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My nose is growing

The Smell of a Tobacco Shop

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Can you remember when every mall had a tobacco shop? You walked in and were surrounded by the smell of tobacco. It was like being inside a giant humidor. There were shelves of boxes of cigars. There were tables covered with jars of pipe tobacco. There were walls of pipes. And I loved the smell. I canít say why. I never smoked and I didnít even like the smell of my parentsí cigarettes. There was Walter Cronkite with his pipe, but TV didnít come with smells. Nothing formative happened to me in a tobacco shop. I may have bought a letter opener or a walking stick, but Iím not sure. This just seems to be one of those times when thereís no identifiable cause and love just is.

Now the malls donít have tobacco shops. Iíve visited a couple of contemporary shops in small buildings, away from main commercial areas. The cigars are all individually wrapped. There arenít many jars of loose tobacco. Mostly they seem to be places where cigar smokers can meet, smoke, and not get yelled at. I donít recognize the smell as what I remember loving.

Until I became curious about our ability to smell and interested in fragrance, I barely noticed the smells that used to be part of life and that are now gone. Now Iím trying to smell more and this bothers me. As Avery Gilbert wrote, ďThe Huntís tomato cannery in Davis [where he grew up] is shuttered; the garlic depot in Vacaville is gone; Cannery Row smells only on paper; and itís a rare day when Fishermanís Wharf smells of a fresh catch. The recent past Ė our very lifetimes Ė is evaporating day by day.Ē

So Iíve been trying to recreate a smell I may not accurately remember. One of the earliest threads I started on Basenotes was March 28, 2009. I asked for fragrances that smell ďlike tobacconist shops used to smell,Ē but said, ďI really do not want to smell like cigarette smoke, pipe smoke or cigar smoke. My wife doesn't want to Ďkiss an ashtray.í" Iíve bought loose tobacco and made my own extracts. Iíve bought tobacco absolute from The Perfumerís Apprentice and tried a couple of dilutions. Iíve bought colognes that have tobacco notes.

It was actually difficult to find a lose tobacco that just smelled like tobacco. Most had some sort of flavoring added. (Luca Turin has commented that most tobacco is flavored with vanilla.) I initially picked Virginia #1 pipe tobacco. I found that extraction of the aromatics from that tobacco was successful with a water and alcohol mix, or with 160 proof (80%) vodka. But I didnít get anything when I tried to extract with oil. From what Iíve read about extraction, this shows that the fragrance molecules in tobacco are light, rather than heavy. This is consistent with my observation that tobacco absolute and my extracts all evaporate fairly quickly from skin or paper. They are more head notes than base notes. In contrast, the tobacco notes in colognes (see below) last hours, sometimes days. I suspect the formulators are using some combination of ingredients that gives a similar smell but much better duration.

The Virginia #1 has a light smell and itís a bit sweet. I donít know how else to describe it. I thought there would be heavier smelling tobaccos, like dark roast coffee vs. light roast. The closest I could find at the tobacco shop was Black Vanilla pipe tobacco. Besides lots of vanilla, this seems similar to Virginia #1. Maybe it has a deeper or darker smell. If thereís another difference, I canít detect it.

Among the colognes recommended by Basenoters, Iíve smelled
Michael for Men by Michael Kors
Cuba by Czech and Speake
Burberry London by Burberry
The Dreamer by Versace
Chergui by Serge Lutens
They all seem different from the pure loose tobacco but they all do smell like it too. My impression is that the Michael for Men has the strongest, most straightforward tobacco smell. Maybe it smells a little of the ashtray. But Iíve smelled this the least so Iím not sure. I have samples of the last 4, so Iíve smelled each of them multiple times. As Iíve written before, Chergui is very complex. The sample I sprayed on a paper towel lasted 6 days. It started out smelling like an oriental and it was only after almost 18 hours that I got a clear tobacco smell. Then the tobacco actually got stronger by the hour for almost another 8 hours. At the very end it seemed to have more vanilla in it, but I still recognized tobacco.

The Dreamer, Burberry London and Cuba are all different fragrances. When I smell them I can tell this. But they are also similar. I canít describe the differences. This is frustrating. I think it goes back to the problem of describing smells. In Chapter 7 of What the Nose Knows, Avery Gilbert says, ĒTar, fish, grapefruit Ė every smelly thing in the world is a potential adjectiveÖThis means that the Verbal Barrier is not a vocabulary problem, itís a cognitive problem. The words are there, but we have a hard time getting to them.Ē Perhaps the tobacco fragrances I smelled differ by tar or grapefruit or WD-40 notes and I just canít identify them because I donít know to smell for them. But I really donít think so. Ours is an increasingly tobacco free world. What good will it do to say these colgonges all have a tobacco note when you talk to someone who has never smelled tobacco, cigarettes, cigars or a pipe? The best I can do, using nouns as scent adjectives, is describe an ashtray as differing from unburned tobacco by the addition of an ash smell.

So, in some ways Iím not making much progress. I canít explain my love for the memory of the smell of a tobacco shop. I canít describe the differences between loose tobacco and colognes that are primarily tobacco. And I canít describe the differences between similar colognes with tobacco notes. But there is one way I am making progress.

Before I started on my great tobacco hunt, I bought Armani Attitude. At the time I would have just described it as a nice oriental. Luca Turin says it smells of coffee but Iíve never gotten that. I havenít worn Attitude very often in the last few months because Iíve been busy investigating as wide a range of smell types as I could find, including all these tobaccos. A week ago, I sprayed it on a paper towel and left it in the bathroom. The next day when I walked by I thought, ďTobacco!Ē That was a surprise. Initially I thought I just had tobacco on the brain. But I checked it against some of my other tobacco scents & it seemed similar. So I looked up Attitude reviews on Basenotes and found that others have commented on its tobacco note. So I think maybe the smell part of my brain is slowly getting organized so that I can recognize a note even without having been told itís there. Iíve seen some psychology papers showing that increasing familiarity can lower the concentration at which some people detect some odors. Maybe Iíll eventually get familiar with enough new smells to tell you how The Dreamer differs from Burberry London. But not yet.


  1. Surfacing's Avatar
    This was a nice read, thanks.

    I am always perplexed at why other guys think The Dreamer smells like tobacco ( at all). I really do not think so. Not even close. If someone is looking for the smell of tobacco, let alone a Tobacco Shop, forget that one.

    Second, I am on a tobacco scent hunt myself. I have Cuba, Montana Red, Miller Harris Tabac ? ( cannot remember name), Chergui, and Etro's Palais Jamais on the way. Among some others.

    I'll report back if anything seems up your alley.
  2. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Hi, S.

    I think when I first smelled The Dreamer at Sephora I thought it smelled like vanilla instead of tobacco. But they were nice enough to give me a tester of that and one of Burberry London. Burberry London always smelled like tobacco to me. Smelling them side by side, along with actual loose tobacco, I started recognizing the tobacco note in The Dreamer. Now that's the first thing I smell when I spray it and always the strongest note.

    As I said, I suspect the real notes are not tobacco but an accord that's close enough that I 'get it' when I'm used to smelling tobacco. Maybe it all goes back to recognizing a smell by the combined triggering of multiple receptors that I talked about in Picturing How We Smell.

    Or maybe it's the power of suggestion & I'm fooling myself. That's always a possibility to keep in mind.

    I dont have Montana Red, Miller Harris Tabac or Etro's Palais Jamais. Please post what you think of them.

    This just reminded me. A SA at Macy's said D&G The One smelled like tobacco. I didn't think so at all. I haven't smelled it since. Maybe I should try again.

  3. Surfacing's Avatar
    Hello again,

    I should update you on my findings with regards to tobacco.

    First off, in your above post, I think you are correct ( or at least I agree with you ) in saying that "...the real notes are not tobacco but an accord that's close enough that I 'get it' when I'm used to smelling tobacco..." .

    The Montana Red
    did not really site well with me. Unfortunatly with this last month or so, I am really having trouble with my sense or smell and also alergies . Not sure why it is bad this year. Anyways, despite having a sample, I really cannot give a fair review of Red because I found it insettling. Something just did not seem right.

    Miller Harris Tabac, to me was alot different than the tobacco of Burberry London. I really was not too crazy about this, but I can definelty see the similartiy in the smell of a Tobacco Shop.

    Etro's Palais Jamais just did not get down its supposed dry woods ( and/or tobacco) base on my skin. The top notes of Jasmine and tea seemed to stay on forever. Reminded me of a Bulgari scent, not that there is anything wrong with that.

    Czech & Speake Cuba,unfortunatly this was just too seemingly acrid to me. Not something I enjoyed, but I can imagine smelling this on a person and thinking it was just their aura.

    Santa Maria Novella Acqua di Cuba was so good during my 2 testing's I just could not stop sniffing my wrists ! Not tobacco or tobacco shop as I know it, but just such a great accord.

    Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque was another amazing fragrance that was smokey and sweet. Love at first sniff , but not a tobacco shop. But a great tobacco fragrance !

    Serge Lutens Chergui, this is so strange and different, but I love it. I cannot really identify notes. Again, not getting the scent association with the tobacco shop, but I do get a tobacco vibe with Chergui. Wow.

    So really, nothing smelled of a tobacco shop per se, but here were some interesting tobacco fragrances. Hey, at least I came across some good scents that will hopefully turn to large samples or full bottles
  4. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Hi, S.

    Thanks for a great follow-up. And I'm sorry to hear about the allergies. I used to think of cold & flu season as just a nuisance. Now it's a much bigger fear. I use a small Vicks Inhaler for minor congestion. And I've been getting flu shots every year for a long time now. And last cold season I didn't have a cold. Knock on wood.

    I'm really interested in the cases where you got a tobacco note but not the tobacco shop. Since I never smoked and haven't spent time around smokers in years, I realize that I might be confusing smoker smells with tobacco shop smells. Or maybe there's a continuity of scents between true tobacco and ashtray. I definitely don't get ashtray in Cuba or Chergui. Or maybe the tobacco shop we remember really is tobacco plus sweeteners like vanilla, cherry, rum and maple. Unless I can find a classic tobacco shop someday when I'm on vacation, I may never know.

    And I'm really glad you love the Acqua di Cuba, Fumerie Turque, and Chergui. Any journey that discovers love is a success.
  5. talkinBEERmug's Avatar
    After reading your blog I think I can get you one step closer to the tobacco shop smell. I think the smell that the soaking tobacco is missing is the smell of the wood boxes they keep the cigars in. If you can find a classic tobacco shop they have empty used boxes they will give you.


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