My Favorite Things: Ambrette

The sources of most musks in perfumery are derived from animal sources. Those musks have a presence to them which sets them apart. There is a source of musk in fragrance which does not come from animals. It comes from the seeds of the ambrette plant. Particularly over the past few years it has become one of the more interesting musks to use. One reason is it can be used as part of a top accord. It can substitute for the heavier musks when a lighter touch is needed in a base accord. It also is the musk I most enjoy wearing in warm weather because it is lighter. Here are five of my favorites.

The perfume which probably put ambrette on the map is 2007’s Chanel No. 18. A mixture of ambrette and iris this is one of the most lilting Chanel perfumes. One of the interesting aspects of ambrite is it has tinges of green and fruit to its scent profile. Perfumers Christopher Sheldrake and Jacques Polge take advantage of all the nuance available from the ambrette as they wrap it around a luxurious iris. Most perfume lovers had never heard of ambrette prior to this. After this I never forgot about it.

The reference standard musk perfume is 2009’s Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan. Most people remember it for the combination of rose and the animalic musks. What few people realize is perfumer Christopher Sheldrake uses a high concentration of ambrette as the interstitial tissue between the rose and animalic musks. The ambrette is what makes this the king of musk perfumes.

One of perfumer Christine Nagel’s last perfume for Jo Malone was 2014’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt. Working with creative director Celine Roux they wanted to make a different aquatic. Mme Nagel uses ambrette in the top accord in place of the typical ozonic notes of most aquatics. It is the ambrette that brings the fresh to push back against the briny mineralic accord. This is a great example of how flexible ambrette is in the hands of perfumers.

In 2017’s Parfum D’Empire Le Cre de la Lumiere perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses ambrette as the sole ingredient in the top. He takes advantage of that by teasing out the threads of subtlety he wants to use. Most importantly a powdery aspect which entwines around a similarly styled iris. This forms the most beautiful opaque globe of light musk and iris which get a rose tint before it is done. A gorgeous fragile piece of perfume.

In 2017’s Frassai Verano Porteno creative director Natalia Outeda asked perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux for a perfume of summer nights in Buenos Aires. The opening is a beautifully realized air of night flowers on the breeze. In the base he uses ambrette to form a lighter musk accord by combining it cleverly with mate tea. It is just the right partner to add some edge to the ambrette without it taking over.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased of each perfume.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Baie Rose

I was only a couple years into writing about perfume when I asked to visit one of the big perfume oil houses. What drew me to request a visit was the chemist in me had heard about this new way of isolating new perfume materials via supercritical fluid extraction. I got my invitation along with a demonstration. The material they extracted for me were pink peppercorns. I was told prior to this; traditional methods of extraction were unsatisfactory due to yield and scent profile. When we finished the demonstration, they gave me some of the finished product to try. It was an herbal, slightly piquant slightly flowery soft scent. I took home a tiny vial. I didn’t really need to because this has become one of the most used ingredients in all of perfumery over the last ten years or so. I can honestly say a week does not pass where I do not smell a perfume which does not contain it. There is some confusion about the name because you will see it listed as pink pepper, pink peppercorn, Schinus mole, and the name I use for consistency, baie rose. Despite its ubiquity some of the earliest uses were the best at displaying all the facets of this dynamic perfume ingredient. Here are five of my favorites.

If there is any perfumer, I would label a maestro of baie rose it would be Geza Schoen. Over the years he has plumbed the depths of its use. He also was the forerunner of using it as he made it a keynote of many of the perfumes he made for Linda Pilkington’s brand, Ormonde Jayne. I could fill this list with five favorites, but I’ll stick to my very favorite; Ormonde Man. The baie rose is the linchpin for the fantastic spicy top accord as Hr. Schoen sets coriander, cardamom, juniper berry, and hemlock into orbit around it. This remains one of the most compelling spicy accords of a perfume I wear. It is balanced with a set of woods, but it is that spicy accord which lingers for hours which was my introduction to baie rose.

Another early use came in Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Angelique Sous La Pluie. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena would use it as the counterweight to the angelica root in the heart. There is a terpenic piece to baie rose and that matches the more pronounced terpenes in angelica root. For those who enjoy M. Ellena’s style this is one of the perfumes where his sets of minimal perfume ingredients which overlap in olfactory Venn diagrams is at a pinnacle.

Of anything which captures the minimalism of Coco Chanel’s fashion aesthetic the perfumes in the Chanel Les Exclusif collection are it. One of the most compelling, 28 La Pausa, features baie rose as part of a three-ingredient set along with the keynote of iris and vetiver. The baie rose is used as a modulator to extract the chilly silvery rooty quality of the best iris. It does it brilliantly. 28 La Pausa is close to my favorite iris soliflore because perfumers Christopher Sheldrake and Jacques Polge embraced the “less is more” philosophy.

For once Le Labo Baie Rose 26 actually featured the ingredient on the label. It is not a common event within the line.  In 2010 as baie rose was gaining popularity so were the woody aromachemicals represented by Ambrox. Perfumer Frank Voelkl pairs baie rose with spicy rose in the heart. It produces a fascinating effect which is able to stand up to the monolithic synthetic wood of Ambrox. It also makes for one of the most contemporary uses of baie rose I own.

My favorite mainstream use of baie rose is in the first perfume released by Bottega Veneta in 2011. Used as the tip of a triangle with jasmine sambac and patchouli it forms an earthy floral effect which rest on a leathery chypre base. Perfumer Michel Almairac use the baie rose to get the most out of the jasmine and patchouli. They form a floral accord the equal to the base accord.

If you love perfume you smell baie rose everywhere. Here are five worth seeking out in the madding crowd.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Sage

As we reach the end of March it is time to start digging in the dirt. Before the flowers begin to scent the air in Poodlesville it is the herbs which have the honor of providing the smell of spring. We have a patch of wild sage growing in a corner. It is always one of the earliest things I detect in the spring. Sage in perfume is more of a character actor ingredient. Happy to be part of an ensemble of herbal notes most of the time. It is used a lot because it is one of the more versatile herbal ingredients. This month I pick five perfumes which display that.

Tom Ford Private Blend Moss Breches is still one of the most striking of this collection. Perfumer Stephen Nilsen creates one of the most compelling earthy green perfumes available. In the heart of it all is sage as part of a group of herbal notes. They act as the harbinger for the patchouli and moss in the base.

When I first discovered D.S. & Durga one of the first bottles I purchased was Cowboy Grass. Perfumer David Seth Moltz takes every dusty showdown on a movie Western Main Street and makes a fragrance. It has a dryness imparted by many herbs but it is that sage brush tumbleweed which rolls through the center of it all which turns it from desert to cowboy.

One of the most unique uses of sage comes in L’Artisan Parfumeur Caligna by perfumer Dora Baghriche. The top accord is a vibrant combination of fig and sage. When it sinks into the jasmine marmalade accord in the heart it sets Caligna apart. This is my favorite L’Artisan release of the last few years.

Thirdman Eau Inexplicable took its time to grow on me. The reason I’ve come around to enjoying it as much as I do is the sage at the heart of the perfume. Creative director Jean-Christophe le Greves and perfumer Bruno Jovanovic have made one of the edgier Cologne Nouveaus. It has a spiky top half of baie rose, sage, and geranium. The sage is the star before sandalwood and vetiver in the base finish things up. It is a perfume which is a little aloof but if you give it a chance you might warm to its charms.

Jo Malone Wood Sage & Sea Salt is one of the recent spate of aquatic perfumes which look for a different beach milieu. Creative director Celine Roux and perfumer Christine Nagel, in one of her last for the brand, took a trip to the English seaside in Cornwell. What that turned into as a perfume is a mineralic mixture of sun and dunes with the sage standing in for the grass growing on those. This has become one of my favorite shoulder season aquatics.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Cognac

The end of February always drives me to drink. I hate the colorless world which greets me at the end of winter. One of my favorite winter drinks is a snifter of fine cognac to sip. This is also the time of year when the perfume I own which has cognac in it find their time to shine. Here are five of my favorites.

Banana Republic Black Walnut was a perfume which challenged my perfume snobbery. By the time I walked in to the store at my local mall I expected to be underwhelmed. What I found was a simple mixture of cognac, tobacco, and cedar. Perfumer Harry Fremont could have named this “Cigar Bar” and it would have been as accurate.

A more creative version of cognac and tobacco comes from House of Cherry Bomb Tobacco Cognac. Independent perfumers Alexis Karl and Maria McElroy. This is the indie flip side to the commercial quality of Black Walnut. Tobacco Cognac does everything just a bit better and adds in the rare ingredients of ambergris, oud, along with a fabulously viscous honey accord. This is that secret hideaway where pleasures are more complex.

Pierre Guillaume Liqueur Charnelle is a pure cognac accord. I enjoy these perfumes where the pieces of the accord come forth individually until they all snap together. When Liqueur Charnelle does form the cognac accord it is a monument of the skill of perfumer Pierre Guillaume. I know how good it is because Mrs. C accused me of spilling cognac on myself while I was wearing it.

Krigler Established Cognac 66 is one of the most unique perfumes I own. Ben Krigler forms a rich cognac accord which he makes the nucleus of an outstanding gourmand style of fragrance. To do that he surrounds that boozy heart with apple, caramel and a fabulously odd banana. I am always reminded of having a decadent dessert prepared tableside with a whoosh of flaming cognac.

You might not think a cognac brand would also be a perfume brand. Frapin manages to straddle both worlds. It is no mistake that their first perfume, Frapin 1270, was an abstract version of what it smells like in the cellars where cognac is made. Perfume Sidonie Lancesseur creates the milieu from the sharp scent of the grapes, the woods of the barrel, a hint of the mustiness of the cellar. It carries a more transparent aspect of cognac as this is more what goes into it rather than the final product. I think this is one of Mme Lancesseur’s best perfumes of her career.

Instead of drink the winter away join me in sniffing it away.

Disclosure: This is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Tea

As we are firmly in the middle of winter where I need something to lift my spirits I turn to a hot cup of tea. I think I enjoy it because it carries a fragrant quality to the different types. Tea perfumes emulate that. One thing which always allows me to enjoy tea perfumes is the ingredient is not able to be extracted as an essential oil. That means this is another ingredient where a perfumer must construct their own signature tea accord. Here are five of my favorites.

Bvlgari Eau Parfumee au The Vert is the beginning of the tea trend in perfume. It is also remarkable for being one of the first releases where perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s style emerges in finished form. Today we take both for granted; in 1993 they were groundbreaking. M. Ellena forms a citrusy floral transparency through which tendrils of smoky green tea swirl. It is one of the all-time great perfumes.

Another perfumer known for her transparent style is Olivia Giacobetti in 2001’s L’Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two she would create her own version. She chose to make a lapsang souchong accord which is where the fragrance begins. The scent of wood smoke dried black tea is gorgeously realized. Mme Giacobetti then adds some cinnamon followed by a veil of honey in the base. Among the best perfumes by one of the best perfumers.

Another take on the lapsang souchong accord came from independent perfumer Mandy Aftel in Aftelier Vanilla Smoke. Ms. Aftel constructs a pine wood dried version of the black tea accord. It adds the perfect amount of counterbalance to the vanilla. The real linchpin is an interstitial saffron which provides the spacing between the vanilla and the tea. This is another example of Ms. Aftel’s ability to find the most out of her accords.

The creative directors of Masque Milano, Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi, wanted to create a Russian tea ritual in a snowy St. Petersburg square. Perfumer Julien Rasquinet intersperses mint and smoke through his black tea accord before using a brilliantly conceived immortelle. That maple syrup quality transforms Russian Tea into the best tea perfume of the last few years.

Parfum D’Empire Osmanthus Interdite is one of those jasmine tea flowers which unfurl in a clear teapot. Perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses jasmine and Osmanthus as floral components to a green tea accord which melds seamlessly with the florals. This is the fragrance equivalent of watching that jasmine tea rose languorously unfold in the tea pot.

If you’re looking for a little warmth this winter try wearing a cuppa perfume.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Chestnut

It isn’t Christmas without Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” If you’re walking in New York City the smell of roasting chestnuts from the street vendors is part of the cold weather milieu. When it comes to chestnut being a keynote in a fragrance there are not a lot of them. Although I do have five which can be my scented companion to the smooth vocals of Mr. Cole.

There are two chestnuts roasting perfumes on this list. The first is Maison Martin Margiela Replica: By The Fireplace. Perfumer Marie Salamagne keeps the cade wood smoke to a minimum while weaving a cozy accord of chestnut warmed with clove and vanilla. It comes together as a fragrance equivalent of a snuggly cashmere blanket.

The other one is DSH Perfumes Chataignes du Bois which was Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Holiday perfume in 2017. She produced a full-spectrum chestnut effect as she combined multiple sources to form an uber-chestnut accord. What endears it to me is there is a burnt sugar accord underneath it all which takes me back to winter nights running around NYC.

Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour has used chestnut in two different perfumes for L’Artisan Parfumeur.

Mechant Loup was one of M. Duchaufour’s earliest perfumes for the brand in 1997. The core of this perfume is a nutty accord of chestnut and hazelnut coated in honey. It was one of the first nutty perfumes I fell for although I was resistant to its charms at first. The nuts and honey are powerful but if you give it time a gorgeous use of myrrh turns the Big Bad Wolf into a puppy.

Twenty years later M. Duchaufour returned to chestnut with Noir Exquis. Meant to capture a café encounter in Paris over coffee and pastries the chestnut is candied to represent the baked goods. The coffee is nicely realized. What makes this different is his use of a maple syrup accord which makes it all sweeter than I expected. There are days I want to slow down for a pastry and a coffee, Noir Exquis allows me to do it in a decaffeinated low-calorie way.

Etat Libre D’Orange Fat Electrician is the most interesting use of chestnut in a perfume. Perfumer Antoine Maisondieu wanted this to be a different interpretation of vetiver. To achieve that he used chestnut to amplify the nutty facets of vetiver. This is one of my favorite vetiver perfumes because of how successful he was. He takes that nuttier vetiver and wraps it in vanilla and myrrh for a completely unique vetiver fragrance because of the chestnut.

If you want some chestnuts on your skin instead of the fire these five will do the job.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Beeswax

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There are certain ingredients in perfume which have such a multi-faceted character I enjoy smelling the absolute on its own. Beeswax absolute is one of those. Created by extracting hives which have been around for years. Depending on where those hives are from each version has its own scent profile. What is common is a musky honey infused with the pollen harvested from whatever indigenous plant life surrounds the hive. While the absolute is great by itself it is even better when used in a perfume here are five of my favorites.

Chanel Antaeus pour Homme was my first experience with beeswax in perfume although I didn’t know it at the time. It was part of my early expansion of my perfume collection. It provides a bit of animalic muskiness underneath the sage, patchouli, and labdanum spine. I was attracted to it because of that.

I talk about inflection points by perfumers all the time. Ineke Field Notes From Paris was that for independent perfumer Ineke Ruhland. The beeswax brings home a gorientalmand base stitching together tonka bean, vanilla, and amber. Prior to that is the smell of a Paris day.

Rubini Fundamental is one of the most original perfumes of the last few years. The creative team of Andrea Bissoli Rubini, Ermano Picco, and perfumer Cristiano Canali created a perfume capturing Verona in 1937 with the actors, in greasepaint, taking a break underneath the grape arbor. It is beeswax which provides the linchpin to the greasepaint accord mixed with the grapes in the heart of Fundamental. If you’re looking for something completely different this is where you should go.

Maria Candida Gentile released a trio of perfumes in 2014 called “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Within that she used three different sources of beeswax. It was Leuco and its powdery French beeswax which was my favorite. It was the counterweight to a keynote of tuberose. The beeswax provided a muffling effect while also adding a shimmering effect over the top of it all. Leuco is my favorite of al of Sig.ra Gentile’s perfumes.

For a straightforward beeswax experience there is nothing better than Sonoma Scent Studio Bee’s Bliss. Independent perfumer Laurie Erickson created a perfume which captures the entire process of honey. Starting with mimosa as the flower harvested on top of a rich honey accord. The beeswax represents the hive along with vetiver representing the propolis which holds the cells together. It is a gorgeous abstraction of harvesting honey fresh from the hive.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Whisky

One thing my rotation of different perfume styles based on the season has exposed that I do it for other things. I’ve been rearranging my liquor shelves too. The things I like to drink in the cooler months are the soliflores of the alcohol world. Whisky is one of them. There are also some great whisky perfumes in this month’s My Favorite Things looks at five whisky perfumes.

One of the most recent is Nasomatto Baraonda. Independent perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri returned to his flagship brand after a bit of a break with a bold whisky laden perfume. He hands you a snifter loaded with dried berries and synthetic musks. Sig. Gualtieri balances out all the rough edges into a smooth sipping fragrance.

One of the reasons I like Baraonda is it reminded me of the early releases from the brand. The same is true for By Kilian Single Malt. After a few years of going off in different directions Single Malt re-teamed creative director Kilian Hennessy and perfumer Sidonie Lancesseur. They created a beautifully constructed whisky accord which starts with plum slowly coming together via wheat, cedar, tolu balsam, and vanilla. Once it forms you have a fantastic whisky on your skin.

Thierry Mugler A*Men Pure Malt was the second flanker in what I consider the best flanker series in all of perfume. In these early releases original A*Men perfumer Jacques Huclier seemed to delight in adding in a new ingredient to show the versatility of the classic caramel, patchouli, and chocolate accord. In this case it is a whisky accord which teases out the caramel while amplifying the sweetness in all the best whiskies. I keep a little tin of high-quality caramel which I eat a bit of when I’m sipping whisky; it started here.

Another combination of sweet and whisky is present in Carolina Herrera CH Men Prive. Perfumer Christophe Raynaud uses whisky as contrast to the citrus opening of grapefruit, complement to the lavender in the heart and depth along with a black leather accord in the base. This is a rugged masculine perfume.

My final choice comes from a collaboration between independent perfumer David Seth Moltz (the D.S. in D.S. & Durga) and the scotch producer Glenlivet. Hylnds Spirit of the Glen wants to capture the bouquet of a Glenlivet 18. This is a complete experience of scotch in a perfume. Grassy fruity opening deepens into a hay and chamomile heart. When you get to the base with whisky malt and barley you are complete.

If you’re in a whisky mood but don’t feel like a drink, try these five perfumes instead.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Clove

Fall is coming. Which means it is time to start thinking about my favorite spicy perfumes. One spice carries a fantastic character when it is used in fragrance; clove. It is an ingredient which can be tuned to feel like a bit of incense or tilted to a rougher edge. When used well it is imparts something different from the typical spices you find. Here are five of my favorites.

There was a Diptyque boutique on Newbury St. in Boston. It was always an experience in what niche perfumery was all about. Diptyque as a brand did that right from the start with Diptyque L’Eau. Based on an old English potpourri recipe the clove is the linchpin for all the spices in the top accord before going to a rose and sandalwood base. One of my favorite Holiday scents but I also wear it in October.

My first experience with the smell of cloves was at the end of French clove cigarettes called Kreteks. I was always drawn to it especially since it seemed to be a symbol of personal rebellion for those puffing on them. The perfume which captures this best is Ava Luxe Tabak Kretek. Indie perfumer Serena Ava Goode uses clove, tobacco, cinnamon, and cardamom to produce the scent of a Kretek which doesn’t make me have to inhale smoke.

Clove tends to show up more often in indie releases. Perhaps the best use of it came in Charenton Macerations Christopher Street. Creative director Douglas Bender and perfumer Ralf Schwieger use it to provide a clove orange effect in the heart. Orange blossom and cinnamon round it out. The tobacco on top and the musks below make it one of my favorite fall perfumes.

One of my all-time favorite perfumes is Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant. During the mid-1990’s creative renaissance at Kenzo this was the best of all of them. Creative director Celine Verleure and perfumer Dominique Ropion produced a luxurious spicy perfume by adding in the oiliness of ylang-ylang to an olfactory spice rack. The clove is one of the most prominent notes in this. This perfume is very close to being my all-time Favorite Thing because it is so good. It is one of my rituals to greet the first chilly morning in fall wearing this.

Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur is one of the best Oriental fragrances perfumer Maurice Roucel has produced. It has one of those outsized reputations which it lives up to. M. Roucel also goes the spiced citrus route. By using equal amounts of clove and cinnamon to liven up tangerine it is the more compelling part of the development. The base is sweet vanilla and sandalwood with subtle musk attached. The colder it is the more I smell the clove and cinnamon; which is why it is a cold weather staple.

Looking to add some spice to your fall roatation? Give these five clove standouts a try.

Disclosure: I purchased a botlle of each perfume.

-Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Tar

When it comes to the scents of summer most of us think of beaches, fruits, and green growing things. I was reminded of another less referenced scent of summer with some road construction in front of my house; tar. Birch tar has been one of the key components of leather accords. Even though the overall effect is that of tanned cowhide when I wear these perfumes there is also a hint of country blacktop, too. Here are five of my favorite tar perfumes.

In 1927 Chanel perfumer Ernest Beaux would use birch tar as the key ingredient in his “Russian leather” accord. It would be the beginning of its widespread use for nearly the next 100 years. Cuir de Russie has been a part of the Les Exclusifs collection and it shows off a raw tanned leather as the name promises. M. Beaux tempers it with the use of aldehydes, jasmine, and sandalwood. Don’t kid yourself though this is all about the leather; gloriously so.

Two years before Cuir de Russie perfumers Francois Coty and Vincent Roubert produced an unabashedly straightforward leather fragrance, Knize Ten. The perfumers make one of the most full-bodied leather perfumes ever. Their accord reminds me of not only birch tar but the motor oil scent of a garage. It might sound unpleasant, but it is mesmerizing to me. A musky patchouli sandalwood base accord is the main complement to the uber-leather accord.

I leave it to Comme des Garcons to give me the exact scent of overheated asphalt. In 2004’s Series 6 Synthetic: Tar perfumer Nathalie Feisthauer accomplishes it. She uses birch tar as the nucleus but expertly weaves in styrax, castoreum, and opoponax. It is exactly what the road in front of my house smells like this month. It is this aesthetic which has elevated Comme des Garcons above so many of their contemporaries.

Just as Tar is emblematic of the creativity at Comme des Garcons the existence of Le Labo Patchouli 24 does the same for that brand. Perfumer Annick Menardo finds the intersection of birch tar and patchouli to create a fascinating pungency. That she adds in a bit of sweet vanilla as contrast to it only serves to delineate it all. Another great perfume from one of the true innovators of niche perfumery.

Even though it was the smell of summer road work which got me in to this column; Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods is how you use tar along with cade wood to create that winter haze of woodsmoke. Those two ingredients form one of the most intense woodsmoke accords I have. Independent perfumer Laurie Erickson spends the rest of the development taming the smoke with warm amber, clean cedar, green vetiver, and sweet sandalwood. It is among the best that this talented artisanal perfumer has produced.

As I look back over this list it might be the most imaginative list I’ve produced for this series. Every one of these perfumes are among the best of the brands and styles described. If you love perfume this is something to get on the road to try.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke