, saffron, rose, costus, and musk.

 

The attar evolves along a cleanly musky trajectory, with a lime green sharpness in its upper registers that seems like it might scour a wound if directly applied to skin.  Overall, this is a blend that belies its long list of ingredients by coming off as pleasantly simple and straightforward.  It is quite traditionally Indian in character in that it smells medicinal and ayurvedic rather than perfumey in the traditional sense.

 

 

 

Autumn Fire (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The opening to Autumn Fire is arresting – a clump of wet roots mashed up with stinging camphor and poisonously bitter green leaves, all mulched gently over freshly-cut pine logs.  It is a richly evocative smell, recalling an impenetrable thicket of thorns and saplings.

 

The Malaysian oud used here must be one of those steamy jungle ouds, because although it brings the high-pitched woody tenor of oud to the mix, all barnyard funk is left firmly at the front door.  It is slightly somber in tone, with none of the berry-studded caramel notes of other styles of ouds.  There is even a cool, watery mint note threading in and out of the fug, further pointing to a steamy rainforest island provenance.

 

Nag champa notes bring a hint of gummy, unlit incense sweetness to the camphoraceous body, but in general, the smoke notes are minimal.  This is principally a Zen, easy-going foresty mukhallat with sweet, earthy and green undertones.  A velvety musk envelops the composition, preparing a pleasantly soft landing for the foresty notes.  A trace of sweet, smoky labdanum – although none is listed – appears to weave in and out of the musk.  This is really the only stage when the smoke notes are assertive to the point of being noticeable.

 

In brief, despite the heavy-hitting materials listed for this attar, Autumn Fire is ultimately a light, subtle, and outdoorsy little thing.  I recommend it to people who love the smell of the great outdoors, especially that of the forest and the ambered, sweet smoke of a far-off campfire.

 

 

 

Bazaar (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Remember the Soda Streams sold in the eighties?  I recall the excitement in our household when we finally got one, and specifically, the smell of the soft drink concentrate that came with it, a sort of proto-Fanta and proto-Coca Cola.  The idea was to ‘revive’ the concentrate in the Soda Stream with the addition of carbonated water.  Well, Bazaar revolves around a note that smells exactly like the Coca Cola concentrate that came with these machines.  Dark, syrupy, spicy with cinnamon, and a little plasticky, it brings me right back (in a good way).

 

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your level of fondness for Coca Cola), Bazaar then begins to pick up on the sweatier aspects of the spices, particularly the clove.  There is also some cumin or fenugreek in here somewhere.  It becomes heavy and sticky, almost to the point of being ‘too too’.  If Bazaar starts off smelling like Coca Cola concentrate, then it ends up firmly in the souk originally promised by the name.

 

Truth be told, there is something a little hackneyed and even cheap-smelling about the spice-and-dried-fruit ‘orientalism’ on display here.  You wear this and think, yes, that smells like a souk, so ten out of ten for authenticity, but also, hmmm, haven’t I smelled that exact thing in one of those cheap little perfume oil shops in Cairo or Mumbai?  (Answer: yes, you have.)

 

Although Bazaar’s more syrupy spice elements are deftly placed on top of smoky resins and labdanum for contrasting ballast, the result still smells like a clumsy soup of souk + chocolatey Darbar attar + headshop amber cubes + sweat.  Or maybe it is just me, bitter that the Soda Stream cola note was whipped away from me far too soon.

 

 

 

Bloodlust (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A fiery Martial blend that embodies primal rage, lust for conquest, and all-encompassing desire. Dragon’s blood essence, heavy red musk, Indonesian patchouli and swarthy vetiver with a drop of cinnamon.

 

 

Almost exactly as described in the company description, Bloodlust is a heavy blend of camphoraceous patchouli, vetiver, and ‘red’ musk.  At first, it smells like the damp, brown earth of a humid tropical island.  Unsweet and with a claggy, clay-like dankness, it actually makes sense as a hot weather scent in the same way as mitti does.  In fact, any earthy soil-like scent has the same cooling properties.  There is also a thread of metal or iodine, which, combined with the clay, smells like iron-rich blood.

 

In the drydown, the rooty wetness of vetiver swells to fill the air pockets of the scent, bringing with it the whiff of stagnant vase water and salt marsh.  It smells quite like ruh khus, the cooling vetiver distillation used by Indians in summer.  Bloodlust is a distinctive and useful little blend that matches its rather (unusually for BPAL) straightforward description. 

 

 

 

Bohemian Spice (April Aromatics)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Hanna Balan on Unsplash

 

Although identifiably the same scent, the perfume oil and eau de parfum versions of Bohemian Spice differ significantly enough to be noteworthy.  Part of this has to do with the nature of the oil carrier itself.  As with Le Labo oils, the carrier oil tends to flatten the edges of citric or aromatic notes, delaying their unfurling until further along the compositional timeline.  The experience ends up being roughly similar, in other words, but the various stages ‘hit’ the nose at different times.

 

However, it is also fair to say that part of the difference between the oil and eau de parfum versions is due to tweaks to the formula made by the perfumer herself, in order to create a slightly different outcome.  The April Aromatics perfume oils were designed to be worn in situations where a more subtle scent is appropriate, such as in the office or at yoga.  In general, the oil versions of the AA scents are ditties based on the bigger, deeper songs of the eau de parfum versions; they are simpler, shorter in trajectory, and more compact.  They are also much quieter than their eau de parfum brethren.

 

Now onto Bohemian Spice.  The oil version of Bohemian Spice is a Café del Mar version of the classics in the background while you work, whereas the eau de parfum version is sitting through seven hours of Wagner.  The original eau de parfum is a juicy pomander orange studded with shards of black pepper, rolled in the earthy, almost chocolatey darkness of patchouli and vetiver.  Its genius lies in its balance of light and dark.

 

Wearing the original side by side with the perfume oil, I notice a lot of dry, smoky labdanum in the eau de parfum that is neither listed nor noted in most reviews. (It doesn’t show up at all in the perfume oil).  Its effect in the eau de parfum is marvelous, merging with the frankincense to form a hulking amber-incense backdrop that reminds me of Amber Absolute and Sahara Noir, both by Tom Ford.  Most find Calling All Angels to closely resemble Sahara Noir, but with its sour orange and resinous frankincense-amber duet, Bohemian Spice is arguably the closer match.

 

Bohemian Spice is a touchstone of natural perfumery for me, because even though it doesn’t contain any synthetic musks or woody ambers, it manages to be rich, complex, and long-lasting.  If you’re a Doubting Thomas on the whole natural, crunchy-granola perfumery scene, then roll the dice on a sample of Bohemian Spice.  Smelling Bohemian Spice as an introduction to the all-natural scene is like reluctantly trudging along to a vegan dinner at a friend’s house and finding yourself completely satisfied (not to mention quasi-converted) by the end of the meal.

 

The perfume oil version is chewy and satisfying, albeit in a slightly different way to the eau de parfum.  First – and this is unusual for a citrus note in oil format – the bitter orange pomander notes ring out even more clearly than in the eau de parfum, where they are quickly crowded by the earthy patchouli and vetiver.   The patchouli in the oil is subtler and its chocolate note a creamy white rather than an earthy dark. The limpid milkiness of the patchouli note in the oil seems to allow the orange and spices to flare more brightly and insistently than in the eau de parfum.

 

The second key difference is in the nature of the incensey-ambery support that threads through both formats.  In the eau de parfum, as discussed, a dusty labdanum and benzoin blend works with the sooty frankincense note to produce that austere, church-resin feel common to both Amber Absolute and Sahara Noir (Tom Ford).  In the perfume oil, on the other hand, the amber-incense accord smells light and almost sparkly, like tiny nuggets of resins fizzing on the surface of pink champagne.

 

Whereas the original smells dark and thickly embroidered, with a deep, rich baritone voice that seems to come from large, rocky chunks of resin, the oil format compresses everything into a surface layer of glittering resin that’s been pulverized into mica.  Both versions are incredibly satisfying but choose the striking eau de parfum if you want to make an impression, and the oil if you want a private audience with the scent.       

 

 

 

Bonfires at Dusk (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Woodsmoke, sweet beeswax, Oregon lavender, sandalwood, charred juniper, and the scent of swiftly appearing stars.

 

 

Pungent, slightly smoky lavender and juniper form the herbal backbone to the perfume, while beeswax and sandalwood makes things pleasantly soapy, sweet, and musky in the drydown.  I heartily recommend Bonfires at Dusk for forest hikes, where it seems to meld with one’s own body temperature and skin musk to form a glowing ‘salt of the earth’ aura that radiates for days (or until you wash it off).

 

 

 

The Bow & Crown of Conquest (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Nobility and haughtiness befitting the Antichrist: sage, carnation and cedar with lavender, vanilla, white musk and leather.

 

 

Now this is a beautiful perfume.  It features none of the loud, booming honey, musks, or resins that typically herald a BPAL perfume.  Instead, this is a soft, buff-colored cream of pencil cedar, vanilla, and touches of mint, sage, lavender, and anise, whipped up into a pillowy cloud of white musks.  Less Antichrist, more angel, if you ask me.

 

A base of brushed grey suede gives the creamy, aromatic woods and herbs something to rest against.  In the far drydown, a dusty carnation blows a puff of hot spice through the suede, lending the scent some retro-femme appeal.

 

Parallels to Snowshoe Pass and White Fox by Solstice Scents could be drawn, with perhaps hints of Guardian (for the sage), but I find The Bow & Crown Conquest to be even better.  It is a uniquely restful blend from BPAL, and one that I would recommend to anyone looking for Zen in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

 

 

 

Boy (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Initially, things do not look good for this Chanel dupe.  It opens with a metallic grapefruit note that seems to go on forever, a feature absent from the original.  However, once the pungent citrus notes die back a little, the dupe settles into a decent facsimile of Chanel Boy, especially in the mid-section, where the familiar aromatic eddy of lavender, heliotrope, and sandalwood begins to move.

 

For a while, the dupe smells relatively similar to that of the original, although the fougère accord in the dupe possesses a Germolene note not present in the original, bringing it closer – strictly speaking – to the Narciso Rodriguez white cube perfume territory than to Boy.

 

However, by hour two, the lack of substance and quality in the base of the dupe becomes evident.  The original has an almondy sandalwood and tonka bean drydown that feels like falling into a bed piled high with thick cashmere blankets.  The dupe peters out into an altogether thinner, more synthetic sandalwood basenote.

 

Chanel invests in its materials.  In dupes of any Chanel fragrance, therefore, there will inevitably be a shortfall in quality, texture, and, well, the Chanel magic stardust that seems to be sprinkled over everything they produce.  These are the things that are hard to replicate.  This shortfall is particularly obvious in the fresher perfumes in the Chanel line-up, such as Boy.  Therefore, the dupe, while a fairly good impression, will never be an adequate replacement for the real thing.

 

 

 

Bushido (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Jaspreet Kalsi on Unsplash

 

Bushido is an attar made exclusively for The World in Scents, a Princeton-based purveyor of fine attars and pure oud oils. Its name translates to ‘the way of the Samurai. The idea for this attar came from the ancient Japanese practice among royalty, Samurai warriors, and the nobility of scenting their kimonos, robes, and sword sheaths with a blend of tsubaki, an oil made from camellia flower petals, and choji, clove oil.

 

Sometimes powdered jinko, the Japanese word for aloeswood (agarwood), was also added to enrich the oil, but this would have been the preserve of only the wealthiest members of society, meaning the royal family of Japan. The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates to the 6th century AD, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes. Important warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.

 

Today, one can still see traces of the ancient ‘way of the Samurai in the making of Japanese incense. Oud oil is not particularly prized or used in Japan, but the densely-resinated wood from whence oud oil is extracted –agarwood – remains a crucial component of the Japanese incense tradition. The old traditions of tsubaki and choji have also left their mark – delicate floral notes and spicy clove-cinnamon flavorings are still very much part of the character of Japanese incense. Famous incense sticks such as Shoyeido’s Southern Wind (Nan-kun), for example, feature a combination of powdered jinko, usually from Cambodia, mixed with clove, star anise, sandalwood, camphor, and spikenard, the Himalayan herb also known as jatamansi (fresh, spicy, with a fatty animal undertone and lavender-like facets).

 

What Rising Phoenix Perfumery does with Bushido Attar is to trace the roots of tsubaki and choji oils back to its source, and using materials available currently, re-build the attar from scratch. When we smell Bushido Attar, therefore, we are smelling something that is as close as can be to the original oil these Samurai warriors would have massaged into their sword sheaths and the royals would have dabbed onto their ceremonial robes.

 

Bushido is constructed largely through the compounding of several distillates and extractions, most notably a trio of wild jinko (agarwood) oils (a Hindi, a Cambodi, and a Malaysian), a 1980s Mysore sandalwood oil, and a rare vintage star anise oil which dates to 1906. The star anise extract has both the clove and licorice tones common to Japanese incense. 

 

The attar opens on the skin with a blaze of oud and spice so thickly knotted that it is difficult to parse out the pieces. Like flies trapped in amber, Bushido’s three oud oils float weightlessly in a bubble of molasses or chestnut honey. The oud assault at the start is animalic and leathery, hot with smoke and fruit, but not in the least raw, thanks to the smoothing out properties of that molten molasses accord. The texture is smooth, unctuous even, with the stifling density of hot tar.

 

The opening salvo of leathery oud and thick black honey is followed by a subtle arrangement of notes that begins to separate and float free of the oud – licorice, anise, clove, camphor, and allspice. The vintage allspice extract comes out distinctively as clove at first, with a rounded, almost cocoa-ish spiciness that completely avoids the more unpleasantly metallic aspects of modern clove notes. The spicy exoticism of the note is subtle, defining the overall feel of the attar as firmly Japanese in orientation rather than Indian or Middle Eastern.

 

As time goes on, the structure of the attar opens a little, the leathery thrust of the ouds dimming to allow more of the spices to come out, and revealing a rich, salty buttery Mysore sandalwood in the base. The slide from fiery-hot to buttery-sweet reminds me slightly of one of my favorite perfumes, the magnificent Eau Lente by Diptyque. Tania Sanchez says in her review of Eau Lente in The Guide that it is the equivalent of “those hypnotic colored lights that slide from pink to cyan without anyone noticing”, which is a perfect way of describing the transitions in Bushido Attar too. The ambergris in this attar slices through the heft of the sandalwood with a salty, mineral sparkle, giving it air. The ambergris lingers long past the finale, leaving a trace of something musty, sweet, and saliva-ish on the skin.

 

Bushido is a must-try for anyone who loves the Japanese traditions of Kōdō. If you’re unfamiliar with the characteristic Japanese combination of agarwood, clove, spikenard, star anise, and sometimes immortelle, then perhaps approach this attar with caution. It is not immediately familiar to the Western palate, which means it might not be immediately likeable. But if you like carnation, clove, or even if you rather like fragrances like Diptyque’s Kimonanthe or Eau Lente, then give Bushido a try.

 

 

 

Chimera (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The fiery, volatile scent of cinnamon, thickened by myrrh, honeysuckle, and copal.

 

 

Chimera smells like a Red Hot in the best way imaginable.  For the best part of the first hour, it is truly a cinnamon-aflore, with little else but the fiery cinnamon on show.  Later on, it begins to smell like buttery toast or pain perdu with a heavy sprinkling of cinnamon sugar.  It is a delicious, almost edible scent.

 

Tl;dr: must love cinnamon.  But even if you’re naturally wary of cinnamon, it is worth knowing that the note has been handled so that none of its usual pungency or bitter woodiness seeps into the blend.  Rather, it has been coddled and massaged with a creamy amber accord and a hint of something sweetly floral until all the nose perceives is a perfectly smooth, round spiciness with just the right amount of heat.  .

 

 

 

Coromandel (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Ah, but Chanels are difficult to dupe.  No matter how many times you run a fragrance like Coromandel through a gas spectrometer, you cannot make pearls out of a swine’s ear.  Access to superior grades of sandalwood, iris, jasmine, and patchouli means that any attempt to dupe a Chanel will inevitably lack that indefinable touch of class that only Chanel can bestow.

 

The shortfalls of the dupe are immediately clear. Whereas the original bursts onto the skin in a skein of glittering aldehydes, oranges, soft white chocolate, Irish whisky, and jasmine, all the dupe can rise to is a ruby grapefruit note over watered-down patchouli.

 

Crucially, the dupe does not smell like melted white chocolate, cashmere, or any of the rich, comforting things that makes the original such a hygge fragrance experience.  In the original, it is the chemistry between the powdery benzoin, golden amber, and earthy (but smooth) patch that creates the famous white chocolate accord.  The dupe tries to rally but its reedy raw materials are inadequate to the task, and the whole affair just limps along.

 

This dupe fails on just about every level, but with Coromandel, it is the textural component that matters the most, and here the dupe cannot compete.  Save your soul and buy a bottle of the original (the eau de toilette, if you can find it, for preference) because this dupe is about as satisfying as licking a stamp when you are starving. 

 

 

 

Cotton Mather (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Blackened patchouli, woodland mosses, sweet herbs, dried helichrysum, woodsmoke, lamplight, ink, ash and flame

 

 

Cotton Mather shares something of the acrid leather-patchouli DNA of several other Sixteen92 blends, especially Baba Yaga and Salem, but winds up in a far quieter place than either.  It smells like a cross between the sourness of linen folded away while still damp and the hairspray-ish chemical high of paper drying processes in a printing press, all underscored by a shadowy, mossy patchouli.  It is at once less atmospheric and more subtle than either Baba Yaga or Salem, and thus, perhaps, more wearable. 

 

The scent dries down to a fine-grained, mossy powder, like handfuls of burnt hay and grasses blitzed to a brown dust.  Immortelle usually brings a Mach 5 level of maple sugar intensity to a composition, but Cotton Mather is dry rather than syrupy or overblown.  Indeed, I see this as a lighter indie oil equivalent to something like Comme des Garcons’ Patchouli Luxe, a similarly ashy immortelle-patchouli combination.  Nice work.

 

 

 

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 euros of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Source of samples:  I purchased all the samples reviewed in this chapter, apart from the samples from April Aromatics, Rising Phoenix Perfumery, and Sultan Pasha Attars, which were gifted to me by those brands for Attar Guide review purposes.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash 

 

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

 

 

All Natural Ambrette Aromatic Attars & CPOs Herbal Mukhallats Patchouli Saffron Spice The Attar Guide Vetiver

The Attar Guide: Earth, Herbs, Spice & Aromatics

7th October 2022

 

 

Traditional Indian attars (especially the complex attars) and Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery draw on a vast array of aromatics, herbs, earthy notes, and spices that give the finished perfumes that special ‘flavor’ that renders the final result exotic to the Western nose.  Although not distilled as single-source attars, these aromatics provide a boost of complexity, depth, and piquancy to the attar that complements the primary distilled material or materials.

 

For traditional Indian attar perfumery, attar wallahs tend to prefer the broad range of aromatics, herbs, and spices available to them in Mother India.  Prime among these aromatics is spikenard, otherwise known as Himalayan nard or jatamansi.  Native to the mountainous regions of Northern India, as well as other regions, spikenard is a truly ancient herb, said to have been the aromatic herb used by Mary to anoint Jesus before the Last Supper.  It was also widely used in Ancient Egypt as a healing unguent, and later, by the Mughal Empress Nur Jehan as an anti-aging treatment for her face.  Scent-wise, spikenard is both pungent and sweet, like lavender with a trace of animal fat clinging around the edges.  It lends a rooty, medicinal-herbal facet to attars.

 

Charila lichen: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here

 

Charila is grey-green lichen that grows in Nepal and the mountainous regions of Northern India. Possessed of a bitter, inky aroma profile, it is somewhat analogous to European and Balkan oakmoss.  It is used to give attars a dark, green-mossy character.  Mitti and ruh khus (described here) are the scents of baked earth and vetiver roots respectively; they take their rightful place beside the other earthy aromatics in this chapter.

 

Patchouli is a member of the mint family, and native to India (as well as other semi- or fully tropical hot countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Madagascar).  Deriving from the Tamil word for green, patchai, patchouli has been distilled and used in ayurvedic medicine and attar perfumery for over five thousand years.  Its earthy, camphoraceous greenness is prized for its moth-repelling properties as well as for its anxiety-reducing qualities.  For distillation purposes, only the small, green leaves of the plant are selected for loading into the deg.  Patchouli has a calming, almost sedative effect on the senses, and is used in attar perfumery to give an earthy, grounded character to the attar.

 

 

Saffron distillation: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here

 

Although saffron is not native to India, there is significant production of the spice in Kashmir, the northernmost state of India.  Indeed, Kashmir forms part of the saffron belt that stretches between Spain and Iran.  Kashmiri saffron is pungent and sweet, with facets of hay, iodine, ink, leather, and honey central to its character.  In attar perfumery, it is often used to give the traditional ambery attars a characteristic spicy, vegetal warmth and leathery undertone.  However, saffron is equally prized in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, where it is often used to give the blend a rich leather, suede, or even oudy character. 

 

Henna, or hina, is steam-distilled from the flowers of the henna plant, the so-called Lawsonia inermis.  Although more commonly used throughout Asia for body art and pre-marriage rituals, henna is also used in traditional Indian attar perfumery.  The essential oil is earthy and sweet, with a dry, tannic edge that recalls black tea leaves.  Henna lends a spicy, earthy tinge to complex co-distilled attars and ambery attars, but it is also enjoyed in its pure form, as gul hina (attar of henna flower).

 

Ambrette seed comes from the musk mallow plant (Abelmoschus moschatus) native to India.  When steam-distilled, the odor of the ambrette oil is sweet, anisic, with hints of green apple or pear, cumin or bread, and hard alcohol, like grappa or cognac.  But its principal aroma constituent is its muskiness.  Ambrette gives the attar a velvety roundness that might otherwise only be achieved with animal musk. For this reason, it is a very valuable material in attar perfumery.  Musk attars in India are traditionally made with ambrette seed oil rather than deer musk, as ambrette is easier and less expensive to obtain. 

 

Cypriol essential oil after distillation: Photo by Pranjal Kapoor, who kindly granted his permission to use it here

 

Cypriol, or nagamortha, is a type of papyrus that grows wild in the Madhya Pradesh region of India.  Its rhizomes are used to make a deeply fragrant oil that acts both as a fixative in complex attars and as a key aromatizing ingredient in and of itself.  Its scent is woody, smoky, dark, and slightly dirty, with elements common to vetiver, patchouli, and cedarwood.  Cypriol’s main contribution to attar (and indeed Western) perfumery is that it can stand in quite creditably for oud, whose smoky woodiness it resembles.  Cypriol oil is also used extensively in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery.

 

Choyas, on the other hand, are uniquely Indian.  They are used in traditional Indian attar perfumery, especially in the more complex attar types.  A choya, named for the special earthenware pot in which it is cooked, is a type of distillation method separate to hydro or steam distillation, known as destructive distillation[i].  It is used for a couple of very hard materials, like seashells (choya nakh), frankincense (choya loban), or tree bark (choya ral).  The hard materials are placed inside the choya, which is then cooked over a direct fire until droplets of pure essence collect on the interior walls of the choya.  These droplets are carefully scraped off the walls of the choya and later added into distilled attars.

 

Choyas are extremely concentrated aromatics and must be dosed carefully so as not to overwhelm more delicate aromas present in the attar.  Choya nakh can add a saline, mineral tang to an attar and can sometimes come across as leathery, a feature illustrated extremely well in the all-natural perfume Tango by Mandy Aftel.  Choya loban adds a pine-like, fresh or citrusy freshness to an attar, capturing as it does the higher register of notes present in olibanum rather than the waxier, more resinous aspects.

 

Distilled from the small white flowers of the evergreen Bakula tree native to Western India, bakul or bakula oil is not much known in Western perfumery, but much loved in India for its sweet, persistent floral smell.  The Latin name for the tree is Mimusops elengi, which suggests that people might have originally thought it was related to mimosa or acacia.  In India, people like to collect the small blossoms when they fall from the tree, because they retain their scent even when dried.  The flowers are popular for their fresh aromatic smell and often used in wedding garlands (the tree is also sometimes called the Garland Tree).

 

Stephen Arctander, author of Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, as cited by Chris McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics in his article on Bakula, describes bakula essential oil as a ‘pale yellow, mobile liquid of very delicate, sweet and extremely tenacious floral odor, somewhat reminiscent of orange flower and tuberose, or the more well-known stephanotisits florabunda (gardenia undertone).  A honey like, heavy-sweet undertone, is quite persistent, and this essential oil could, if it were made regularly available, certainly find uses as a modifier of countless floral fragrances.’[ii]  Although not commonly used outside of India, several artisan perfumers do use bakula in their perfumes, most notably Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Parfums, and Russian Adam of Areej Le Doré. 

 

Up next:  Reviews of everything aromatic, spicy, earthy, herbal, and soapy-fresh in attar, mukhallat or concentrated perfume oil form!

 

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Mohammad Amiri on Unsplash 

 

[i]https://theperfumemistress.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/attars-and-choyas/

[ii] https://www.whitelotusaromatics.com/newsletters/bakul (unfortunately not available online anymore)

Aromatic Review Rose Spice Spicy Floral Woods

Smyrna by Le Couvent

8th September 2022

 

Although Le Couvent house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena art-directed rather than authored Smyrna, he almost certainly slipped whoever did it an early draft of his own Rose Poivrée (The Different Company).  But while Rose Poivrée’s pepper, cumin, and coriander overload created a savory, metallic funk that came uncomfortably close to the scent of second-day men’s underwear, the formula for Smyrna has been stripped back to a simple premise of rose, woods, and a bit of black pepper.

 

Where Smyrna remains similar to Rose Poivrée (The Different Company) and even Rose 31 (Le Labo) is in that neat sleight of hand where, despite it ostensibly being a rose scent, the rose comes and goes, as unreliable as sunbeams on a cloudy day.  Sometimes it smells like a peppery rose, sometimes like gently spiced woods.  But never the twain shall meet.

 

Smyrna, for the most part, reminds me of the steamy, botanical smell of a warm greenhouse where you are dividing geranium plantlets – the vaporous aroma of sun-warmed wood frames, the peppery snap of the roots and stalks, the rosy-minty smell of the geraniums.  The black pepper gives the scent a kick but no funk.  It smells planty, not underpanty.

 

Simultaneously, though, it also smells like a body lotion or shampoo, one scented with Turkish rosewater or loukhoum.  Unlike in Rose 31 or Rose Poivrée, therefore, every time the spice threatens to flare up to the point of pungency, there is enough of this balm to sooth it all down again.  In fact, there is an almost Uncanny Valley lack of sharp corners here.  The scent is preternaturally smooth. 

 

I’m in two minds about Smyrna, to be honest.   On the one hand, fragrances like Rose Poivrée (the original version at least) are too vegetally-sharp or culinarily stinky for me to enjoy comfortably.  Smyrna resolves this by removing the more pungent spicing and adding an almost candied rosewater balminess.  It is therefore much brighter and easier to wear.  But ultimately, Smyrna remains a copy of something that, while not to my personal taste, was deeply original and artistic.  Wearing Smyrna kind of feels like wearing the original soaked in stain remover and put through the hot cycle – it suits me better, but it also feels like a bit of a cop out.

 

Source of sample: Provided by the brand for copyrighting purposes.

 

Cover image: Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash 

 

 

Aromatic Chocolate Green Herbal Iris Leather Masculine Review Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Suede Vanilla Woods

Iris Malikhân by Maison Crivelli

22nd August 2022

 

 

Iris Malikhân is immediately two things.  It is a leather bundle charred in the grate, so smoky and bitter it short circuits to the word ‘chemical’ in my mind.   But equally, it is a thick iris-vanilla cream that fills the room with a haunting sweetness.

 

It took me ages to figure out that second is causally linked to the first.  Unwrap the scorched, blackened skin of the leather bundle, blowing on your fingers for relief, and you reveal the slightly singed, chalky orris roots that lie within, the violence of the char the catalyst to releasing those cocoa-thickened vanilla spores.

 

For six months, I have struggled mightily with the burnt part of Iris Malikhân.  I believed that it was just like any number of other sweetened iris-suede scents out there – Dior Homme Intense (Dior), Bois d’Iris (Van Cleef & Arpels), Vanille d’Iris (Ormonde Jayne) and so on – just not as good or at least more ‘on trend’ in its use of those intrusive liquid smoke aromachemicals that brands like Maison Martin Margiela, seem to be so fond of.  

 

Funnily enough, it was all those upvotes on Fragrantica for Iris Malikhân smelling like Dior Homme Intense that made me revisit the perfume and try to reframe it for myself.  Because that comparison definitely doesn’t tell the full story.  I’ve smelled Dior Homme knockoffs before (like D600 by Carner Barcelona) and there is more artistry and kink in this one’s little finger than in all of those.  The weird Pastis-like note of artemisia or mastic upfront makes this clear.

 

The moment I was able to mentally reclassify the harshness of the opening accord as part and parcel of a leather tanning process – which in and of itself involves chemicals – was when the clouds cleared and Iris Malikhân clicked for me.   Whereas before I was gritting my teeth through one part to get to the other, I now experience the fragrance as a whole, where the tanning chemical front end is key to unlocking and releasing the full fatness of that licorice crème anglaise, infusing it with a hint of anise, bitter chocolate, and woodsmoke.   If I squint, I just about get leather.   Heck, I can sometimes make out the shape of the purported orris root.  But like Dior Homme Intense, Iris Malikhân is so much more than a sum of its parts.

 

 

Source of sample:  Provided free of charge by the brand for copywriting purposes.      

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash 

All Natural Animalic Aromatic Chypre Cult of Raw Materials Green Hay Herbal Independent Perfumery Jasmine Leather Masculine Musk Oud Review Sandalwood Spice Woods

Chypre Sultan by Ensar Oud

11th August 2022

 

Always brave, I think, for a perfumer to set their cap at making a chypre in this day and age.  Most falter not because they can’t find an oakmoss replacement or the low-atranol stuff, but because they are so focused on getting the moss element right that they miss the whole point of a chypre in the first place, which is that abstract, kaleidoscopic richness, that sweet-and-sour balance that makes your mouth both salivate and shrivel up a bit.   Good chypres feel murky and on the knife edge of bitter to me – a mysterious conflagration of forest floor and a miso-based tare that took hours to make.  

 

Chypre Sultan feels like a real chypre because it treats the chypric model (bergamot, moss, labdanum) more as a suggestion than a straitjacket.  Bergamot?  Forget bergamot, too stuffy, let’s put yuzu in instead.  Labdanum?  Booooring.  Tends to take over.  Put in the quietest of sandalwood instead, creamy and substantial enough to anchor the scent.

 

In playing fast and loose with the rules, Chypre Sultan successfully captures the mysterious umami character of chypre that eludes the grasp of others.  The opening is winey and dark, a dense carpet of forest floor notes – minty wet moss, woods, artemisia, hay, sage, perhaps even a touch of rubbery myrrh – which give it a distinctly medicinal tinge, similar to Tiger Balm.  It wears like the deepest green velvet this side of Scarlet O’ Hara’s curtain dress.

 

Naturally, being an Ensar Oud creation, Chypre Sultan is kitted out with the most exquisite medley of natural oud, castoreum, and musks, which weighs down the flightier herbal and citrus notes, and creates the ‘pea souper’ murkiness so essential to a chypre’s character.  It is so thick that I can almost taste it at the back of my mouth.

 

The castoreum alone is extraordinary – leathery, almost burnt in its dryness, and in conjunction with the minty-vegetal tones of the (genuine) oakmoss, distinctly savory in tone.  The musk element is not animalic or heavy-smelling in and of itself.  In fact, it seems to be there only to give the castoreum and oakmoss this buffed-out, diffused ‘glow’ effect.  Imagine burying your nose in a man’s leather jacket and then walking around in a ‘head space’ cloud of those same molecules all day long.  This feels like that.

 

Surprisingly for such a dense, winey stew, I can clearly smell the jonquil.  Jonquil is a type of daffodil (narcissus) that smells like hay but also quite like jasmine under some conditions.  At some point, the sweet, sunny wafts of hay and jasmine begin to shake loose of the darker backdrop, and the effect is like a sudden shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom of a medieval forest.

 

Bear in mind that this floral effect is really subtle.  There is, however, a moment when the savory (almost celery-like) oakmoss meets the jonquil, and I think of Vol de Nuit.  It is a similarly ‘long simmered greens’ train of thought that connects the two.  But of course Chypre Sultan is an indie-artisanal perfume, while Vol de Nuit is a perfume made in the grand manner of French classical perfumery, so both the finish and the intent are very different.  Chypre Sultan is, naturally, far richer, more pungent, and rougher around the edges than Vol de Nuit.   

 

But there is a distant link, nonetheless, and you might be the type of person who prefers the raw authenticity of the natural ouds, musks, or oakmoss that an artisan outfit can offer.  Chypre Sultan is Vol de Nuit if she got up from her table at Le Cinq, delicately wiped her lips on the Irish linen napkin, and disappeared off into Fontainebleau forest to roll around in the muck and the hummus and the animal carcasses, only to emerge naked ten hours later with nothing more than a smirk and eyeliner smudged all over her chin.  

 

There is only one slightly difficult moment for me, and that is when all the minty herbs and hay-like florals fade out, leaving only the surround system of the castoreum, musk, and oud to play out their slightly gloomy brown tune.  Without the distraction of the fresher notes, the oniony-sweat nuances of oakmoss, complete with that slight over-stewed celery tea note, start to wear on me a little.  However, the rich, rubbery castoreum, musk, and oud step in to smooth this over and it steadies itself, finishing out the day (and this is a serious all-day kind of thing) in a softly murky, leathery-foresty haze that hovers rather than ‘sits’ on your skin.

 

I am hard-pressed to say what Chypre Sultan might be compared to, because a perfume by an oud artisan like Ensar Oud is always going to be on a different level of pungency and purity to a commercial perfume.  So, allowing for the sheer ‘apples and oranges’-ness of the comparison, I suppose that Chypre Sultan reminds me a little of Diaghilev (Roja Dove) in terms of the bitter, foresty greenness and masculine-leaning character.  However, Diaghilev has a stouter floral core and, being a commercially-produced rather than artisanal perfume, lacks the leathery castoreum-musk depth of Chypre Sultan.

 

Chypre Palatin (Parfums MDCI) is also a fair comparison, but is much sweater and creamier, its florals appearing almost powdery in comparison (Chypre Sultan is a powder-free zone).  The Vol de Nuit linkage is but a fleeting impression and probably a figment of my overactive imagination; Dryad (Papillon) is another possibility because of its costus note. 

 

But in fairness, Chypre Sultan is far less classical in structure than these two fragrances, and in its ‘brewed up in a wild jungle’ intensity, comes closer to the tannic, crunchy-organic Peruvian Amazon experience that is Carta Moena 12|69.  In terms of murkiness, complexity, and that ‘Chinese meal’ completeness you get with a good chypre, it drifts along the same orbit of Kintsugi (Masque Milano) without smelling like it at all.  Either way, Chypre Sultan is very much its own thing, and that thing happens to be a force of nature chypre.

 

 

Source of Sample:  Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee).  I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world.  The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Gold Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Review Single note exploration Smoke Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews 0-A

31st May 2022

 

 

Kicking off the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the A’s – and given that amber starts with an A, there is a lot.  But before you dive in, in case you missed it, why not have a glance at this brief primer on all things resiny here?  It gives you the lowdown on the differences between myrrh and sweet myrrh (opoponax), what benzoin smells like, and the intricacies of the kingliest resin of them all, frankincense.  It also explains what amber is, exactly. 

 

 

 

020 (Hyde & Alchemy)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

No. 020 is orange-scented toffee rendered in liquid form, with a sprinkle of pepper for interest.  A combination of patchouli, tonka, and vanilla gives the scent a waxy, fudge-like texture that muffles the high-toned brightness of the orange blossom.  No. 020 bears some similarity to Hermès Ambre des Merveilles, its orangey goodness spiced with pepper instead of salt. 

 

 

 

Absolute Amber (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Escaping the wrath of Tom Ford’s legal department by a hair, Absolute Amber is a juggernaut of an amber with a synth under-pinning so potent it could fell a horse at five paces.  One sniff of this stuff was enough to cause my olfactory system to start closing up shop.  But at the edges, certain elements that characterize the Clive Christian approach with these exclusive oils can still be identified.

 

The first characteristic element is a topnote that is Lanolin-like in its medicinal balminess, redolent of a mixture of vegetable oil, sheep’s wool, tallow, and raw silk.  This is probably due to the carrier oil used in the Absolute line of perfume oils.  The second element is the supersonic radiance deriving from woody amber synthetics typically used for reach, such as Iso E Super, Cedramber, and the like.  The third characteristic I notice, both here and in one or two other examples in the Absolute range, is the emphasis on bringing out the sharper, more confrontational facets of the raw material being highlighted.  Sweet and fluffy these oils are not.

 

True to type, Absolute Amber is a tremendously spicy, resinous amber with undertones of plum, raisin, and grated cinnamon bark.  It is somewhat comparable in tone to Ambre Eccentrico (Armani Privé), swapping out the plush, fruity tonka bean for a somewhat bitter, aftershavey base that men might appreciate.  Absolute Amber is rich without being syrupy or ‘wet in any way.  In overall feel, Absolute Amber matches the synthy radiance of other rather butch amber scents such as Amouage’s Opus VI and Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte.  For those unbothered by potent woody ambers, Absolute Amber would be a strong (in every sense of the word) option for winter daywear, especially under a formal suit.

 

 

 

Photo: My own, Omani silver frankincense 

 

Absolute Frankincense (Clive Christian)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Natural frankincense oil has a citrusy, pine-like freshness that is practically its main character trait, and this is precisely the characteristic that Absolute Frankincense has chosen to highlight.  The scent extends the silvery bite of the resin by flanking it with a lime-like bergamot and some very natural-smelling coniferous notes.  The result smells clean and high-toned – an expression of frankincense oil itself, as opposed to the burnt, smoky notes of the resin as it bubbles on a censer.

 

Those who love the more severe takes on frankincense such as Annick Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant will appreciate Absolute Frankincense.  Just be aware that this oil is monastic in its approach, and that the green purity of the resin has been prioritized far above the smoky, resinous, or sweet notes that usually flank frankincense.  This is the cold, smooth smell of the unburned resin itself, and an almost exact match to the aroma of the resin when you rub it between the palms of your hands.  My criticism is that Absolute Frankincense is almost too simple – too close to the aroma of good quality frankincense oil itself – to be worth the cost of entry.

 

 

 

Al Masih (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Masih means Messiah in Arabic, one of the many names for Jesus.  And to a certain extent, Al Masih’s incense is more Catholic High Mass than Islamic cannon. Al Masih opens with a frankincense note as piercing as freshly-crushed pine needles, its citric edge underscored by a lemony tandem of elemi resin and petitgrain. The total effect is of a Mediterranean church with its doors thrown open to allow the soft breeze brushing over mastic to mingle with the scent of unburned resin. Cypress, cedar, and hyssop all add to its fresh, outdoorsy air, confirming that churches are not the only places where communion with a Greater Spirit takes place.

 

The drydown is a surprise. The sharp brightness of the herbs and resins softens, collapsing into the sensual creaminess of sandalwood.  The sandalwood lends a golden, wholesome texture to the scent, recalling the bounty of the harvest and all the good things to eat in the cellar.  This series of transitions has the effect of shifting the scene from the wildness of the maquis to a soft and homely devotion scaled to domestic proportions.  At once evocative and pleasing, Al Masih might strike a chord for lovers of piney, outdoorsy incense, as well as those who love the ‘medicinal unguent’ bent of modern Italian artisanal perfumery – think Bogue and O’Driu, albeit far, far simpler. 

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

I have to put my hand up here and admit that I like almost every dupe of Amber Absolute that has crossed my desk.  I would wear any of them quite happily in the place of the Tom Ford, because they are invariably lighter, thinner, and don’t quite feel like the twenty-four-hour marathon that the real deal entails.  That said, every single Amber Absolute dupe, when worn side by side with the real Amber Absolute, suffers greatly in comparison.

 

And this is no different.  The dupe is satisfying and rich on its own but, worn in proximity to the great Tom Ford, reveals itself to fall far short of the mark.  Amber Absolute has an enormously thick and heavy labdanum note, possibly Ambreine, a smoky, caramelized labdanum material (natural) owned by Biolandes.  This produces an intoxicating brew of caramelized toffee, leather, and burning incense.  It is thick and bittersweet, puffed up on all sides by a singed marshmallow note that makes it as hefty as a sleeping toddler.  As a perfume experience, it is remarkably well-balanced.

 

This dupe – like most others – does not feature that special thick furriness of labdanum or the vanillic cushion of benzoin.  The textural density is not right, therefore.  The bitterness of the incense notes has been replicated well, but compared to the original, the resins appear watered down.  Additionally, there is a minty freshness to the amber absent in the original, whose amber is more richly toffee-like, with whiskyish undertones.  In fact, the tart herbal twinge brings the dupe closer to Ambre Sultan than Amber Absolute (although the Serge Lutens is itself far thicker, more resinous, and more full-bodied).

 

In time, this dupe settles into a plain incense amber that, while nice, is nothing to write home about.  It subtlety and near-translucence compared to the Tom Ford means that it might make for a good option for summer or for those occasions when you want a nip of amber rather than the full jeroboam.  Not a great dupe, therefore, but not a bad all-purpose amber oil.

 

 

 

Amber Absolute (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Woody Allen once said that ‘Pizza is a lot like sex. When it is good, it is really good. When it is bad, it is still pretty good’.  The same could be said for Amber Absolute dupes.  Even at their worst, they still smell absolutely fantastic.

 

Even though it is not a hundred percent accurate, this is the best dupe for Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute that I have personally experienced.  It lacks the essential herbal-bitter depth of the incense component that makes the original so ‘tasty’, and as with all dupes of resin-heavy fragrances, there is a thickness missing in the body of the dupe.  In particular, the expensive lushness of high quality labdanum and benzoin is just not there.  The smoky marshmallow note is also missing, and there is a weird mintiness to the amber that does not feature in the original.

 

Despite these niggles, however, this dupe manages to nail the essential fruitcake-like deliciousness of the original.  It gets you about two-thirds of the way to the real Amber Absolute, and for me personally, that is good enough.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

 

Amber Afghani (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Afghani is in many ways a traditional Eastern take on amber – dusty, vegetal, and medicinal, with an undercurrent of iodine provided by saffron and henna.  This is an amber that walks on the dry, leathery side of labdanum, rather than its unctuously sheep-fatty one.  In style and feel, Amber Afghani is similar to Royal Amber Blend by ASAQ, albeit greener and spicier.  Although floral notes and spices are listed, only saffron is perceptible, although there is a touch of the oily coolness of black pepper further on.

 

Amber Afghani is more monolithic than complex, and not something I would ever call refined.  However, if you’re in the market for a basic vegetal amber, and you’re more cowboy than cowgirl, then this is a pleasant and reasonably-priced option.  To add interest, I suggest layering it with rose and oud oils, or underneath Western (spray) soliflores such as Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia or Tuberose.

 

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Ash Sheikh is a potent labdanum bomb with the feral honk of freshly-pored road tar and hot ash.  Subtle it is most certainly not, but if you are a fan of smoky tobacco fragrances such as Jeke, Tribute, and Patchouli 24, and want a current of sweet, molasses-like amber running beneath, then Amber Ash Sheikh is a must-try.

 

On my skin, it is mostly a fearsomely smoky labdanum bomb.  Labdanum is a resin from the rockrose plant that can read as ashy, tobacco-ish, and leathery, or alternatively, as wet, unctuous, and caramelic.  The way the resin will read in any given scenario depends on the direction the perfumer decides to take it in.

 

The direction taken here, with Amber Ash Sheikh, is firmly that of the ashy, dry leather.  The opening is so parched it sucks all the moisture out of one’s mouth, but there’s a molasses note hiding behind the ash, bringing a bitter, tarry edge for depth and texture.  It is somewhat like the play on ashy and wet seen in Soleil de Jeddah by Stephane Humbert Lucas.  But unlike that perfume, there are no bright fruit notes in Amber Ash Sheikh with which to relieve the unrelenting dryness.

 

Over time – and this is an oil that plays out on the skin over the course of a day or more if you don’t shower (heck, even if you do shower) – the bittersweet molasses note emerges from the shadows, imbuing the blend with a ‘black’ note pitched halfway between soft black licorice and buckwheat honey.  The stickiness of this accord is leavened by sour, dusty wood notes, which have a mitti-like pungency to them.  Later, the mukhallat smoothes out into a more traditionally buttery version of labdanum, nicely granulated with a gritty, bittersweet resin that recalls both the incensey amber in Amber Absolute by Tom Ford and the dried-fruit, copal bitterness of Norma Kamali Incense.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

 

Amber Chocolate (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Who on earth could possibly dislike something that smells so delicious?  Amber Chocolate is roasted tonka bean shaved into a cup of the creamiest hot chocolate you can imagine.  It is spiced with a touch of cinnamon, black pepper, or even chili providing a little burn at the back of your tongue.  Thankfully, the spice element has been carefully calibrated to merely texturize the surface of the scent a little, not turn it into a niche-style freak show with curry or B.O. hiding out in the gourmandise, waiting to spring a nasty little surprise on you.

 

Amber Chocolate is a very thick, fluffy scent, and almost entirely linear.  In fact, it is remarkably similar to the yummy but simple goodness of Café Cacao by En Voyage.  If you love the smell of dark chocolate with a caramelized ‘condensed milk’ edge, then you’ll love Amber Chocolate.  If you don’t, or if you’re hoping it will evolve into something drier or less obviously edible, then you’re out of luck.

 

The attar format has much better longevity and duration than the eau de parfum, which fixes the common complaint that most people had with the original.  In fact, when it comes to the attar, it is as if the scent refuses to die.  It comes as a very dark, thick liquid that goes on like tar and stains the skin.  The drydown is finely textured, with hints of toasted bitter almond, hay, and an accord like burnt coffee grounds.  For me, Amber Chocolate lives up to the name of ‘delicious tonka bean’ better than Fève Délicieuse does, but I guess Dior got there first.

 

 

 

Amber & Frankincense / Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense (Aloes of Ish)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although this quarter tola bottle came to me labeled as ‘Amber & Frankincense’, I am reasonably certain that this is Amber Oudh #3 With Frankincense, based on what I can discern of the notes.  The first portion of this oil is pleasant if a little predictable – a dry, vegetal Indian-style amber with lots of raw, rubbery saffron and the lime-peel astringency of frankincense.  So far, so traditional.  Medicinal and severe, this Indian style of amber accord sits in direct opposition to souk-style ambers, which are focused on sweet, creamy combinations of labdanum, benzoin, and vanilla.

 

However, soon one notices the distinct presence of ambergris – salty, bright, and ozonic – which alleviates the dourness of the Indian amber accord, blowing gusts of sea air up its skirt.  The amber/ambergris accord becomes flushed with a thin layer of rubbery smoke, like a lump of resin seen through the haze of steam from a samovar.  Like most ambergris-laden affairs, there is also a note of charred leather, reminiscent of choya nakh, the destructive distillation of roasted seashells that many attar makers use to give their perfumes a salty, leathery pungency.

 

The heart is amber and smoky black tea, elevated by a transparent texture, like sugar water, vodka, or even champagne running through the pores of the resin, making it possible for the wearer to smell each note clearly.  This is unusual in an attar, because the natural density of oil tends to compress more than it aerates.  It is a quieter, more translucent take on the smoky booze, black tea, and dried fruit of Ambre Russe by Parfum d’Empire.

 

At one stage, there is a fleeting impression of the mint-leaf freshness of a Borneo-style oud, but this soon recedes into the smoky, rubbery black tea accent.  The drydown is a pleasurable affair of smoky, sweet resins and vanilla, approaching the singed marshmallow delight of Amber Absolute.  This is the little mukhallat that could.  Belying its low price, it walks you confidently through several styles of amber, starting off with the saffron-tinged medicinal amber of India, then shifting into a more Arabic ambergris-amber accord, then a Russian samovar (boozy, black tea) amber, to finally, a Western style amber in the incensey mold of Amber Absolute.  A prize at any price.

 

 

 

Amber Musc (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Musc by Narciso Rodriguez riffs on the basic framework of the original Narciso Rodriguez For Her EDT (sweet orange blossom, musk, and patchouli) by adding amber and oud notes to spin it off into a more oriental direction.  The result?  A fragrance that retains the clean skin sexiness of the original while gaining a vaguely soukish exoticism. 

 

The dupe oil is virtually identical, down to the antiseptic cleanliness of the musk and the stiffening breeze of Iso E Super in the drydown.  The dupe more than adequately stands in for the original, which costs over two hundred dollars for the big bottle at full retail.

 

When a fragrance is constructed from entirely synthetic ingredients such as white musk, Maltol, and oud replacers anyway, you begin to wonder what exactly you are shelling out the big bucks for.  The special raw materials?  Nah.  Past a certain price point, you are paying for the brand name and the perceived exclusivity or rarity of the scent.  Given that Amber Musc is such a basic bitch to begin with, you might as well just buy the dupe and be done with it. 

 

 

 

Photo by Andrea Donato on Unsplash

 

Amberosia (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amberosia is a parched amber with the texture of paper singed briefly at the edges with a blowtorch.  Picture the driftwood amber note subtracted from L’Air du Desert Marocain fused with aromatic rosewood, and that’s the basic character of this mukhallat.  Herbs and roses play second fiddle here, stepping back to let that austere, slightly cowboy-ish woody amber take the stage.  People who love, for example, the desert-dry woods, amber, and restrained rose in Czech and Speake’s No. 88 or Dior’s Ambre Nuit, will also appreciate Amberosia.

 

Towards the end of its life, Amberosia takes on a surprisingly barbershop-like quality.  You can almost taste the dry slap of a leather shaving strap against a freshly-shaved jaw.  There is a touch of soap, steam, herbs, and a tantalizing whiff of clean male skin.  These barbershoppy notes rough up the amber and wipe out any lingering traces of rose.  At this point, Amberosia is reminiscent of hairy-chested retro masculines such as Sahara by Mekkanische Rose, Ker by Bogue Profumo, and even somewhat, the far drydown of Peety by O’Driu.  Fans of gentlemanly colognes, wet shaving, and the traditional grooming art of the barbershop will adore this one. 

 

 

 

Amber Oud (Mr. Perfume)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The original By Kilian Amber Oud is a refined take on a Western-style amber – leathery, woody, and ever-so-slightly-characterless.  There’s a whiff of campfire smoke at the edges, but its unique selling point is really its politeness.  An amber that merely hints at the spice and roughness of other ambers, and an oud that is non-existent.  I am always surprised at this scent’s popularity until I remember that it is the perfect solution for people who dislike both amber and oud.

 

The dupe gets the basic scent profile right.  But where the original is discreet, the dupe is faint to the point of being undetectable.  Oils are generally closer-wearing than sprays, so one expects the volume to be a bit lower.  But in exchange for quietness, there should be a certain level of richness to compensate, and this fails to deliver.  A nice aroma, therefore, but in a concentration more suited to a body massage oil than a perfume.

 

 

 

Amber Oudh (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Amber Oudh is a waxy ‘coddled fruit’ amber with a chaser of rose and saffron for that essential taste of exotica.  Many a nose will interpret the astringency of the saffron or henna as oud, which is exactly how lower-end mukhallats achieve that oudy, medicinal feel without charging for the real stuff.

 

Credit where credit is due, Amber Oudh is no better or worse than any other ambery mukhallat on the low end of the scale.  It doesn’t read as overly synthetic, and I would recommend it quite happily as part of a beginner’s starter pack on mukhallats.  However, it doesn’t hold up to close inspection, collapsing quickly into the soapy white musk that seems to be the natural end of most Rasasi oils. 

 

 

 

Amber Paste (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Amber Paste is the breakout star of the Kuumba Made collection, garnering rave reviews and fierce customer loyalty from people who don’t even wear perfume on the regular.  The fact that Kuumba Made is sold in Wholefoods and other emporia means that it is accessible to broad cross-section of people.  There is something pleasingly democratic about the line, with Amber Paste flying the flag for the brand in a big way.

 

They weren’t kidding with the name, though.  Amber Paste is definitely a paste rather than an oil, its sticky texture making it more difficult to apply to skin than the other blends in the line.  However, the slight fussiness of application is more than worth it because this amber satisfies with its balance between dark, herbaceous topnotes, and golden basenotes.  There is even some similarity, briefly, between Amber Paste and that bellwether of ambers, Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, although Amber Paste is less complex from every angle.

 

Amber Paste quickly settles into a powdery vanilla once the initial roar of resin and bay leaf has abated, developing a certain waxen blandness that makes it perfect for casual wear or for layering under more complex amber fragrances.  It may not satisfy the niche hound, but for everyone else, this is a great amber option.

 

 

 

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

 

Ambre Cuir (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Ambre Cuir (‘Amber Leather’) exerts the sort of soapy, traditional shaving-cream appeal that will seduce men nostalgic for the feel of the leather strap and hot towel against their skin.  Ambre Cuir proved to be the most praised Henry Jacques among the men of Basenotes during a 2018 Henry Jacques sample pass, and with good reason – it has one of the most natural opoponax notes I’ve smelled in oil form.

 

Opoponax is a rather medicinal-smelling resin that smells partially cool, like herbal shaving foam, and partially warm, with an intensely spicy, balsamic underbite similar to cinnamon and clove.  Here, the resin has been pulled in the direction of cool by way of lavender absolute up top and a stony frankincense-iris pairing in the heart.

 

Handsome and acerbic, Ambre Cuir smells old-school in the most elegant way possible.  Fans of Dia Man (Amouage) will likely love Ambre Cuir, as it possesses something of the same silvery, soapy refinement, and a similar way of grinding rough, sticky resins into a bone-pale powder using Florentine orris as grist.

 

 

 

Ambrecuir (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

I would say that Ambrecuir is one of my favorites from the Sultan Pasha stable of mukhallats, but given the quality of his work, that is like throwing a pebble onto the beach and hoping to hit sand.  Ambrecuir is essentially a plush ‘white’ leather crème cut here and there with the sour, fruity funk of castoreum.  In theme, it riffs on the elegance of the contrast between the cool, powdered whiteness of orris butter and the rough blackness of varnished shoe leather as pioneered by Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire.

 

Where these fragrances diverge is in the drydown, when all traces of the creamy, iris suede have melted away.  While Cuir Ottoman goes on to develop a rich, powdery hay-amber accord that makes one think of brocaded liveries and pompadours of Versailles, the sour castoreum pulsing through Ambrecuir’s amber keep us firmly in the souk, pressed up against the heaving mass of bodies.  Indeed, fans of Rania J.’s Ambre Loup might appreciate Ambrecuir, as might lovers of Serge Lutens’ spicy Cuir Mauresque. 

 

Something to note here – a pleasingly antiseptic saffron darts in and out of Ambrecuir’s base, cutting the richness of the other notes like a knife worth’s of dried blood and iodine.  Without this spicy, medicinal note, Ambrecuir might have become as bloated as a corpse after a hot day in the river.  It is this balance of sweet and medicinal notes that gives Ambrecuir its curious delicacy and refinement.  The saffron-tinged amber also gives the mukhallat an ancestral link to the sternly vegetal, iodine-tinged ambers of Northern India, a category of fragrance that is one hundred percent sugar- and vanilla-free. 

 

A rich dulce de leche base brings it all home, though, turning away from Mother India and back towards Paris.  Anyone familiar with the ridiculously rich dried-fruit amber and benzoin duet in Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute may feel tears come to their eyes.  A gorgeous bastard child of leather and amber, Ambrecuir is for those who take their leather with a side of cream.

 

 

 

Ambre Narcotique (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Narcotique will induce a state of bliss in anyone who loves thick, spicy labdanum bombs such as Amber Absolute, Ambre Sultan, or Ambre Loup.  It opens with the bitter, leathery aroma of labdanum resin, introducing an animalic dark chocolate note that gets my Spidey senses tingling.  From that point onwards, however, this pleasantly bitter note is masked by a thick sieving of dusty benzoin, sweet myrrh (opoponax), and vanilla.  If you love incensey ambers with spices, herbs, and rosy notes operating at a more subliminal level, then it doesn’t get much better than this.

 

 

 

Ambre Sauvage (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre Sauvage is a smooth-as-silk amber with a nutty, slightly plasticized leather undertone to balance out the sweetness.  In contrast to the dark, smoky incense of Ambre Narcotique, this amber showcases the buttery pleasure that is the marriage between a toffee-rich amber and a spanking new pair of leather brogues.  Not terribly complex, but like a caramel mocha latte, it goes down so easily it is hard to begrudge its simplicity.  Fans of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau d’Ambre Extreme or Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114 will find their bliss here.

 

 

 

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

 

Âme Sombre Series (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

The Âme Sombre series (Âme Sombre Oud Infusion, Âme Sombre Grade 1, and Âme Sombre Grade II) was conceived as a tribute to, well, Tribute – the landmark frankincense-cedar attar from Amouage that has such a cult following that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for even a sample of it.  Naturally, when Amouage discontinued its line of attars, the desire for Tribute increased even further.  Nothing enhances Holy Grail status for a scent like unattainability, scarcity, and the huge amounts of trouble one must go to in order to secure it.  Luckily for us all, Sultan Pasha has stepped in with his take on the original Tribute.

 

All the Âme Sombre variations revolve around a beguilingly rich, dark frankincense note redolent of the pine-like smoke from the censer at High Mass.  This frankincense is surrounded by a very good rose otto and voluptuous jasmine.  The florals never succeed in speaking over the soaring voice of that dark, burnt lime peel frankincense – they simply add a buttery floral softness that pierces the gloom like sunlight through a stained glass window.

 

In the base, there is a growl of dark tobacco, ancient balsams, resins, and gums, which joined with cedar, provides a smoky bitterness, like burning driftwood and funeral pyres.  The bitterness is alleviated somewhat by a low hum of amber and rock rose in the background, but never dies away completely.

 

Âme Sombre Infusion Oud is the most expensive and opulent version of Âme Sombre.  It rivals or even surpasses the cost of the original Tribute, due to the time-consuming and messy task of infusing a small quantity of Âme Sombre Grade I with smoke from sinking grade oud wood chips, which Sultan heated on a burner directly underneath the attar itself.

 

The Oud Infusion version therefore contains the uniquely clean, resinous aroma that comes from heating oud wood (as opposed to the fermented, ‘overripe’ aroma of pure oud oil).  The oud infusion doubles down on the rich smokiness of the frankincense, but also offers a slightly green sweetness that serves to soften the essentially bitter character of the scent.  This version, although expensive and now also possibly discontinued, is the most balanced version of Tribute, and my personal favorite.

 

Âme Sombre Grade I and Âme Sombre Oud Infusion both relate closely to the original Tribute (albeit with a bigger emphasis on rose), and either would be an excellent substitute for the now discontinued attar.  Âme Sombre Grade II differs quite dramatically from both the Oud Infusion and Grade I, but I like it a lot as a standalone scent and wish it had been marketed separately.  

 

Âme Sombre Grade I begins with an incredibly lush, lemony rose that has the effect of flooding the gloomy church corridors with light and air.  Rose is usually added to oud to give it a sweet juiciness to counteract its sour, stark woodiness, and here it plays that role both for the austere, pine-like frankincense and the sourish cedar.  Then a clutch of dark, balmy resins and leather notes moves in to draw a black velvet cloak over the bright, sourish rose, rendering the tone of the attar somber and serious.  Grade I is slightly darker, more phenolic, and more sour-rosy in feel than the Oud Infusion, which draws sweet woodsmoke notes from the agarwood infusion.  Grade I employs more of a focus on balmy leather notes than the other versions.

 

Overall, Âme Sombre Grade I feels more Northern in tone than Middle-Eastern.  There is a fresh juniper note in the background that further bolsters this ‘Orthodox Church in a chilly Northern forest’ tonality.  In terms of overall approach, Âme Sombre Grade I is perhaps the closest to the original Tribute with its stark, smoky cedar-frankincense combination.  It is also intensely powerful, lasting on my skin all day and well beyond a shower.

 

Âme Sombre Grade II is more tobacco-focused than Ame Sombre Grade I and has a sharper rose element.  When compared directly to Grade I, it reveals a big-boned, souk-ish amber-rose combination not a million miles away from sweet mukhallat-style fragrances like Raghba, Lateefa, and 24 Gold.  Not that this style doesn’t have a rough-hued, sexy charm of its own, you understand.  It is just that nobody in their right mind would pay Sultan Pasha prices for the kind of thing that sells for $30-$40 on eBay for 100 milliliters shipped. 

 

The tobacco, powered by the super-powerful synthetic Kephalis, is dry, papery, and rather strident.  Unlike Âme Sombre Oud Infusion and Âme Sombre Grade I, Ame Sombre Grade II contains a small quantity of synthetic aromachemicals.  In some circles, this piece of information seems to have sunk this version of the attar as being low-quality or inferior to the other versions.  I would argue mildly against that categorization because, although it contains some synthetics, it does not smell terribly inferior in quality.  Admittedly, it does lack the smoky, aquiline mystery of the other two versions.

 

Still, you get what you pay for, and who knows, you might just be in the market for a sweeter, friendlier version of Tribute.  The severity of the original does not sit well with quite a few women, for example, so this version might be the right pick.  In short, Âme Sombre Grade II is a pleasing rose-tobacco blend that would work well for people who like Wardasina or any of the Lateefa or 24 Gold scents – somewhat loud, rosy ambers that project a clear message of affability from a distance, thus perfect for clubbing.

 

 

 

Anubis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Kyphi, Egyptian Amber, Egyptian Musk, Darkness of the Dead

 

 

Kyphi is a type of compacted incense used by the ancient Egyptians, consisting of herbs, gums, resins, and woods powdered down into dust, bound with wine and honey to form briquettes of incense, and subsequently burned on ceremonial censers.

 

Kyphi differs from other forms of incense and bakhoor mainly in its inclusion of unusual aromatics such as mastic, juniper berry, turpentine (pine resin), calamus, and rush reeds, as well as its binding agents of honey, raisins, and wine.  Nowadays, scents referencing kyphi will normally use medicinal, bitter, or green resin notes that are not often seen in other types of incense.  They will often include a wine, honey, or raisin facet too.

 

Anubis opens with the same vegetable oil-like note noticeable in almost all the NAVA blends.  Once this dissipates, the bitter herbaciousness of the kyphi rises to the fore, mingling with a low key amber-resin accord for body, and an attractively musty, medicinal undertone.  True to the original raison d’être of kyphi, the blend smells purifying, albeit in a wispy, barely-there manner.  In other words, this is not a heavy or rich blend.  Its essential character is peppery and green – subtly bitter even.

 

Anubis does get sweeter and muskier as time goes on, picking up a not entirely unpleasant headshoppiness in the process (I assume that the Darkness of the Dead accord has something to do with patchouli).  Good, but I think I’d prefer this in an oil burner than as a personal fragrance.

 

 

 

Attar al Kaaba (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is one of Al Haramain’s bestsellers, and justifiably so.  A fabulously thick, potent oil featuring a fruity pink rose, creamy sandalwood, and sweet amber, it paints a picture of eastern exotica in very broad brushstrokes.  No oud, either real or fake, no matter what you think you may be smelling.  However, there is a woodsy, almost coffee-like note swimming around in the syrup that’s deliberately open to misinterpretation, so if you want to close your eyes and pretend, then who am I to say otherwise?

 

Attar al Kaaba is a great starter ambery mukhallat.  A simple, and accessible and quite lovely rendition of the typical ‘attar’ smell, it will do the trick when you want to smell exotic and alluring in a slightly ‘foreign’ way.  It is quite sweet, syrupy even, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

 

 

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 my samples of Maison Anthony Marmin, Hyde & Alchemy, Mellifluence, Kuumba Made, Rasasi, Mr. Perfume, Al Haramain, NAVA and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Clive Christian, Abdes Salaam Attar and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands.  The Aloes of Ish and Henry Jacques samples were sent to me by two separate but equally kind 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:  Photo by Krystal Ng on Unsplash 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Myrrh opoponax Oriental Resins Round-Ups Single note exploration Smoke Spice The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide to Resins

30th May 2022

 

 

Arabic and Persian mukhallat perfumery differs from traditional Indian attar perfumery by way of its heavy use of the aromatic resins, gums, and balsams, which are all substances produced by trees and plants in order to protect themselves from disease or attack.  There is some use of resins in Indian attar perfumery – resins are smoked dry as part of a ‘destructive distillation’ process that is conducted independently of the main attar distillation; this produces what is known as a ‘choya’, which is then added into the final attar distillate to lend a specific warm, smoky facet to the final result.  However, the use of resins in Indian attar perfumery is minimal compared to Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery, where resins often play a significant, if not leading role in the character of its perfumes.

 

Most of the resins used in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery have healing, cleansing, and antioxidant properties, and have long been used in traditional medicine.  Arabs chew frankincense tears as chewing gum to freshen the breath and aid digestion, for example, while Papiers d’Arménie owe their existence to a Frenchman by the name of  Auguste Ponsot, who, after stumbling across benzoin resin during his travels in Armenia in 1885, decided to make benzoin-infused strips of paper to cleanse the air in stuffy rooms all across Paris.  Both Arabs and Persians have long traditions of burning incense to fumigate their rooms, clothes, places of worship, and hair.  The word perfume itself comes from the Latin per fumus, which means ‘through the smoke’, making it more than likely that the first rudimentary form of perfume was, in fact, the fumigation of a dwelling with incense.  So put that on your burner and smoke it!

 

 

Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

 

The role of resins in oil perfumery is to lend a blend a smoky, balsamic tone that provides both depth and fixative properties.  To Westerners, resins simply smell exotic and mysterious.  Our first exposure to them is likely through church where they are often burned on a priest’s censer.  Resins are, of course, important in Western classic perfumery too.  They form the bedrock of the ambery-balsamic family of perfumes formerly known as ‘oriental’, with resins such as labdanum and benzoin joining with vanilla to create the famous amber accord, recognizable to anyone who has ever smelled Shalimar by Guerlain.  The principal resins used in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery are described below.

 

 

Labdanum (Cistus ladanifer) is the prime component of the amber accord in mukhallat (and indeed commercial) perfumery.   Labdanum is the name for the sticky exudate that covers the entire plant of this shrubby rock rose that grows in mountainous Mediterranean regions such as Crete and Cyprus.   In ancient times, the labdanum resin was transferred to the wool of grazing goats and sheep who brushed up against the shrub, and later, combed out of the animal’s hair by shepherds.  These days, however, modern perfumery extraction methods are used, such as boiling the twigs and leaves of the plant to extract raw resin, solvent extraction to extract an absolute, or steam distillation to extract an essential oil (the different extraction methods produce results that all smell quite different to one another).   

 

Labdanum absolute is a wondrous raw material.  It smells smoky, rich, incensey, leathery, and often displays an attractive salted caramel or toffee-like undertone.  In terms of texture, it can either come across as extremely buttery (unctuous) or extremely dry (dusty).  Under some lights, there is a slightly animalic, goaty facet to labdanum, but in and of itself, the scent of labdanum is not animalic.  

 

 

Benzoin is a sweet vanillic resin from two species of the styrax tree, the styrax tonkinensis (Siam benzoin) and styrax benzoin (from Sumatra).  Siam benzoin is the one most widely used in perfumery, and it has a slightly sweet, dusty cinnamon aspect to it.   In some lights, it smells like slightly woody vanilla. But benzoin resin has other subtler nuances such as brown sugar crystals, coffee, paper, and sometimes a wintergreen note like mastic or camphor.  Benzoin added to an attar or mukhallat lends a balsamic, spicy-vanillic tonality.  It plays an important role in the composition of the amber accord in perfumery.

 

 

Opoponax, also known as sweet myrrh, is native to Somalia and Ethiopia. In its upper register at least, this is a resin that barely knows that it is a resin at all.   In fact, it wants to be a spice or a herb, but can’t decide which, which is why the first flash of opoponax lurches wildly between the metallic, sweaty sting of clove and the aromatic camphor of bay leaf.  Another layer is the ambery resinousness in its lower registers that smells like a rich toffee but also quite a bit like Disaronno, which gives it a boozy almond butter tonality that cracks the safe open a little to reveal how the drydowns of No. 5 (Chanel) and Shalimar (Guerlain) are actually constructed.  There is even a hint of Johnson and Johnson’s Baby Powder or Baby Oil that lingers towards the very end. 

 

Later, the transition between the astringent spicy-herbal topnotes and the almond taffy basenotes makes things interesting.  This clash of cymbals produces an old fashioned bay rhum effect that makes me think of amber mixed up with Old Spice or Brut.  There is a lingering soapiness in among all that almond butter richness that calls to mind shaving foam.  It is a confusing but ultimately loveable mash up of balsamic sweetness and rinsing herbal sourness.  You get the gold honey of a resin and the aromatic rigor of a barbershop fougère. 

 

Opoponax (sweet myrrh) is not as medicinal as true myrrh but does have a rooty, almost herbal quality that sets it apart from the sweeter, creamier resins.  It can smell green and coniferous, like fresh lavender buds crushed between finger and thumb, but with a warm, golden, balsamic tone underneath that marks it out as a resin rather than a herb.  It is quite spicy, with a cinnamon bark facet, and a subtle soapiness in the lower register.

 

Fragrances that espouse the true spirit of opoponax in commercial perfumery include: Imperial Opoponax (Les Nereides), Ligea la Sirena (Carthusia), Or des Indes (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier), Eau Lente (Diptyque), Jicky and Shalimar (Guerlain), En Avion (Caron), Coco (Chanel), and Bengale Rouge (Papillon Perfumery).

 

 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

 

Amber resin, from the Baltic pine tree, does not produce its own essential oil.  In mukhallat perfumery, as in Western perfumery, amber is a fantasy composition rather than an actual raw material, its honeyed, resinous warmth suggested by a combination of labdanum, vanilla, and benzoin.  The proportions of ingredients used in the amber formula will depend on the effect the perfumer is seeking: more labdanum to create a leathery, dusty amber, more benzoin to create a sweetly powdery one, and so on.  Ambergris may have been used in the place of labdanum as part of a traditional amber accord, especially in earlier forms of mukhallats and attars, but for reason of cost and scarcity, this is no longer the case.  Read Kafkaesque’s marvelous Guide to 50 amber fragrances to help you identify amber scents that pique your interest.

 

There is a fossilized amber resin oil available for use in attar perfumery, produced through the process of destructive distillation, quite similar to making a traditional Indian choya.  In this process, the amber resin is burned and then distilled, producing a smoky, tarry-smelling oil.  This is not a true essential oil of amber but a by-product of burning.  Fossilized amber oil, when used in a perfume composition, produces a dark, balsamic effect, and must be dosed very carefully in order not to overwhelm the other notes.  It is sometimes called black amber. A fragrance that famously uses this is Black Gemstone by 777 Stephane Humbert Lucas.

 

 

 

Photo: My own, of Boswellia sacra (frankincense) gums from Oman

 

Frankincense, for many people, lies at the very tippety-top of the incense chain – the thoroughbred of the resin family.  Deriving from the old French word franc encens – meaning ‘high quality incense’ – frankincense is a gum produced by the Boswellia genus of trees which grows in Somalia, Sudan, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.  The bulk of frankincense, called luban or loban in Arabic, comes from Somalia.  However, the finest quality of frankincense is called Hojari (alternatively referred to as howjary) or silver frankincense, and this comes from the arid Dhofar region of Oman in the United Arab Emirates.

 

The steam-distilled oil of frankincense resin gives attars and perfumes a fresh, coniferous resinousness, with a bright lemon-and-lime topnote.  Some grades of Omani frankincense smell like oranges or tangerines in their topnotes, with a soft-ish, creamy quality in the lower register.  The house of Amouage, based in Oman, was founded around the use of local Hojari frankincense, and indeed, most of this house’s output showcases the silvery beauty of Omani frankincense.

 

In an interview with me for Basenotes in March 2018, Trygve Harris, a frankincense distiller in Oman, talked about the different aromas associated with the different types of frankincense.  “Somali has a lemony note, and a warm dryness, an austerity.  It makes me thirsty — it smells vast and dry.  It reminds me of Palm Springs when I was a kid.  The Omani has a richness, an opulence, like a treasure box.  Regarding the differences in the Omani frankincense oils, I like to say the white (howjary) has more a green, herbal, butterfly note while the black has an orange floral spice aspect.”

 

Frankincense is the note that many people, including me, tend to lump in with the larger category represented by the word incense.  Technically, incense is any hard-ish material – be it a wood (sandalwood, oud wood) or a resin or gum (like myrrh, benzoin, copal, frankincense) – that can be slowly burned or smoked on a coal to produce a purifying but fragrant smoke.  Fragrances classified as incense fragrances typically feature some ratio of frankincense to other resins, balsams, and gums (most typically myrrh, but also benzoin, labdanum, etc.), so many of the frankincense-themed fragrances are actually the standard ‘incensey’ mix of frankincense plus something else.  Read my 2020 article on frankincense for a round-up of over 25 frankincense fragrances that are worth your time if you want to do a deep dive on this majestic resin.

 

 

Myrrh is a gum produced by the Commiphorah myrrha species of tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and North-East Africa.  Deriving from the Arabic word مر (mur), meaning ‘bitter’, myrrh oil is used all over Arabia, China, and India as a traditional medicine. Myrrh oil is quite different from myrrh resin.  Myrrh oil can be bitter, rubbery-smelling, and often quite saline (mushroomy).  The resin smells earthier, slightly sweet, with musty undertones – when lit, it smells quite smoky (well, duh).  

 

What does myrrh smell like?  While frankincense is a soaring series of sunny, high-pitched notes like lime peel or crushed pine needles, myrrh is dark, fungal, and gloomy, reminding one of the dark shadows behind massive stone pillars in a cathedral, signed pine, tar, anise, licorice, and the scent of freshly-sliced ceps.  It can be soapy, fatty, or rooty.  In perfumery, myrrh lends a subtle, earthy tone pitched halfway between soil and stone.  It has a sepulchral quality, leading some to categorize it as Gothic or moldy.

 

Some facets of myrrh are intensely bitter, while some smell like sweet licorice, anise, or rubber.  Often the resin smells latex-y and saline (in cookery terms, if frankincense is a citrus fruit, myrrh is volcanic salt).  Personally, I often perceive myrrh as smelling ‘hollow’, as if there were a tear in the fabric of the fragrance where the aroma is supposed to be (a sort of negative space).  Myrrh has a deeply atmospheric smell, redolent of the air inside centuries-old European cathedrals. Read my 2020 article on myrrh for a round-up of 27 myrrh fragrances that, together, form a whole education on the scent of myrrh.

 

 

Styrax is a sweet, ambery gum that comes from the tree known as Liquidamber orientalis native to Turkey.  It produces a rich, balsamic oil with leathery properties.  It shares a rich, heady sweetness with benzoin resin, a variety of which is called Styrax benzoin because of its commonalities with true styrax resin.

 

 

Other gums such as copal, copaiba, tolu, and peru balsam are used to a lesser extent in mukhallat perfumery, possibly because, with the exception of copal, they are species not native to the Middle-East or Africa and therefore always had to imported.

 

 

Copal possesses a bay-leaf bitterness that adds a pleasantly animalic bite to amber accords.  It is the prime component in Norma Kamali’s famous Incense, considered the behemoth of incense fragrances.  Copaiba is a woody, pungent resin from a tree native to South America, and is only rarely used in mukhallats.  Peru balsam, also native to South America, is a resinous, sweet-smelling gum with earthy, almost bitter basenotes of cinnamon bark, almond, and green olives. Tolu balsam is similar, but softer and velvetier.  All these resins come primarily from South America, although copal is also found in Eastern Africa.  They therefore tend to be more popular in Western interpretations of resinous-balsamic perfumery than in Middle-Eastern mukhallat perfumery itself.  These balsams add a voluptuous, velvety sweetness and depth to ambery-balsamic compositions.

 

 

 

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, my own, of Boswellia sacra (frankincense) gums from Oman.  Please do not reprint, distribute or use without my permission.