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

12th October 2022

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Nagi Attar (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Nesma (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Palisander (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Port Royal (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Rasa (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Royal Dream (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Royal Medina Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ruh Khus (Anglesey Organics)

Type: ruh (sort of)

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Safran White Or (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Safwa (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sajaro (Classic) (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sballo (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Photo by Rei Yamazaki on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Shamama (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sirocco (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Supercell (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Andrew Draper on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Sycomore (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Thebes I (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Natalie Comrie on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Vasura (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Vert Gallant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Volubilis (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Apurv Das on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Wicked (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Three vanillas, aged patchouli, almond buttercream

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Zafraan Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash 

 

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

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

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

10th October 2022

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Dakkar (Al Rehab)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Dee (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Denali (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Trà My on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Diaghilev (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Eau du Soir (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Egyptian Oasis (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Encens Chypre (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by 선인장 on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Encore Une Noir (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Et Pourtant (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Floozy (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by feey on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

La Fougre / Fougère du Paradis (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Geisha Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Haute Love (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Hayati (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

 

 

Incendere (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ikigai (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Indian Saffron (Mellifluence)

Type: ruh

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Iranzol (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Istanbul (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Jannataul Firdaus (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Alecsander Alves on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Jardin de Minuit (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Kāmānala (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Karnak (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Photo by Laura Nyhuis on Unsplash

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Kashka (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Khus (Yam International)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

 

 

Lady and a Baby Unicorn (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Lutalica (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

           

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mitti Attar (Aromata Mirabilia)

Type: traditional distilled attar   

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mitti (Mellifluence)

Type: traditional distilled attar

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Malaki (Swiss Arabian)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mukhallat Najdi Maliki (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

Photo by Vera De on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Musk Amber (Nemat)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image:  Photo by Natasha Furst on Unsplash  

 

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

 

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! 

 

 

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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)

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

4th October 2022

 

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

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

Photo by Maksym Sirman on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

 

 

Ambre de Coco

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Malik Al Motia

 

Photo by Bibi Pace on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Al Majmua

 

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Mysore Incenza

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Le Mitti

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Gul Hina

 

Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Cover Image: Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash 

All Natural Attars & CPOs Collection Cult of Raw Materials Floral Independent Perfumery Review Sandalwood The Attar Guide Thoughts

The Areej Le Doré History of Attar Collection Thoughts and Reviews

16th September 2022

 

Thoughts

 

Don’t buy the Areej Le Doré History of Attar collection of attars if you are looking for another Walimah or Russian Musk attar by Russian Adam – a regular perfume composition, in other words.  Instead, buy the History of Attars collection if you value having a reference library for traditional distilled attars, made by artisans using pretty much the same equipment (a deg and bhapka) and distillation techniques practiced in India since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, 3300 BCE-1300 BCE. 

 

It takes enormous skill and knowledge to make an attar in the traditional way, and having practiced it for over five thousand years, Indians are the masters of this art.   Although the attar maker behind the History of Attar set of attars has not been revealed by Russian Adam, the traditional seat of the attar-making world has long been Kannauj, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.   Kannauj-based attar-makers supplied the princes of the Turkish-Mongolian (but culturally Persiatic) Mughal Empire with attars for more than three centuries and have a long history of trading with the Middle East (the word ‘attar’ is Farsi in origin but due to the boundary-crossing nature of attar making, the word is pretty much the same, with minor changes, in Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic).   Surrounded by silt-rich fields and valleys that grow an extraordinary range of exotic flowers, aromatics grasses, roses, and herbs, Kannauj is justifiably called the Grasse of the attar world.  Read about the most famous single-material Indian attars here and complex Indian attars here.

 

However, the traditional attar distillation industry is under threat.  Though you can read more in detail about why here, the main reasons are (1) the depletion of genuine santalum album oil, the traditional carrier oil into which the fragrant material materials – rose, jasmine, etc. – are distilled, (2) the high costs and labor intensity attached to harvesting, sourcing, and distillation of the raw materials to the standards expected in traditional attar distillation, and (3) the changing perfume tastes and buying power of the market that buys attars.

 

It is no wonder, then, that many of the small, independent attar-making houses have gone out of business.  At its height, approximately sixty percent of the population of the 1.7 million-strong city of Kannuaj was employed in the attar industry.  Until the restrictions on sandalwood oil production came about in the nineties, there were over seven hundred distilleries operating in Kannauj, for example.  Now there are only a hundred and fifty.  The traditional attar making industry has shrunk by almost eighty percent over the past three decades.

 

Sandalwood is perhaps the biggest issue, as it is responsible for about 50% of the aroma of a traditional attar (sandalwood being both a great-quality carrier that only improves with time but also deeply fragrant in and of itself).  Read more about why sandalwood is such an amazing material here.  Materials such as rose and jasmine have always been expensive to produce, because they are labor-intensive, and a great quantity of their petals required to produce even a small amount of a ruh or attar.  A ten milliliter bottle of genuine rosa damascena oil (ruh gulab) costs approximately $250 in Kannauj, but the same amount of synthetic rose oil costs only $8

 

You might think that all this preamble is a lot of bla, bla, bla.  But since the History of Attar collection of traditionally distilled attars is such a different product for Areej Le Doré to offer, it is worth spending a little time on clarifying why and how these products differ.

 

Russian Adam does not distill traditional attars himself.  Although he does distill his own ouds and some sandalwood oils for its sister outfit, FeelOud, Adam outsources distillations of specific materials to local artisans.  These oils are then used in the Areej Le Doré perfume compositions, both spray-based and oil format.  When these oils are mixed together with an oil carrier, these make what Areej Le Doré calls ‘attars’ but are technically ‘mukhallats’.  

 

Most perfumes in oil format called ‘attars’ are actually mukhallats.  See for example the 2021 Amouage ‘attars’ discussed here, as well as Ensar Oud’s ‘attars’.  This is partially because the word ‘attar’ originally meant anything fragrant or good-smelling, and has therefore become synonymous with ‘perfume’ – and specifically oil-based ‘perfume’ – to most people.  There is, however, some critical differences between the construction and artistic intent of a distilled attar and that of a mukhallat.  Unlike traditional attars, which are distilled, mukhallats are mixed, using already distilled or compounded materials, with a focus on raw materials culturally significant in the Middle-Eastern perfumery, such as ambergris, oud oil, musk, resins, and amber accords.   Mukhallats are definitely more perfumey and ‘finished’ in form – closer to what most would consider a real perfume. Traditionally distilled attars are far simpler and focused on praising the spiritual bounty of nature – closer to an ‘essence’ or ‘enfleurage’ than to what most people think of as a perfume.  Mukhallats tend to be easier to make because it involves mixing materials that have been distilled elsewhere, and the labor is all in the composition (rather than in the distillation).

 

Because traditional attar distillation is an extremely complex operation involving many people, weeks, complex procedures, etc., Adam commissioned an attar maker (attar wallah) to make these attars.  Despite some disappointment about this expressed online, this is basic quality assurance.  If you want a Chanel tweed jacket, you don’t buy a pattern and try to make it yourself.  Leave it to the experts. 

 

Yes, the History of Attar set of distilled attars is expensive.  But traditional distilled attars – genuine ones – are expensive, due to the labor and materials involved.  For example, a traditionally-distilled hina or shamama attar with the full whack of natural raw materials starts at a minimum of $2,000 per kilo.   And it takes over one month of uninterrupted distilling time to make a real shamama attar. Even in India, where labor in cheap,  that adds up to over 700 man hours.  Some will argue that you can buy an Indian attar for $5 on eBay or IndiaMart, and indeed, you can.  However, it will not be a genuine distilled attar.  It will contain a synthetic solvent (like IPM or DPG) or a substandard natural replacer (like Moringa oil) instead of Indian sandalwood.  Most, if not all of the other raw materials will also be likely synthetic.  And it most certainly will not have been distilled in a deg and bhapka but knocked up in someone’s back office masquerading as a lab.

 

It is ok if you are not interested in traditional distilled attars or if you are interested but don’t want to spend this much.  This collection isn’t for everyone.  (Also, attars themselves aren’t for everyone).  Only buy these if you are the type of person who values having a reference library of top-notch examples of a genre or raw material, against which you can judge the quality of other perfumes or oils.  I would compare this collection to the oud sampler you can get on Ensar Oud’s site.  It is handy as a baseline.  If you are content to limit your investment to the spray perfumes that Areej Le Doré will soon release based on these very attars and are only mildly curious as to how the spray fragrances relate back to these attars, then skip ahead to the reviews below.  They should tell you everything you need to know.

 

If you do buy this set, however, and are new to attar perfumery, be prepared for the fact that traditional Indian distilled attars are not perfumey-smelling.  Think of traditional distilled attars more as essences than perfumes per se, simply suspended in sandalwood oil.  Traditional attars are simple in structure; they start with the scent of the fragrant raw material that has been distilled, and end with the famously buttery-peanutty aroma of real sandalwood.

 

If Indian attars ever do smell complex, it is for one of two reasons.  First, some fragrant materials, like vetiver root, are complex-smelling materials in and of themselves, and so lend the attar the illusion of a more fully worked out ‘perfume’.  Vetiver root, when distilled as a ruh khus, for example, can stretch from hazelnut and grass to rose, earth, and smoke.  Second, there is a category of traditional attars known as complex attars, which are not single distillations of one material but co-distillations (for example, rose, jasmine and vetiver root in one still) or mixed with other attars and choyas after distillation.  Attars such as majmua and shamama fall into this category. 

 

The History of Attar attars are not complex-smelling attars.  They are single distillation attars, meaning that only one fragrant material was loaded into the deg and then distilled over the base of sandalwood.  This was an intentional choice on the part of Russian Adam, I believe, as he wanted customers to experience the raw materials in their purest form possible.

 

Traditional distilled Indian attars present the raw material in a way that will surprise people used to their portrayal in commercial perfumery.  For example, jasmine – motia in attar speak – does not smell as clean, bright, or creamy as is commonly portrayed in commercial perfumery.  In motia attars, I notice that jasmine can smell dusky and a bit dank, with some gasoline or plasticky nuances that tend to get filtered out for the commercial perfume experience.  If you buy this collection of attars, therefore, expect some olfactory surprises!  Do not adjust your TV set; this is all perfectly real.

 

The History of Attar attars all end up in exactly the same place, which is a base of real santalum album sandalwood.  As a bonus, Russian Adam has added a quarter tola of sandalwood  oil distilled by FeelOud from vintage Mysore sandalwood from 2000.  This is to give people an idea of what good quality santalum album smells like. The length of time it takes for each attar to get to the Mysore sandalwood base differs, with the more ephemeral materials like rose (Gulab) reaching their destination in an hour and the more tenacious materials like tuberose (Champa, Tuba) taking slightly longer.  But the end destination never changes.  If you love the scent of real, honest-to-goodness Indian sandalwood, you are in for a rare treat.  If you don’t have a particular yen for it, then it will be like being served the same dessert six days in a row.  (Honestly, the people in the latter group don’t deserve good sandalwood at all).     

 

 

The Reviews

 

 

Champa

 

Photo:  Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

 

Champa attar is the most famous floral attar ‘type’ from India, possibly popularized beyond the borders of India by its use in nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks), shampoo, and soaps.  Distilled from the champaca flower, a bright yellow flower revered across the Indian subcontinent and much of tropical Asia as a symbol of sacred femininity, champaca tends to smell rich and creamy, similar in profile to magnolia, but with a denser, muskier body weight, and hints of bubblegum, green apple peel, mint, and apricot. Though champaca can be quite musky at times, it is traditionally associated with cleanliness.   In fact, the word ‘champa’ gave rise to the word ‘shampoo’ by way of the Sanskrit word for champaca, ‘champo’, which means ‘to massage’.  

 

This particular Champa attar smells (typically for champaca) headily botanical, with a sharp green tea element freshened with pops of mint, grass, wood, and something akin to furniture polish.   You can tell that it is a floral – something about the heady, steamy atmosphere – yet it doesn’t smell particularly fruity, bright, or feminine in the way you think an attar squeezed from a yellow flower is going to. 

 

I pick up on an intense ‘darkly stewed tea’ element, with a sweet, powdered incense quality in the background, although this impression could be the automatic linking my brain does between the scent of traditional agarbatti[1] and actual champaca.  Although this doesn’t make much sense, since most Nag Champa on the market these days haven’t been within 100 km of real champaca, the association lingers, rendering this attar distinctly Indian in character.

 

The most interesting part of Champa is when it starts to degrade on the skin.  By which I mean the yellow flower itself begins to wilt into a damp, almost fetid organic soup of crushed stamens and soggy stems.  It smells musky in a very natural, attractive kind of way – like a young woman, freshly washed head to toe in Timoteí, rolling around in wildflowers and chamomile buds, only to emerge hours later stained with plant juice and soaked in that fresh-sweet-salty sweat that only the very young seem to produce.  This ‘decaying at the edges’ aspect – the slight tip of the hat towards the barnyard floor – smells freakishly sensual, mostly because it is so clearly natural in origin.  Whoever thinks that flowers can’t smell anything other than sweet or clean should smell this.

 

After this, there is a brief detour into jasmine-like territory, with a sour, plasticky edge I associate with Sambac at the end of its natural life.  Sometimes champaca can smell a little like jasmine, though, only a bit coarser and not as ‘clear’.  If you’ve ever smelled the underside of your wrist after removing a rubber watch at the end of a hot day, you’ll know what this stage of Champa smells like (only mixed with something vaguely floral).    

 

Champa winds up, about two hours later, in pure sandalwood territory.  Because all of these attars end with the same sandalwood finish, it is worth describing this once and then moving on.  If you want to study this basenote in isolation, Areej Le Doré has provided a whole quarter tola of vintage sandalwood in the set, called ‘Sandal’.  I describe it below.

 

 

Sandal

 

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

 

This is the essential oil of pure santalum album (meaning ‘white sandalwood’), the species of sandalwood rightly prized for being the most fragrant sandalwood of all.  Sandal was distilled from a vintage, well-aged batch of real Mysore sandalwood (22 years old at the time of writing).   Due to current restrictions on Mysore sandalwood, this is a genuine rarity.  

 

How does it smell?  Well, to paraphrase Teri Hatcher in Seinfeld, it’s real and it’s spectacular.  But lean in, folks, because real Mysore sandalwood is actually very quiet.  A fun fact is that, when you first smell Mysore sandalwood – or indeed any santalum album at all, whether it is grown in Mysore or not – you have to make a physical effort to shake off any association with the loud, buttery, incensey scent familiar to you in commercial perfumery, because that’s an association largely formed thanks to widespread use of sandalwood replacers like Javanol or Ebanol.  Commercial perfumes pre-1980s might have contained a certain quantity of real santalum album, but after that, you have been raised on the alluring lie that is sandalwood synthetics.  Therefore, a person’s first sniff of real Mysore sandalwood oil can be disorienting.   

 

At first, Sandal smells like freshly-felled lumber, with that slightly vaporous, high-pitched tone that all wood esters emit.  This is a clean, soft, slightly peanutty aroma, with only the faintest whisper of rose and milk stirring in the undercarriage.  Later on, it develops, in small tonal waves, into a warm scent that is typical of all s. album oils in its savory, milky-but-also-arid warmth.  It smells rugged but also weirdly flat, like the surface of cream, with a musky, spicy element that reads sometimes like ambrette or carrot seed, and sometimes like cumin or black pepper.  It remains extremely quiet and tonal, however, a gorgeous beige-blush-buff thing you instinctively want to drip-feed into your amygdala.  There is none of the deep incense or amber tonalities that Mysore oils sometimes boast, but it is fairly rich and sturdy. 

 

 

Tuba

 

Photo: Jayesh Patil, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now this will be a surprise to anyone used to tuberose in the commercial perfume context.  In traditional Western perfumery, tuberose tends to be one of those white floral notes you either love or hate.  I, um, have my issues with it.  It is just so strong and sweet, with this overlay of bubblegum, melted butter, candy, and cream that tends to suffocate.  It is just not my style.  It smells aged and ladies-who-lunch-ish and hotel lobby-ish.  There is a handful of tuberose perfumes that I love, but these have to be either so odd that its psychotic quirks suddenly become playful rather than annoying (Daphne by Comme des Garcons) or so green and medicinal that it tips over into bitterness (the opening of Carnal Flower, Tubéreuse Criminelle).  

 

But Tuba doesn’t smell like any of these iterations, let alone anywhere near the big classical, shoulder-padded versions that haunt my nightmares.  The opening is earthy but delicate – small tart green leaves, clay, an earthy Rooibos tea, and mint, all suspended like mist droplets in a curtain of camphor.  It smells dun-colored rather than the hot pink synesthesically associated with tuberose.  In fact, it is less flower than a newly opened jar of that Borghese Advanced Fango Active Purifying Mud, full of Siberian ginseng root and chaga mushroom extract.  Earthy, quasi-medicinal smelling things like this give me far more pleasure than a bouquet of flowers.  

 

Yet, there is also a small but still clearly tuberose character in all of this, which I find extraordinary.  It is as if someone took the freshest, softest leaves at the center of Carnal Flower’s evergreen box hedge opening and washed them in this creamy greige mud until soft, limp, and almost denuded of color.   Leaning savory rather than sweet, the slow fade into the equally savory sandalwood gives the impression of a barely set bread pudding, its layers wobbly to the point of collapse, flavored with miso paste rather than vanilla.  Tuberose must be tenacious even in attar form because Tuba takes more than two hours to disappear entirely into the sandalwood base.  Color me charmed.    

 

 

 

Genda

 

Genda attar is made from marigold (tagetes minuta), which, for a flower, smells uniquely herbaceous, bitter, and spicy.  Its astringent tonality has something in common with saffron, and indeed, the two make for good bedfellows.  Genda attar is uncommon outside of India, but marigold itself is used quite cleverly in some other mukhallats and perfume oils, one example being Aroosah by Al Rehab.

 

This Genda attar is – again – a shock to the senses if you are expecting something recognizably floral.   It smells distinctive without you being able to say exactly what it is that distinguishes it.  But if you relax your nose (like your eyes when looking at one of those Magic Eye paintings), strange and not unalluring shapes begin to emerge from the fog.  First comes a slash of bitter herbs (unidentified, medicinal in purpose), followed by the tacky glucose coating on candy cigarettes, a wash of chamomile tea, a slight hay-like note, latex paint, and either mint or camphor, all wrapped up in an accord that can only be described as a first cousin once removed to nail polish remover.  It is slightly animalic, but mostly high-pitched and vaporous, with its individual nuances shifting around so quickly that it is hard to pin them down. 

 

The flightiness of this herbal-acetone ether makes me think of Borneo oud, which also smells minty, woody and slightly bitter, with a vaporous intensity that makes your head spin if you get too close.  In terms of floral-essence-to-sandalwood trajectory, Genda sits firmly in the middle of the pack, taking about an hour and a half to wind down.  Delightfully odd.

 

 

 

Motia

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

Out of the three species of jasmine most commonly distilled in attar making[2], motia (or mogra, as it is sometimes called) is the most popular, and is made from Jasminum sambac, the famous ‘Arabian’ jasmine.  Ruh motia itself is almost exclusively distilled in Kannauj these days (whereas solvent-extracted Sambac absolutes and concretes can be found elsewhere).

 

Now this is where things get really strange.  If you know your Sambac jasmine, then you walk into Motia having a pretty good idea of what this is going to smell like – minty, fresh, a bit coarse (in a good way), sexy, slightly sour-leathery in the lower register, etc.  Good ole Sambac jasmine, in other words, and yes, quite recognizably distinct from the classical, sweet grandiflorum type.

 

However, for much of its lifespan, Motia doesn’t smell much like jasmine of any species at all.  You do get a floating layer of green floral soap that may or may not be jasmine, but this nuance is far more wax than flower.  There is a strong aroma of propolis, as well as flashing hints of that grapey benzyl acetate high note that some jasmine materials push to the front, so the jasmine clearly is there, somewhere.  But, in passing through that dusky almond-green floor wax accord, the sound it emits seems to be muted.  It smells to me like what I imagine the pearly white fat remaining from a jasmine enfleurage might have smelled several hundred years ago, when enfleurage was discovered as an extraction technique.

 

I like Motia very much, perhaps because off-center approaches to floral essences as characterful (and recognizable) as jasmine are always more interesting to me than the standard soliflore treatment.   I get a real kick out of the fact that this smells more of cream of wheat and wax and propolis than of jasmine itself.  In fact, Motia reminds me that there is this strange alchemy that occurs when jasmine meets sandalwood that transmogrifies the flower and the wood into something that smells like a warm, silky bowl of porridge.  This wheaten, nubby cream accord strongly recalls other jasmine-sandalwood accords such as that found in the central axis of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle) or in Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar). 

 

Motia is a real education for the nose.  In the ‘strange but true’ category, I also have samples of the Areej Le Doré spray perfumes that are based on these attars, and the one based on this motia attar most definitely smells like Sambac jasmine. 

 

 

 

Gulab

 

Photo:  Reprinted with kind permission of the photo author, Pranjal Kapoor

 

When rose petals are distilled into pure sandalwood oil, the result is an oil known the world over as ‘attar of roses’, or sometimes even Attar Gulab, as here (Gul means rose in Hindi, although the word is sometimes also loosely interpreted as ‘flower’.)  Attar of roses production takes place over nine months of the year, mostly using Bourbon roses (Rosa bourboniana) rather than rosa damascena (which, technically, is used to produce Ruh Gulab, or rose otto, i.e., an essential oil distilled in much the same manner as an attar, only not into a base of sandalwood oil or another solvent. Ruhs are 100% pure essences, rather than 50% fragrant hydrosol, 50% sandalwood oil)

 

Anyway, technicalities aside, describing what rose smells is probably as redundant as describing what coffee or chocolate smells like.  These are smells hardwired into our core memories.  But if I told you that while rose itself has over 300 compounds, the main ‘flavor’ compounds you are smelling are citronellol, geraniol, and eugenol, does that at least help you decode a bit of the mystery of what makes a rose a rose?

 

For me personally, learning that roses can be broken down into the main building blocks of lemon-lime (citronellol), green-minty (geraniol), and clove-pepper-spicy (eugenol) was critical to me understanding what I was smelling when I sampled my first rose outside the cannon of commercial perfumery eight years ago, which was Al Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous from ASAQ.   Now with more experience, I know that the chances of Ta’if Rose Nakhb Al Arous being a pure rose otto are slim to none, but still, this particular oil upended my set-in-stone idea of roses as being soft, sweet, and feminine.  In contrast, the ASAQ smelled like freshly peeled lemons and spicy black peppercorns.  Smelling it slapped me awake.

 

I mention this as preamble to describing this Gulab attar.  If you go into it expecting a big, rich, or sweet affair, you’ll be disappointed.  This is a very traditional rose attar scent, its noise undistorted by the oil format.  It smells high-toned and delicate, with undertones that split off into tart-lemony and peppery-minty directions (without getting sidetracked).  Not surprisingly, due to the citronellol and geraniol compounds, the rose itself is a volatile creature that flares brightly and then immediately begins to soften away into a barely there smudge of rosiness.  When it reaches melting point with that beautiful sandalwood base a scant hour later, it smells very close to what most people’s fantasy of what an attar might smell like, in other words a rosy sandalwood scent with a very simple yet moving beauty to it.  

 

 

 

Source of sample:  Areej Le Doré kindly provided me with the attar set for free.  It normally costs $375.  I paid a small customs fee.

 

Cover Image:  My own photo.  Please do not use or distribute without prior permission.

 

 

[1] Champaca was used in the old, traditional way of making nag champa agarbatti (Indian incense sticks) that prevailed in India before the formula was cheapened in order to satisfy foreign demand for cheap incense.  In addition to champaca, the original formula for agarbatti included some very expensive naturals such as Assamese agarwood, Mysore sandalwood, expensive floral essences such rose, kewra, saffron, henna flower, and spikenard, an aromatic 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.  Therefore, nag champa was originally a highly prized sort of incense.  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.

 

[2] The other two species are Chameli and Juhi.  Chameli attar is made from Jasminum grandiflorum, the type of jasmine grown in India and in Grasse and used in classic French perfumery.   Juhi attar is made from Jasminum auriculatum.  The auriculatum variety (Juhi attar) is simply a three-petalled subset of the sambac jasmine, and so the differences between them are negligible.  The differences between sambac and grandiflorum, on the other hand, are more significant.

 

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The New Generation Amouage Attars: Thoughts and Reviews

13th September 2022

 

 

Thoughts

 

Reception of the New Generation Amouage Attars has been mixed, the reasons for which are not exactly rocket science.  First, in order to explicitly associate these new perfumes with the OG attars that had garnered such praise for the brand prior to their discontinuation in 2015, Amouage called these perfumes ‘attars’.

 

Reader, the New Generation Amouage Attars are not attars.  But then, neither were the Old Generation Amouage Attars.  The word ‘attar’ refers to a specific (and specifically Indian) manner of production, i.e., the steam distillation of a fragrant material, like rose or vetiver roots, over a base of pure sandalwood oil.  These are not that.

 

Rather, these perfumes are ‘luxe’ concentrated perfume oils along the lines of Alexandria II (Xerjoff), Absolute Amber (Clive Christian), Cardamusc (Hermès), Parfum Fin (Nabucco), Patchouli (Jalaine), or any one of those Henry Jacques oils sold in Harrods.  Of course, there is prestige attached to the notion of an attar, so some of these are (erroneously) referred to as ‘attars’ in the marketing materials. 

 

Not to get too technical about it, but it is worth knowing that niche CPOs are not distilled (as in traditional Indian attars) or mixed (as in mukhallats) but instead made to a precise formula in a laboratory in one of Europe’s big oil factories, like Givaudan, IFF, or Symrise, by a perfumer working to a brief.   Just like any other perfume, in other words, only instead of being mixed with perfumer’s alcohol and sent off in pallets of 500 units to Sephora or Douglas, these particular formulas remain in oil format, are poured into dinky little bottles, and get sold at terrifyingly high prices as ‘attars’.

 

The OG Amouage ‘attars’, while not attars at all from a construction perspective, were still definitely authentic mukhallats rather than luxe CPOs.  They employed a distinctly Middle Eastern approach to perfumery in both manner of construction and artistic intent.  In terms of construction, the OG oils followed a Middle Eastern tradition of mixing (‘mukhallat’ meaning ‘mix’) already distilled attars with oud oil, musks, and resin oils.  In terms of artistic intent, the OG oils existed to draw the world’s attention to the glories of an Eastern tradition of perfume making and a wholly Eastern set of raw materials, from the silvery Omani frankincense and peppery Ta’ifi roses to lusty Sambac jasmine, Hindi oud, and Egyptian orange blossom.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Amouage branded the OG oils as ‘attars’ and hard to blame them for doing it.  By the time of the original launch, the word ‘attar’ had already come to exemplify – for Westerners – the exoticism, whether real or imagined, of the East.  Amouage is an Omani brand with a proud tradition of mukhallat perfumery rather than a Kannauj distiller.  But Amouage, being a corporation, has a right to segment its market according to what is deemed to be profitable.  So ‘attar’ it was.

 

Sadly, the OG Amouage ‘attars’ were discontinued and are now largely unobtanium outside of the UAE or the secondary market.  But now we come to 2021 and Amouage, seeing the rising popularity of oil-based perfumery, wants to claw back its rightful share of the ‘attar’ market.  This time around, they want to position themselves in the high-end consumer bracket, which has been steadily growing.  To cut a long story short, that means niche perfume oils that correspond to the luxury consumer’s idea of a perfume rather than maintaining authenticity or fidelity to the Eastern manner of perfume making.

 

The brand must have been aware that while the OG ‘attars’, in being mukhallats, were one step removed from actual distilled attars, these new oils were now two steps removed – not attars, not even mukhallats, but concentrated perfume oils.   In other words, no different than Alexandria II by Xerjoff or even the oil version of Santal 33 by Le Labo.  But the wheels had been set in motion for this particular fiction decades ago, so Amouage deciding to go all in and call these 2021 attars too was probably the only logical move.  And naturally, the brand would want to cash in some of that OG fairy dust for the 2021 release.  Thus, the word ‘attar’ front and center, expectations were raised.

 

Which begs the question – what did Amouage think would happen when these expectations were not met?  

 

My guess is that the brand simply hoped that their positioning of the 2021 oil releases at the luxury consumer market would circumvent the small but vocal group of true perfume (and attar) aficionados that had bought the OG stuff.

 

You see, the people who will be interested in buying these newer Amouage ‘attars’ are not the same as those who were buying the OG ‘attars’.  The folks who bought the OG Amouage Attars were investing in the authenticity of a Middle Eastern or Indian raw material, like oud or sandalwood, whereas the folks who will buy the New Generation Amouage Attars are mostly looking for the prestige of dabbing on an oil out of a tiny, exquisite bottle.  The first is a desire for art, the second a desire for luxury.  

 

Amouage likely looked at the market and decided that they could generate more revenue from the people who view a bottle of the newest attar from Amouage in the same way they view all other luxury consumables like, say, an Hermès handbag or a Lisa Eldridge lipstick or the latest iPhone – opulent, high-spec things that give the pleasure of an object well made, none of which will scare the horses – than from the much smaller group of fragrance enthusiasts who stay up until 4 am, sweatily gripping their computer mouse, to secure 3 mls of the latest sandalwood oil from Areej Le Doré or the newest Hindi drop from Ensar.

 

It goes without saying that one group is not morally inferior (or superior) to the other.  Their buying parameters are just different.  Some folks long for the authenticity and artistic derring-do of some of the original Amouage attars, while others will much prefer these smoother, more Westernized pleasantries. And from a marketing perspective, it is perfectly legitimate for Amouage to decide to switch lanes for the 2021 release.  

 

Where Amouage might have messed up was in not communicating the differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ as clearly as they might have to the group of people still intensely loyal to the artistry of the brand’s original oil output.  Sure, from a business perspective, no corporation has to go the extra mile to explicitly explain a change in direction, manufacture, or artistic intent such as this.  However, some of the most pointed criticism about these oils may have been averted and some goodwill created amongst the very community that helped raise and maintain Amouage’s reputation for excellence.  Instead, the brand done took a match to a couple of bridges.  

 

Surely, for example, the brand could have explained their rationale for using Western perfumers to compose these ‘attars’.  In an age where awareness about cultural misappropriation and decolonization has scaled new heights, the brand might have anticipated that its clumsy pairing of the word ‘attar’ – traditionally an Indian art – with ‘master’ European perfumers such as Dominique Ropion would create some uncomfortable associations or even take some of the shine off the brand. 

 

Amouage has always kept schtum about who composed the original ‘attars’.  It is likely that they used Middle Eastern perfumers with experience in mukhallat perfumery but didn’t name them (the company did name, however, the Western perfumers like Guy Roberts and Bertrand Duchaufour who worked on their spray-based fragrances).  For this new release of ‘attars’, Amouage’s strategy was to hire Western perfumers experienced in composing formulas for niche and designer perfumes, like Cécile Zarokian, Julien Rasquinet, and Dominique Ropion.  Now, to me, this makes perfect sense.  If you are creating a line of luxe perfume oils that are basically supposed to be a haute luxe or niche fragrance, just in oil format, then it makes sense to hire perfumers who are used to producing this sort of formula for other high end niche companies.

 

However, the brand didn’t explain that these new attars weren’t really attars at all (probably because this particular bit of fiction is now decades deep and it’s too late to walk it back), and therefore left itself wide open to accusations that it was aiding and abetting Western perfumers to misappropriate a traditionally Indian art of perfumery.

 

Now that you (yes, you Dear Reader!) understand that these oils are not attars but simply posh niche perfumes in oil format, I bet you don’t care if the formula was composed by a perfumer in Grasse or by one in Delhi or Dubai, do you?  Right.  It ceases to be an issue.  But the brand didn’t or couldn’t communicate this, thereby running straight into the fire that any 19-year-old social media manager worth their salt would have been able to predict was coming their way.  

 

More accurate than the cultural misappropriation (which is itself based on a misguided belief in the fragrance community is that only Indian or Middle Eastern perfumers can or should be involved in the creation of attar, oud, and mukhallat perfumery*) is the accusation that, in naming the 2021 oils ‘attars’, Amouage was cynically cashing in its previous reputation for authenticity and ‘realness’.  There is no real comeback to this.  The 2021 oils are, at best, a good ole cash grab, and at worst, a thumb in the face of loyal perfume fans who believed that Amouage anything was special, not to mention one of their vaunted attars.  While the general specialness of Amouage is less true today than it was ten, fifteen years ago, the 2021 ‘attar’ release still feels like a line in the sand between the brand’s proud artistic past and its now far more glossily commercial future. 

 

Whether or not this is a successful strategy from a business perspective is something only the Amouage CPA can tell us.   

 

 

Reviews

 

Now onto the actual reviews.  Spoiler alert: I enjoyed each and every single one of these new CPOs from Amouage, and as long as you go into it expecting luxe perfume oils rather than genuine distilled attars from India or authentic mukhallats from the Middle East, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t either.  Are they groundbreaking or original?  No.  But they are all extremely pleasant, smooth, and yes, luxurious-smelling perfumes.

 

Of the six that I have smelled, two oils didn’t smell at all Middle Eastern, pursuing instead traditionally Western (read: French) perfumery themes such as vanilla and orris.  Two of the ‘attars’ smelled straight up like an oil version of existing Amouage spray perfumes.  But they are all extremely nice and well executed, and thankfully (mostly) subtle in their use of modern woody ambers like Norlimbanol or Amber Extreme.

 

Are they $540 good?  Again, nope.  That’s my annual car insurance.  To be fair, I’m not the target market, and unless you’re the rare Birkin bag buyer whose SEO somehow re-routed you to this blog, then it’s safe to assume that neither are you.  The only reason I have to review these is that (a) I am currently publishing a Guide to Attars (which covers attars, mukhallats, essential oils like oud, and concentrated perfume oils) so this release kind of is my business, and (b) a very dear friend sent me her sample set free of charge.  So, there you go.

 

 

Photo by Veronika Nakhtman on Unsplash

 

Orris Wakan, composed by Julien Rasquinet, focuses on the famously cool, rooty aroma of orris butter to the exclusion of all else.  In fact, it smells suspiciously close to an ionone-rich orris butter dilution I have in my collection, which is to say a heady blend of the following: parsnip roots pulled from the soil on a freezing December morning, spermicidal jelly, a silver spoon, soap, and freshly-poured concrete or latex paint.  Why all of this should add up to a scent that Chandler Burr once described as ‘liquid good taste’ is a mystery, but God knows it does.

 

Orris Wakan is unusual for an ‘attar’ or oil-based perfume in that it manages to capture the very nuances of orris butter that normally get ‘squashed’ by other, heavier materials in oil format.  This is all rhizome, no flower.  In fact, in keeping the structure simple, Rasquinet has managed to produce something that briefly reproduces the opening of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens). 

 

This is quite the achievement until you remember that orris butter itself is so lovely and complex a material that all the perfumer really had to do here was set it in place and leave well enough alone.  To Rasquinet’s credit, he didn’t overstuff the composition with any shouty materials that might detract from the orris.  It just fizzles out quietly into an ether of soft, frothy musks.  Like your first roll in the hay, Orris Wakan is poignantly beautiful for all of the thirty minutes it lasts.

 

It is worth noting that Orris Wakan is one of the two 2021 perfume oils that are completely Western (read: French) in both theme and construction.  I imagine this being a big seller for the luxury leather goods crowd, because the scent of orris has a natural affinity with creamy leather, suede, and hawthorn accords.              

 

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

 

Rose Aqor, composed by Cécile Zarokian, well – let me just stop right there.  Even without looking it up, it is clear that this is a Cécile Zarokian creation.  I love her work, but this central accord of soda fizz rose, sparkling ‘white’ incense, piquant black or pink pepper, doughy benzoin, cinnamon, and radiant golden ambers is as identifiable a fingerprint as anything done by Bertrand Duchaufour.  Rose Aqor is very lovely, as it should be, as it is a near note-for-note recreation of Zarokian’s 2009 Epic Woman (Amouage) in oil format.  Epic Woman is my most worn Amouage perfume, so I know her.

 

Like Epic Woman, Rose Aqor tucks a sweet-n-sour, heavily peppered rose inside a powdery incense-amber accord that is part pickles, part sherbet.  As roses go, Rose Aqor is a complete meal in and of itself, from the lip-smacking savor of kimchi to the meaty, peppery rose and a thimbleful of thin crème anglaise to sweeten the tongue at the very end.  It diverges slightly from the Epic Woman template in some parts, most notably with a touch of the slightly doughy bubblegum-benzoin accord and zesty cardamom ‘fuzz’ borrowed from Fêtes Persanes (Parfums MDCI), another perfume by – you guessed it –  Cécile Zarokian.

 

I am predisposed to enjoy Rose Aqor because I also enjoy Epic Woman and Fêtes Persanes.  But unless you have a very small collection and you’re specifically in the market for this type of rose (spicy, ambery, incensey), then it is likely you already own something very like this.  For me personally, Rose Aqor is redundant.  But remember, neither you nor I am the target market for Rose Aqor.

 

It is in Rose Aqor, by the way, that the key differences between the 2021 ‘attars’ and the OG ‘attars’ emerge most clearly.  Smell Rose Aqor and immediately the closest equivalents that jump to mind are themselves niche perfumes that pursue a vaguely ‘exotic’, Middle Eastern theme albeit via the heavily filtered lens of a Western luxury buyer.  Contrast this with OG Amouage rose-centric ‘attars’ like Ayoon Al Maha (rose and sandalwood) or the infamous Homage (Taifi rose, frankincense) and, straight away, you can tell the difference.  Rose Aqor smells like a niche perfume in oil format; Homage smells like the fiercest distilled attars of Taifi rose and frankincense oil mixed together.  The first is a complete perfume composition, clearly made under temperature-controlled conditions in a lab, while the second smells like something violently wrested from this good earth.   And that right there is largely the difference between a concentrated perfume oil and an attar (or mukhallat).    

 

 

Photo by allison christine on Unsplash

 

Vanilla Barka, composed by Dominique Ropion, is guilty of what Luca Turin named the ‘one-liner tendency’ in today’s niche perfume market, which is the fashion for composing a perfume around one of two headlining materials and allowing that be the whole artistic point of the fragrance.  Imagine a scale of compositional complexity with L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) at one end and Vanille Benjoin (Affinescence) at the other, where the closer you move towards Vanille Benjoin, the more ideas your perfume sheds.  Vanilla Barka is positioned right at the Affinescence point on that scale. 

 

After one thrilling note of frankincense, in all its silvery-lemony severity, this devolves very quickly into the plain white sugar + vanilla-tonka bean sludge you see everywhere from Tihota (Indult) to Vaniglia (Mazzolari) and even, to be honest, Vanille (Molinard).  It is slightly plasticky, albeit in a nice way, like Vanyl (Bruno Acampora).  You can even get reasonable versions of this accord from indie oil perfume houses, like Solstice Scents, and have it work out at $18 for a 5ml bottle.  Vanilla Barka costs $540, for scale.  

 

Vanilla Barka is far from unpleasant, just to be clear.  There is a not insignificant amount of hygge to be mined in its deeply doughy, almost almondy dollhead embrace.  But let’s be honest.  Wearing Vanilla Barka is the scent equivalent of eating white frosting or raw cookie dough straight from the packet, while mindlessly binging Netflix in your slouchiest sweatpants.  Yeah, it’s insanely comforting.  But you also kind of know it’s not good for your teeth or your IQ.  Not to mention that, for $540, you can pick up two whole bottles of Tihota.  Of course, Amouage is counting on Dubai mall foot traffic not to know about Tihota.  So, there’s that.

 

 

Photo by volant on Unsplash

 

Incense Rori, composed by Julien Rasquinet, is the standout of the 2021 line for me.  No wonder, because it takes as its starting point the wonderful Omani silver frankincense that Amouage made so famous throughout the world.  The opening note is marvelously fizzy, dark, and sooty – picture the smoked out remains of an open fire in a traditional stone church.  It smells like handfuls of charcoal dust dumped into Schweppe’s Bitter Tonic, with this clean edge that frank fans will find utterly addictive.  Cedar and I think a good deal of unlisted amber join forces to lend the soaring frankincense some basso fondo, creating a rich, resiny background that swings between ashy (pipe tobacco) and sweetly whiskey-ish (amber, immortelle).

 

This darting contrast between achingly dry smoke and ‘wet’ booze is incredible, reminding me variously of a mash-up between the original Vetiver (Annick Goutal), Jeke (Slumberhouse), Tobacco Oud (Tom Ford), and Black (Comme des Garcons).  The drydown lays out a rich, salty oakmoss for our consideration, which is the precise point at which Incense Rori does a fabulous impression of the latter stages of L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), where all that funky oakmoss dries out on a bed of halitosis.  Incense Rori isn’t at all animalic, but it shares something of the scalpy moss funk of the Miller Harris – likely that same metallic, musky, slightly cheap suit shininess of Evernyl Prunastri.  Add a rubbery, saline myrrh (deflated latex condom and all) in the far reaches, and you have the complete incense madness that is Incense Rori.

 

Incense Rori is the perfume that I imagine most appealing to the Old Guard of the perfume community, i.e., the ones who bought the OG Amouage attars.  It smells pure and smoky enough to grab the attention of the most ascetic of luxury buyers’ tastes, yet complex and different enough to capture the interest of even the most jaded of incense (or indeed oakmoss) freaks in our tiny corner of Fragcomm.  Also, is Incense Rori possibly the 2021 Amouage apology for dropping Tribute?  A very small, scaled down tribute to Tribute, mind, but better some Tribute than no Tribute at all.     

 

 

Photo by marlik saffron on Unsplash

 

Saffron Hamra, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is the most traditionally ‘attar’-like of this collection, due to its clever use of a spice – saffron – that, as part of the age-old triumvirate of rose-sandalwood-saffron, will not fail to evoke a Pavlovian response.  I smell saffron, I smell attar.  Even if you think you don’t know attars, you have certainly smelled some variation of that rosy-saffron attar scent in your local Asian supermarket, round the back where the incense sticks and chunks of bakhoor and gaudy perfume oils are stocked.

 

On its own, saffron is piercingly medicinal, like gauze bandages soaked in iodine or the rawest piece of cowhide you ever saw, a quality that aligns the material surprisingly enough with natural oud oil.  Indeed, on the lower end of the scale, you will find that all the big attar or mukhallat houses – Ajmal, Arabian Oud, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, and so on – pad out their ‘oudy’ compositions with saffron in order to create that subliminal link in our smelling receptors to natural oud, even when none is present (the same may be said for cypriol, which is smokier and far less medicinal than saffron).

 

In Saffron Hamra, Zarokian allows the medicinal properties of saffron to play out in full, but wraps a soft, sweet rose around it to cushion us from its sharper edges.  The result is a sort of vanilla custard tinged with iodine and dirty bandages.  I assure you that this is delicious and unsettling in equal measure, which is what makes it such a successful and balanced accord.  Imagine Safran Troublant by Olivia Giacobetti for L’Artisan Parfumeur but removed from the utter comfort of the Parisian salon to the harsh planes and arid environment of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia.

 

At this stage, Saffron Hamra strikes me as being authentically attar-like, and even worthy of being included in the original Amouage attar line-up. (It reminds me somewhat of a smoother Al Siraj by Arabian Oud, one of my favorite saffron-forward mukhallats).

 

However, it is worth noting that the far drydown of Saffron Hamra introduces an unpleasantly metallic note that gives me a headache.  Cade oil, listed in the notes, might be responsible for this element, as it is a dirty green, smoky material that can be quite pungent.  To my nose, though, it reads like a trace of some woody aromachemical.  A disappointing end to a perfume that started out smelling absolutely wondrous, therefore, although it also reminds me that sometimes, just sometimes, the normally thoughtful Zarokian can go ham on the woody aromachemicals (Sheiduna for Puredistance being an example).   

 

 

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

 

Oud Ulya, composed by Cécile Zarokian, is very similar to Zarokian’s own Silver Oud for Amouage, only not as earthy (there is little to no patchouli felt here).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, as with the Rose Aqor/Epic Woman parallel, this is Cécile Zarokian translating the formula of another of her Amouage spray perfumes to oil format.

 

Similar to its parent, Oud Ulya wraps a pungent oud oil (which smells authentically feral, aided no doubt by a lascivious touch of civet) in a syrupy amber-vanilla glove designed to make the medicine go down.  The opening resembles Trat oud oil, which is to say, soiled hay plunged into a hot, bubbly strawberry jam.  Now imagine this pungent oud-date jam spread across a huge chunk of pain d’epices and left to smolder and char at the edges on a censer, the air filling with the intense scent of burnt sugar.  The point here is that the ferocity of the animalic oud is equal to the ferocity of the syrupy sweetness of the vanillamber.  Add in the haunting smoke of birch tar and you are halfway to the delicious second half of Patchouli 24 (Le Labo).  

 

It might be the equivalent of showing up to church in full drag if the whole thing wasn’t so ergonomically velvety.  You see, Zarokian has managed to wrap all of this up in the most buttery of buttery leather accords, so even while part of your brain flashes on the barnyard, you also keep making that involuntary crooning sound you make whenever you see a picture of those Ritz-Carton lodges in the Maldives or when your hand brushes against the 500-count sheets on display in Harrods.  Oud Ulya is a mish-mash of things for sure – there is a bit of Amber Absolute, Patchouli 24, Prive by Ormonde Jayne, among others – but it is a charming and well-balanced mish-mash, and that counts for a lot.

 

But again, compare Oud Ulya to the towering oudy masterpieces of Badr Al Badour (my favorite OG Amouage ‘attar’), Al Molook, or Al Shomukh, and the differences in style are immediately laid bare.  Though Oud Ulya certainly contains an authentic-smelling oud, it is framed against a backdrop of sweet and smoky notes artfully arranged to evoke a fantasy of the East as expected by a Western gaze.  Like Shalimar.   Oud Ulya is deliberately exotic, because the perfumer has arranged the amber accords, the leather, and the smoke to create just that effect.

 

In Badr Al Badour, on the other hand, the combination of the oud, the rose, the ambergris, and the frankincense smells exotic because the raw materials themselves are exotic and because the perfumer has simply mixed these exotic smells together in the most pleasing way he knows how.  Badr Al Badour cares not if it pleases our Western nose or not; it is wholly agnostic to our comfort.  In contrast, Oud Ulya brings you on a magic carpet ride but keeps checking over its shoulder to make sure we’re still on.

 

 

 *This is largely true for traditional Indian attar perfumery since genuine attar distillation is now mostly limited to Kannauj, India, but we have established that neither the old nor the new Amouage ‘attars’ are actually attars.   Still, many of the most prolific and creative perfumers or distillers working in the field of oil perfumery (oud, sandalwood, and mukhallat perfumery) are themselves Western by birth or upbringing.  Ensar is American, Taha Syed is Canadian, Sultan Pasha is a Londoner, JK DeLapp is from Atlanta, and Russian Adam is…well.   You see where this is going.   A gentle suggestion: as fragrance writers, let us put down the pitchforks and try to see the perfume sector for what it is rather than for what we think it ought to be.   

 

 

Source of sample:  A very dear friend of mine passed on her set of official Amouage samples to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

 

Cover Image: Photo taken by me. Please do not re-print without my permission.

 

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Incense Mukhallats Resins Review Round-Ups Smoke The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews K-T

7th June 2022

 

Wrapping up the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with the final chapter of resin-related reviews, with everything that falls between K and T, following on from Review sections 0-A and B-I.  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. 

 

 

 

Kalemat Amber Oil (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kalemat in the eau de parfum format is probably Arabian Oud’s most popular ‘mainstream’ fragrances.  So how does the oil version stack up?  Well, it sticks pretty closely to the curves of the original, the only real difference being the compression of some of the flightier notes in oil format.   In other words, Kalemat oil has a much denser, doughier texture than the original, and is both rosier and sweeter.   In general, though, the friendly, golden-fruited amber of the original has been faithfully translated.

 

I cannot therefore explain why I love Kalemat so much in its original eau de parfum format and find it so mind-numbingly dull in the oil.  I suspect it is because gooey ambers like Kalemat, being as stodgy as a bread-and-butter pudding in the depths of winter, need a bit of air and space between its molecules to make it work.  When you squash something already so densely, jammily sweet down into an even more compressed space, you end up with a stock cube’s worth of it.  And even the memory of that is enough for me to cry out for some ventilation.   

 

 

 

Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

 

Little Egypt (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Honeyed myrrh and sweet flag

 

 

Little Egypt is a bright, resinous honey scent with a sharp green calamus note running through it to keep things fresh.  All the honeyed, sticky sweetness of myrrh has been drawn out and emphasized in this scent, but none of its anisic or earthy-mushroomy nuances.  This makes for a very sweet blend indeed, but the inherent smokiness of myrrh resin, plus that crisp calamus note, does a good job of holding back the syrup.  Myrrh fanatics may want to hunt this one down.

 

 

 

Luxor (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Egyptian Musk, Vanilla Bean, Amber, Frankincense, Patchouli, Dark Rose, Egyptian Sandalwood

 

 

Luxor is another NAVA blend that, for all its exotic notes and resins, smells as faint and as simple as an Airwick one might pick up in the local hardware store.  In other words, it is about as exotic as a roll of toilet paper.  How does a company dedicated to resurrecting the glories of ancient Egypt through use of some of the heaviest, most strongly-scented resins, gums, woods, and spices in existence manage to turn out so many perfume oils that smell like weakly-scented candle oils?

 

Note that they are not bad per se – far from it, many of them are very enjoyable.  But anyone looking for the gutsy, full-force assault of true frankincense, patchouli, or sandalwood materials will be very disappointed.  Even the worst mukhallats are more color-saturated than this.  (Also, be an informed consumer – sandalwood does not grow in Egypt).

 

But if you are determined to love NAVA anything and don’t mind overlooking the outrageous marketing guff in the descriptions, then there is enough room in Luxor to accommodate a fantasy of ancient Egypt – as long as you accept that it will be your imagination, and not the scent itself, doing all the heavy lifting.  Luxor is a soft, gently resinous-woody amber thing that is neither distinctive nor exotic.  On the positive side, you will be bothering nobody with your perfume.  Because if you can hardly smell anything, then neither will anyone else.

 

 

 

Mabrook (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mabrook is a very smoky blend of frankincense and labdanum.  As it develops, it leans almost entirely on labdanum for an effect that is leathery, balsamic, smoky, resinous, and almost tobacco-like.  Very much in the vein as La Via del Profumo’s Balsamo della Mecca, and equally as mystical, Mabrook would make for an excellent oil for layering with Western perfumes to add depth and smokiness.

 

 

 

Minister (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sandalwood, Amber, Cassia, Elemi, Sweet Smoke & Somalian Frankincense

 

 

Minister is similar in tone to Solstice Scent’s other incense blends – Incensum, Inquisitor, Basilica, and Scrying Smoke.  It differs mainly by way of its use of a sour, piney Australian sandalwood in the first half of the scent, which fights rather unpleasantly with the bitter-lemon frankincense and elemi notes.

 

Once the sourness abates, however, Minister is a satisfying ride, especially when it turns into a creamy incense-sandalwood duet spliced with woodsmoke.  The drydown is remarkably similar to the drydown of another Solstice scent, Hidden Lodge, making me wonder if some of the house bases aren’t simply re-purposed from one scent to another.

 

While nice in parts, Minister is one of those scents that confirms my belief that indie brands like Solstice Scents and others should more rigorously evaluate all their scents in one particular category to identify areas of overlap and redundancy.  Minister is, frankly, too similar to (and not as good as) other Solstice Scents perfumes in the woods-and-incense category to earn a spot in the permanent line-up.  A good pruning would allow more light to reach the perfumes that deserve it.

 

 

 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

 

Morocco (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The intoxicating perfume of exotic incenses wafting on warm desert breezes. Arabian spices wind through a blend of warm musk, carnation, red sandalwood, and cassia.

 

 

I must be anosmic to something in Morocco because I can barely smell it at first.  The parts of it that I do smell are very nice indeed – a warm, resinous musk with a clove-like carnation and a lightly soapy sandalwood in the background.

 

It smells exotic in a vague, formless way that will please anyone who finds the pungency of real resins to be a bit de trop.  Quite honestly, while I like Morocco and wear it quite a bit, there is no escaping the fact that it smells more like a stock oil one might use for making soap or candles than a proper perfume.

 

Morocco is a homespun fantasy of orientalia rather than anything truly of the orient.  It is terribly faint.  When I smell it, I imagine the imprint of a cloth soaked in rich spices and incense pressed lightly against a sheet of paper, then the paper held to my nose to smell.  In other words, it is a secondhand impression of a smell rather than the full whack.  I would normally find that frustrating, but Morocco’s laid back laziness holds a certain appeal.

 

The drydown is a soft sandalwood that smells not (strictly speaking) of the wood itself but rather the lingering scent on one’s hands after washing with Mysore sandalwood soap.  This may sound like I am damning Morocco with faint praise, but I am not.  There is a time and a place for a subtle, creamy-golden take on the woody theme, and if that is what you are looking for, then Morocco is a solid contender.

 

 

 

Mughal Amber Oud (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A magisterially austere affair, Mughal Amber Oud pairs a funky Hindi oud with a smoky, ashy labdanum for a result so parched it sucks all the moisture out of the air like a lit match.  The oud note is first to hit the nose, clustering its damp, leathery sourness up front.  But this dies back quickly to reveal a labdanum note that is briefly toffee-ish, then increasingly dusty.  Soon, the labdanum dominates the blend, filling all the available air pockets in the scent with a sensation of punishing dryness.

 

Mughal Amber Oud smells like hot sand, Omar Sharif, and the ashes left in the grate of a coal fire.  Highly recommended to people who love their ambers to be as desiccated as a desert – complete with visions of drift weed and abandoned cattle pens.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Maliki is built along the same lines as Attar al Kaaba, i.e., a big rosy amber thing, but less sweet and thick all around.  It also features a dose of either bergamot or lemon up top, which freshens it up a little.

 

There seem to be coffee grains swimming in my tola, but oddly enough, I do not get any notes of coffee in the actual fragrance (whereas I do in Attar al Kaaba).  The base is a soft, vanillic amber with hints of rose.  I can’t smell any oud, synthetic or otherwise, in this.  It is a hair more subtle than Attar al Kaaba and might be more office-appropriate.  However, in general, these two mukhallats are so similar that there is really no need to own both.  Choose solely according to your tolerance for sweetness.

 

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Mukhallat Saif al Hind purports to be a blend of Hindi oud oil, Ta’if rose, amber, saffron, and musk, but to my nose, it completely skips the Hindi oud.  Instead, this is essentially a medicinal saffron-rose combo overlaid on a bed of leathery labdanum that smells like a combination of salted caramel and sheep tallow.  The combed-from-goats-hair fattiness of the labdanum is undeniably delicious and lends the mukhallat an attractive buttery smoothness.  But for the money, I recommend sourcing a good quality, vintage Cretan labdanum elsewhere and blending it with rose and saffron oils yourself.  In other words, this is good, but overpriced.

 

 

 

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

 

Nankun (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Nan-kun, meaning ‘Southern Wind’ in Japanese, is a famous coreless incense manufactured by Shoyeido.  Costing in the range of $150 for thirty five sticks, Nan-kun is a truly premium-grade incense experience featuring agarwood (oud wood), cloves, camphor, and Hinoki wood.  The experience of burning Nan-kun goes beyond a simple breakdown of notes to a meditative, transportative experience that relaxes the mind and soothes the soul.  Although hard to describe why it should be so, it smells identifiably Japanese, even for people who have never been to Japan or taken part in Japanese kōdō rituals.

 

Sultan Pasha’s Nankun goes some way towards capturing the Nan-kun burning experience, especially in the combination of the dry, spicy clove and star anise notes with the green, camphoraceous and woody nuances.  The one thing it is missing is the crisp smoke notes one gets when burning Nan-kun incense sticks, an aroma that comes close to the pleasurably sulfurous smell of a freshly-struck match.  The mukhallat does eventually gain a small degree of smokiness in the later stages of its life, but it is a wisp of sweet, transparent woodsmoke rather than the matte, almost charcoal black effect of the smoke in the incense.  Nankun mukhallat was infused with smoke by placing it close to or over a burner with sinking grade oud chips in it. 

 

Highly recommended to fans of high-end Japanese incense and incense ceremonies, meditation, yoga, and so on. For a truly holistic smelling experience, wear this while burning some of Shoyeido’s Southern Wind itself. 

 

 

 

Osirian Purnima Bastet (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The personification of Isis, daughter of RA and Goddess of Love. Bastet’s Amber is the underworld helm of this incense perfumed with soft wisps of amber smoke, NAVA ICONIC Rose Oudh brings a smoke and NAVA floral throughout this OP.

 

 

As far as I can tell from NAVA’s rather Byzantine method for categorizing their perfume oils and series, Osirian Purnima Bastet is a mixture of three basic accords – the rose-oud accord from the Icons series (now discontinued), the Bastet amber accord, and the Osirian Purnima incense base accord, which consists of myrrh, the NAVA Kashmir accord (red musk), the NAVA Hessonite accord (patchouli), the NAVA Santalum accord (sandalwood-type oil), and NAVA’s Eternal Ankh blend (vanilla-amber).

 

You would be forgiven for thinking you need a PhD to decipher this product description.  But all it really means is that NAVA has a collection of pre-made bases that they simply recycle and configure differently from scent to scent.  A bit lazy, don’t you think?

 

As one might expect from the mixing of so many pre-made bases and accords, OP Bastet smells complex, rich, and slightly muddy, like compacted silt at the bottom of a pond.  Many people pick up on a central rose-oud axis here, but to my nose, this smells astonishingly like a pint of warm malt ale, full of yeasty sourness and rich, beery molecules all piled in one on top of the other.  

 

In fact, this is pure eau-de-pub, by which I mean that gust of warm, stale air that rushes out at you when you open the pub door the morning after the night before.  However, many resinous spicy rose fragrances do have this oddly beery tint – I find traces of this in several artisanal rose perfumes with lots of cardamom, such as Smolderose (January Scent Project), Calligraphy Rose (Aramis), and Pharaoh’s Passion (Diane St. Clair).

 

Here and there in the thick, beery miasma, there are glimpses of a berried musk, resin, burnt wood, and something darkly soapy.  However, such is the density of this wall of aroma that it is very difficult to make out the shape of any one thing clearly.

 

On balance, I guess you could say that OP Bastet wears like the color purple.  It smells not really of rose or oud, but of syrupy white flowers and gummy red musk poured over a smoky resin base.  Its distinctly beery-cardamom-rose flavors melt quickly into a caramelized, burnt wood base.  It is distantly related to Memoir Woman by Amouage and vintage Poison by Dior, which share an accord of syrupy white flowers laid across an ashy floral incense, a waft of cigarette smoke blurring its outline.  Like those perfumes, OP Bastet runs the risk of being a Bit Too Much, but there is no denying that this is a perfume with presence, darling.  I really rather like it.

 

 

 

Oud Absolute (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name is a bold middle finger to the concept of truth in advertizing, but since this is on the cheaper end of the ASAQ scale, I won’t ride it too hard for that.  Oud Absolue is your basic rosy amber-incense oil with a chemical woody buzz in the base presumably slotted in to create a picture of oudiness.  (Well, more a photocopy than picture, but still.)

 

Having said that, I really cannot fault the pleasantness of the blend.  The topnotes are an electric fizz of bergamot, sweet orange, and lemon, which, when combined with the rose, amber, and oud, forms a low grade impression of Estee Lauder’s Amber Mystique.  Since I often recommend Amber Mystique as a great all-rounder for someone who wants a vaguely Arabian-style fragrance, I will extend the same courtesy to Oud Absolute.

 

Quibbles over the name aside, Oud Absolute would make for a great all-rounder for someone who wants a snippet of something sweet and resinous wrapped up in a digestible form.  The sweet powderiness of the florals is neatly curtailed by that woody amber.  Sillage is excellent.

 

 

 

Ozymandias (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Royal Sweet Frankincense, Amber, Royal Amber Resin, White Pepper

 

 

Ozymandias is a mild, sticky white amber with a texture vaguely reminiscent of furniture wax or saddle soap.  The sound it broadcasts is muffled, the resins and spice underneath straining to make themselves known through a thick layer of milky-soapy varnish, like the dim glow of fruits sott’ alici or mostarda.  Once the strangely gluey coating melts away, the green, peppery nuances of the frankincense start to burn a little more brightly.  Overall, pleasant if a little underwhelming.

 

 

 

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

 

Petrichor (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As a fan of the petrichor effect (the smell of the ground after rain) in perfumes such as Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée, I had high hopes for the Mellifluence take on it.  And indeed, the tart lime and pink pepper notes in the opening combine with the saline, mushroomy myrrh that Mellifluence uses to form a brief petrichor effect, full of watery, earthy nuance.

 

But there is an error in construction here.  For some reason, the attar maker has decided to emphasize the fungal dampness of the myrrh with the dusty, dour nuances of oud or deer musk, causing all airiness – essential to the petrichor effect – to be squeezed right out of the scent.  On the positive side, once the sharp lime dies down a bit and the sweeter benzoin and nag champa notes rise to flesh out the hollowed cheekbones of the myrrh, the blend becomes less angular and therefore more comfortable to wear.  Overall, though, Petrichor is an opportunity missed. 

 

 

 

Prince Bandar (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although labdanum is not specifically listed, Prince Bandar is a thick, syrupy, and almost goatish labdanum poured all over the tangy, fermented rotting wood of oud.  It has a treacle-like consistency that reads as simultaneously bitter, sweet, syrupy, and sour, leading to an interesting experience for the wearer.  The wet funk of fermented wood points to the use of real oud oil, but the creamier, toffee-like sweetness of the surrounding accents make me think much more of labdanum than ambergris.  In overall feel, Prince Bandar reminds me very much of several mukhallats by Abdul Karim Al Faransi, especially Oud Cambodi, which, despite the name, is not a pure oud but an oudy mukhallat with lots of labdanum.

 

The syrupy oud-amber combination develops a dry, leathery facet, further deepening the suspicion that this is labdanum rather than ambergris-based.  The leather comes slicked in a medicinal haze of something ointment-like, like a pair of army boots rubbed with lanolin and wrapped in gauze bandages.  The leathery facet grows stronger as time passes, edging out the fermented wood and syrupy amber a little, forcing them to recede.  There are hints of a creamy rose lurking at the corners.

 

Many hours on, the same dry-ish musk and cedar combination used by Agarscents Bazaar elsewhere makes an appearance.  The faint funkiness in the musk, as well as its dark, woody character, serves to bring the oud notes forward more firmly, coaxing it out from the corner to which it had retreated.

 

Overall, Prince Bandar a rich, dry but also creamy amber oud with a strong musk and leather character in the drydown.  It is dense and rich enough to provide the impression of value for money, but smooth in a way that will please those with less adventurous oud palates.

 

Whether it is worth $385 for a quarter tola is debatable, but if you have the money to burn and just want something that smells pleasantly rich and enveloping, then this is a good option.  However, for that level of investment, I would much rather hand my wallet over to Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Sultan Pasha, Ensar Oud, Al Shareef Oudh, and any number of attar artisans at work today and let them have at it.

 

 

 

Pure Incense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Pure Incense demonstrates a prune-like darkness, a sort of balancing act between bitter and sweet that is almost edible.  It makes my mouth water.  The panforte-like bitterness recalls the sticky ‘burnt hydrocarbon’ of Norma Kamali’s Incense but without the sometimes stomach-churning dirtiness.

 

The mix of frankincense, myrrh, copal, and elemi creates a resin stew that shifts constantly between herbal (bay leaf), spicy (cinnamon, clove), dusty, sticky, smoky, piney, and balsamic.  If you are Catholic, one sniff of this will bring you to your knees.  Recommended to fans of the original Norma Kamali Incense, Tom Ford Sahara Noir, and Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure.

 

 

 

Pyramid of Khafre (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Limestone Amber, Lavender, Chai Spice

 

 

A touch of the NAVA candlewax coats the opening with a balmy film, briefly obscuring the basic shape of the fragrance.  What emerges soon thereafter is a gentle lavender and spice combination knitted lightly over a watery amber accord.

 

I am not sure what limestone means as an accord in perfumery (if anything) but it surely denotes something mineralic or acidic.  This rings true for Pyramid of Khafre, whose amber accord is initially metallic, with a porous texture suggestive of tiny holes burned in the resin by acidulated rainwater.

 

However, as time wears on, the amber accord grows warmer, eventually settling into the soft, resinous sweetness we associate with classic ambers.  All in all, Pyramid of Khafre is a nice spin on the classic amber model, and one that is more suited to hot weather than most.

 

 

 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

Pyramid of Menkaure (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Dark Amber, Balsam, Tangelo, White Amber

 

 

Pyramid opens on a bitter and soapy high note that bothers the nose as surely as if you had just accidentally inhaled a cloud of marine-fresh laundry soap flakes while loading the washing machine.  This is due almost entirely to the balsam note, which I take to mean fir balsam.  The problem with pine and fir notes in perfumery is that their piney freshness is now so closely associated with laundry detergents and bathroom cleaning sprays that it can come across as ‘chemically clean’ even if the material used is itself a natural.  Here, therefore, the overriding feel is that of chemically-enhanced pine.

 

Does it get better?  Yes, or more accurately, it gets more bearable.  A warm amber nudges the fir balsam in a more perfumery direction, taking down the harshness a notch.  A winey, pleasantly-bitter chypre tone develops, giving the sharpness of the blend something to aim for.  Finally, when the fir balsam dies away completely, a soft butterscotch accord slots into place.

 

For me, personally, Pyramid of Menkaure is difficult to wear or even assess objectively, because it gives me a massive headache every time I test it.  But for fans of confrontationally bitter or balsamic green oils, have at it. 

 

 

 

Regolith (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Regolith is so potent that it is wise to step back and let it settle for a while before placing your nose to skin.  The first wave of molecules hits the nose like a snifter of brandy or rum set on fire, flaring the nostrils with a plethora of really disturbing aromas, among which are fuel, pure alcohol, rotting dried fruit (raisins, plums), and something unhealthy, like the sickly air inside a room that has been closed up for centuries.

 

But then, a sugary spark of labdanum and myrrh ignites the concoction, turning it into something so edible you might be tempted to gnaw at your arm.  The change in tempo is head-spinning.  Suddenly, the basic structure takes shape – a fruitcake amber sodden with cognac, raisins, chocolate, and sugar crystals that crunch when your teeth close in on them.

 

How something so initially disturbing can be so delicious only moments later is beyond me, but there you go.  Anybody who ever loved the original Amber Absolute or even Norma Kamali’s Incense should have a little supply of Regolith in their collection.  It is not a replacement or dupe for either by any stretch of the imagination.  But they share the same balance between inedible and edible – that wild swing between claustrophobia and exaltation.

 

The oud oil is an innovation on the Amber Absolute and Norma Kamali Incense model, but I suppose it is also what updates it.  The damp wood rot nuance of oud works well here because it pushes back on the plushy sweetness of the amber.  I’m a fan.

 

 

 

Resine Precieux (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Resine Precieux is a smooth, affable amber with a strangely attractive muffled ‘sound’.  Despite the presence of asafetida – a pungent resin with onion and garlic aspects when smelled in the raw – this blend is noticeable for its gentleness.  Although packed with seemingly every resin under the sun, it is neither smoky nor sharp.  Instead, the overall texture is balmy, almost muted, as if the resins were glowing softly through a thin layer of white wax.  This lends a ‘candlelit’ glow to the composition, making it tremendously easy to wear.

 

Resine Precieux feels honeyed but in a soft, light manner that avoids the cloying heft of the material itself.  Imagine a slice of honeycomb, pale and waxen, its holes filled with resin, cacao, and caramel, backlit by a fat church candle.  This is the attraction of Resine Precieux. 

 

There is a deliciously dark, stewed fruit note in the background that is part plum, part dark cocoa – like the opening of Tobacco Vanille but less clovey.  Far into its drydown, Resine Precieux begins to manifest the drier aspects of tobacco and labdanum, for an outcome not a million miles away from the ashy leather syrup of Rania J’s Ambre Loup.  Resine Precieux’s smoked sea-salt finish is nigh on irresistible. 

 

 

 

Rouh al Amber (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

In many ways, Rouh al Amber is the archetypal Arabian attar – just ‘Middle-Eastern’ enough to smell exotic to someone who isn’t looking for anything more than a trope.  This is a simple blend of medicinal amber, a bright, lemony Taifi rose, and a dab of blond-ish woods.  I doubt any of the materials are tremendously expensive, but the overall effect is admirably unsweet, clear in intent, and reasonably exotic.

 

For the price, therefore, Rouh al Amber is an excellent everyday option for those who love traditional Arabic pairings of rose and amber.  Furthermore, because it leans heavily on the medicinal amber of traditional Indian canon rather than sweet Arabian-style amber, it retains a leathery dryness that makes it wearable in even the sludgiest of summer heat.

 

 

 

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

 

Sahraa Oud (Fragrance du Bois)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Sahraa Oud is a soft, waxen orange-tinted amber scent hiding a sliver of smoking oud wood within its folds of flesh.  It is unctuous, golden, and slightly fuzzy, like an oil lamp seen a mile away through a fog.  Its lack of definition should bother me and yet I remain staunchly unbothered.  Scents such as Theorema (Fendi) and Ambre Soie (Armani) were built in a similar soft-focus manner to transmit a feeling of comfort through a haze of burnished half-light.  The result, in Sahraa Oud, is soft and effortlessly luxe.

 

About half an hour into the proceedings, a winey, medicinal rose breaks free from the ambery morass.  The soft, rosy tartness prevents the syrupy amber elements from sticking to the roof of one’s mouth, rather like the strawberry jelly component in a PB&J sandwich.  If the oud is there, then it is well hidden.  Perhaps it is behind the saffron leather that emerges hand-in-hand with the rose.

 

The real star here, however, remains that waxy, toffee-like amber.  If you feel like upgrading from stuff like Theorema, Ambre Soie, and Ambra Aurea, then this is somewhat in the same wheelhouse.  Is the tiny smidgen of oud oil hiding out here somewhere worth the extra squeeze?  Only you and your pocketbook can decide that.  For me, it is a no.  Sahraa Oud is really nice but doesn’t distinguish itself enough from its peers to warrant the additional investment.

 

 

 

Salem (Sixteen92)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Damp leaves, church incense, worn leather, dry birch woods, clove bud absolute, bonfire smoke

 

 

Insanely atmospheric, Salem really does conjure up the feeling of stumbling across an old stone chapel in the middle of a wind-whipped New England forest, dry leaves swirling around one’s ankles.  The scent hinges on the use of a smoky birch note, which, when joined to the realistic church incense accord, smells like black leather smoking out over scorched resins.

 

The opening is acrid, due to Sixteen92’s signature black leather accord, which tends to run everything in an acid (rather than alkaline) direction.  The Sixteen92 leather note is similar to that of Solstice Scent’s Library and Inquisitor, for reference.  But it is also faintly fatty, the underside of the leather dotted with yellow globules of coagulated animal fat.

 

Salem seems to be a scent that improves with age, however.  When I first received my sample, I found the leather note both bitter and goaty; now, a full three years later, it is smooth and sharp in all the right places.

 

It is worth noting that the realistic church incense at the start eventually gives way to something a little more headshoppy in nature.  But on the whole, I think that Salem works fantastically as an atmospheric set piece.  It is properly moody and almost cartoonishly witchy.  I visualize the scent as a wine-stained mouth in a pancaked Goth face, her sneer hidden by a wall of pitch black hair.

 

 

 

Scrying Smoke (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Natural and Meditative Melting Frankincense Resin, Frankincense Smoke, Vanilla, Sandalwood, Cedar, Petitgrain, Vetiver, Labdanum & much more

 

 

Scrying Smoke is all about the frankincense, a resin whose natural lemon-and-lime piquancy is emphasized here by pine, bitter orange, and a rich Coca-Cola note.  The gustatory sourness of the frankincense is subdued somewhat by the dusty spices of labdanum and cedar, giving the scent a rather dour, unsmiling character.  A stripped down, even more morose version of Messe de Minuit by Etro, this should go on the list of anyone who’s beginning to look into incense as a theme.  And if you have a particular fetish for frankincense, then Scrying Smoke is an imperative rather than a suggestion.

 

 

 

Smenkhare (NAVA)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Oriental Amber, Nokturne, Agarwood, Guiacwood, Ho Wood, Labdanum, Black Pepper EO, Balsam Peru, White Frankincense, Amber Musk

 

 

Despite the impressive roll-out of exotic-sounding resins and balsams, Smenkhare is a rather understated affair. In fact, I would call it homely rather than exotic or Middle-Eastern in temperament.

 

Boiled down to its essence, Smenkhare is a smooth honey-amber blend with a faint prickling of black pepper for interest.  I recommend it to anyone with a specific fetish for honey scents, but to be honest, it doesn’t offer much over and above the baseline established by Kim Kardashian’s perfectly good Honey fragrance.

 

 

 

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

 

Sorcière Rouge (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Bakhoor incense from a 13th century recipe, Tibetan agar-wood, and Dragon’s Blood infused with Rock Rose and dark amber.

 

 

Sorcière Rouge opens with sharp, earthy herbs over a vegetal, spicy amber.  The oud note is similar to that used in another Alkemia blend – Hellcat – which is to say more than slightly pissy, indicating a use of synthetic civet or honey to ‘skank’ up the oud note.  Slowly, the perfume becomes earthier, warmer, and sweeter, sanding down some of the sharper corners.

 

But Tibetan agarwood?  Poor Tibet.  Shrouded in mystery due to its general inaccessibility to most Westerners, it has conveniently become the repository for every type of ‘oriental’ myth that happens to fall into the cracks between India and China.  Rest assured that the reference to Tibet in Sorcière Rouge has nothing to do with provenance of the oud (since the oud here is most assuredly grown in a lab rather than in Tibet) and everything to do with the concept of traditional Tibetan medicine, which uses precious herbs, oud, and real deer musk in prescriptions to heal patients.

 

And indeed, Sorcière Rouge does feature all the dusty, astringent feel of a Chinese or Indian healing shop, where one might buy little packets of mysterious powders and unguents with which to treat common ailments.  Whether this effect is a pleasant or desirable one is, I suppose, up to you.

 

 

 

Still (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Still features a candied floral note threaded through a dusty seam of resins and woods.  Although I do not have the notes, it smells like iris, rose, cinnamon, Peru balsam, opoponax, benzoin, and frankincense over a sandalwood base.  It reminds me of several perfumes by Maria Candida Gentile, notably Sideris and Burlesque, but also of a sweet, powdery cologne that an old boyfriend used to wear that might or might not have been Jaipur (Boucheron).  Still tugs at my heartstrings, making it difficult to evaluate objectively.  But high quality as it indubitably is, it is far from unique and perhaps therefore not the Henry Jacques on which to blow your wad.

 

 

 

Tabac Oranger (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Tabac Oranger is a thick, labdanum-driven amber that emphasizes the dustier, more tobacco-like facets of rock rose extract.  The effect of the orange and rose oils at the start is breathtaking, their juicy brightness merging seamlessly with the ashy tobacco undertones of the labdanum to produce a river of delicious, near edible aromas.  It becomes smokier and more sweetly ambery as time passes, sadly shedding the orange-tinted tobacco hues of the start.

 

 

 

Tinderbox (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: The essence of a baroque case filled with tempered firesteel [sic], flint, and linen charcloth: resinous black amber, woodsmoke, sweet mallow root, frankincense, cubeb, and sandalwood.

 

 

Tinderbox is great for people who love the grungy smells of undergrowth, with lots of smoldering resins and cedar.  It opens with a cutting note as metallic as fresh blood, creating the sudden sensation of a rusty blade drawn across your tongue.  This is not unpleasant per se but may be jarring to anyone unused to confrontational accords in perfume.

 

The metallic smoke note dominates for about half an hour, before dying down to reveal a sweet, almost meaty woodsmoke note and the soapy-fattiness of frankincense resin as it starts to bubble on a censer.  It smells like herbs and freshly tanned skins thrown on a campfire to scorch.  The base is a musky mishmash of creamy woods (a sandalwood material of some description), woodsmoke, and the lingering trace of sharp metal.  It is similar in many ways to Holy Terror.

 

I like Tinderbox very much and often use it as a smoke layering note for other fragrances.  On its own, I would have to be in a Lisbeth Salander kind of mood to wear it.  Then again, since I feel like a murderous bad-ass with a chip on my shoulder at least once a month, Tinderbox is right down my alley.  

 

 

 

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 (and bottles) of Arcana, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Sixteen92, Arabian Oud, NAVA, BPAL, Mellifluence,  Solstice Scents, Alkemia, Agarscents Bazaar, and Al Haramain.  My samples of oils from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My samples of Henry Jacques and Fragrance du Bois came to me courtesy of lovely 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 Cristi Ursea on Unsplash

Amber Attars & CPOs Balsamic Cult of Raw Materials Frankincense Incense Mukhallats Myrrh opoponax Resins Round-Ups The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Resin Reviews B-I

4th June 2022

 

 

Continuing the Resin Review section of the Attar Guide with everything falling between B and I.  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. 

 

 

 

 

Basilica (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Rich labdanum absolute paired with effervescent frankincense, polished rosewood, dark myrrh, exotic woods and a waft of heavenly sweet and rich vanilla absolute and fragrant ashes.

 

 

I highly recommend Basilica as a starting point for anyone interested in the incense genre.  Featuring a friendly, sweet labdanum coupled with smoky myrrh and frankincense, this blend smells purely of High Mass.  It is not complicated or indeed complex, but its straightforwardness is part of its charm.  In particular, the naturalness of the frankincense note – lemony, pine-like, crisp, and smoky – makes this an absolute pleasure.  Soft and soulful, Basilica is basically Avignon (Comme des Garcons) in oil form, a scent so evocative of Catholic rituals that it should come with a trigger warning.

 

 

 

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

 

Balsamo della Mecca (Mecca Balsam) (La Via del Profumo/ Abdes Salaam Attar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Although the crepuscular darkness of the resins is essentially the same from eau de parfum to attar, Balsamo della Mecca attar has a very different texture, and therefore a completely different feel.  Whereas the original is so dry that it threatens to ignite on the skin at any moment, the attar (mukhallat really) is a concentrated tar, like molasses seeping from a rusty pipe.  Dense, sticky fir balsam, myrrh, frankincense, cade, and who knows what else, all boiled down to a medicinal salve one might rub onto an infection.  Despite its opacity, it feels excoriating and purifying.

 

The labdanum is downplayed in the oil version, allowing the rubbery, fungal saltiness of myrrh to take the spotlight.  By corollary, the eau de parfum is dustier and sweeter, thick with labdanum.  Given its greater diffusiveness, the eau de parfum has a spiritual, if not ecclesiastical, feel; the mukhallat, on the other hand, feels gothic and a little bit sinister.  Put it this way – I would wear the eau de parfum to Midnight Mass, and the oil to an exorcism.  

 

I own the eau de parfum but prefer the mukhallat.  It has something of the leathery darkness of Tauer’s L’Oudh but is denser, blacker, and more boiled in texture.  (Balsamo della Mecca mukhallat is also completely natural in feel while Tauer’s L’Oudh has a smoky industrial aromachemical undertone in the late drydown).

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

Boukhour, or barkhour as it is sometimes spelled, is a mixture of wood chips or briquettes soaked in essential oils, resins, and other fragrant materials designed to be burned over hot charcoal disks in burners to scent the home, clothes, and hair with its thick, perfumed smoke.  Muslims also burn boukhour chips to ‘seal in’ perfume oils they have applied on their skin, hair, or robes.  This is a lovely and evocative idea – after all, the original meaning of the word ‘perfume’ is per fumus in Latin, or ‘through the smoke’. 

 

Correspondingly, Boukhour Blend is a perfume oil designed to be rubbed through your hair, onto your clothes, and even ‘baked in’ using the smoke from boukhour chips (hence the name).  The opening is a maelstrom of candied white flowers, featuring the standard ASAQ gummy-sweet blend of orange blossom, jasmine, and wildflowers that turns up in other blends.  The opening is so intensely syrupy that I feel a tooth cavity coming on.

 

A generic building block base of amber, wood, and musk has been shoe-horned in to hold up the unctuous mass of honeyed white flowers, but doesn’t really do anything beyond sitting there, looking pretty in a non-descript way.  It smells exotic and resinous in the slightly faceless way of those cheap blocks of foil-wrapped barkhour one can pick up in any Asian grocery.

 

Can you tell just how under-enthused I am?  Boukhour Blend is not bad, per se, but it is sorely lacking the interesting smokiness you get when burning real barkhour.  If you love Candy by Prada or Amor Amor by Cacherel and want something similar in oil form, then this should suffice.  For everyone else – you can safely skip it. 

 

 

 

 

Boukhour Blend Supreme (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Practically identical to the regular Boukhour Blend described above, and indeed, it is likely that they are the one and the same, albeit with a bit of up-selling on the name.  To my nose, there is a slightly higher concentration of the very sweet, gummy white flowers in the Supreme version, taking it to an outrageous level of bubblegum-like sweetness that sets my teeth on edge.

 

 

 

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

 

The Cat (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Sleek, black, dark, and clever: benzoin, honey, cedar, and dark musk.

 

 

The Cat smells of fruity honey poured over cedar sap and powdery benzoin, its edges diffused and feathered by a cottony musk.  The first impression is of maple syrup seeping from a tree, its lurid sweetness balanced nicely by resinous sap and the vinegary sharpness of the cedarwood, lending it a pickled flavor that pricks the taste buds.  The latter stages are packed full of powdery musks with hints of earth and funk.

 

Overall, The Cat’s forceful essay on pungent honey, resin, vinegary woods, and sweet, powdery musks is a clever balancing act that works well on the skin.  It is worth mentioning that even if you do not typically like BPAL’s honey note, The Cat should be on your radar, because the honey here is dark and pine resin-like rather than candy-sweet.

 

 

 

Chypre Profund (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Let us dispense with the pleasantries – Chypre Profund does not smell like a chypre.  What it does smell like, however, is the twenty-year-old Cretan labdanum oil that Mellifluence used to stock, which was deliciously thick, leathery, animalic, and possessed of a salted caramel depth of flavor that never got old.  It is this, and not oakmoss, that is the pillar upon which Chypre Profund is constructed.

 

It is tough to do a chypre these days.  It is especially difficult if you are a self-taught attar maker with limited access to raw materials and a tendency to ‘feel your way’ through the process of making perfume rather than taking a more formal study track.  However, if you are a small-batch attar maker and have access to oakmoss absolute and are not bound by IFRA anyway, then why not throw caution to the wind and use oakmoss in quantities that actually show up?  If I were Mellifluence, I would take this back to the drawing board and double down on the oakmoss.

 

And while I am making presumptuous suggestions, I would like to urge the addition of the other component of a chypre, i.e., bergamot.  Chypre Profund smells good largely because it features a great labdanum material.  The tarry aspects of labdanum have been accentuated by a chorus of earthy, dusty notes to create body and interest.  But in terms of structure, it lacks both the brightness of bergamot up top and the bitterness of oakmoss down below that would qualify it as chypre.  

 

As it stands, Chypre Profund is a nice essay on the complexity of labdanum, but there is no getting around the fact that the traditionally three-legged stool of a chypre construction (bergamot-labdanum-oakmoss) is missing two of its three legs and is therefore useless for sitting on.

 

 

 

Conjure Dark (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Sweet Incense Smoke, Dried Rose Petals, Sandalwood, Vetiver, Woods, Oud, Vanilla

 

 

Conjure Dark mixes the musty gloom of a church cellar with the powdered sweetness of cheap Indian rose incense sticks for a result that smells unexpectedly animalic, like beeswax mixed with the odor of someone who hasn’t washed for a long, long time.   Conjure Dark conjures (sorry) an image of crouching down behind old wooden crates in a church cellar, watching a secret burial ceremony, the scent of centuries-old neglect mingling with the lingering aromas of candle wax and communion wafers. 

 

Vetiver, rose, beeswax, and cold, unburned frankincense are the notes that dominate here.  There is a gorgeously stale, almost bready air to Conjure Dark.  If you like the idea of incense resin mixed with the aura of damp books and New Age shops, then Conjure Dark will be right up your alley.  Trippy but wonderful stuff.  I own a bottle.

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Dukhan (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Dukhan refers to a Sudanese purification treatment – usually reserved for women – involving the immersion of one’s body in the smoke from a fire of exotic incense and aromatic woods.  But Dukhan leans hard on the fire part of the ritual and barely touches upon the medicinal.  This is basically what a library would smell like if set on fire.

 

Thankfully the smoke is never allowed to overwhelm.  I appreciate the restraint employed here, because smoky materials such as cade, labdanum, birch tar, tobacco, and so on, have the tendency to drown out the quieter sounds made by the other notes.  

 

Dukhan opens on a smoky vetiver note that feels as purely resinous as Hojari frankincense, before sliding into a rich tobacco and leather tandem that forms the hardest-working muscle in the scent.  Underneath this, a rubbery tar note lends the tobacco and leather some chew.  No sweetness, though.  Dukhan is as sinewy as the legs of a professional cyclist after the last Pyrenean mountain stage of the Tour de France. 

 

Overall, Dukhan smells comfortingly masculine, like burying your nose into the well-worn leather jacket of someone who smokes a pipe and has recently nibbled on a piece of frankincense gum.  The leather and tobacco are supple, almost buttery, and despite the underlying charcoal smoke, a microcosm, in scent form, of the pipe-and-slipper rituals of a gentleman.  

 

I recommend Dukhan to anyone looking for a resinous leather-tobacco masculine that doesn’t excoriate your nasal cavities with billowing gusts of BBQ smoke.  Picture a toned-down, more wearable Hyde (Hiram Green) or T-Rex (Zoologist) and you have the right idea.

 

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Madagascar Vanilla, golden amber, and resinous incense swirled together with a selection of beautifully aged incense woods and a dusting of aphrodisiac Silk Road spices. Intensely sexy in a mysterious kind of way…

 

 

L’Encens à la Vanille belies its attractive description by slicing an intensely metallic incense note through a doughy, sullen vanilla, and then pretty much dropping the mic.  The advertized Silk Road spices boil down to the single note of clove, a representation so medicinal it smells spoiled, like dried milk or blood.  It eventually settles into a nice, bubblegum-like mélange of woods and amber that fails to atone for the trauma of the first hour.

 

 

 

Enheduanna (Alkemia)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A dark and sultry incantation of seven ancient temple offerings: Zanzibar clove, oakmoss, aged frankincenses, champa blossom, Madagascar vanilla, iron-distilled patchouli, and dark amber.

 

 

Enheduanna smells just like the inside of a head shop, i.e., unlit nag champa sticks, amber cubes, and dusty spices.  Now, there are perfumes that do a really good job of nailing the atmosphere of one of these places without getting too literal about it (Sikkim Girls by Lush and Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer, for example), but Enheduanna is not one of them.  It is too straight-forwardly headshoppy to be elegant or interesting.  There are much better variations on the theme out there.

 

 

 

Enigma Intense (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Holy smokes, batman!  Lovers of fragrances such as Slumberhouse Jeke, Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascèse, and Le Labo Patchouli 24, please welcome your newest member to the inner circle!  Citrus and lavender offer a glimpse of sunlight before it is whisked away almost immediately, and the wearer plunged deep inside a smokehouse where a leather jacket has just been thrown onto the open fire.

 

Birch tar is the note that dominates with its fiercely rubbery smoke, but cedar, aged vetiver, Siam benzoin, and copaiba also add to the somber atmosphere.  A salty, ashy guaiacol note emerges from the fire, and somewhere in the distance, someone is dry-roasting cardamom, cumin, and caraway seeds on a hot pan.  The mouth waters, and so do the eyes.  The drydown is warmly ambery without once straying into sweetness.

 

 

 

Eve (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

Company description: Eve is a heavy oriental, resplendent with musks, earthy sweetnesses [sic], lingering and sexy as only that first lady could have been. This is a complex blend, profound even, but still there is a sparkle to it which marks it as a Posset. 

 

Unfortunately, my sample had turned by the time I got to it (to be fair to Possets, it was a full year later).  By then, all I could smell rancid carrier oil.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

fallintostars (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

fallintostars by Strangelove NYC is clever because it pairs the 15th century smell of Hindi oud – the dank, rotting, wet wood smell of animal hides piled high in a medieval dungeon – with the 21st century radiance of a modern amber.  For the first half hour, the dissonance is dizzying.  The oud is so authentically filthy that you feel like you’re being pressed up against a wall by an lout with a shiv and bad intentions.  It is as funky as a plate of fruit and cheese furred over with mold, wrapped in a length of freshly-tanned leather, and buried in a pile of steaming, matted straw.

 

But just when you fear you are slipping wholesale into slurry, you notice the bright, peppery overlay of something radiant and electric, like sparks popping off a shorted wire.  This accord calls to mind the aromachemically fresh, smoky black tea opening of Russian Tea (Masque Milano Fragranze) more than the pink pepper the notes tell me this is likely to be.  The distance between the light and the dark is perfectly judged.  It is more of a whoosh than a lift.

 

But wait, because we haven’t really talked about the amber yet.  Poor Christophe Laudamiel – I bet that after the category-defining glory that is Amber Absolute (Tom Ford) he is afraid to touch labdanum for fear of either never reaching those heights again or being accused of repeating himself.  Therefore, no, this is not the benzoin-thickened incense amber of Amber Absolute, but (unexpectedly) the bright, hard sparkle of a champagne-and-vodka amber in the style of pre-reform Ambre Russe (Parfum d’Empire).   Like a shot of those clear gold liquors served in the Alps after dinner, it smells so cleansing that I am not sure whether to drink it or apply it to a wound.

 

My nose fails me when it comes to the other notes.  I don’t get any of the green, hay-like barnyardiness of narcissus (unless it is giving the dirty straw notes in the Hindi oud some welly) or indeed any of the gentler, more jasmine-like nuances of the jonquil variety, and there is nary a hint of rose.  I don’t perceive the benzoin at all, which is strange because even if I can’t smell it, I can usually feel it thickening the texture of the basenotes into a flurry of papery dust.

 

What I smell in fallintostars is really an act in three parts: Hindi oud, followed by champagne-and-vodka amber, and finally a huge honking myrrh not listed anywhere.  Of course, it is entirely possible that Christophe has managed to work the inky, astringent tones of saffron and hina attar (henna) with his feverish fingers into the shape of a rubbery, mushroomy myrrh.  It is also possible that it is just myrrh.

 

Anyway, what I like about this perfume is that it transcends its raw materials to make you think about the way it is composed.  The modern, near slavish adoration at the foot of complex-smelling naturals such as Hindi oud or rose or labdanum often results in muddy, brown-tinged accords that speak more to their own worthiness than to joy, especially in the indie sector.  In fallintostars, Christophe Laudamiel takes heavy hitters like Hindi oud and makes it smell like bottled fireflies.  And that is alchemy, pure and simple.

 

 

 

FBI.17 (Abdul Karim Al Faransi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The name stands for Fabulous Blend from India, the 2017 edition.  It features a dark-ish musk with the faint twang of urinal cakes over tobacco, labdanum, and oud.  Thankfully, the musk is not so shriekingly animalic that you have to hide indoors until it fades.  Its funkiness is soft and velvety, with only the subtlest of bathroom nuances.

 

If this was all there was to it, FBI.17 would be a nice but boring iteration on the Arabian ‘black musk’ theme, but it has a trick or two up its sleeve.  The perfume releases its tight musky fist quite suddenly, swiveling into a complex, ashy tobacco accord, which in turn melts into a buttery, incensey labdanum drydown that will appeal to fans of the tobacco-labdanum-heavy Ambre Loup by Rania J.

 

There is no vanilla or benzoin to act as the transition shade, so the blend leans on the complexity of labdanum to do all the heavy-lifting.  There is a marked similarity between this and the drydown of Amber Ash Sheikh, but the base of FBI.17 is even more unctuously buttery.  My nose fails to pick out any oud in this blend at all, but to be fair, I don’t particularly miss it.  If you want a cost-effective alternative to Ambre Loup, FBI.17 might be a contender.

 

 

 

Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash

 

Geisha Amber Rouge (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Geisha Amber Rouge is – or was – a limited edition version of Geisha Rouge.  But to say that Geisha Amber Rouge simply adds amber to the Geisha Rouge formula is inaccurate.  Geisha Amber Rouge opens with hot clove and an accord that smells very much like rooibos tea that’s been brewed for a long time and allowed to grow cold.  The red tea notes smell tannic, with hints of dried currants, star anise, and rose petals stirring beneath.  Those familiar with the original Comme des Garcons Parfum and Costes No. 1 will appreciate the translucent ‘pink-red’ sourness of this accord. 

 

The amber itself only shifts into view when smelled directly side by side with its parent scent, Geisha Rouge.  When the nose returns to Geisha Amber Rouge after smelling the original, the resiny thickness of the amber accord suddenly ‘pops’, making you wonder how you missed it in the first place.

 

But the amber does not cloud the clarity of the red tea notes at all.  It simply adds a certain louche, dank sexiness that makes me think of women lolling around in half-open kimonos, unwashed and unshaved.  All in all, this is an admirably cool-headed spicy amber with a rooibos undertone that tea lovers will appreciate. 

 

 

 

Geisha Noire (Aroma M)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Aroma M made its reputation on Geisha Noire, and it is easy to see why.  The secret to Geisha Noire is that it gets better the longer you wear it, making it the inverse of most modern fragrances, which hit you with all the glory in the first hour or so but peter out by the time you get home and unbox your new purchase.  Thankfully, because Aroma M perfumes are not sold in department stores, there is no urgency to sell you on its topnotes.  Most Aroma M perfumes, therefore, take their time to hit their stride.

 

And true to form, Geisha Noire is a perfume that demands you wait a little for your satisfaction.  The topnotes are bright but leaden, an undissolved lump of golden resin that hisses on the skin like a scalded cat.  The resin accord is piercingly sharp, like lemon rind without any citrus high notes, reminding me a bit of elemi resin.  There is also a sherbety, turbo-charged fizz to the texture that smells the way Refresher bars taste.  Not a bad smell, you understand – just massively unrefined.

 

But give Geisha Noire the courtesy of wearing it for a full day and a strange thing happens.  The lump of resin begins to dissolve, liquefying into distinct pools of amber, creamy sandalwood, tonka, and salty ambergris.  It smells like antique gold velvet, its flavor miles deep and radiating in every direction.  It is also an intensely powdery scent, connecting it to its progenitor Shalimar in firm brushstrokes that might not agree with everyone.  But what makes Geisha Noire special, and what marks it out as more than just another Shalimar clone, is its balance between burned sugar and salty driftwood (ambergris).

 

Geisha Noire is at its very best at the end of the day when its salty-sweet amber has melted into the heat of your skin, forming a veritable forcefield of radiant, gold-tipped sweetness.  A true my-skin-but-better kind of scent.   

 

 

 

Holy Terror (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: There are utterly somber and fearsome spirits which are known to haunt certain long-deserted chapels, monasteries and abbeys. An unsettling, austere blend of burning frankincense, sandalwood, deep myrrh, and dusty beeswax candles.

 

 

Holy Terror is the star of the Arcana line-up.  Despite the mention of words such as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ in the product description, Holy Terror is actually a super friendly affair of resin and musk, thickened with beeswax and a creamy woodsmoke accord.

 

The myrrh and frankincense in this blend appear as a vague, blurred ‘resinousness’ rather than as accurate representations of their natural selves.  So, for example, there is none of the lemony pine-like facets that identify a resin as frankincense, and none of the earthy-anisic-mushroomy aspects that point to myrrh.  Instead, the resins here create a generalized feeling of incense rather than one resin in particular.  Indeed, they smell more like wax and woodsmoke than a balsam.

 

To point out that Holy Terror smells more resin-like or ‘generically resinous’ is, by the way, not a criticism but an observation.  Some people blind buy incense or resin scents because they are trying to find something that accurately represents the aroma of a specific resin, like, for example, unlit frankincense, oud wood (rather than the oil), myrrh, or copal.  Incense freaks tend to be very specific about the effect they are looking for.  Therefore, my note about the nature of the resins in Holy Terror is simply for clarification.

 

Holy Terror is more about the homely smell of incense-scented things than High Mass.  It is not dark or massively smoky or acrid.  It is not a literal incense or burning resin scent like Avignon (Comme des Garcons). It is sweet herbs, tree sap, and woodsmoke wrapped in a just-snuffed-out candlewax accord.  It is slightly musky, which creates a tinge of intimacy, like the skin of someone pressing close to you in church.  This gives the scent a human aura that is enormously inviting.

 

 

 

HopHead (Possets)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Very nervous people love this blend, it calms you down but leaves you very mellow. Coffee in its most perfectly beautiful form is dropped into 5 ambers which range from sweet to dry. Somehow this combination just makes me want to have a nosegasm. Gourmandy and very bea-utiful [sic].

 

 

HopHead is the coffee opening of The Seductive Jesuit draped over a sugary amber accord.  Is it the five different ambers as promised by the description?  Nope.  Just one – a bog-standard indie amber, which is to say sweet, vegetal, and hippyish.  

 

 

 

Incense Oud (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

The incense note in the dupe is a hair soapier, but in general, this is a close match for By Kilian’s Incense Oud.  The original fragrance is a subdued, natural-smelling incense scent, backed by soft green woods, powder, and a hint of smoke.  Structurally, the By Kilian is sparse to the point of austerity but rose adds a subtle flush of warmth where needed.

 

Admittedly, the dupe does not have the same strong rose presence as the original, and its sparkly, dusty texture is more Pez than frankincense.  But it completely nails the tranquil, meditative air of the original.  With dupes, sometimes it is more important that the general atmosphere of the original is captured, rather than a precise note-by-note breakdown.  This is a great example of that.

 

 

 

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

 

Incense Royale (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Not all incense scents are alike, a fact that Incense Royale illustrates by mixing some of the resins used in the dark, tarry Pure Incense with vanilla and some of the lighter, sweeter resins such as benzoin, elemi, and opoponax to arrive at an incense fragrance that is a complete 180 degrees from Pure Incense.

 

In comparison to its muscular big brother, Incense Royale floats in on a big powdery, vanillic cloud of scent with hints of cinnamon, lemon, lavender, red berries, and rose – all facets naturally present in the resins and oud used rather than the inclusion of any floral absolutes.  A fat cushion of benzoin and vanilla adds a plush, pillowy texture that makes the incense feels luxe and pampered rather than churchy or severe.

 

There is a faint, sour streak in the woody backdrop that comes from the aged Hindi oud used for Incense Royale, but in general, the oud is not especially prominent.  Rather, it sings a low brown note in unison with the other woody notes.  Sweet, powdery, faintly resinous, and woody, Incense Royale could be a sort of Ambre 114 flushed with silvery bits of oud.  The structure is flooded with citric brightness, perhaps due to the pine and lime peel facets of frankincense, or the creamy, lemony side of elemi resin.

 

Either way, the diffuse sweetness of the blend feels like it sits at opposite ends to the dark, sticky pungency of Pure Incense.  Pure Incense is compacted resin, dark and prune-like, while Incense Royale has light and air and the birds and the bees.  Choose according to personal preference, but both are excellent.  For ease of comparison, Incense Royale has a very similar feel to softly powdered, sweet incense compositions such as Creed’s Angelique Encens and Guerlain’s Bois d’Armenie.  It also shares an airy, woody-aromatic sweetness with Ambre 114.

 

 

 

Incensum (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Amber, Frankincense, Palo Santo, Myrrh, Spices, Attars, Oud, Vetiver & more

 

 

Incensum is one of the brand’s premium blends, meaning that it is one hundred percent natural, and made with a mixture of attars and essential oils rather than with synthetics.  The all-natural nature of this composition bears out in both its quality and in its flat and somewhat muddy feel.

 

Incensum seems to be structured around a clutch of opposing materials – a cluster of smoky, green, and ‘bitter’ elements such as vetiver, palo santo (guaiac wood), and frankincense on one side, and a grouping of earthy ‘brown’ notes such as oud oil and myrrh on the other.  Incensum starts out in a very earnest tone, dominated by sourish wood and resin.  But then the oud note drops out of the picture entirely, leaving the balance hanging askew.

 

Incensum is limited in its movement by the upper limits of its natural raw materials.  It morphs very slowly from smoky green wood to earthy, anisic myrrh over the course of a wear.  There is a certain rawness (or perhaps sharpness) to the perfume that I like very much.  However, demonstrating that a negative reaction can be caused as much by naturals as by synthetic, Incensum gives me a howling headache every time I wear it.

 

 

 

Inferno (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Inferno is a potent tobacco and resin bomb presaged by a piercing lime note that runs acrid on my skin.  The opening is arresting, with a brief coca cola note leading into a blackstrap molasses note, like prune juice boiled down to a thimbleful of liquid.  However, the main character of the mukhallat lies in the interaction between that lime peel topnote with the aromatics, musk, and tobacco in the heart, a combination that draws an unfortunate association with citrus-scented floor disinfectants.  Underneath the lime-musk disinfectant note, there lies a very good, smoky tobacco accord, as dry and as husky as a thick book left to smolder in the ashes of a campfire.

 

People who are fond of well-done animalics should seek out a sample of Inferno, as it features significant amounts of hyraceum, castoreum, musk, ambergris, and civet, as well as a touch of Hindi oud, but is blended expertly so as to lend the attar a dark, sultry growl rather than an all-out, high-pitched animal shriek.  As the astringent lime-musk combo dies out, the wonderfully dry, smoky smell of the resins, animalics, and woods lingers for hours.  In fact, the drydown of Inferno is my favorite of all Sultan Pasha’s blends (excepting Aurum D’Angkhor).  I just can’t take the first half.

 

 

 

Inquisitor (Solstice Scents)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A Dark Resinous Blend of Myrrh, Labdanum, Beeswax Absolute, Frankincense, Amber, Leather & Fire

 

 

Every now and then, you want to smell like the Second Coming.  A bit churchy, a bit gothic, a bit Mordor?  Yeah, I hear you.  Forget Avignon (Comme des Garcons), Casbah (Robert Piguet), and Full Incense (Montale) – Inquisitor by Solstice Scents gets you there for about eighteen dollars.  Featuring a raw, chlorine-dipped leather over a pile of smoking resins, Inquisitor makes a lunge for your throat and doesn’t let go.

 

It is weirdly sexy.  The drydown, thick with vanillic resins like benzoin and labdanum, is slightly creamier, but the perfume never really strays too far from its dominatrix-meets-smoking-censer theme.  More gothic than churchy, Inquisitor is perhaps the choice for apostates.  If you are a true believer, I would instead recommend the wonderful Basilica by the same brand – a quiet, simple Avignon-lite number that scratches the ecclesiastical itch to perfection.

 

 

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 Arcana, Maison Anthony Marmin, BPAL, Mellifluence, Possets, Solstice Scents, Aroma M, Alkemia, and Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics.  My samples of oils from Abdes Salaam Attar, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, and Sultan Pasha Attars were sent to me by the brands or a distributor.  My sample of Strangelove NYC fallintostars was courtesy of Luckyscent, provided for copywriting purposes. 

 

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 Chinh Le Duc 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