1/27/15

The "Tasters" And The "Feelers"



"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

Mr. Warhol's famous quote about Coca-Cola is perhaps one of the most prescient statements about the American condition. It encapsulates the reality behind our national pride: we cherish the symbolism of "sameness," and hold it up as a democratic ideal. Naturally the wealthy and the poor must inhabit different spheres of living, and of course those spheres spin in different universes, but lookey here! We've connected them with sugar water. The multi-billionaire and the back-alley bum can both experience the sameness of a Coke. When it comes to this beverage, all the money in the world, all the influence and power is not enough to make it taste better. It is what it is for everyone. It is the same for everyone. No one Coke is better than another.

Unless you ask Mexican Coke enthusiasts. Ever hear of Mexican Coke? I'm sure you have, and if you haven't, let me fill you in on the viewpoint held by its ardent fans. They claim Mexican Coke is much better than American Coke. It tastes better. It's better for you. It's undeniably a different formula. It's spicier. It's sweeter. It's more floral. It's richer, deeper, more nuanced. The claims go on and on. Oh, and it comes in an old-fashioned green glass bottle with sixties-styled ACL labeling. What could be cooler? Just the packaging alone should elevate the worth of Mexican Coke head and shoulders above the drab, plastic-bottled American swill we Yanks suffer with.

As a consumer of Mexican Coca-Cola, I can confirm that the soda does taste a bit better in regards to how its sweetness is handled, due to its containing regular cane sugar instead of hi-fructose corn syrup. And I also agree that the bottle is awesome. It's heavy glass, nicely curved to fit your hand. Put simply, drinking Mexican Coke is fun because you get to see what the soda tastes like with sugar instead of corn syrup, and the bottle is retro and really cool. However, that's where the novelty ends. When I first started drinking this south-of-the-border product several years ago, I was struck by how disappointing its flavor was. Sure, the tongue knows real sugar from corn syrup. That's all fine and well.

But the actual flavor of Mex Coke was not quite as fizzy and fresh tasting as American Coke. Something seemed wrong, either with the product, or my own taste buds. Or maybe I just had unrealistic expectations because of the hype. I'd been led to believe there was something special about the formula that did not bear out when I finally wrapped my lips around the bottle. In truth, it tasted like slightly flat Coke with a slightly flat "Coke flavor" that was pleasant and familiar, but nothing remotely close to being the dream elixir people made it out to be. All the chatter I'd heard in high school was just hot air. But hey, kids talk, right?

So do fragrance enthusiasts. It never ceases to amaze me how persistently threads about the value of vintage fragrances pop up on basenotes and other forums, people going on and on about how this fragrance or that has been ruined, how one should try to find certain labeling to ensure their perfume is the "real deal," and how shitty reformulations are. As with anything that isn't standardized the way soda production is, there are shades of truth to these claims. Unlike Coke manufacturing, fragrance production isn't a black and white issue. There are some very subjective and very sensitive shades of grey. But like the Mexican Coke debacle, the notion that something older is automatically better, just because it's made with something natural and housed in the original package, is inherently flawed.

Loving vintage because it's always "better" than a current formula is a joke. I like jokes. I like to laugh. The notion that something older is better just because it's older flies in the face of human nature. The best of anything need never be changed. Yet we change most things, most of the time. With vintage fragrances, I've had the Mexican Coke experience far more often than not. It's true, occasionally I find a vintage that surpasses current things in quality and wearability, and sometimes ingredient quality is truly head and shoulders above anything new. My last review was of Furyo by Jacques Bogart, a lovely fougère with exotic floral notes and a smart incense reconstruction. The lavender was all but dead in it, but at least I got thirteen hours of beautiful heart and base notes.

Contrast that experience to something like Relax by Davidoff, for example. For years I read about how criminal it was that Davidoff discontinued Relax, how wonderful it was, how much better than Zino it was, how unique it smelled, how I had to have it. When I finally got my hands on a small bottle, I found the fragrance to be pretty mediocre. Sure, it didn't deserve to be dc'd based on smell alone, but I didn't get what all the fuss was about. Zino and Cool Water are both far superior. Relax didn't smell unique at all - it smelled like a cross between Brut, Zino, and Skin Bracer. Its discontinuation was utterly understandable to me. This frag had been Mexican Coked in the blogosphere. And I'd been punked.

Look at Joint by Roccobarocco. Another one that got soaringly good reviews by a few prolific reviewers online. I couldn't help but wonder if the enthusiasm was more Luca Turin-like than sincere. Turin is notorious for heaping adulation on fragrances that are nearly impossible to find because they're in extremely limited distribution, or discontinued for decades, like Blue Stratos, Givenchy III, and Caldey Island Lavender. This only flies as long as the fragrance is out of reach. Once acquired and tested, all bets are off. When I bought my bottle of Joint and began wearing it for a week, I found the reality didn't match the myth. This fragrance was also very mediocre, derivative, and synthetic. It belongs in the graveyard with Relax.

There's some science to the idea that people favor things because of their novelty. J. Kenji López-Alt, the managing director of the site seriouseats.com, conducted a double-blind experiment three years ago with Mexican Coke and American Coke. He has discovered several times in his esteemed career that the mind plays tricks on us when it comes to our taste buds (our noses and taste buds are interdependent), and this example further bolstered his case. I'll let you read for yourself, but the bottom line was that despite the preconceived idea that Mexican Coke was exotically superior to American Coke, people overwhelmingly preferred the flavor of American Coke in blind tests. Mr. López-Alt was able to discern two different populations in his tests, the "Tasters" and the "Feelers."

The "Tasters" were the people who preferred the flavor of American Coke over Mexican Coke, regardless of what container it was served in. So even when Mexican Coke was served in a plastic American bottle, they weren't fooled. The American Coke delivered in a glass bottle was identified as different from and preferable to the Mexican formula in the same bottle. The "Tasters" preferred the flavor of American Coke seven times out of eight.

The "Feelers" on the other hand were influenced overwhelmingly by the glass bottle the Coke was served in, preferring it over the stuff in plastic and cans. It didn't matter whether it was American or Mexican coke. The "Feelers" were more about the tactile feeling of glass against their lips, and the taste was secondary, if it mattered at all. That didn't stop the "Feelers" from saying the Coke in glass tasted better, of course. In their minds, the flavor of something from an old-fashioned package had to be better by default, because that's how they always felt about it.

My belief is that vintage enthusiasts are very knowledgeable about perfume in general. They understand perfume history better than the average person, maybe even a bit better than the above-average person, and they value that history. I believe vintage enthusiasts also have a dim view of most contemporary perfumes, generally feeling that current releases are crap, perfumers are now beholden to accountants like never before, and big corporations are ruining the world and people's enjoyment of it. Vintage enthusiasts are the "Feelers" of the fragrance world, those who would rather pick up an old bottle of semi-spoiled Habit Rouge and spritz themselves with it than grab a brand-new, totally fresh bottle and wear that instead. The old bottle looks better, the color of the perfume is deeper and more promising, and the fact that top notes and some heart notes are spoiled doesn't always register.

There are among us some true "Tasters," however. I call it like I smell it, pulling no punches when it comes to the true value of vintage. If I smell notes that are spoiled, accords that are unbalanced, bases that are prematurely appearing mere minutes after application, I tell you about it. I don't go on the internet and say things about really old perfumes like, "Other than a few seconds of flat top notes, the heart and base is beautiful," unless it's really true, and guess what? Sometimes it's not true. My mission in life is not to ruin the fun for vintage enthusiasts. My mission is to be more honest. Sometimes vintages smell gorgeous, and when that happens I'll tell you. But very often vintages smell a bit spoiled. I can abide some spoilage, if there's something good left behind to redeem it, but I'll never tell you that a vintage perfume is better than its newest incarnation.

There was a basenotes thread a while back in which the OP touted the notion that he's never encountered a spoiled vintage, or that at least the number of times he'd smelled a spoiled scent were far outnumbered by the times he'd smelled perfectly preserved vintages. He kept asking people to send him their spoiled scents, I guess to prove the point that people were lying about their claims of encountering spoilage, which seemed downright strange, if you ask me. It didn't occur to him that people usually toss their spoiled fragrances shortly after purchase, nor did it seem reasonable to him to suppose that nobody would want to be bothered to go to the trouble of packaging and mailing a bottle of skunked juice to god knows where. What would that prove? He would likely receive the package and either (a) claim the fragrance wasn't really spoiled and the sender was mistaken about it, or (b) agree it was spoiled but then question the honesty of the sender, wondering whether he did something to it prior to mailing it. In either case, his assessment of the spoiled scent would prove nothing. What he was asking was bizarre, and to my knowledge nobody humored him.

Towards the end of the discussion, one disgusted thread participant said flat-out that he wouldn't trust the OP, a vintage perfume peddler, to send him quality vintage perfume. The OP's contention that virtually ALL vintages he'd encountered smelled fine was not credible. It wasn't credible to me, either. My guess is this person is a "Feeler," someone who sees a vintage bottle, holds it, reads about it, and just "feels" that it must be better than its reformulation, or a current comparative. That feeling is self-reinforcing once the fragrance is smelled, because a very old perfume is guaranteed to smell different from a new one. Different is all that matters, not a "better" smell. Different to him is better. He's interested in the unique sensory experience that comes with owning a vintage, especially a rare vintage.

Like I said earlier, it's tricky comparing Coke to perfume. Coke is a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all product. Perfume is a design aesthetic and is not the least bit uniform. Subjectivity plays a huge part. The guy with the vintage thread is not necessarily wrong in his belief - but he is also not significantly right, either. Perception varies by person, and there are billions of people, and billions of perceptions. With variables judging variables, the number of rulings is endless.



2 comments:

  1. I loved this post. I have visited the birthplace of ssssh....Pepsi(!) in New Bern, NC, and have a friend who only ever drinks Diet Coke and red wine. I think I am a taster who has tried and sometimes failed to be a feeler in my few punts on eBay, looking for vintage stuff to treasure and coo at. I have a number of genuinely well preserved items - one confirmed as such by Bois de Jasmin, whose nose I respect - namely Blue Grass from 1975. But I have some godawful vintage - and just plain turned things - that your post has galvanised me to throw away. I don't venerate vintage, that's for sure, and like to think I sniff as I find, like you.

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    1. Pepsi? Blasphemy! LOL
      I have a friend though who was a Pepsi fan back in the sixties and seventies, he has a few collectors items from that era.
      A well preserved Blue Grass from the seventies doesn't surprise me in the least - it was a relatively simple and synthetic composition, and I've come across a few of its relatives from that era that were also in decent shape, very wearable. I cringe when I see people selling Guerlains from the twenties with juice the color of dark amber maple syrup, the glass stained, the stopper looking like it's been dropped and glued back together a few dozen times. Why anyone would spend hundreds of dollars to own something like that is beyond me. You can't wear it. Almost nobody cares about the fact that you own it. Yet often I find people claiming these types of vintages "smell fine." Right.

      I think there's been a bit of a correction in the world of vintage recently, Vanessa, because I've seen a few relatively rare oldies on Ebay lately that used to command ridiculous prices, and are now inexpensive. Ocean Rain by Mario Valentino used to be a few hundred dollars depending on the seller, but recently I've seen a few bottles for less than $20 an ounce. I have nothing against people buying and enjoying the stuff, but I get a little superior when I hear them tell me their vintage is better than my reformulation. The irony is that vintage enthusiasts think they're the "tasters" and we're the "feelers." If they were really doing an honest olfactory evaluation, there'd be far more people criticizing their vintages on basenotes, et al.

      Thanks for commenting!

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