A Quick Note On Cheap Scents

Sometimes I get asked about whether a "cheap" scent that by all measures smells good is worth buying in the place of something similar but more expensive.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I recommend the better fragrance. I know, you're wondering what I mean by "better." It's not difficult to define the term: the fragrance that smells better is the one you should consider first. If cost is a concern but not a deal-breaker, why not wait and save for it? A few weeks, or even months can't hurt. I firmly believe that price should only be factored in when there's indisputable parity in both quality of construction and legibility of performance.

Many cheap fragrances that can be purchased for fifteen dollars or less per 100 ml are solidly constructed and very good performers. But beware. Always keep this phrase in the back of your mind: "cologney baloney."

We've all done it. We spot a cheapie, 50 or 100 ml bottles of some obscure drugstore thing that samples nicely and seems to be an apt addition to the wardrobe as a "novelty purchase."

We wear the frag and enjoy it, but in the back of our minds wonder, what's the catch? Did I really just get a fresh-fruity cheapie that I like? Or am I paying for its cheapness somehow, in some manner less obvious to me, but not others?

It's what I call the "headspace test."

Always have a large fruit handy, like a smooth melon or even just a large apple. Spritz it with your new find, and let its skin simulate yours. Sit several feet away from it. Walk past it quickly.

Is what you're smelling on the fruit the same as what was on your hand in the store?

With very cheap fragrances, there's a higher chance that the headspace off the fruit will emit something bland, clean, and nondescript. Close up, with your nose mere millimeters from where you sprayed, you may get a very complex blend of lucid accords and individual notes.

But from a natural social distance of four to six feet, you may get a very blobby, washed-out "cologney baloney" chemical smell, as faceless as a Swedish guy at the Winter Olympics. All of those perky green-woods and musk notes may become Bounce dryer sheets. A few ounces of extra air between the scent and your nose may reveal where the fragrance company's budget fell short.

Cheapies like Caron Yatagan and Krizia Uomo don't suffer this fate because their profit margin is modest. In fairness though, Caron charges premium prices for their scents at retail, and only grey market prices are reasonable. Ditto for Krizia.

This fact makes typical internet sales for them excellent deals, and the kind of "cheapie" one can buy without second guessing their judgment.

Stuff by Jovan, Playboy, Nautica, and Avon are not as likely to fare well in the headspace test. This isn't to say that all scents by these brands are "cologney baloney" in nature. But some are. If you want a super cheap "cologney" effect, and don't mind smelling like ivory-white laundry, you may as well just wear 4711. For that effect, the fault is exclusively found in any and all pretense.


What Does Tobacco Smell Like? And Would A Great Tobacco Perfume Change Our Uptight World For The Better?

Tobacco, or 90% dark chocolate?

Tobacco has been justifiably under attack in most developed nations for a while now, for obvious reasons that directly relate to nicotine addiction and various types of cancer. I can’t help but feel though that there comes a point during the anti-smoking spiels being rattled off by health advocates where you have to shrug a lot of the histrionic condemnation off, and reassess the actual danger quotient for yourself.

We all know whatever feels, tastes, or smells good carries health risks. That chocolate cake you lust after can clog your arteries pretty quickly if you eat too much of it too often. Casual sex can bring all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant consequences if you’re not careful, and even sometimes when you are careful. Playing video games for hours on end can degrade your body’s stamina and circulatory system, raising the risk of heart attack and stroke. Too many brewskies can kill your liver. And smoking can lead to lung cancer and a handful of other health problems. Is it wise to completely eliminate these things, or is the enjoyment of the occasional vice a vital part of living life to the fullest?

I often think of this when I wear Versace’s The Dreamer. Here’s a fragrance that took a type of person and bottled him, representing him as a perfume. He's someone we’ve all known. He's artistic, a little flaky, prone to wanting “quiet time,” or even “alone time.” You’ll sometimes catch him out back smoking a cigarette and gazing off at nothing in particular. He's literally a dreamer, and Gianni Versace knew this guy well – perhaps he was a dreamer himself. America is losing this facet of its culture, its league of dreamers, as we incrementally chip away at the casual carelessness we used to live by, and replace it with hollow platitudes about how to be “successful” and “healthy.” As always, moderation is key. We shouldn’t demonize the occasional cigarette, because some of the best things can happen when we're able to detach from reality in a puff of smoke.

I spent half a year in Prague, Czech Republic, back in 2007. People ask me what living there was like. I often tell them that traveling to Prague was more like traveling to a different time than to a different place. People there smoke and drink a lot. I mean, a lot. Restaurants, bars, clubs, and even people’s homes are usually filled with cigarette smoke and the clink clink of beer mugs and shot glasses. I indirectly worked for a major tobacco company there by providing educational services to its staff, and I recall my student being a very friendly, mild-mannered, almost innocuous young woman, who seemed oblivious to any moral implications that her position at the firm held.

Looking back at it, I now realize that there was no concrete reason for her to be worried about where she worked. When she went out at night with friends, every other person had a cigarette in their hand. In Prague, people aren’t as worried about cancer and death as Americans are. They believe in living life, and living it hard. Work hard, play hard. They work fourteen hour days, commute four hours round trip, consume liters of alcohol and packs of cigarettes a day, and some solicit prostitutes, some spend hours in hazy underground nightclubs, and they sleep fine, because Prague, in many incredible ways, still lives in the 1950s. The girl I went with chain-smoked Djarum Blacks. My friends frequented Hookah bars. People drank beer and wine and vodka and whiskey like it was water. I was experiencing a portal to the past.

Say what you will about tobacco, but it has its charms. Yes, it’s a nicotine bomb, and yes, there’s nothing beneficial to your health about indulging in any tobacco product, but reality check: few things on the planet smell or taste as good as tobacco. I have some experience with this. When I was in high school, I occasionally smoked cigars. These ranged from cheap Swisher Sweets (what a morally reprehensible company Swisher is, by the way, with their flavored cigarillos clearly aimed at youngsters, and I’m not being sarcastic here), to Cuban Partagas cigars, which would drip tobacco tar down my shirt and take hours to finish. Both ends of the quality spectrum were olfactory treats, although cigar tobacco is admittedly the most difficult to appreciate. I smell its analog in Quorum, which has the tobacco note found in real Cubans, an incredibly deep and rich smell.

Then there’s cigarettes. I don’t smoke cigarettes, and never really smoked them in the past, mainly because I never inhaled them. Cigarettes are a smell/taste experience for me. An unlit, midgrade, Virginia-cut cigarette, like any of the Marlboros, has a dry, semi-sweet, raisin-like aroma. It's the scent that Versace captured beautifully in The Dreamer, which showcases a lucid analog of a freshly-opened pack of Marlboro Lights, although come to think of it, Marlboro Lights have probably been discontinued.

Things change a bit when you shift to a slightly higher quality cigarette, like the original unfiltered Camels pictured above, which are nicknamed “studs.” This is Humphrey Bogart stuff. These have a markedly better, richer aroma out of the pack. They smell very dry, woody, and rather like unsweetened dark chocolate. The blend of Turkish and American tobacco is responsible for the scent, with Turkish cuts being a bit richer and mellower than standard Virginian fare. All cigarette tobaccos are “treated,” and laced with wildly unhealthy additives, so if you’re interested in experiencing the smell and a bit of the flavor of these things, I can only recommend proceeding with caution. Don’t get into the habit of “enjoying” them. Just have them around for reference and the rare toke for a flavor idea. If you like the smell of cigarette smoke as much as I do, you can appreciate it by lighting up and just letting the thing burn itself out.

Unsurprisingly though, most fragrances bypass cigar and cigarette tobaccos, and take the pipe tobacco route instead. This is a double-edged sword. Yeah, pipe tobacco arguably smells the best out of all the varieties, mainly because it’s treated like potpourri by its manufacturers, with a number of flavors infused in the blends. And yeah, pipe tobacco’s aroma usually works in tandem with the naturally woody, bitter flavor of an old-fashioned wood pipe. My grandfather had a wood pipe, and he passed it down to my dad, who let me play with it as a kid. By the time it got to me, it had been retired for a decade. I’d stick it in my mouth and pretend to smoke, and all the years of dry tobacco particles that had crumbled and powdered into the thing would gradually filter through the old cherry stem and into my taste buds, registering as a weirdly serene, smoky flavor.

In college, two of my professors had handlebar moustaches and smoked pipes. I shit you not. They’d stand outside on their lunch break and puff away, looking like a pair of Edwardian politicians. It was pretty anachronistic and surreal. The smell was incredible. Very rich, mellow, with a papery quality adjacent to a light sweetness that no other tobacco cut replicates. These guys were probably packing cheaper blends, and that familiar “cherry” nuance that often accompanies pipe smoke was present, but I can’t deny that pipe tobacco, lit and unlit, smells good.

But there’s one problem with all of this, at least in my opinion. The smell of pipe tobacco is a holistic olfactory meditation on both the treated tobacco, AND the pipe it gets smoked in, with too many non-tobacco elements in the mix. The flavorings that usually accompany pipe tobacco have nothing to do with tobacco. The materials of pipes also have nothing to do with tobacco. And you really can’t get a good sense of how pipe tobacco smells unless you’re smoking it through a high-quality wood pipe. So sure, it’s a great smell, but for a tobacco purist, there are some red flags. Of all the tobacco aromas, pipe tobacco is the most embellished. (Cigar tobacco is the least.) It’s also the strongest, and in many cases the most complex.

I guess this is why it’s so popular in perfumes. I have one fragrance in my collection that seems to be a close-up study of pipe tobacco, and that’s Vermeil for Men. Here’s a list of the rest of the tobacco scents in my collection, along with some descriptions of their tobacco notes. If you notice, most of them eschew the pipe tobacco theme and opt for less conventional cigarette and cigar motifs:

Ungaro Pour L’Homme II – ashy cigarette tobacco, very noticeable

Cigarillo (Rémy Latour) – fruity pipe tobacco, easy to miss

Lagerfeld Classic (Karl Lagerfeld) – smooth unlit cigar, noticeable

Joint Pour Homme (Roccobarocco) – musty pipe tobacco, blatant

VC&A Pour Homme – burnt tobacco, a lit cigarillo, easy to miss

Boss Number One (Hugo Boss) – light cigarette tobacco, easy to miss

Furyo (Jacques Bogart) – pipe tobacco, closely blended with patchouli

Sung Homme (Alfred Sung) – cigarette ash, very noticeable

Cool Water (Davidoff) – “blonde” cigarillo tobacco, easy to miss

Versace L’Homme – miniature of The Dreamer, noticeable

The Dreamer (Versace) – standard cigarette tobacco, blatant

Some of you might be wondering why Tabac cologne isn't on the list. I have a bottle, but I've honestly never detected a tobacco note in its composition. I have an older bottle that dates back at least six or seven years, and it's the eau de cologne concentration, which I sometimes use as an aftershave. It's beautiful stuff, but I get no tobacco out of it. Instead it smells like talc, dried herbs and flowers, and animalic musks, with a huge aldehyde and citrus top note introducing everything.

In closing, I’d like to say that I was inspired to write this post by a recent basenotes thread, in which members ponder the varying scents of tobacco. There were some interesting points made. I think member "Tmoran" summed it up best:

"It really depends on whether its pipe tobacco, flavored pipe tobacco, blonde tobacco or any other of the endless varieties. It would be impossible for me to sit and describe the smell of something to you without you having ever smelled it or something similar. It would be like trying to explain color to a blind man who has always been blind. I think your ability to like it may hinge on whether the scent is intending to portray smoked tobacco or unburned tobacco. Some scents do try and mimic the smell of a burnt cigar or cigarette but most of the mainstream tobacco scents are mimicking the smell of processed pipe tobacco. Which many find extremely pleasant."

This really describes the situation well. Right now we’re faced with a fragrance market that is seldom attracted to tobacco notes, and when it is, it focuses on pipe tobacco, and sometimes on fruity Hookah tobacco. It’s likely that many perfume brands have boardroom meetings where some uptight suit invariably shoots down the rare suggestion of a tobacco-themed scent on the absurd grounds that it would "negatively influence brand image and consumer market share." Yes, I can literally hear these corporate-speak phrases being tossed around by people who have never touched a pack of cigarettes in their lives.

It would be nice for a brand, niche or designer, to give us a tobacco scent as a comprehensive celebration of every variety of tobacco I’ve discussed here. Perhaps something with a top note of fresh green tobacco leaf, followed by the raisin-like mellowing of sun-cured leaves, treated cigarette tobacco, the dark chocolatey nature of high-grade studs, the floral spiciness of a lit pipe, the sophistication of a cigar, ending on an ashy base. Maybe not in that exact order, but something like it. I'd name it "Bogart's Break" for fun. Seriously, how awesome would that be? I don't know why it hasn't been done yet.

My takeaway with tobacco in perfumery is that the note is very difficult to render, and even harder to use in a composition. Perfumers can't use straight absolutes in their formulas because of the nicotine issue (nicotine seeps through skin, which is why the patch exists). They can use certain tobacco molecules in isolation, and they can "reconstruct" tobacco by other means, and sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Lately, with fragrances like Tom Ford's Tobacco Vanille, the note is rendered as a semi-gourmand element, very sweet and aromatic, with light hints of vanilla and other edibles. The burlier, woodier, smokier nature of real tobacco seems relegated to the forgotten classics found in discount bins, and that’s a shame.