Imagine a land in an alternate universe, a parallel Cuba called Cuir Cuba Intense. There, an old tobacco farmer rolls out tobacco leaves, not on the thighs of nubile virgins, but on cedar tables covered with thick, black licorice paste. The leaves are still a bit raw, half-moist, and wet, with a certain dirty darkness that borders on the leathery. The farmer layers the tobacco with generous amounts of sweet coumarin crystals, then more black licorice, before dusting them with geranium rose, bits of lavender and mint, and a touch of lemon. Rolled into cigars, they are lightly doused with civet and musk, then nestled between sheaves of sweet hay, and left to dry in a room filled with golden ambered warmth which carries the faintest traces of rum and honey.
Over time, the cigars change. The licorice melts into their body, the civet awakens to add a slightly sharp edge, and the tobacco starts to dry. They lose their raw darkness, tempered by the coumarin crystals which bloom into a subtle creaminess. Eventually, by some alchemical transformation of this alternate universe, the tobacco is no longer even tobacco. It has turned into leather. First, into a dark, sweetened leather dusted with spices and, then, finally, into the creamiest calf-skin with supple smoothness and a hint of sweetness.
That is the world of Cuir Cuba Intense, brought to you by Patricia de Nicolaï, a talented perfumer who is, in my opinion, the true, rightful heir to the Guerlain throne. You can read more about that, her childhood in the Guerlain family, the glass-ceiling for female noses within both the family and the perfume industry as a whole, and how her Parfums de Nicolaï brand was really the first, truly “niche” house in a profile piece I wrote a long time ago. Here, I will only say that we’re all probably better off that Madame de Nicolaï (hereinafter spelled simply as “Nicolai,” sans the dotted “i”) is following her own vision and not subject to the dictates of a corporate overlord like LVMH. In fact, this year marks Parfums de Nicolai’s 25th Anniversary, so a huge congratulations to her and to her husband who co-founded the house.
Cuir Cuba Intense is an eau de parfum that was inspired by both the island of its name, and by Madame de Nicolai’s childhood memories. The press release states:
Patricia de Nicolaï is happy to introduce her new creation: Cuir Cuba Intense, inspired by the colorful and sunny island where we cultivate tobacco leaves.
‘Although I hate smoking, I have always loved the scent of tobacco leaves used in the making of cigars.’ explains Patricia. ‘When I was a child, at my parent’s, I appreciated when I was asked to go and collect the cigar box’ continues the creator. ‘What a pleasure to open it and to smell these delicate scents…It was a fragrance that really transported me! Many years after, I have found out this scent in my lab thanks to the tobacco leave absolute, starting point of Cuir Cuba Intense.’ [Emphasis in the original.]
I always like it when companies have an actual pyramid graphics for the notes, so I thought I would share with you the image I was sent by Parfums de Nicolai:
To put all that together, the succinct list of notes is:
Top: Sicilian Lemon, Anise, Licorice, Mint.
Heart: Lavender, Geranium, Ylang-Ylang, Magnolia and Coriander.
Base: Patchouli, Cedar, Tobacco Absolute, Hay, Liatrix, Iris, Sage, Musc and Civet.
That’s a lot of notes — 17 to be precise. I’m one of those people whose perfume experiences were shaped by the ’70s and ’80s, so lengthy perfume lists always bring joy to my heart. Yet, one name was new to me: Liatrix. According to my research, it’s a North American plant that is also known as Liatris or Deers Tongue, and is part of the larger tobacco family. Ayala Moriel Parfums says the leaves (which are what most people use in fragrances) have an intensely sweet smell due to their massive coumarin content. (Coumarin is one of the main reasons why so many perfume houses, particularly Guerlain, use tonka beans as they contain a lot of it, too.) Charabot, a French perfume ingredient company, says Liatris leaves also have an aroma like tobacco or hay. Luminescents says that Liatris was, in fact, historically used to flavour tobacco products. I find it rather impressive that Madame de Nicolai has used such an uncommon but historically authentic ingredient for her tobacco fragrance.
Cuir Cuba Intense opens on my skin with essentially the same contours as the story I recounted at the start of this review. But I omitted one key component in that tale: aromachemicals. Something in Cuir Cuba Intense’s opening phase and particularly in its middle stage smells chemical to my nose, and I think it is Kephalis. It is a very intense, powerful tobacco compound from Givaudan with a subtle ISO E Super-like whiff in its undertones, and with a warm, leathery, woody, and slightly ambered warmth about it. The official description from Givaudan states:
Kephalis is a very versatile and rich product, used as a long lasting heart/basic note. It blends well with floral notes (jasmine, rose, violet, lavender, etc.) as well as sophisticated amber, woody-aldehydic, tobacco and masculine creations.
I’ve tried Cuir Cuba Intense about four times now, and I think of Kephalis each and every time. There is something very similar to ISO E Super’s antiseptic vibe in the first minute, though it fades rapidly to leave simply a strong, powerful “tobacco” that I can only describe as aromachemical on my skin. Yes, it is also the raw, concentrated, dark aroma of actual tobacco, but… something is a bit wonky about it. For me, at least. It is not, for example, similar to the raw tobacco absolute aroma that I’ve experienced with Abdes Salaam Attar’s all natural creations for his Via del Profumo line. There are a number of aromachemical tobacco compounds on the market and, for all I know, a similar product may have been used in Cuir Cuba Intense. I’ve written to Parfums de Nicolai to ask, but I haven’t heard back yet, so I’ll go with “Kephalis” for now.
It shouldn’t be a big deal for most of you. I have sensitive to aromachemicals, but many people can’t detect them at all or don’t care when they do. Still, it would be dishonest not to mention it, especially as something about the fragrance occasionally irritated the back of my throat and caused a reaction when I smelled Cuir Cuba Intense too closely for too long. It wasn’t a frequent thing, but it did happen because Kephalis is quite heavy-duty in potency. Still, I have to emphasize that the majority of people have no issues with such ingredients, so let’s move on.
Cuir Cuba Intense opens with dry, dark tobacco that is followed within seconds by black licorice, an ISO E Super-like whiff, spiciness that feels like cloves, sweet hay, and patchouli. Tiny bits of mint, geranium, and lemon are sprinkled on top, but they’re barely perceptible against the powerful duet of tobacco and licorice. The coumarin and hay are in the second wave, followed by a third wave consisting of an ambered warmth that is sweet, almost rum-like, though not actually boozy. A subtle, quiet floralcy wafts nebulously at the edges, but it doesn’t really translate into a specific flower at this point.
For all the specific notes, my general sense is of something else: a definite tropicality where sweetness, spices, darkness, humid moistness, dryness, and gooey, almost resinous licorice note all cha-cha-cha down avenues made from dry, fragrant tobacco leaves. I’m not keen on the aromachemical quality which is also involved, but the rest of it definitely manages to conjure up a sunny, hot, humid place like Cuba, filled with sweetness, heat and spiciness.
Despite all my talk of sweetness, Cuir Cuba Intense has dryness as well, thanks to the tobacco. It is not the fruity pipe tobacco of Tom Ford‘s Tobacco Vanille or Hermès‘ Ambre Narguilé. Nor is it precisely the honey-sweetened sheaves of Serge Lutens‘ lovely Chergui, though that is the closest approximation due to the Liatrix’s very prominent hay and coumarin notes. Finally, it’s also not a pure cigar box aroma, either. I’ve smoked cigars, I’ve been in humified cigar rooms, and my father keeps a cigar box, so I know the pure, unvarnished aroma of the finished product. Here, the tobacco resembles the leaves in what I imagine would be their rawest, almost dirty stage, when picked off the plant and left to dry. The smell is half-wet and moist, half-dry and sweet. More importantly, it is coated with a thick layer of black licorice. In Chergui, the leaves are dry in smell, and coated with as much honey as hay. It’s altogether something different here, in Cuir Cuba Intense, something rawer, spicier, blacker, more tropical and imbued with just the slightest suggestion of something almost rum-like.
Fifteen minutes into its development, Cuir Cuba Intense begins to shift. The lavender, lemon, and patchouli weaken substantially, while the geranium and cedar grow stronger. The coriander never appears in any clearly delineated way at all, the spices are quite abstract, and the mint is only a faint whisper.
The perfume’s floral component is interesting. On occasion, Cuir Cuba Intense’s opening bouquet demonstrates a subtle streak of lemon-like creaminess in the base, but it never reads like a clear, strong magnolia note on my skin. It’s the same thing for the ylang-ylang. However, the geranium is a different story. It really smells like rose geranium more than the green, piquant, peppery, aromatic sort that evokes the image of crunchy, fuzzy geranium leaves. Rose geranium has a very floral smell, like a dark, blood-red rose, and that is what begins to stir behind the main tobacco-licorice duet.
By the 30-minute mark, Cuir Cuba Intense is primarily a mix of raw and dry tobacco, black licorice, spicy sweetness, rosy florals, coumarin, and hay, all lightly flecked by dabs of lemon, cedar, mint, and leatheriness, and then cocooned in a golden warmth that has a vaguely rum-like quality to it. In the base, the civet awakens, and starts to slowly creep its way to the top. It’s not feline, urinous, skanky, or powerfully animalic. Rather, it’s simply a musky sharpness. It’s a little too sharp in quality, if you ask me, and sometimes sour in nature. It reminds me of the sort of synthetic civet that is now in Guerlain‘s Jicky, though it is used with a much lighter hand here.
Cuir Cuba Intense is a very well-blended fragrance, so one of the most noticeable changes at the end of the first hour pertains to the shape of the perfume’s notes. At first, they merely flowed seamlessly one into the other, often overlapping. Several of the secondary elements don’t stay in the same place, continuously ebbing and flowing, changing order as well as their prominence. Every time I thought a few of them had vanished, they would reappear to wave a small hello from the sidelines, particularly the abstract florals, woody cedar, and lemon. Most noticeably, however, the black licorice merges completely into the raw tobacco absolute, making it impossible to distinguish its shape or to pull the two apart. Some may view that as “muddled,” but I generally tend to see it as an example of seamlessness and well-blended technique.
Here, however, it’s both. From the start of the second hour onwards, the layers of notes really do blur into one. I noticed that the scent on my left arm, in particular, consistently turned into some indeterminate, muddled haze of tobacco with civet sharpness, abstract spicy, sweet and dry components, an aromachemical whiff, a vague floralcy, and something that occasionally suggested leather. The notes were clearer on my right arm, undoubtedly due to some quirk in skin chemistry, but it was a relative thing as the parameters were still extremely muddled. On both arms, though, the specifics generally felt unclear, the notes were increasingly difficult to pull apart, the perfume’s weight felt sheerer, and the sillage softer.
Initially, Cuir Cuba Intense had opened with 3 inches of projection when I used 3 sprays from an actual bottle, and with 2.5 inches when I used 2. At the 90-minute mark, those numbers were down to an inch above my skin, though the fragrance itself was still very strong when smelled up close. I think some of that is due to the power of the Kephalis tobacco, because the other elements really don’t have the same clarity or strength.
I have to say, I wasn’t hugely keen on this secondary stage of Cuir Cuba Intense. Matters weren’t helped much by the civet whose sharpness had a sour quality on my skin. I far preferred it when the licorice was evident, not subsumed within the tobacco, because it added a sweetness to the notes and countered the aromachemical nuances. When the licorice weakens, the perfume turns drier and darker, particularly once the Kephalis’ woodier, more leathery undertones bloom.
Thankfully, the best part of Cuir Cuba Intense lies ahead, because the drydown is really lovely. This is where the leather finally makes an appearance, aided along by the creamy qualities of the Liatrix’s coumarin and the indirect effects of the magnolia. The first hints of all this occur during the middle of the 3rd hour, when the leather emerges from the haze. Cuir Cuba Intense is increasingly dry, “cigar” tobacco with streaks of musky, lightly spiced, rather sexy leather, followed by abstract florals and civet. It rests upon a sliver of creaminess from the coumarin. Think of tonka beans, and you’ll know what I mean.
By the start of the 4th hour, though, the leather takes over and, even better, the cream rises to the top to coat it. Cuir Cuba Intense’s bouquet is now primarily creamy leather with civet, tobacco, and a very quiet, muted touch of skin-like muskiness. Were it not for the civet’s continued sharpness, the main impression would be of high-quality, expensive leather that is slowly turning into buttery, silky smooth, even more expensive calf-skin.
The rest continues to be a bit of a blur. Once in a while there is a speck of white floral creaminess that vaguely calls to mind magnolia, but it’s as tiny and minor as dandelion fluff that breezes past you. I suspect the magnolia is working indirectly with the coumarin to create all that lovely creaminess which is softening the leather, but it’s not a direct, prominent, or clear note on my skin. There is also no geranium rose, ylang-ylang, spiciness, or licorice, but a bit of ambered sweetness remains, wafting slivers of caramel and honey in the quietest way from the background. Even the sense of cigar tobacco is gradually giving way, and it will continue to weaken further over the next 90 minutes, before vanishing completely. In its final hours, Cuir Cuba Intense is simple, creamy, supple leather with a touch of something musky about it. It’s beautiful, though hard to detect without putting my nose right on my skin.
All in all, Cuir Cuba Intense consistently lasted over 9 hours, but the full time-frame depended not only on the amount I applied but on which arm. I’ve noticed that there can be occasional variations in how a fragrance will smell from arm to arm, particularly in the nuances which manifest themselves. It’s not common, but it does happen, so I always try to test on both. Here, my right arm retained the scent much longer: as much as 12 hours in one case with 3 sprays from an actual bottle, while the same quantity only gave me 10.5 on my left arm. With two sprays, the duration was 8.75 and 7.75 hours.
In terms of sillage, the two arms yielded roughly the same result. With two sprays, Cuir Cuba Intense turned into a skin scent on me 2.5 hours into its development; with 3 sprays, that number became 3.25, though the fragrance was generally easy to detect up close until roughly the middle of the 6th hour. Interestingly, the rose note from the geranium was really prominent on my left arm, and the perfume turned into a blurry haze much sooner, while my right arm wafted a hardcore aromachemical smell with the tobacco to a much greater degree than the other one. Luca Turin may think that skin chemistry doesn’t make a jot of difference to how things actually smell and that we’re all misled by our clouded, subjective perceptions, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think skin chemistry makes a huge difference, from person to person, but sometimes even from one part of your own body to the next.
Cuir Cuba Intense is quite new, but you can check Fragrantica for comparative reviews. There is only one entry thus far, and it is a nicely detailed assessment which is very positive. The chap there experienced substantially more magnolia than I ever did, from start to finish, but his version of Cuir Cuba Intense sounds lovely. There is also a long, detailed review for the fragrance by Fragrantica’s Serguey Borisov that you can read.
The perfume is reasonably priced at $65/€53 or $185/€153, depending on whether you buy it in a 30 ml or 100 ml size. It is already available from Parfums de Nicolai in Europe and from Beautyhabit in America. The other, usual vendors like Luckyscent, Twisted Lily, and First in Fragrance will get it shortly.
I think Cuir Cuba Intense is a great addition to the Nicolai collection, and quite different from anything else in the line. It is a strong, oriental fragrance with an almost gourmand-like opening that begins as a tobacco scent before going through some changes and ending up as lovely, supple leather. I liked parts of it quite a bit, but my favorite Nicolai scent continues to be the simple, less distinctive, less complex Amber Oud. (Zero actual agarwood, but endless lavender ice-cream with patchouli, and some amber. It’s so comforting and delicious that this lavenderphobe bought a full bottle!) Cuir Cuba Intense didn’t move me in the same way, but I blame my personal sensitivities for that. For those who love tobacco or leather fragrances, it is definitely worth a test sniff.
Disclosure: My bottle was provided courtesy of Parfums de Nicolai. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.