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McGraw, Unplugged

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McGraw, Unplugged

In a sense, they're all celebrity fragrances. At one extreme, giants like Chanel no.5 - brands so big, they're measured not in one celebrity, or multiple celebrities, but multiple celebrities over time. Think of the iconic no.5 as having a celebrity bandwidth of 10 Paris Hilton units. At the other extreme, a niche perfumer like Goutal, or a perfumer-wrangler like Malle. There, perfumers themselves stand in as celebrities, at only 0.01 Hiltons normally, but maybe 20 Hiltons to perfumistas. It's clear that everybody will use whatever else they can use to sell perfume. Suddenly, unapologetic celebuscents don't appear quite as tacky.

I sometimes wonder - am I immune to the celebrity fragrance message? I skated on Antonio Banderas Spirit. A huge fan of Banderas, I was relieved to discover that Spirit was already accepted on its merits alone. My thinking it a bit too animalic got me off the hook completely. What about the reverse? When I finally smelled Sean John Unforgivable, created in the name of the obnoxiously bad-ass Diddy, I was able to forgive the excellent scent for its macho posing. Even Diddy himself. No - I felt confident that I was above celebrity influence.

But then came McGraw - my first real challenge. A fragrance that was likely to appeal to me on demographics alone, it was being fronted by a man whose music I liked, and who is nearly impossible to hate. Would I like it, hate it, or just find it "meh"? Or would I be dragged into the orbit of McGraw's shiny black hat? By a whiskey-colored cologne in a goofy hat-themed bottle? I got my ass to Wal-Mart and bought a bottle. I simply had to know the awful truth.

Immediately, I discovered that the hive mind of Basenotes was correct on one point - it was not what people expected. People expected either a typical sporty scent, or a stereotypical "country" scent. What they got was a slightly atypical gourmand. No raves, a few upturned noses, and the world moved on. Stuck with my bottle of McGraw, I began dissecting it.

The promising initial notes went a bit astray in drydown. The notes that I wanted to stick around didn't, and the composition veered away from potentially interesting destinations. It could have gone whole-hog on sweetness, but didn't. There's a bit of Jack Daniels that draws you in, but it runs out the back door of the tavern before you can order a second round. When dryness comes in to replace sweetness, it only teases. Overall, I felt disappointed.

But then something happened. In the same way that country music can be an acquired taste, McGraw the Fragrance snuck up on me. Some enjoyable notes were ripped right out of my faves, like Givenchy Pi Neo, Bond no.9 Riverside Drive, and Cereus no. 14. As seductive as the electric guitars in "hot country", some high-quality aromachemicals were getting to me. I found myself wearing it as a change-up from other fragrances, or when its lower profile fit my mood or situation. And I didn't care. We make no apologies for the music we like, and we don't need to apologize for liking a fragrance.

I came to accept that McGraw was interesting but flawed. The fragrance might do 40 million in sales the first year, and pick up two Fifi Awards, but we perfumistas are a tough house.

I had more or less put McGraw out of my mind, when I saw an online picture of a bottle which was slightly "off". Something looked different. The silly plastic "hat" shrouding the top of the bottle was brown - not black. The cap was gold-colored - not silver. The juice looked lighter. And then I saw the label…



Celebrity flanker!!!

Well, this time I didn't need any excuse to buy it. As a fragrance blogger (cough, cough), I'm entitled to do whatever it takes to investigate fragrances. The very next day I was in Target (that's Tar-ZHAY, people), and I headed straight for the fragrance section. Spotting the old McGraw version right away, I looked for the new one. Top shelf, no less!

So... what's it like?

A total change-up. The electric gourmand, booming through clouds of cotton candy at the Ohio State Fair, is now an acoustic guitar, played from a pick-up truck on a Kentucky tobacco farm. The guy is playing so quietly and intently that he doesn't even know we're listening. Where McGraw was a rather loud whiskey-inspired affair, the new fragrance is subtle, subtle, and more subtle. I needed to break out all my light tobacco fragrances to come up with comparisons. The result is distinctive, self-assured, and surprisingly good. Maybe not Havana Reserva, but for ultra-light tobacco lovers, it's definitely worth a sniff.

I was almost foiled in my first comparison test. The new fragrance was lost in the noise of the old McGraw. My next comparison point was something of a shocker, too - the all-natural, super-subtle, Alt Innsbruck Eau de Cologne. While I am no fan of the menthol in Alt Innsbruck, the natural tobacco drydown in that cologne is wonderful. And while that tobacco is not to be found in Southern Blend, the latter comes closer than most to capturing it. The tobacco accord is surprisingly complex, long-lasting, and stands out front and center without domineering. Technically an EdT, it's clear that this is just to give excellent longevity in a cologne style. Reminiscent of Banana Republic Black Walnut, the subtle tobacco accord here is richer and less synthetic.

A further light tobacco comparison was instructive - Creed Tabarôme Millésime. In press statements, Tim said (carefully) that he was avoiding a "French" feel (the exact statement is here). And a whiff of Tabarôme Millésime next to Southern Blend verifies this. Tabarôme Millésime is a perfume with a slight, old-school tobacco feel. Whether or not it was truly made for Churchill or Bogey or whoever, TM does NOT have a "country" feel. It's tobacco in a boardroom, not a barn or a town hall. Vice versa for Southern Blend. A bulls-eye for Coty.

For comparison, here are the notes given online for the two McGraw fragrances (it's worth a visit just for the guitar-pick icons).

McGraw (woody-spicy)
  • Top: Bergamot, Nutmeg
  • Heart: Lavender, Moss, Artemesia
  • Base: Sandalwood, Whiskey, Amber, Patchouli, Tonka

McGraw Southern Blend (fresh-earthy-woody)
  • Top: Grapefruit, Star Anise, Bergamot
  • Heart: Lavender, Whiskey, Violet Leaves
  • Base: Vetiver, Tobacco, Fresh Amber

The original McGraw has a very enjoyable green aspect. Southern Blend - a bit more brown, or maybe tan. There is a certain homage to the first scent, but gentle, and easy to miss. There is a slight barbershop feel at the top. Then there is vetiver, creating earthiness, but with great restraint, giving no potting-soil or campfire notes. Whiskey is present, but clearly subdued. The topnotes are real, but subtle enough that you can find the base from the very beginning. They are just dew lifting off the field as the sun comes up.

As Southern Blend plays out over the day, it becomes a skin scent, but the tobacco field accord holds up well. When I use it with my unscented aftershave, I can almost believe it's an Alt Innsbruck flanker, joyously without menthol.

So if you're looking for something a little bit different in a light tobacco fragrance, or you're a tobaccoholic who must own them all - or if you just want something which is simple, good, and refreshingly unpretentious, consider walking out of Nordstrom and into Kohls to give this one a sniff. It's not the symphony of Feuilles de Tabac, nor the sexy Latin beat of Havana. It's not the chamber music of Tabarôme, the oldies bar band of Tabarôme Millésime, or even the folky-funky, mentholated accordion music of Alt Innsbruck Eau de Cologne.

It's a guy, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck, playing guitar to his tobacco field. And damn it, I think the tobacco is listening.

Updated 3rd May 2018 at 06:56 PM by Redneck Perfumisto (Image uploaded to Basenotes)



  1. MFJ's Avatar
    Now that is what I call a review! Thanks for sharing bro!
    Bottles are a stunner too man...
    Updated 31st August 2009 at 08:14 AM by MFJ
  2. 's Avatar
    I almost caught myself going to Target and picking this up.:rolleyes:

    You could have a career in advertising frags bro.:thumbsup:
  3. laral28's Avatar
    You are just too good! I can't wait to smell these just to recount your descriptions.
  4. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Thanks, people! I do enjoy wearing this frag. It has a certain feel that I'm appreciating more all the time. It's extremely wearable. Smells good light or heavy, and goes anywhere or does anything. True, there are a gazillion sport frags that do the same thing, but this one is as comfy yet distinctive as a whiff of pipe tobacco from down the block, or a freshly opened pack of smokes.

    I came up with some more scent memory comparisons today, when I did a test of heavy application - the old Boss Bottled and Allure Homme. Freshly applied, it has some similarities to both. But it fades quickly to that nice base, and the similarity to those more powerful frags ends.
  5. JaimeB's Avatar
    Great review, and great writing too. You sure know how to spin a yarn! I really enjoyed reading this one. There's a lot to chew on here, too: the whole notion of celebrity scents, and what they represent to their fan-base, as well as how they put themselves out to fragrance shoppers. I like the guitar — all kinds of guitar — being Spanish, how could I not. The metaphor of the guitar and the tobacco listening to it is a real grabber... Rock on!
  6. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Thanks, Jaime! Yes, you and guitars have to go way back in your youth. Spanish guitar is truly one of the wonders of the world.

    You know, it was only later that I realized why that metaphor appealed to me - Miyazaki's Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro). The scene where Totoro shows the children (in what may be their dreams) how to make the seeds sprout with a hand motion resembling prayer - possibly one of the most moving scenes in all of animation. I just love images like that which show the joy and magic in reconnecting with nature, which welcomes us back and forgives our sins against it without even a thought of doing otherwise.
  7. Hebe's Avatar
    Lovely writing, thank you.
  8. laral28's Avatar
    Okay, a follow-up. I'm at Target today and I dash over to "beauty" on the way out looking to see if they are carrying Annick Goutal and what do I find? That's right...McGraw Southern Blend...suddenly the imagery of the guitar and the truck come rushing back and I'm laughing to myself like an idiot in Target. It was great!
  9. ECaruthers's Avatar
    I also went to Tar-zhay on my lunch hour, just because of you, Red. They had a Southern Style tester tethered to the shelf. The price was ok - $22 for 30 ml, $29 for 50 ml. I spritzed a little inside my left wrist. It starts with a blast of that denatured alcohol smell that screams, "I'm poison. Drink me and you'll die." I kept my hand behind my back until I got out of the store. By then it settled into a pretty clear tobacco note. It's less compex that a shop full of different tobaccos but much nicer than ashtrays. And it lasted really well on my skin. I went back to work and every time I lifted my hand from the keyboard I got another smell. But after an hour I got bored and washed it off. There wasn't anything wrong with it. I don't know what, exactly, but it needs something else.
  10. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    But after an hour I got bored and washed it off. There wasn't anything wrong with it. I don't know what, exactly, but it needs something else.
    I have to agree that my own holy grail tobacco scent would have more, too. I just have a hard time pinning down what that would be. At one end, there's Vintage Tabarome, which is pretty far removed from a cigar store in its own way. Not an every-day scent. At the other end - maybe Black Walnut, with a single note that might be construed as tobacco. That was an every-day scent, before I became a BNer and got bored with it. In between, a lot of room. McGraw Southern Blend falls into something of an empty spot in my wardrobe, and hence the novelty. But right now I would have to say that Havana intrigues me the most. Very deserving of the respect it gets, in my opinion. I have a sample of the real McCoy from bluesoul, and I sure hope that the forthcoming reissue lives up to the vintage stuff.

    I think that McGraw SB accomplished what was said to be the goal - something light, pleasant, and not too fancy. To be completely honest, Southern Blend got nothing but positive comments from my wife after the barbershop notes put up the "closed" sign. I have had no negative reactions in public - only one kid who called me "sir" when I racked up a drive-by sillaging at a Wendy's. (I really had to douse myself with Southern Blend to get sillage out my truck window, especially over the odor of the dog, but there are no limits to what I will go through in the pursuit of journalistic professionalism.) In contrast, when I wore Havana the first time, standing in line at a Starbucks, the reactions spoke to the nature of the scent. The young ladies working the cash registers, who seemed a bit more "vida loca" than most women their age, seemed to enjoy it, and were in no hurry to get rid of me. The young ladies in the line behind me were also enjoying it, in an OMG OLD MAN COLONE - CN U B LEVE???!!! sort of way. Of course, as a shameless perfumista geezer (relatively speaking), I was flattered that my scent was so distinguished. Still, sometimes I just don't feel like pushing the envelope, so I don't mind having an excuse for hoarding my Havana and going happy with the McGraw SB!
  11. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Okay, a follow-up. I'm at Target today and I dash over to "beauty" on the way out looking to see if they are carrying Annick Goutal and what do I find? That's right...McGraw Southern Blend...suddenly the imagery of the guitar and the truck come rushing back and I'm laughing to myself like an idiot in Target. It was great!
    That's one thing I think is so much fun - laughing or swooning or just reacting to a scent in a store - and letting the rest of the world go "WTF?" Sometimes it makes it worth it just to see the expression on their faces. Still, I think our emotional drama is helping in the global effort to grow more perfumistas and colognoisseurs. With each passing day, I detect less male embarrassment, and more serious sniffage, in the aisles of Sephora - or even Target. Some of that, if only a little, has simply got to be our doing.
  12. ECaruthers's Avatar
    At lunch today I picked up Michael Kors for Men at TJMaxx, 75 ml for $19.99 + tax. I had tested it before but only briefly. So far it's staying interesting. It's more like opening a jar of pipe tobacco that's got vanilla and other mystery flavorings added, less like cleaning up after a party.
  13. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Now THAT'S affordable. I will definitely go for a sniff of that one, possibly followed by a buy. I still have an urn of my father's pipe tobacco - smells great as ever. Something wearable in that vicinity would be a great addition to the wardrobe.
  14. slimbob714's Avatar
    great review. I can smell it , I can taste it, I can hear it.
  15. The_Cologneist's Avatar
    Very much enjoyed this blog entry, one of the few I've read all the way through. You are a man with a passion, a passion for all type of fragrances. I appreciate you blogging about different types at different price ranges, based on the passion which is the smell of the fragrance - the art, not the price. Good work!
  16. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Thanks, T_C! You know, something really great happened recently that showed me just how true your point is. I was in a friend's office, and I noticed a very interesting cologne - one I had never smelled. In some ways, it was like a greener and sweeter Kouros - definitely a nice fragrance. But as we talked, I realized that it wasn't a cologne - it was a room scent. I looked for a reed diffuser, but couldn't find one. Then I spotted it. No - nothing expensive - just a small plastic thing. I asked him what it was.


    The point is clear - "cheap" and "synthetic" mean less and less, as the skill and determination of perfumers push back against the legal and economic restraints of modern perfumery. What has not killed them, has in many ways made them stronger. Functional perfumes are now positively gorgeous. So it is simply no surprise that truly excellent scents can be had on the cheap. High price, in my opinion, does pay for some higher quality, but to a far greater extent it pays for exclusivity - for the privilege of uncommonality, as well as for the economics of small scale. It becomes something like paying for a personal perfumer. In contrast, scents like the McGraw fragrances are supported by huge volume, and come in at a very reasonable price. And Febreze? It flies off the shelves, and is priced to go. But when rated purely on the scent, all of these are surprisingly close together. They were all created by skilled perfumers, who may have even studied together. The excellent perfumery in all of them deserves respect.


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