Welcome to 2016, everyone! Instead of delving straight into reviews, I thought it might be a useful exercise to start the year by thinking about specific notes, taking stock of how we feel about the raw materials in perfumery and, more importantly, the extent to which our tastes may have developed or changed. Last year, in Questions #9, I asked you to think in detail about note categories, with love, hate, and grey zones. Whether you’re new to niche perfumery or a veteran, I think such analysis helps you to look at perfumery with a more critical eye, to really think about what you’re smelling, and to pinpoint your tastes with greater precision.
None of us are static creatures and the more we explore perfume in depth, the more we grow and the more our tastes become finely attuned to what we really love, find challenging, or dislike. I know my own tastes have changed somewhat since I gave my answers in Questions #9, even if it’s merely a switch in categories, like the way galbanum (shudder) or jasmine tea moved from “it depends” to dislike. The differences are even starker as compared to what I listed the very first time I talked about notes back in 2013 with my then un-numbered post Vol. 1 post because there are a far greater number of materials that one becomes exposed to over time beyond the basics. (I’d never heard of something like Buchu back in 2013, let alone smelt it as I did in 2015.)
I know a number of you have also changed in your tastes, whether it’s the wholesale new love of a particular note (like amber) or a greater tolerance — even passion for — the stinkiest, rawest, most animalistic sides of a note you previously found challenging (like oud or hyraceum). So, as 2016 begins and we explore new fragrances on the blog, it might be useful for both veterans and novices alike to take stock of where they stand and how they feel about the elements of perfumery.
As I wrote back in Vol. 9, I want you to focus most of all on notes in the grey zones: notes which straddle the line and where it’s all a question of their treatment in a perfume. Perhaps it’s an aromachemical, or perhaps it’s something like juniper, cucumber, strawberry, or fenugreek. It’s all too easy to focus on things you either love or despise — like tuberose, oud, sweat, soiled underwear, or the way costas root can turn into dirty hair and urine if not handled carefully — but figuring out the less obvious ones that lie between the two extremes is a lot more useful or interesting, in my opinion. For example, do you enjoy the smell of cucumber, carrots, gin, or mangos (separately, not together) in your fragrance? Do you like smelling of peppermints or cinnamon Red Hot candies when you go to work? Is salty sea water nice but chlorine/calone an issue, or are both ingredients far from your personal cup of tea? Speaking of tea, do you like it in perfumery? I’ve concluded that I only like black or creamy Chai tea notes, and really dislike green or jasmine ones, though I will put up with whiffs of them if they are small and muted.
There is no obligation to post your answers, though it would be wonderful if you did. Just think about it. It will probably take you a while anyway to ponder how you feel about the wide range of notes present in niche perfumery. For those of you who did this exercise last year, if you’re interested, you can look up your answers in the comments to Vol. 9 to see what you wrote back then and see if anything has changed for you.
There are six different categories:
- Notes you love passionately. In essence, those which make you sit up when you see them on a perfume list.
- Notes you really like a lot.
- Notes you neither like or dislike. True and genuine indifference as to their appearance in a perfume.
- Notes that depend on how they are handled, their quantity, or their treatment in conjunction with other elements. In other words, potentially problematic notes that might fall into the Dislike column unless they are treated well. Also, if there are notes that you may not like as a soliflore or in large doses but that you enjoy in small quantities, then this would be the category for them as well.
- Notes you really (or generally) dislike.
- Notes that you hate with the searing passion of a thousand burning suns!
Categories #3, 4 and 5 are the ones I’m most curious about. What straddles the line where it depends either on how the note is handled (like me with lavender) or in what quantities it is present, and when does it gets pushed over into true dislike almost irregardless of circumstances? Are there things to which that you are almost always indifferent, or that you like but are hardly going to get excited over? There are always rare exceptions to the rule, but what is the “rule” in general? I’m interested in how clear-cut things are for you from one category to the next, and in what may have changed over time for regular readers. I’m also hoping to learn more about the tastes of newer (or new) readers.
When thinking of your list, you may want to consider the following general categories in order to find ingredients frequently used in perfumery: fruit; food; citruses; things in your spice cabinet; drinks including alcoholic ones; materials common in chypres, fougères, orientals, leathers, or gourmands; abstract scents; and aromachemicals. Don’t hesitate to give an explanation for any notes about which you’re uncertain and why.
So, this is my personal 2016 list, refined since last year, with new additions (Creosote, for example), more caveats added, and a lot of things moved up or down in category:
1. Notes you love passionately. Essentially, notes which make you sit up when you see them on a perfume list:
Labdanum amber; ambergris; Mysore sandalwood (only Mysore); spicy patchouli (not fruity purple patchouli); rum; cognac; whisky/Scotch; Tolu balsam; Peru balsam; tuberose; ylang-ylang; hyacinth; lilac; heliotrope; lilies; orange; blood orange; mandarin or tangerine; peaches; apricots; tart Morello cherries; chocolate or cacao; cocoa powder; frankincense (if not soapy); and oakmoss.
2. Notes you really like a lot:
Tobacco; suede; benzoin resin; styrax resin; jasmine; davana flower; champaca flower; mimosa; carnation; gardenia; honeysuckle; orange blossom; cherry blossom; daffodils (unless it skews more to narcissus, then it depends); orchids; smoke (if it smells natural and not aromachemical); cloves; ginger; cinnamon; nutmeg; almond; hazelnut; rum raisins; tonka beans; coumarin; hay; honey; Chai lattes; vanilla creme anglaise sauce; meringue; marzipan; gingerbread; champagne; wine; port; and coffee.
3. Neutral notes, ones you neither like nor dislike:
Saffron; cardamom; Lapsang Souchong or black tea; anise/fennel; star anise; immortelle (but I’m not keen on it if it’s solely heavy maple syrup); osmanthus flower; neroli; petitgrain; geranium; lily-of-the-valley or muguet; narcissus; peony; linden blossom; tiaré flower; civet; castoreum; hyraceum; tarragon; sage; rosemary; verbena; cedar; fir; pine; Cashmeran wood; rosewood; peat; earth; Flouve/grass notes; pomelo fruit; mango; apple; cherries (unless it smells like Maraschino cocktail cherries); plum or plum pudding; prune; cranberries; mineral accords; salty notes; milky notes; cream; beeswax; hemp; broom/Genet; rice; and wheat (unless it’s Cream of Wheat or like porridge).
4. Notes that depend on how they are handled, their quantity, or their treatment in conjunction with other elements.
Leather (depends on if it’s too abrasively aromachemical); birch tar (same); cade; rose (so long as it’s not a soliflore note, or else it goes in the Dislike column); iris (same); vetiver (same because quantity really matters, but “mint” vetiver goes in the dislike column); Angelica (same); oud or agarwood (depends on if it’s too aromachemical or too much like blue cheese); lavender; clary sage; black pepper (unless overly synthetic, in which case it’s a Dislike); juniper; myrrh; guaiac wood; green Australian sandalwood; marijuana, opium or hashish accords; magnolia; marigold or tagetes; rose geranium; powdery notes; orris root (not keen if it’s powdery but like it if it skews to “violet”); ambrette seed musk; fur; horse accords; gasoline; medicinal camphor; eucalyptus; Buchu; costas root (think dirty hair, sweat, and urine if not handled carefully); oleander (see “powder” issues); coconut; grape (has to be a small amount only); Red Hots cinnamon; peppermint; mint (can’t be a lot, or it goes in the Dislike column); black licorice; cumin; Chili, Szechuan, or pimento pepper; fenugreek; curry; dill; thyme; coriander; basil; bay leaf; lemon; lime; chamomile; carrots; passion fruit; grapefruit; bergamot (quality matters a lot for this one); cassis or black currant; raspberry; pineapple; kiwi; lychee; fig; cantaloupe melon; banana; tomato; tomato leaf (must be a minor note and not too prevalent); pumpkin; rhubarb; cucumber; celery; mushrooms; black truffles; parchment or papyrus paper; dust; ink; green grass; yerba maté; lipstick notes; shaving cream; BBQ; BBQ meats; goat cheese (but Gorgonzola blue cheese is a Dislike); barnyard (depends on how much poop there is and if it feels like “hot” cow dung); artemisia or wormwood (okay in small doses, otherwise it goes into the Dislike column); rubber; latex; vodka; root beer; popcorn; and seaweed.
5. Notes you dislike in fragrances:
Galbanum (unless in the tiniest quantities); aldehydes (same); jasmine or green tea; synthetic or green-skewing violet flower (but orris “violet” is a Like); violet leaf; soliflore roses; dried roses; soliflore or minty vetiver; plumeria or frangipani; potpourri (roses or spices); freesia (it’s always synthetic and smells like plastic or hairspray); Gorgonzola or blue cheese; gin; sugar; overly sweet caramel; very sugary cupcake or creme brulée vanilla; “Baie rose” or pink peppercorns; fruity patchouli; watermelon; makeup powder; baby or Talc powder; general powderiness; butter; grape jelly/jam; suntan oil; hedione; asphalt; ashtrays; vinyl or plastic leather; blood; feces; cat urine; “metallic” notes; petrichor; cypriol or nagarmotha (may belong in the Hate column); Creosote tar (same); and strawberry (same).
6. Notes that you hate passionately in fragrances:
White musk; laundry detergent (Tide); fabric softener or drier sheets (Bounce); soap or soapiness; rubbing alcohol and antiseptic disinfectant; ISO E Super; Javanol “sandalwood”; Norlimbanol; Guaiacol; Ambermax; Cedramber; Trisamber; Ambroxan; Kephalis; overly smoky woody or woody-amber aromachemicals; plastic; burnt plastic; burnt rubber; chlorine; calone; aquatic notes (but I like salty sea water); ozonic notes; dry cleaning accords; cleaning product aromas (e.g, PineSol or Mr. Clean); hairspray; shampoo; stale sweat (cumin); crusty underwear or unwashed genitalia smells (cumin); and (iris’) mildew.
So, what about you? I realise it will take you some time, so think about it, see what elements in my categories strike a chord, consider what you used to like years ago (or perhaps wrote in answer to Vol. #9 last year), and then let me know. I’m particularly interested in learning if your feelings about certain notes have changed and, if so, in what way.