Iris Ghalia by Ensar Oud makes for an unconventional iris but a reassuringly traditional Ghaliyah*. It takes the gin-and-ice ethereality of orris and dispassionately sets it up to either thrive or fail against an onslaught by grungiest, most uncouth cast of characters ever licked up from a zoo floor – castoreum from the anal glands of a beaver, warm-scalpy costus root, calcified urine scraped off a rock (hyraceum), and saliva-ish musk grains scooped out of the undercarriage of some poor unsuspecting Tibetan deer. And that’s before we even talk about the marshwater skank of natural ambergris.
Yeah, it was never going to be a fair fight. If you have any experience at all, then you go into Iris Ghalia knowing that it is only a matter of time before quivering silver bloom of the iris is subsumed by the powerful animalics.
But the perfumer has sought to stack the deck a little in favor of the iris by flanking it with a sharp, fresh accord that is one third citrus peel, one third plant juice, and one third piano rosin. Therefore, you get that first dopamine hit of warm, plush iris (smelling divinely of antique wood furniture, old books, and closed-up mansions) and just as the sugary deer musk bubbles up to nip at its heels, your nose flashes on the shrill, metallic greenery of violet leaf and the funky cat pee fruitiness of blackcurrant leaf. Together these notes form a citric-resinous barricade around the iris, allowing it to stand up and assert itself just a little longer.
Iris Ghalia also benefits by being a spray and not an attar or an oily distillate, because a note as ephemeral as iris needs its own space (think a whole castle rather than a room). For a while, the notes teeter, achieving a precarious balance between something very classical and something very grunge-indie-artisanal.
Of course, in the end, it is inevitable that the warm animalic notes begin to tighten around the trembling neck of the iris like a dirty fur stole. The musks, which start out smelling as sweet and as dusty as powdered sugar sifted over a hot wolf, grow ever staler by the minute, a time-lapse video of animal fur collapsing into decay over the course of a week.
All this might prove heavy going indeed were it not for the persistent effervescence of a bright Coca Cola note running like ambient noise in the background. I suspect that some combination of the iris and the powdery musks is what’s conjuring this effect. But at times it also smells like all those minor aspects of benzoin – brown sugar, crackling brown paper, camphor, mint gum, and yes, Coca Cola – that only ever come out when benzoin is left alone to do its own thing rather than called in to serve as a member of the fantasy amber trope or as a rough stand in for vanilla. No benzoin listed, by the way. Pure conjecture on my part.
Anyway, no matter how it’s configured, the contrast works. And it seems to be a series of contrasts, rather than just one thing. Notes-wise, you have something quite funky and animalic (scalpy) – the musks, the ambergris, and so on – jutting right up against something quite ethereal or even effervescent – the iris, benzoin, the powdered sugar of the Tibetan deer musk. But there is also a textural contrast between the greasy/leathery and the dusty/sparkling. In terms of ‘taste’, the contrast between the intensely sugariness of the musks and the sourness of the funky, leathery castoreum in the tailbone is clearly no afterthought either. (Flanked by the saliva-ish musks, I find the murkiness of the castoreum to be very similar to the bases of other Ensar Oud scents, most notably Chypre Sultan, but the innovation here is all in that Coca Cola effervescence).
All in all, a novel idea. The sharp, greyish, concrete-like violet leaf (think Kerbside Violet by Lush) shoring up the elegant woodiness of the iris, the powdered sugar musks, the swelling chorus of animal gland secrete, just licked skin, and that miles-deep, bubbly Coca Cola sweetness. Could I pull it off on the regular? Probably not – it feels too much like hard work at times, and it is incredibly heavy. Yet I found Iris Ghalia a tremendously exciting scent to wear.
*Ghaliyah, meaning ‘most precious’ or ‘most fragrant’ depending on the source, is a common type of mukhallat in the Middle East. These were once all-natural affairs containing real ambergris, musks, oud, and spices, offered primarily to royal princes and members of the ruling class.
Source of sample: Ensar Oud very kindly sent me a sample free of charge for review purposes (I paid a small customs fee). I freely acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, as a fragrance writer, to receive free samples of the most expensive or rarest fragrances in the world. The hope is that I perform some sort of service for the reader by reviewing them.