100 Fragrances Every Frag-Head Guy Should Try, part 5: Smell Stuff
by, 7th September 2011 at 09:27 PM (4282 Views)
So here's installment number five of my silly experiment, and I realize that I started off pretty deep and that there have been some seriously baffling scents in this list so far. I suppose it’s a little cruel to start people off with Jicky and Chanel No. 5, so I think it’s time to go back to the square one, the very first things I think guys interested in getting to know fragrances should smell.
I know that some of you who read this will consider this cheating, but it may very well be the most important piece of fragrant advice I’ve ever received and now have the pleasure of passing on. Hence, today's installment:
14. Go out and smell things
This may sound like the dumbest advice ever given, but I’m amazed how many times I read a thread here that says something along the lines of “What frag should I try to see what basil smells like?” Dude, just go to your kitchen and smell the basil. And everything else you can get your nose on.
Spend some quality time in the spice rack. Smell cloves and black pepper and mace and notice how bay leaves smell like tea. Notice how the sage also smells like tea, but in a different way. Smell artificial fruit-flavored candy (like Skittles or Jolly Ranchers) - you'd be amazed how important those artificial fruit flavors are in perfumery today.
Go for a walk around the block and smell the flowers in peoples’ yards. If you smell something interesting, figure out what it is. And don’t forget that leaves can smell as good as flowers – for one of the best smells on the planet, smell some tomato leaves. For a complete smell orgy, try to find a citrus tree in bloom and smell exactly why people 300 years ago sniffed that intoxicating mix and decided they simply had to bottle it.
For bonus points, see if your town has a public rose garden – they’re more common than you’d think. Notice that every kind of rose smells different and that there’s no such thing as a “red rose” smell versus a “yellow rose” smell.
Go for a hike in a forest and smell the trees. And the soil and the moss and that indescribable smell of life and decay in the forest air.
In the end, just get used to smelling what’s around you and paying attention to what the smells are, to build up your scent vocabulary.
15. Check out essential oils
Your average health food store will probably have at least a couple of essential oils to smell. Lavender, clary sage, and patchouli are common, incredibly important in perfumery, and very much worth getting to know.
If you’re lucky enough to have a proper essential oil store in your area, go sniff as much as you can get your hands on. Smell the oakmoss and the frankincense and all the crazy resins and flowers you can. I promise, you’ll be amazed at how much the crazy frags you thought you could never figure out will start to make sense once you understand benzoin and opoponax and dozens more obscure-sounding notes.
Essential oils are surprisingly cheap, so you might even want to buy a tiny vial of anything that you want to get to know better (for the record, with a couple of notable exceptions like carnation or jasmine, natural ingredients aren’t very expensive – when expensive perfumes say they’re expensive because they contain natural ingredients, 99% of the time that’s just marketing bullshit).
16. Smell some raw ingredients
One of the biggest misconceptions about how perfume works is that perfumers work in a big lab with a bunch of jars of oils and chemicals that are labeled “leather” and “amber” and “rose” and they just mix them together and out pops a finished perfume. In actuality, it’s almost all chemicals, and chemicals just don’t work like that.
Perfumery is more chemistry than you’d think. Sure, a perfumer may think that cloves smell good with cedar, and they may even use some natural essential oils, but they don’t just mix together clove and cedar. In fact, when you mix a chemical that smells like “A” and a chemical that smells like “B”, you almost never get something that smells like a combination of “A+B”, you usually get some complete other third smell, which often smells terrible and unrelated to either A or B. This is full on chemistry, not cooking. The art and the science lie mostly in the dozens of chemicals it takes to make a mix of anything smell good in a bottle in liquid form.
The best way to really understand this and to truly step up your game in terms of understanding fragrances (from perfume to shampoo to cleaning products) is to get a little sampler of raw ingredients. If there’s a single one (like Iso E Super or something) that you’re curious about, ask around on Basenotes. Us crazy long-timers have been known to trade ingredient samples the same way we trade other perfume samples.
Or, better yet, just invest in a sample pack of raw ingredients. Ozmoz sells some that are specifically geared towards teaching interested people how ingredients work in perfumes. The most popular one is from The Perfumer’s Apprentice – You’d be surprised how many of the folks here at Basenotes who really know their stuff have this sample pack.
From this, all I really ask is that you come to grips with the fact that note lists and pyramids are basically just crap. There's no such thing as a magnolia note. Or a bluebell note. Or a leather note. At best, it's a way for a perfumer to try to explain to people who don't know the chemicals what they were trying to recreate. At worst, it's just a stupid lie made up by advertisers. Either way, it's simply not the best way to really get to know fragrances. Teach your nose and then trust it. Then, when you smell a standard white flowers accord with some synthetic apple added, you can just giggle when you see it listed as rare Tahitian pink summer hyacinth or something equally ridiculous and all the reviews talk about how they can really smell the pink summer hyacinth...
17. Smell some real oud
This one is quite a bit more specific than my other three picks today, and probably should have been included somewhere else, but it kind of fits into today’s discussion and I couldn’t figure out where else to include it.
Get your hands on a drop of real oud. Yeah, I know. It’s really expensive and confusing and they don’t really sell it in America. Check out the Basenotes marketplace or try to get some in a sample trade. Or, if you have the cash to drop, there are online retailers that sell it.
All you need is one drop. A tiny little dot of oil on your wrist will last days, and that same little dot on the cuff of a jacket will last a week, so anything more than 1 or 2 ml is overkill if you’re only curious.
There are other people here who would be happy to fill you in on the best ouds available. It’s way over my head, so I’ll just say to try the real thing and leave it at that.
Of course, ouds come in varying qualities and ouds from different areas smell different. And, to make everything much more confusing, there are middle eastern oil blends that have all sorts of roses and incense oils mixed with the oud (or sometimes instead of any actual oud), and these blends are often called ouds, too, so be sure what you’re getting, especially if you’re paying for it (and beware that, if you can afford it, it's probably one of these blends).
Anyway, just smell some oud. It’s weird and gross and fantastic and smoky and contemplative and medicinal and leathery and some of them literally smell like shit. And none of them smell like M7 or Creed’s Royal Oud. If you’re like me, the smell you think is oud is actually mostly a mix of saffron and patchouli and pine tar with extra chemicals to make it smell more medicinal and intoxicating.
Anyway, this has been a really rambling entry - Any thoughts?
Any oud experts want to chime in with a good place to start?
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