Why You Can't Trust Internet Reviews When Judging The Quality Of A Reformulation

Only the bottle has remained the same.

My main message in this post is short and sweet: Don't trust what I say.

It seems counterintuitive for me, a perfume blogger, to say this, but when you plug it into my larger message, I hope it makes more sense. That is, don't trust what I say alone, not without smelling things for yourself first. Use me as a rough guide, a vague starting point, the nexus of all your concern and enthusiasm for a certain fragrance. But do not consider me the authority, the voice of infallible knowledge. My sense of smell, my tastes, and my understanding of the fragrance world do not necessarily comport with your sensibilities. I am here to guide you, to inform you when possible, and to provide educated insights into the basic mechanics of how certain scents work (or don't work).

Perfume bloggers are tools. In my case, my personality conveys this explicitly. But as useful tools for gaining knowledge, we're small cogs in a big machine. Halston Z14 is an example of why this is true for all internet fragrance reviewers, including supposedly erudite noses like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr.

Z14 gets a bum rap. It turns 42 this year. That's a long time for a fragrance to be in production, and still widely available across the world. Roy Halston's original formula was released courtesy of Michael Edwards, who helped to engineer its place not just on store shelves, but in the pantheon of famous masculines, a realm where compositions endure the test of time. Yet Z14 has fallen on harder times in the noses of fragrance enthusiasts, many of whom consider it a mere shadow of its former self.

The narrative is that vintage Z14 is far superior to current Z14. I recently purchased my fifth bottle of Z14, a formula that dates to at least 2011, judging from its gift set packaging. I paid twelve dollars for eight ounces, cologne and aftershave. I would have passed on it, but my other 2011 aftershave actually spoiled. One day I went to use it and found that its oils had begun separating out of the alcohol. The liquid resembled olive oil vinegarette salad dressing. It was probably still ok to use, but I opted to toss the remaining ounce and just keep my eyes peeled for a replacement.

I also have a more recent formula, what some consider the "Big Red" formula. This version cropped up in 2014, and it continues to generate complaints. It supposedly has a massive, unbalanced cinnamon note, but to my nose the cinnamon is pretty much identical to all prior formulas I've tried. My perception is in stark contrast to some others, though. And that's the point of this post: to show you that the disparity in perceptions makes trusting any one reviewer on the internet silly.

Consider this review from Fragrantica of two "vintage" Z14s, and one "current" Z. Note how this person's opinions vary:

wesleyhclark: "My first take is that the [French issue] vintage stuff smells like serious perfumery. There's a note that I don't think I've encountered in that form yet. It's deep and strong. A dirty leathery smell, perhaps? It's bolder. Compared to it the current stuff dries in a less complicated, somewhat more modern fashion - cinnamon and cypress . . . But here's the weird thing! I tried some vintage Z-14 in Richmond, VA and it's different yet. It's certainly not current and it isn't this French mix, either. It has an initial oakmoss blast that is absent from both."

He uses the descriptors "dirty," "leathery," "cinnamon and cypress." He also notes excessive oakmoss in one of the vintages, which is apparently not as prominent in the other two versions.

Now look at how different the tone is for this person's perceptions of old and new Z:

Bigsly: "Reformulated version (recent with a lot of cinnamon up front): Well, if you hate cinnamon forget this. There's something else with it, which reminds me of what I've encountered in scents listing tree moss as a note or ingredient. Whatever it is (tree moss, leather, a touch of galbanum), it sort of hardens up the cinnamon and gives it a bit of a dry and chalky/powdery quality. This dominates for an hour or so, and then the earlier version of Z-14 begins to shine through, with more lavender than I prefer. However, here the lavender never gets too strong. After a couple more hours the lavender recedes and blends into the mix. At this point it is at its best, unless of course you really enjoy the initial strong cinnamon."

So while the first reviewer notes the presence of cinnamon without emphasizing it, the second finds it especially noteworthy, and doesn't mention any "cypress" element at all. Reviewer one says "dirty," and reviewer two goes into some detail about lavender, which is usually never "dirty." Also, while the first considers the current stuff "modern," the second refrains from such a vague descriptor, instead opting to be vague about what he perceives to be a "trend" in scents with treemoss. Fine to read if you have plenty of experience with fragrances, but it's like wandering into a Black Forest of opinions for anyone new to fragrance reviews.

If I were new to Z14, and I read these two reviews, I'd be very confused. These are two guys who are reviewing multiple bottles of what is supposedly the same fragrance, from roughly the same time periods, and their reviews are quite different. Adding to the confusion is the suggestion by the first review that two bottles of vintage Z14 smelled different! If I were a total newbie, this would probably elude me. But if I were someone with at least a year or two of experience in reading reviews and trying classic fragrances, I might consider this to be a "clue" of sorts. I'll come back to this in a bit. Let's move on to reviewers three and four, both referring to "vintage":

ericrico: "The opening of citrus with integrated herbs and fresh-ground cinnamon takes me back to my youth."

kmarich: "I discovered a vintage splash for under $10. USDs . . . It has a smokey, hazy richness that made me feel warm.

So which is it? If I'm in the market for vintage, should I expect to smell like a Middle Eastern salad, or a campfire? These reviews seem to be for different scents. But if I connect them to the first reviewer's notes on two vintages (probably from different years), I begin to sense that maybe Z14 just smells different from bottle to bottle, regardless of what the manufacturer's "formula" was. Maybe this is an "unreliable performer." Maybe with Z14 there's no way to know exactly what it will smell like until you smell it yourself, simply because every bottle is a little different.

If I approach Z14 with this attitude, then I can comb through the reviews and find this last one to be consistent with my theory:

Aiona: "It smells like celery seed to me, even though I see no celery seed in the notes listed above. It's distinctive. Not a cool aquatic. Not really a gourmand, despite the celery seed. Just a nice greenish scent."

Very interesting. To her, Z14 is "Just a nice greenish scent." You could find a parallel in this description with the "oakmoss blast" description found earlier. But you have to know that oakmoss, while often "green" in nature, doesn't always smell "green" in fragrances. It can smell nondescript, bitter, powdery even. Vintage Canoe is loaded with it, but few consider Canoe "green."

But most notable in this last review is the description of celery seed, which is commonly attributed to Caron's Yatagan. This is a biting, extremely bitter, pithy, woody note. It does not exist in Z14, which is generally a smooth, ambery citrus and cypress blend. Yet this is what the reviewer describes, and if you don't know anything about the fragrance, you'll be left wondering who to believe here. Does it have lavender and oakmoss and cinnamon, or is it like Yatagan?

I chose Z14 for this exercise because of the divergence of opinions across the boards, and also because there's the added monkey wrench of Z14 being a very "batch specific," "bottle-variable" fragrance. As the years churn on, and my experience with this fragrance continues, I have to wonder if Z's formulation history crudely mimics Grey Flannel's. Perhaps when licensing changed hands, the standards of production varied inconsistently from year to year, or even from batch to batch.

Maybe this is a fragrance where nobody is really "wrong" in their perceptions.

I would argue, from a strictly personal standpoint, that this is not the case. Although the oldest bottle I've tried, which dated to 2007 or 2008 (possibly a year or two older) had a markedly different composition, and a noticeable vetiver note that I have not smelled in any subsequent bottle, the overall feel of the composition, all notes accounted for, conveyed the same basic smell as the more recent versions I've owned and worn.

Every other bottle was either subtly different - to the point of really splitting hairs - or identical. I could get into concentration issues here, but I'll skip it to save time. (Concentration isn't that much of an issue with Z anyway.)

But as I said, I am but one voice. There are 42 years of fragrance to comb through with Z14, and that's a lot of material for study. If you're not interested in getting overly technical and picky about which kind of moss is in your Halston, just going to the nearest drugstore and buying the latest of whatever is in stock will be good enough for you, especially if you have no prior experience with this scent.

But if you're a stickler for material quality, complexity, depth, longevity, naturalism, dynamism, and whatever moss philosophy you adhere to, then clearly you need to eschew Internet reviews and do your own legwork.

I would warn you though, especially if you are the latter type of person, to use caution in how you write about whatever "vintage" you choose. If you disregard any potential concern for spoilage in perfumes, and think that perfumes last forever, you might mention that as soon as possible. That way I will know to avoid taking your review seriously, as will those who agree with my view that perfumes past the twenty year mark are not reliable expressions of their namesakes.


  1. Eh, I usually read reviews for kick'n'giggles.
    Especially on places like Fragrantica or Basenotes where it's like a mad party or carnival with the cacophony of various opinions along with varying levels of communication skills. Usually I'll find a reviewer whose writing style I like and with whom I share similar tastes and read their reviews. Actually, that's how I found your blog Mr Ross! I've also met a few Givaudan & Firmenich trained pro perfumers some of these forum type sites. Some of whom are quite renowned noses. (ie the creator of one of the JAR scents and an Annick Goutal or 2.) Apparently, these renowned noses cruise the public blogs & forums to keep abreast of what's trending also. These famous noses also find the majority of the reviews rather silly having little to do with what's actually in the fragrance too.

    Anywho, I usually look at the notes listed for a perfume & if there's anything I like I put it on my list to try. Perfume blogs are my SOLE source for finding niche perfumes so Mr Tauer might want to rethink his attitude towards bloggers. (And I'm probably a the LUXURY customer he's after as my fragrance budget is $1500 yearly.) There are a FEW perfume bloggers whose taste I trust, but I don't always agree with them either. So there.

    1. Well now, Bibi, it's hard to argue with that!

      I won't even try ;)

      I do find it interesting that experienced perfumers find comments on blogs - about notes and accords, from what I gather - to be silly. Must be an interesting thing to know exactly what a perfume is about, from the inside out, and yet read so many divergent, detached, and often uninformed opinions on something the perfumer has worked on.


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