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 in someone’s imagination when they’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 same growly Clint Eastwood personality found in Cubans, all via an incredibly deep tobacco note.

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 blithely 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'm stumped as to 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.


  1. This little piece was really a joy to stumble across at 1AM last night when I was about to nod off… What a great premise. I always appreciate it when fragrance leads us back to the world (material experiences, relationships, place memory, etc.) and tobacco is so loaded with connotations it deserves just this kind of thoughtful attention. My father used to smoke unfiltered Gauloise cigarettes in their iconic blue packaging. These cigarettes are, of course, a minor cultural time capsule thanks to Picasso, Henri Charrière, and about a million French existentialists. The tobacco was from Syria and Turkey and had a wonderful horse manure-like earthy sweetness that reminds me a little of the castoreum (or its approximation) in Caron’s Yatagan, though I don’t get tobacco out of Yatagan per se, more pine smoke over bitter leather. I have an old bottle of Polo green (early 2000’s?) that has a bit more in the way of sweet green notes (mint?) than the newer formulation. The minty quality seems to offset the heavy tobacco (to me, cigar) notes of the opening sally of Polo, giving the whole thing a lovely unlit-to-lit transition that ends with ashy, dry patchouli. But maybe this is just my impression? Curiously, some reviewers have noticed an almost creosote-like note in newer formulations, and I would agree; to me it forcibly recalls the bitterness of old pipes you mentioned.

    In the department of tobacco notes that may or may not be there (or be the product of overlapping accords): flavored pipe tobacco in l’Occitane’s Eau des Baux (cypress, tonka, musk & vanilla), which is sometimes identified rightly or wrongly as a poor-man’s Tobacco Vanille, and – not exactly my experience, but I’ve heard it said – a fleeting ‘blonde tobacco’ note in Caron Pour un Homme’s lavender-musk-tonka-vanilla combo. I wear the latter all the time, and don’t know if I’d describe it that way. I do agree with Liam Sardea at olfactics.net who observes, that PuH’s, “lavender is slightly herbal, green, and floral, and possess its inherent roasted quality akin to fine coffees and hay (the tonka and vanilla play an important role projecting this facet).” What do you think?

    1. Regarding tobacco, there's definitely a trend: cheaper frags emulate the general gist of tobacco using a combination of unrelated notes, as in Eau des Baux. Fancier scents seem to take very specific materials and concentrate them to generate more realistic tobacco, as in Ungaro II.

      Never really got a definite tobacco note out of Caron PuH, but a 25 year-old vintage I have might have a slight hint of it somewhere between the vanilla and musk in the base. I'd say it's a definite "maybe" with that one.

      Polo green does have a noticeable tobacco note. It's rather leafy and cured, and very dry and dark. The older versions have a better rendition. I believe Polo Crest also has a very vague suggestion of tobacco.

      I didn't know Picasso smoked Gauloise cigarettes. That's very interesting. How did you come about that information? It's very difficult to figure out what brands were smoked by famous people of the early twentieth century.

  2. If you look closely at this picture, you can just make them out...


    I'm also pretty sure that's why Robert Motherwell, an American abstract painter ('New York School', AKA Abstract Expressionist and serious Picasso & Matisse fanboy) smoked them as a college student, later using the packaging as collage material.

    On a side note, I often wonder what fragrance, if any, some of those guys wore...Those vintage Caron ads remind me of old Jean Cocteau movies, and I once heard a story that Pour un Homme was created for or worn by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but who knows? To return to the topic at hand, I'll always wonder how differently scents were engineered with the assumption that previous generations of men were smokers. Perhaps this relates to your point about the disappearance of front-and-centre tobacco notes from mainstream masculines? It's one thing to smell Guerlain Vetiver now and wonder about the original cologne formulation; it's another to picture it worn by a man who smokes twenty or thirty Gitanne Brunes a day and maybe bathes three or four times a week at the most. How the scent-scape has changed...

    1. I also think the older fragrances were tailored to work well with cigarette smoke, although I think the bathing aspect was conveniently left out of the thought process there.

      Anything that predates the eighties is very likely built to last (longevity) and built to throw (sillage) because let's face it, residual cigarette smoke is strong. It's usually the first thing people will notice about a smoker. For people to get past that smell and actually appreciate a perfume behind it requires something with incredible complexity and strength, think vintage Z14 or late fifties Max Factor Signature. Even in the eighties, people still smoked quite a bit more than they do today. Davidoff's line was specifically designed for smokers, unsurprisingly. Vintage Cool Water is potent stuff.

      When it comes to the culture of yesteryear, the tables turn a bit, I'm afraid. Despite what many of these fragrance companies may say about the "legacy" of their most popular flagship scents, like Caron's PuH for example, I somehow doubt that many men wore fragrance in the wartime era. WWII vets were unlikely to spend money on expensive fragrance, and not much more likely to bother with the cheap stuff. Things like Aqua Velva and Old Spice were probably the most popular standbys. Back then people had more rigid gender identity norms, with men expected to be "tough" and "reliable," and women were "salt of the Earth" and "homebodies." Dads and moms. Dad shaved, used decent soap, and maybe slapped some aftershave on, but I can't really see fragrance being popular with pre-Vietnam era guys outside of France.

      Frenchmen were probably the exception to all of this. Even in the forties and fifties, I imagine more French gentlemen wore cologne of some kind, but that's strictly cultural, and no direct reflection on any gender norms there.

      Mind you, all of this is conjecture on my part, but I have to admit that whenever I read about older masculine fragrances, my mind flits to Max Factor Signature, which goes back to at least the late fifties/early sixties. It's a very powdery, musky, aldehyde-laden wetshaver scent, not a million miles away from Chanel No 5. Hard to believe there were many guys who wore it. It seems designed to appeal to the "household shopper" of its time, i.e. the woman of the house, who would sniff it while out on the town doing errands, and buy the bottle for a husband, who would wear it once to appease her, and never touch it again.

  3. An interesting point - when my dad was in Korea, they sometimes raffled off little luxuries to soldiers, and he told me they all went for the Aqua Velva so they could drink it (no kidding...) He was quite a tough guy, but used Royal Copenhagen pretty religiously during the period I can remember. Come to think of it, Its lavender & vanilla notes are probably the reason I enjoy Pour un Homme and Habit Rouge so much.

    Another interesting side avenue to consider might be the history of scents that began as cult scents among homosexual men before 'crossing over' to become scents that are praised for their abilities to attract women: recent examples such as JPG's Le Male and Chanel's Antaeus were, I have read, predated by classics like Knize Ten in this regard.

    1. Cigarettes were standard issue rations during the conflict in Korea, usually Lucky Strikes or Chesterfields. I imagine the soldiers were like my Vietnam vet uncle: lifetime smokers. What a different world it was.

  4. Pipe tobacco impressions tend to be weird at times. I remember ordering Bogart Pour Homme since sooooooooo many reviews were praising the cherry pipe tobacco accord. When I received it, I immediately sprayed it on because I was eager to smell it.
    I love the fragrance, and that cherry opening is fantastic. However, I get zero tobacco out of it.
    Of course, it's entirely possible I'm just missing the tobacco aspect of the pipe tobacco accord. However, I believe that reviewers treat a sweet and sour cherry note as a pipe tobacco accord because they're familiar with that cherry smell from real pipe tobacco.

    1. Yeah it's likely they just isolated the type of cherry flavoring commonly found in cherry pipe tobacco, and used it in BPH. Guys smell it and immediately associate it with the presence of "pipe tobacco," but really it's just the synthetic flavoring, sans an literal tobacco element.

      Laura Biagiotti's Venezia Uomo is an example of a fragrance that smells rather like tobacco without having any definite tobacco note in it the way the Dreamer does (for instance). Same basic thing. Rich ambery tones with a sort of smooth, semisweet, inedible darkness, blended nicely into precious wood tones. Its triggers those associations.

      It sounds like a similar scent to Bogart PH in terms of how the supposed tobacco is handled is John Varvatos' Vintage. Very sweet, fruity, yet with quite a bit of fermented humidity and slightly dirty textures lurking under the more conventionally pleasing notes. Not really tobacco, but flavored to smell like it.

  5. Hello Bryan,

    I think in your post there is a little confusion about meanings of tobacco. Perhaps is better to sort the scents of tobacco from the type of leaf, and not the way of smoking it.

    There is a huge variety about pipe tobacco, not only cherries and similar. Hardcore pipe smokers usually smoke raw virginia tobacco, or burley, or kentucky, even latakia (from Western Europe) or turkish. No-processed, plain, with only tobacco smell (different depending on the leaf combination used). Virginia tobacco is mild and sweet, burley is woody and earthy, latakia is smoky, turkish is fruity, etc.

    Cherry pipe tobacco is not considered really tobacco flavour, and is criticized because the flavoring hides the real, plain tobacco. Aromatic tobacco is the most sold, the most commercial at least until the 80's, but not the most significant nor representative.

    Your post is very interesting but I think you must classify the smell of tobacco taking into account the kind of leaf.

    1. Thanks for your insights! You must be a tobacco connoisseur.

      Unfortunately in perfumery the type of tobacco leaf is a step too far. You're lucky if you even sense the vaguest suggestion of tobacco - any tobacco - in most perfumes. By your measure, one might attempt to classify whether the tobacco in something like The Dreamer is a burley Turkish blend or a Virginia light. It's really impossible to do that. The Dreamer has the most direct cigarette tobacco note in perfumery to date, at least to my nose. And as a somewhat experienced ex-smoker, with even more experience wearing The Dreamer, I couldn't tell you what kind of tobacco the scent is representing. The information simply isn't there.

      Other intensive legendary tobacco scents like Vermeil - look, it comes in a bottle shaped like a lighter, and there's clearly a tobacco note in there, even slightly smoky, like the smell of fresh tobacco partially lit, but good luck discerning exacting what kind of tobacco the scent is trying to convey. The other aromatics - all the musks, florals, woods, and fruit notes - plus any budgetary issues inherent to the formula preclude any clear identification of the leaf. The best you can do is attempt to define the general category of tobacco, be it cigarette, cigar, hookah, or pipe. Ditto for the tobacco notes in things like Quorum, Eau des Baux, and Lagerfeld Classic.

      If this were a tobacco blog, the leaf would be my primary concern in discussion. But as a fragrance blog, with several degrees of (vast) separation between the world of smoking and the world of perfumery, the focus must be more realistic, and can only go as far as a basic categorization of tobacco type. I would be lying to you and my other readers if I attempted to delve into leaf type when describing these complex and overwhelmingly synthetic fragrances.

      but thanks again for sharing your knowledge on tobacco.


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