Imagine yourself camping in a forest, sipping tea by the fire. Bright, green mint and a dollop of raspberries float in your mug of black Lapsang Souchong whose leaves you’ve toasted in a cast-iron skillet to release their smoky darkness and delicate nuttiness. The campfire billows out smoke from cade and birch logs, each coated with blackened tar that smells like butch leather as much as burnt, singed wood. Labdanum amber glows like coals amidst the flames, and release a meaty, musky warmth.
The smell of your tea rises in the air, sending out streamers of cool mint and juicy raspberry to counter the billowing campfire smoke. Bright freshness and fruited sweetness vie with multi-faceted smoke, leather, tar, and woods, all enveloped by the fire’s soft warmth. You take out a pipe, stuff it with dark tobacco, and light it as you sip your tea in the flickering light of the warm fire which serves as a beacon in the dark forest, casting shadows upon the desiccated remains of nearby trees, and creating a woody-ambered dryness. It would be a lovely picture were it not for a few issues, one of which is that you’re also being doused with arid, harshly acrid, and often antiseptic-smelling chemicals that pour down on you like heavy rain.
Unfortunately, that was not my only difficulty with Russian Tea, a popular fragrance released last year that I’ve absolutely dreaded covering for the last two months. It actually took me a few attempts to get through wearing the fragrance all the way through, instead of quickly scrubbing it off, but at least it eventually gets better after its very abrasive opening hours. Well, somewhat better. In general, Russian Tea has not been a joyous experience.
Russian Tea is an eau de parfum from Masque, an Italian house whose official name seems to be either Masque Fragranze or Masque Milano. (Both versions are given on their website, so I’ll just call them “Masque,” as they are commonly known.) The company was founded in 2012 by two friends, Riccardo Tedeschi and Alessandro Brun, who see their fragrances as operas in several acts, even calling their brand in one place on their website: “Masque Fragranze – the Opera of life in four acts.” They add that they don’t want to create best-sellers that suit everyone but, rather, fragrances with a soul, each one having its own particular nose and individuality.
In the case of Russian Tea, that nose is Julien Rasquinet, and the operatic story is partially inspired by the great writer, Pushkin. Masque has a really evocative, lovely description of how they envision the particular set piece or scene that Russian Tea embodies, and it reads, in relevant part, as follows:
I – III
Day faded; on the table, glowing, the samovar of evening boiled… (A.Pushkin)
Out there, the snow-covered Nevsky Prospekt, and a sumptuous Art Noveau building. Inside, a large bookstore. And, on the first floor, an elegant cafè. As water is poured in the cup, the infusion unleashes its most characteristic notes. Black tea, heavy and intense. A floral note, sharp and biting. And that unmistakably dry and smoky aftertaste given by the caravanserai campfires, meant to keep the precious tea cargo dry in the never-ending journey through Siberia. The fresh mint leaves give a pleasant fresh touch to the hot water. A teaspoon of raspberry preserve sweetens, without altering it, the bitter aftertaste of leather and birch. We sip it slowly, gazing out of the wide window, towards the beautiful cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and beyond. The Russian Tea Ritual today carried us to an unexpected journey in remote lands, full of mystery and fascination.
Mint, Black Pepper, Raspberry
Black Tea, Magnolia, Everlasting Flower [Immortelle]
Leather accord, Incense, Birchwood, Cistus-Labdanum.
Russian Tea opens on my skin much as I have described above. What I left out was the severity and harshness of the aromachemicals that infuse every one of the notes and, in particular, the campfire smoke that dominates Russian Tea from its very start almost straight through to its dying breath
The scent has a definite ISO E Super vibe, but something else is going on as well, something more powerful, abrasively desiccated, and caustic in feel that is woven throughout every inch of the smoke. Slowly, after about 15 minutes, it takes on a very woody feature that is nebulously ambered as well. My guess is Ambermax or one of its similarly woody-ish amber relatives has been combined with ISO E Supercrappy and, perhaps, a more purely woody-smoky aromachemical as well to even further amplify the smokiness. The latter seems to come from cade as much as from birch, because there is a strong outdoorsy, campfire quality that far exceeds what I usually encounter from birch with its more typically tarry, leathery facets. Almost none of it smells like incense smoke on my skin. This is darker, drier, and more akin to what you’d experienced from heavily burnt wood or a forest on fire.
The black tea is also there in the mix, initially struggling above the billowing smoke up top and the streaks of butch leather in the base. To be exact, the tea takes a few minutes to arrive and it’s not a powerful note, but it is a pretty one. It’s like black Lapsang Souchong and its subtle suggestion of nuttiness is amplified by the labdanum that also emits the tiniest tendrils of musky sweetness. There is quite a meaty quality to the note, as if cloves had been sprinkled on top. Speaking of spices, the black pepper suddenly blooms after 5 minutes, joining the bright green mint on center stage. On the sidelines, the raspberry pops up for the first time, initially shy and demure, but it slowly joins the mint, black tea, and black pepper on center stage. Once in a while, there is a ghostly glimpse of something like tobacco; it’s a sort of lightly leathered, woody tobacco like the aromachemical, Kephalis. It’s doesn’t last beyond the first 20 minutes, and is only a small nuance, but it adds to the many layers of Russian Tea’s opening.
The campfire elements cover all these notes like the darkest of blankets but, on my skin, so do the aromachemicals. True, my skin does tend to amplify base notes which is where they usually reside; and, yes, I am an aberration because most people either don’t detect aromachemicals or simply don’t care when they do. But anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows just how much I loathe aromachemicals like ISO E Super, Norlimbanol, Ambroxan, Ambermax, and their like. I’ll put up with them if they’re a minor part of the fragrance, but hefty amounts of the stronger ones make me grit my teeth. And there are hefty amounts in Russian Tea….
The very first time I tried the scent, I scrubbed it off after a mere 15 minutes because I couldn’t bear the mix of ISO E-like rubbing alcohol astringency with the smoke’s caustic sharpness. The second time, I lasted longer, but not by much. I dreaded a 3rd test and, once it was finally completed, I dreaded the thought of writing this review even more. I’ve put it off for months, hoping that perhaps the passage of time would magically change things, but a recent, 2nd full wearing of Russian Tea put me off writing about fragrances for an entire week. I find Russian Tea’s first 3 or 4 hours utterly unbearable. Even afterwards, when the scent improves, when creaminess arrives to dilute the suspected Ambermax and ISO E Super, and when it no longer is quite so abrasively harsh, I still don’t like Russian Tea. Period.
It’s not merely the blasted chemicals that are a problem for me. I dislike the way that the mint and the raspberry manifest themselves in the first two hours as well. Granted, I’m not an ardent lover of raspberry in fragrances to begin with, but my difficulty here is that the two notes feel like sore thumbs that stick out disjointedly next to all the charred, smoky elements. I see both the technical and intellectual point of juxtaposing fresh, bright, fruity, and cool elements next to the darker, woodier, smokier, and vaguely ambered ones, but I still find it disconcerting. To me, it feels so completely out-of-place to have succulently juicy raspberries gleaming alongside fresh mint leaf in a sea of burnt birch, phenolic cade (which I continue to think must be in the scent as well), harsh smoke, and raw leather.
Such contrasts are precisely the point, I know, and I respect the creativity, but I remain unenthused. One problem is that the mint and raspberry notes don’t feel well-calibrated in the first hour to fit in smoothly with everything else. So it doesn’t help when they both grow significantly stronger about 30 minutes into Russian Tea’s development. The raspberry in particular feels akimbo and out-of-place. Perhaps more problematic is that its strength now overshadows the delicate tea note which retreats to the sidelines.
There, it remains hidden behind a thick wall of campfire smoke, charred woods, raspberry, and tar-blackened leather, all laced with aromachemical antiseptic, mint, black pepper, and a streak of nebulous warmth. The latter no longer feels like labdanum with its smooth, deep, toffee’d, and balsamic characteristics. Now, it’s radiating a woody dryness that seems almost entirely like AmberMax or one of its kin, perhaps mixed in with the hideous ISO E Supercrappy as well.
By the end of the first hour and the start of the second, the smoke and woody-amber synthetic treble in strength. The increased dryness of the scent weakens the raspberry, cutting through its sweetness, and turning it more into a smoked, dried fruit. The tea note is now infinitesimal on my skin, but the mint persists to add a bright beam of greenness amidst the black and campfire accords.
The first (small) sign of improvement occurs roughly at the start of the 3rd hour when Russian Tea begins its very slow transition into its second phase. The notes begin to overlap, flowing one into another. Instead of being a blur, however, this creates a new smoothness that is quite a welcome relief, because the harshness of the individual notes like the smoke, tar, leather, and aromachemicals are now buffed out, becoming less abrasive and angular in nature. As a result, it feels as though there is now more of a natural bridge between the various elements, aided by the fact that the raspberry and mint are much softer as well. Instead of standing out like such a sore thumbs, and appearing like oddities that have been juxtaposed merely for the sake of novelty, they are better balanced now and seamlessly mix with the rest in a way that makes more sense.
While the notes realign to fit better into the overall puzzle, new elements appear on the scene for the first time, and one of them makes a great difference. That is the immortelle, a note which I never thought I would greet with such raging relief. Much later, 6 hours into Russian Tea’s evolution, it transforms the scent, but it starts to help right now, in the 3rd hour, by adding a sorely needed counterbalance to all the billowing smoke. Instead of smelling like maple syrup, banana curry leaf, or wild, dried plants (some of its many faces), the immortelle is merely sweetness that is filled with a soft warmth and glow. Unlike the raspberry, this sweetness feels natural and well-suited to the rest of the elements. Unlike the amber, its warmth never feels pointed sharp, woody, desiccated, or synthetic in nature.
On the sidelines, soft, velvety, white petals fall gently onto the arid, smoky landscape. It’s a largely abstract note, and doesn’t read clearly as magnolia, let alone something indolic or buttery rich. The only thing to hint at “magnolia” is the microscopic suggestion of something lemony about it. Ultimately, though, the floralcy is a very tremulous, negligible thing in the face of the smoke which is now billowing out with ever greater dryness, verging on the parched, and amplified even further by the woody-amber aromachemical. If it weren’t for the saving grace of the immortelle, puffing away quietly and indirectly in the base, Russian Tea would be a very severe, arid scent indeed.
Most of the changes that I’ve described during the first two hours are essentially a realigning of the opening notes, and that continues for another three hours. The deck chairs are shuffled in order and prominence, with individual elements waxing and waning. The raspberry is one of those, sometimes blaring loudly, sometimes being a quieter squeak. The leather is much the same way, though it is generally limited to the base and relatively better balanced as a whole, even though it remains very raw, smoky, and tarry in feel. Only the black tea and labdanum start out on center stage but quickly retreat to the sidelines. The labdanum seems to die quite rapidly, but the black tea puffs away in tiny flickers until it finally fades away at the end of the second hour.
The fundamental shift occurs at the start of the 6th hour when the immortelle transforms Russian Tea. This is Act III and the drydown phase, when the immortelle surges forth to coat the campfire smoke with soft creaminess that is just barely flecked by a hint of warmth and sweetness. I suspect that the magnolia is indirectly responsible for some of the softness, but it’s not apparent in a truly floral way, and certainly not as a strong, clearly delineated note. The aromachemical twang, however, remains quite noticeable, though it’s thankfully less abrasive and arid now. Still, it’s all relative and should be seen in light of the severity of the smoke and synthetics earlier. As for the mint and raspberry, they’re extremely weak, and only the tiniest whiff remains in the distant background. To my surprise, even the tarry leather is starting to fade away.
For the most part, Russian Tea is now primarily campfire smoke that has been rendered somewhat plush, creamy, and sweet from immortelle, at least “plush” as compared to what the scent was like in Act I. The smoke is flecked by a lingering trace of charred woods, then enveloped in softness that has a vaguely ambered glow about it. As the hours pass, even the small nuances fade away; the start of the 10th hour ushers in a simple creamy smoke with a wisp of woodiness. In its final moments, Russian Tea is nothing more than dryness that is soft and vaguely woody.
Russian Tea has excellent longevity, good projection, and quite a lot of sillage. Using 3 generous smears equal to 2 large sprays from an actual bottle, the fragrance opened with 3 inches of projection. It left a much larger scent trail, however, starting at about 3 inches before ballooning to about 6-7 inches after 30 minutes. It was a strong cloud, perhaps because my skin amplifies base notes, like aromachemicals. However, it was airy in weight and feel, not dense or opaque. The projection dropped to about 2 inches after 2 hours, and then 1 inch at the start of the 4th hour. The sillage was much less, too, though Russian Tea continued to send out tiny tendrils whenever I moved for well into the 6th hour. Russian Tea only became a true skin scent on me at the start of the 8th hour, but I have to repeat that my skin holds onto aromachemicals like mad, in addition to making them project in distance. All in all, Russian Tea lasted just a hair over 13.5 hours on my perfume-eating skin.
When I used a lesser quantity in one of my tests, roughly equal to 1 good spray from a bottle, Russian Tea had slightly softer projection and sillage, but it still endured a good amount of time. The opening sillage was roughly the same, about 3 inches, but the scent trail was smaller. Russian Tea became a skin scent after 5.25 hours, and lasted just under 11 hours in total. As a side note, using a lesser amount resulted in a drier, more austere, and harsher scent (if you can believe it) because it seemed to increase the strength of the aromachemicals and the perfume’s desiccated nature. A larger dosage or application lessened the peppered, antiseptic, chemical, and acrid tonalities by a hair; brought out more of Russian Tea’s other nuances to counter the synthetics; and increased the amount of immortelle creaminess that would eventually appear. I often say that quantity impacts both the notes and the way they manifest themselves. That is true for the aromachemicals and smoke in Russian Tea as well.
Russian Tea strongly evokes another scent: Naomi Goodsir‘s cult hit, Bois d’Ascece. The similarity is not accidental because the same person who created Russian Tea, Julien Rasquinet, also made Bois d’Ascece. Its DNA is spread all over the new Masque creation, from the enveloping wall of dry campfire smoke, to its austere dryness, tarry blackness, and singed woods. The similarities peek their way from the very start of Russian Tea, but they become pronounced beyond belief for a portion of time between the end of the 1st hour and the start of the 6th when they finally grow weaker.
However, there are differences between the two scents as a whole. For one thing, I don’t recall hefty waves of antiseptic, ISO E Super-like synthetics in Bois d’Ascece, nor any angular, harsh woody-amber aromachemicals. The smoke was never so abrasive, the tarry leather didn’t feel so raw and butch in nature, and Bois d’Ascece was never an ordeal to wear. Bois d’Ascece also lacked even a hint of floralcy, let alone raspberry, mint, black tea, and immortelle.
Yet, the two fragrances share a fundamental core: that campfire smoke that feels so austere and so profoundly dry. It is the backbone to both scents, holding them in place, and running from head to toe. Bois d’Ascece had the same hint of tobacco at the start, as well as an underlying layer of ambered warmth and sweetness, and streaks of tarry leather. I admired Bois d’Ascece quite a bit, but it was too austere for my taste, too bone-dry and parched, though never from painfully desiccated aromachemicals and, consequently, never to the same degree as Russian Tea. On my skin, it was a more natural campfire smoke, if that makes any sense.
It really seems as though Bois d’Ascece served as both the template and the actual olfactory base for Russian Tea. Julien Rasquinet has built layer upon layer upon Bois d’Ascece, adding flesh, sinew, muscle, and even a metaphoric fig leaf on the new body in the form of mint leaves.
However, the common base notes differ in their respective proportions. For example, Bois d’Ascece has clearer, more obvious whiffs of tobacco. The amber is simultaneously more subtle, but also feels more like the real thing and has a resinous quality to it as well. Finally, Bois d’Ascece includes a noticeable incense note. Russian Tea contains incense, too, but it never manifested itself on my skin in a clear way, and always felt swallowed up by the outdoorsy, campfire smoke from the charred woods. However, Russian Tea is more multi-faceted, less singular, as well as being a deeper, warmer and, eventually, a creamier scent. All of that is completely apart from the more glaring differences noted above, like Russian Tea’s fruitiness, additional notes, and the biting chemicals.
In my review for Bois d’Ascece, I compared it to an ascetic monk, and also brought up Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert landscapes. If Russian Tea has a monk, it’s Rasputin’s tamer cousin who sips tea from a samovar, and indulges in himself in treats like raspberries and sweet immortelle. Yet, somehow, in spite of all that, he ends up being more caustic and abrasive than the quietly contemplative, aesthete monk in an O’Keeffe painting. The two fragrances have very different vibes, despite their extremely strong, shared DNA. I respected Bois d’Ascece quite a bit. I dislike Russian Tea immensely.
There are a lot of positive blog reviews for Russian Tea, so I’m clearly in a tiny minority in my feelings about the scent. I’ll provide you with some links that present a different picture of Russian Tea for a counterbalance, but I’ll skip giving comparative quotes or analysis. Frankly, I can’t believe I’ve managed to get through this review as it is, and I cannot bear to talk about this blasted fragrance any longer. So here are some of the positive reviews: The Silver Fox blog writing for CaFleureBon; CFB’s former Managing Editor, Mark Behnke, for his Colognoisseur; and many of the opinions on Fragrantica. The lone negative review that I’ve found on any blog is from Fragrance Daily where Ana Maria Andreui wrote that Russian Tea was “so severe it brings tears to my eyes. Or maybe it’s just the acrid smoke.” She also called it “austere,” which is a clear sign that she should stay away from the even more austere, minimalistic Bois d’Ascece.
Russian Tea is isn’t a bad scent when all factors are considered; there are both original ideas and intelligent design behind it, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever tried, but it is the most abrasive in recent memory. Difficult, thorny, unpleasant and, at times, completely unbearable. Thank God, the ordeal of writing about it is now over.