4711: Still Better Than Farina, Still the Best

Gorgeous Bottle, Gorgeous Contents

I just bought my second 27 oz bottle of this wonderful elixir, after finishing my first about six years ago. It still possesses an autumnal crispness and summery freshness that surpasses anything else I've ever smelled, including many niche "freshies." Its simplicity and timelessness prevail when I'm in need of olfactory air-conditioning, and the beautiful blue and gold label remains a symbol of Old World charm. I consider it a masterpiece of 19th century graphic design.

How many logos have lasted 200 years? Not many. How many products have waded into an ocean of time, survived two Antichrists (Napoleon and Hitler), dozens of wars, numerous pandemics, decades upon decades of economic turbulence, and emerged smelling of fresh fruits and sweet flowers? Well, Jean Marie Farina Cologne by Roger & Gallet did that, too. Except something about Farina's cologne water doesn't quite work, and it's hard to pinpoint what it is. Is it too sharp? Too literal? Not floral enough? Too musky? I don't quite know why I prefer 4711, but if I needed an alibi, I'd say it's the rosemary and neroli in Wilhelm Muelhens' cologne water that wins the day.

Farina's blend doesn't take 4711's "mélange" approach to cologne: bright citrus, woody herbs, and mellow white flowers. Instead, it needlessly dwells on impressing you with an intense blast of natural citrus. It then uses an excessively desiccated orange blossom to segue into a smooth woody amber and white musk base. The amber is attenuated to avoid the "designer cologne" effect of modern fare, and it's well done, but the sharpness of the top, bordering on sourness, and the minimization of herbal notes and cheerful floral chords, makes it an antiseptic and monochrome experience. It's a pointlessly masculine spin on what ought to be an entirely unisex fragrance.

Whenever I bring this up in conversations about cologne, outraged defenders of Farina's version invariably shout, "Muelhens was a huckster who stole Farina's name to sell his inferior plagiarized formula!" To which I say, "That's completely irrelevant." They usually retort with, "4711's citrus smells blatantly synthetic, and its drydown is equally cheap. Farina's citrus is HANDS DOWN the best." To which I say, "Tell that to Tom Ford." This is my roundabout (but unfairly effective) way of telling Farina's defenders that attacking the quality of 4711's citrus notes is the loser's way of telling me 4711 is a failed fragrance. The citrus isn't the point of 4711. Citrus notes, even when done perfectly, are just not that impressive. Sorry, it's the truth. That's why Muelhens' formula pulls my nose past the citrus, and into a handful of rosemary sprigs, which eventually expand into a lovely neroli, and neroli is what makes 4711 the winner.

When Tom Ford farted out Neroli Portofino, he wasn't aping Farina's cologne. Neroli Portofino is by all measures a redux of 4711, down to the color of its bottle. Weirdly enough, after benefitting from far more cash in its formula, Ford's fragrance lacks the gentle charm of 4711, and winds up smelling a bit strident to me. It's still an excellent frag, and likely the only Ford scent I would buy, but with the current Mäurer & Wirtz cologne at around $2 an ounce, it's a little hard to see the point. My point, however, is that Tom Ford recognized that 4711 is about neroli, not citrus.

Besides, the claim that Farina's citrus is better isn't even true. Farina's citrus is excellent, but it focuses on lemon and bergamot, while 4711 uses far more lime. After the explosion of lime-scented drugstore aftershaves of the 1960s and '70s, many of which were surprisingly well made, people unfairly associate even the best of lime notes with "cheap." My guess is 4711's lime was emphasized to lend a better intro to its rosemary middle, as these notes play off their green and woody qualities. 4711 also has a very good bergamot note, and one might argue its lemon is a touch weak, but again I say, who cares? It escapes smelling like lemon Pledge, it's quite a bit better than most of the lemon notes found in your average $50 designer, and it blends very well, so a less-than-photorealistic lemon note doesn't keep me up at night.

There's been no reformulation to 4711, as far as I can tell. If I had to guess at a tweak, I'd posit that the lime note has become a touch more prominent in the last ten years, but that could just be my imagination. Beyond that, I can't smell a lick of difference here. I've owned a few 3 oz spray bottles since 2014, and they all smelled identical. So we should consider Mäurer & Wirtz a very successful purveyor of a fine fragrance. They haven't mucked up a good thing. It smells fresh, natural, and entirely like what a classical eau de cologne should be. My ten year old bottle, empty now for years, smells like I've used it to store rosemary, so that speaks to the quality of the herbal note. It's excellent.

We live in scary, complicated times. It's comforting to know that 4711 has seen much worse. It smells like a guiding light, and in the heat of summer it's the only thing I feel like reaching for. Side note: the "gold" color on the current label is about a full shade paler than the same shade on my older bottle. Whoever makes the label has clearly trimmed some expense there. My message to Mäurer & Wirtz: No biggie, but quit while you're ahead. If you think we don't notice these things, think again.