12/17/11

Hammam Bouquet (Penhaligon's)

England is a beautiful country, and London is currently the capitol of the universe. When I was there in the early '90s I strolled through the city's impeccably flowered and pruned parks, endlessly in awe of Britain's palpable dignity. Nothing English is ever common. Even the grimiest pub in Liverpool enjoys more than a modicum of the rarefied. You may still see a 32 year-old stenciling of a Sex Pistols tour promotion on its rain-whipped and craggy brick. And how about those Royals, huh? Try as I might, I can't think of an American equivalent to an ivory-toothed Duchess of Cambridge waving with gloved wrists from an Aston Martin.

It comes as a surprise then that the British have difficulty forging a credible identity in the world of postmodern perfumery. Two of their oldest houses, Penhaligon's and Floris, are prolific authors of classical British fragrances, with the former notable for its two oldest masculines, Hammam and Blenheim Bouquet (which are a whopping thirty years apart). Both are arguably Penhaligon's greatest achievements. Blenheim finds a particularly devoted fan base among wet shavers because of its cool, spicy aura. It is Hammam, however, that bears special consideration, as it is the firm's first perfume.

Hammam Bouquet is named after the famous Turkish-style bath, which involved lots of varying water temperatures, flowers, massage oils, and yes, perfumes. The original Penhaligon's building was located on Jermyn Street next to a Hammam, and sadly both were reputedly destroyed in WWII. The timeline suggests that William Penhaligon founded the company sometime between 1865 and 1870, and its original location was destroyed in 1941 - so let's generously round the dates and say that London's greatest barber shop enjoyed 75 years before a revamp. Why does it matter? For me, the problem with Penhaligon's fragrances, and especially Hammam Bouquet, is in the bloody revamp.

Sniffing Hammam Bouquet today, I can appreciate its nostalgia factor. It has a Victorian feel to it, a musty sensuality stifled beneath the artless frills of an opaque bodice dress. The first few seconds of lavender and rose are at once cold and alluring. Britain's imperialism, its tendrils into the furthest reaches of Asia, its Orientalism, all are evident in this fragrance's opening. Eventually a sweet orris note appears and pushes its way into a powdery amber drydown. Everything about Hammam Bouquet smells tortuously restrained, as if sin could overcome virtue by way of sexual apoplexy.

Conceptually, historically, theoretically, everything about the scent is good. And then the chemicals kick in. Hello awful 21st century revamp. The lavender and rose meld into an oafish caricature of Turkish luxury, smelling soapy and flat. The odd "dust" note that Penhaligon's currently employs in several of its floral-themed fragrances interferes with the powder, driving everything into drugstore territory. I'm reminded of Old Spice, except Old Spice smells better. From twenty minutes onward, Hammam Bouquet is a linear ode to staleness, made poor by pallid effects. Suddenly that opaque bodice dress is something I'm thankful for.

Penhaligon's has obviously reformulated this scent several times, but does itself no favors with the latest incarnation of its signature. For $120 I expect something with Creed or Czech & Speake-like clarity and note separation. My nose should be begging to decipher more analogs of Victorian boudoir culture, not wrinkling in disappointment. And why, pray tell, am I getting a headache with only a few drops on the wrist? Well okay, I'll give them a break there - rose does that to me all the time, and Hammam certainly has a distinct rose note in its heart. But still, I'm not impressed. The poetic reviews on Fragrantica and Basenotes are enjoyable essays borne of unbridled enthusiasm, and while admirable, cannot be duplicated here on my blog. I will acquiesce to the fragrance's rich history, however, and note that while Hammam's current formula is lacking, its form is not. This type of British barbershop dandy scent is truly classical in scope, and I await the day that Hammam Bouquet is restored to its former glory.



















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