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

My Favorite Things: Camphor

One of the things I enjoy about writing on fragrance is how one perfume makes me view previous releases differently. One of the more recent examples was Cadavre Exquis by Bruno Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni. The keynote was the use of camphor which opened my eyes to its versatility. Which then sent me back to try some of the fragrances on my shelf which contain it. I’d have Cadavre Exquis on the list, but it is a sold-out limited edition. Instead here are five of my other favorites which feature camphor.

Perfumer James Heeley wanted to turn the liniment Tiger Balm into a perfume which he does in Heeley Esprit du Tigre. The camphor is amplified by mint and wintergreen before clove and vetiver close the loop on the desired accord. It is medicinal, but it is also refreshing in an odd way especially on a hot day.

Camphor doesn’t have to dominate the opening which Diptyque Oud Palao shows. Perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin constructs an oud accord which he doses a bit of camphor in to mimic that quality in some of the younger natural ouds. This is an example of what camphor can do to complete an accord.

It can also be used to tease out a facet within an overdosed ingredient as it does in Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Carnal Flower. Perfumer Dominique Ropion uses the camphor to draw attention to the underlying green vein within tuberose. Without its presence the tuberose would have lost much of its carnality.

It also amplifies that kind of mentholated quality, if it is present, as it does in Comme des Garcons x Monocle Scent One: Hinoki. That titular note is given the sheen of fresh-cut cedar when perfumer Antoine Maisondieu uses it in the top accord leading to the eventual presence of the wood itself.

Just as with Carnal Flower, Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle serves up camphor and tuberose. Except this time more of the former and a bit less of the latter. Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake turns the sultry white flower into something with a bit more malice courtesy of the camphor.

If you need a little something bracing from your perfume give these five camphor perfumes a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: The Summer Perfume Playlist

As Memorial Day approached last week I was busy refurbishing my summer music playlist. The songs have to be light fun and made for singing at the top of my lungs in the car. It gets a little longer every year as a couple of songs from the previous summer are added to my evergreen collection of songs I associate with long sunny days. At about the same time I was arranging the perfume on my shelves to get the ones I like on my perfume playlist out in front. As I was looking at them I realized that there is also a group of five I like wearing every summer because they are part of what makes the season for me. I thought I’d share my summer perfume playlist in this month’s My Favorite Things.

It might be the alpha perfume, or more accurately the alpha cologne, but there is nothing I enjoy more than spraying myself with a healthy coating of Roger & Gallet Jean Maria Farina Extra Vieille. Reputedly the original cologne recipe: lemon, rosemary, and orange blossom. It lasts for a short time, but it refreshes just as much as any three-chord rocker like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” by The Ramones. Gabba Gabba Hey.

When I want something as bright as the noonday sun I choose Chanel Allure Homme Edition Blanche. Perfumers Jacques Polge and Francois Demachy open with a fantastic shiny fanfare of lemon before heading to a lightly woody base. I seem to hum “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves when I wear this.

Summer isn’t summer unless you spend some time at the beach. The Different Company Sel de Vetiver captures the smell of salt water on skin matched with vetiver and grapefruit to capture the dune grass and the sun. Perfumer Celine Ellena makes a fragrant version of “Surfin USA” by The Beach Boys.

What might be the omega cologne, Thierry Mugler Cologne, is one of the best reinterpretations of a classic fragrance style that exists. Perfumer Alberto Morillas uses the same lemon and orange blossom seen in many colognes but by threading a lot of white musks through that duo he creates something brilliant. This is the summer perfume I wear when I want to smile like “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.

I discovered Diptyque Philosykos near the end of a particular summer. It conjures end of season memories for me with perfumer Olivia Giacobetti’s transparent fig providing the coda to the summer before fall arrives. Just like “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley.

For the next three months all five perfumes and five songs will be on heavy rotation. See if you want to add them to your summer playlist.

Disclosure: Reviews based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Strawberry

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As I mentioned a year ago, when the subject of this column was rhubarb perfumes, this time of year has a natural partner to rhubarb; strawberry. By the time I write this column a month from now it is likely a strawberry-rhubarb pie will be cooling on the counter. Strawberry in perfume has a quality that sometimes can come off as adolescent in nature. There are a few which manage to take that ingredient and make something more sophisticated here are five of those.

Back in 2006 when Romano Ricci debuted his new perfume brand Juliette Has A Gun one of the two releases, Miss Charming, featured strawberry. Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian called it “wild strawberry’ which meant a strong green component to the sweet berry. It rests on top of a velvet rose where an interesting use of lychee tones down the typical flamboyance of rose. A swirl of musks finishes this off with an expansive air. This was one of the first times I noticed strawberry in a positive way in a perfume.

Wild strawberry would return in Marc Jacobs Daisy in the fall of 2007. Perfumer Alberto Morillas uses it as part of a grapefruit-strawberry top accord. Violet leaves pick up the green more efficiently leading to a gardenia and jasmine heart while the violet flowers alongside them. A typical woody-vanilla base round it out. This has been one of the great mainstream successes of the last ten years and much of that is due to M. Morillas’ touch with the modern fruity floral.

My favorite straight out strawberry perfume is Montale Mukhallat. Done in the brand’s unabashedly bombastic style the strawberry is matched with almond, vanilla, and balsam. This is like a freight train with the strawberry in the cow catcher position. When I feel like catching a ride on the Strawberry Express this is what I reach for.

I adore the opening of slumberhouse Sadanne as it always smells of candy apples flavored with strawberry. This seems like perfumer Josh Lobb’s commentary on fruity floral fragrance. This becomes clearer in the heart as the florals are purposefully made somewhat sour so that they contrast with the sugary sweetness of the top accord. Then it heads to dirty musky territory which scares off all the fruit and flowers. One of my favorites from the brand.

Imaginary Authors Cape Heartache finds a unique partner for the strawberry, pine. Perfumer Josh Meyer shows that coniferous berries are the pairing I didn’t know I wanted. They each manage to attenuate the other leaving a middle harmonic which works. A bit of woodsmoke skirls through as if the smoke from a bonfire is caught in the boughs of the tree. It is a midnight in the forest scent with a bit of strawberry along for the ride.

Strawberry doesn’t always have to be childish these five show that to be true.

Disclosure: This review was based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Opoponax

I’ve probably put off doing this specific ingredient because I’m not fond of spelling it. An extra “p” here an “o” turns to an “a” there. Before I get done writing this I’ll probably correct a dozen or more misspellings. Opoponax is one of the linchpins of Oriental perfumes. It is one of the critical components of three of the classic perfumes of all-time; Guerlain Shalimar, Yves Saint Laurent Opium, and Dior Poison. They owe much of what makes them so special to opoponax. It is used extensively as an earthier more balsamic alternative to myrrh. It also carries with it a sizeable powdery component which makes it especially amenable to providing the grounding for those kinds of ingredients.

I would wager most who love perfume don’t know what opoponax smells like although there are probably multiple perfumes on the shelf which contain it. I’m starting this month’s list with three different versions of the ingredient surrounded by benzoin and sandalwood. Each of them is slightly tuned differently around the opoponax. The most straight-forward is Santa Maria Novella Opoponax the benzoin and the sandalwood provide subtle foundation. It is the most unadulterated version of these three. The benzoin rises to be a more equal partner in Les Nereides Opoponax. It ends up also tilting a bit sweeter because some vanilla leads it that way to give a warmly satisfying sweetly resinous hug. Von Eusersdorff Classic Opoponax adds a floral shine on top via rose and a bit of animalic purr via castoreum but it is still primarily opoponax, benzoin, sandalwood. Once you’ve introduced yourself to opoponax here are three more where it stands out.

Diptyque Eau Lente was one of the original releases from the brand in 1986. Perfumer Serge Kalougine wanted to create an opoponax perfume as they imagined it might have been used by Alexander the Great who scented his cloaks with the smoke from burning the resin. What M. Kalougine does is to take an equally fantastic cinnamon as a partner to the opoponax. The cinnamon heats up the opoponax making it less viscous that it is by itself. While being one of my favorite opoponax perfumes it is also one of my favorite cinnamon ones, too.

Carthusia Ligea unleashes the powdery nature of opoponax more fully. Perfumer Laura Tonatto transitions from a crisp citrus opening into softer mandarin which accentuates the powder in the opoponax. Over time patchouli and benzoin find and magnify the more balsamic elements.

Before perfumer Mona di Orio’s untimely passing she made several incredibly artistic perfumes; Mona di Orio Cuir is among the best of those. Mme di Orio uses opoponax in conjunction with castoreum to provide a thoroughly engaging base underneath a smoke-laden leather accord. One of the best examples of the chiaroscuro style of perfume Mme di Orio practiced.

If you love perfume you’ve definitely worn a perfume with opoponax; now try one of these to try a perfume which features it.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased of all the perfumes mentioned.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Cherry

There are some perfume notes which I think are problematically labeled as “cheap”. Cherry is one of those; the result of being the ingredient of too many plug-in air fresheners. It means more opportunity for perfumers to find gold within the dross. There aren’t a lot of cherry perfumes I own but the ones I do show the previous assertion is true. Here are my five favorites.

The People of the Labyrinths Luctor et Emergo– Before perfumer Alessandro Gulatieri would go on to found his Nasomatto line, he caught the attention of many perfume lovers with this gorgeous experimental fragrance. He at first uses a strong cherry but wraps it in an artificial cellophane accord. Then he embeds it in a Play-Doh casing for a different kind of artifice. One of the earliest groundbreakers in niche perfumery.

Serge Lutens Rahat Loukoum– Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake also uses cherry as a keynote in the top accord in this release to help further define the nascent gourmand style of fragrance. He takes a marzipan almond and matches it to a syrupy cherry liqueuer. Based on the Turkish Delight confection it eventually heads deeper into sweet confectionary territory, but it is always the cherry-almond opening which stays with me.

Ramon Monegal Cherry Musk– This is a perfume which simply lives up to its name as perfumer Ramon Monegal takes a concentrated cherry followed by a cocktail of white and animalic musks to provide a fascinating counterbalance. It is very strong and some days I’m not up for it; on the days I am spraying it on I like being swept away by it.

Beyonce Heat Rush– Within the celebuscent category Beyonce has produced a better than average collection since 2010. I liked the original Heat but the one bottle I own is the second flanker Heat Rush and it is all down to the cherry note. Perfumer Honorine Blanc re-works the fruity nature of Heat as she uses a top accord of cherry, passionfruit, and orange instead of the peach of the original. It turns this into a summer party.

Prada Candy Gloss– Perfumer Daniela Andrier completely leaves behind the formula from Candy for this flanker. It revolves on an axis of cherry, orange blossom, and vanilla. This is a transparent version of those usually heavy notes full of effervescence. I have come to like it better than the original.

Disclosure: These reviews based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Ylang-Ylang

Over my time of writing about perfume I have been given various samples of specific ingredients. To the point now I have a nice reference set of most of the major ingredients. There are only a few of them that have such dynamic scent profiles they are fascinating all on their own. One of those is ylang-ylang. Because of a visit to one of the major oil houses I not only have the essential oil but the different fractions of that oil. It has always struck me that when you take a complex ingredient like ylang-ylang and break it into fractions and each of those are different it speaks to the specialness of ylang-ylang as an ingredient. It is so versatile it is a supporting ingredient most of the time. There are some instances where it can star and here are five of my favorites.

M. Micallef Ylang in Gold is one of the best straight ylang perfumes you will find. Martine Micallef working with perfumer Jean-Claude Astier take the kaleidoscopic floral and gild it with sandalwood, vanilla, bitter orange. Throughout everything which makes ylang-ylang unique is displayed. My all-time favorite ylang-ylang perfume.

One of the odder facets of ylang-ylang is a ripe banana character which can be seen sometimes. In Hermes Hermessence Vanille Galante perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena relies on it to add a fruity tint to the lily and vanilla keynotes. It is one of the more divisive uses of ylang because of the ripe banana. It is one of my favorite tropical vibe perfumes.

Ylang-ylang was one of the great ingredients during the beginning of modern perfumery. As we have seen the rise of heritage brands; one of those Grossmith Hasu-No-Hana gives you a feel of what that was like. The modern team of Amanda and Simon Brooke oversaw a reconstruction where the ylang soars, paired with iris, as the floral heart headed to a chypre base. This is how they used to do it.

Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian would dabble with the animalic side of ylang with MDCI Enlevement au Serail. When he started his own brand, he would turn it into the fulcrum for the most sensually dynamic perfume of the 21st century Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour le Soir. This is a celebration of all that is deep and dark in perfume with ylang right in the center.

Perfumer Frank Voelkl would also find the voluptuous side of ylang in Le Labo Ylang 49. While lighter than my previous choice it is still a femme fatale just dressed up in brighter shades of citrus and gardenia. A daytime version of sensuality.

If you’ve never explored ylang-ylang on its own these five will give you and idea of its special nature.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles of which I have purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Hibiscus

Having grown up in South Florida I was not wishing for a White Christmas. I was happy with brightly colored flowers instead of snow. I recently saw a picture of a hibiscus wreath which reminded me how we took the traditions and gave them a tropical tweak. Hibiscus as an ingredient is not one of the most popular choices. It has a similar sweetness to jasmine which makes it a frequent partner to that flower. It also is most commonly encountered as hibiscus tea which has been mimicked, too. This month’s My Favorite Things looks at five perfumes which show off hibiscus at its best.

Hibiscus Holiday Wreath

Acca Kappa Hibiscus is as close as there is to a hibiscus soliflore. Released in 2004 it takes the sweet floral keynote and supports it with magnolia, citrus, and heliotrope. Amber comes along to warm things up at the end. This is a great casual scent which is when I use it.

Demeter Hibiscus Tea does what perfumer Mark Crames does so well; create a perfumed simulacrum of the name on the bottle. The hibiscus is carried to your nose on steamy clouds of green tea. It is simply beautiful.

As I mentioned hibiscus is used along with jasmine. My favorite version of this is Costume National Scent. Perfumer Laurent Bruyere uses equivalent amounts of jasmine and hibiscus in the heart. It is laid on top of sheer woods and amber. Scent is a luminous floral perfume. Interestingly, M. Bruyere will take the same ingredients and alter the concentrations to make a darker version called Scent Intense. The hibiscus is more secondary in that one but that is also one of my favorites.

The most unambiguously tropical version of hibiscus comes in Creed Virgin Island Water. Most focus on the pina colada quality of the lime, rum, and coconut. But what seals the drinks with umbrellas vibe is the floral accord of hibiscus and jasmine reminding you that it is the Virgin Islands you’re in.

The most artistic use of hibiscus comes from perfumer Olivia Giacobetti and her IUNX No. 4 L’Eau Azteque. The botanical musk of ambrette comes from hibiscus seeds. Mme Giacobetti combines ambrette and musk into a foundational sun-warmed skin accord over which she lays hibiscus and pear. This is a fantastic fruity floral which captures indolent days in the sun.

If you’re looking for a mental trip to the tropics as we head further into the colder temperature months give these five a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on botlles which I own.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Raspberry

If there is one style of perfume I struggle with it is fruity floral. Part of that is because of the first word, “fruity”. It usually means intensely sweet which lives on the edge of my tolerance for that in a fragrance. There are many times I wish I could smell the version that didn’t make it into the bottle; where the fruit was cut in half. I had a realization a couple weeks ago when I was wearing one of my favorite hot weather colognes which has a prominent raspberry in it. As I was walking in the heat I realized this is a time when this should be at its worst for my sensibilities but it wasn’t. Which made me realize there are a few raspberry perfumes I really enjoy. Here are five of them.

The perfume that opened my thinking up is Carthusia Uomo. Carthusia is one of those perfume brands which is not very well-known but I think Uomo is one of the best colognes I own. Released in 1948 as part of the original set of Carthusia fragrances it is a raspberry, rosewood, and leather cologne. The raspberry is made very dry so that it lays itself like a veil over the soft rosewood which is supported by an even softer leather. This has been one of my favorite colognes ever since I tried it for the first time.

For the flip side the raspberry perfume I pull out when the weather turns colder is Tom Ford Private Blend Tuscan Leather. This has been what I have worn to many formal occasions. Tuscan Leather was one of the original Private Blend releases ten years ago. Perfumers Harry Fremont and Jacques Cavallier created a lovely mixture of fruit and animalic that works. The raspberry is surrounded with herbs and resins to keep it under control. As the leather rises the raspberry also meets it on its ascendancy. This is one of the best sellers in this very popular line. Wear it a few times and it is easy to understand why.

Shay & Blue Framboise Noire also finds the animalic is the right companion for raspberry. Perfumer Julie Masse uses musk as the companion in Framboise Noire. This also sits on a base of dark woods which provide a depth to the entire mix. If leather and raspberry don’t appeal musk and raspberry might.

When I tried Marc Jacobs Daisy the strawberry on top made me rush for the cosmetic wipes. You could have had me on the floor laughing if you told me replacing the strawberry with raspberry would change my opinion. Marc Jacobs Daisy Eau so Fresh did exactly that and you had to pick me up off the floor. Perfumer Alberto Morillas made that change but he also lightened and tightened up the entire construction from top to bottom. It is one of the few fruity florals I point to when I’m at the mall and asked for a recommendation.

Tauer Une Rose Vermeille is an example of what I would do if asked to conspire on a fruity floral. Andy Tauer uses raspberry as a note to fill in around the gorgeous rose at the heart of this perfume it is recognizably there but most of the time it is as part of a greater rose accord that I notice it. This gets richer with a vanilla and ambergris base. This is Hr. Tauer at his best finding the right notes to fill in the spaces.

If you’re a fan of raspberry and haven’t tried these see if they give you a different perspective on the little red fruit.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Basil

If you have ever grown basil at home you have now reached the point in the summer that you wonder what you can do with all that you have on hand. I know over the years we have gotten very creative in finding ways to use it. I might become tired of using it in recipes but one thing I never tire of is the fresh green herbal scent of the leaves. Just picking one and crushing it in my hand is a pleasure while cooking on the grill or watching the poodles cavort in the backyard. Basil has been an ingredient in perfume, usually paired up with some other herbs. Even as part of an ensemble there some fragrances where the basil takes the lead. Here are five of my favorite basil perfumes.

You might think I would start with the classic Jo Malone Lime, Basil, & Mandarin. It was a favorite until last year when it was replaced by Jo Malone Basil & Neroli. Perfumer Anne Flipo uses three different isolates of basil paired with a fantastic neroli. It has become my favorite perfume in the entire Jo Malone line.

It is the basil which makes Dior Eau Sauvage something more than just a masculine lavender perfume. Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska has basil provide the bridging note from the top citrus accord down to the vetiver base. As part of the expansive Hedione heart it adds green threads to the jasmine tapestry M. Roudnitska creates. I don’t think many will think of Eau Sauvage when I say basil perfumes but like things you never noticed that you can’t help seeing once you do see them; give Eau Sauvage a try and I bet you notice the basil now.

Another evergreen fragrance which uses basil is Azzaro pour Homme. This masculine powerhouse uses basil as a part of an herbal heart accord. Like in Eau Sauvage it also provides that bridging effect from the top of lavender and citrus to the patchouli and vetiver heart. This one is a little harder to see the basil as a featured note perhaps. I always notice it but that might be because I am attuned to it.

One of the best examples of a Mediterranean style is Annick Goutal Eau du Sud. Perfumer Isabelle Doyen wanted to capture twilight in Provence. She uses verbena as her focal point allowing basil, citrus, and sandalwood to complete the milieu. You might not think of basil as a typical fresh note; Mme Doyen shows that it can be.

I often complain about flankers taking the original and shoving a couple of new notes in to the formula and repackaging it. 99.9% of the time it is cynical; Tom Ford Private Blend Neroli Portofino Forte is the 0.1%. One reason might be perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux when asked to make his original Neroli Portofino “forte” he didn’t take that to mean to turn up the volume. Instead he looked at the top and base accords to find ways to make them bolder. The basil leads the chorus of herbs joined by tarragon, rosemary, and mint. Galbanum shades it all a bit greener. I like this because it does add strength. The neroli heart is given a different perspective coming out of such an herbal top. A leather accord provides the strength to finish. This also has replaced the original as my favorite of the blue bottle Private Blends.

These five help me keep my enjoyment of basil going all year long.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke