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

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