Murkwood (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

When I want clear, concise evergreen notes, I reach for inexpensive colognes. Things like Acqua di Selva, Pino Silvestre, Agua Brava, Yatagan, Quorum, One Man Show. Most of these can be had in the 100 ml size for well under $100. I don't expect to smell anything hugely dynamic or beautiful, other than a brisk, earthy greenness supported by some tangible structure of either fougère or chypre origin. 

Pineward's Murkwood is supposed to be a straightforward Christmas tree pine (fir balsam is the first note, black hemlock the second), with supporting notes of lapsang suchong tea, incense, and myrrh. It opens with a bright burst of minty pine, very literal and with a slightly pissy off-note, and eventually it adopts a sweet "candle amber" quality, akin to that nondescript sugariness of Yankee Candles. The far drydown reveals incense, but I get absolutely no lapsang suchong or myrrh. It's all quite literal and one-dimensional.

What can be said about a fragrance like Murkwood? My girlfriend says, "It's an inoffensive muddle, and I wouldn't want you wearing it." I'm ahead of her there, because I have no desire to. But why not? It smells of naturalistic pine for the first thirty minutes. It's potent as hell at sixteen-hour longevity. It exhibits quality materials. But it's also a bit of a "blah" fragrance. There's no lavender to give it lift, no bergamot or labdanum to cast warmth. Murkwood is the murky silt of a forest floor: lightless and lacking contour. 


Hayride (Pineward)

Haymakers (Detail) by George Stubbs, 1785

Of the two "hay" fragrances from this house, this is the winner. While Hayloft struggles to find its form, Hayride coalesces within seconds and maintains its sturdy and enjoyable profile for hours, signaling good vibes all around. It's an indelible amalgam of coumarin, cocoa, and dried fruits, all brushed with a thin coat of filtered honey and grains, the sort of ambery oriental that doesn't move much, and doesn't need to. It's the olfactory equivalent of a waltz, and remains linear, legible, and genial for ages on skin and fabric. 

Of interest is how Nicholas Nilsson makes his hay (no pun intended). He insists that he labored intensively to distill the rare essences of "10 pounds of hay" and "bison grass concrete" for both, but I smell a marked difference in Hayride, and it's a little too obvious to go unmentioned. Hayloft smells "natural" in that it doesn't work; its jagged angles are an unfortunate byproduct of using purest-of-pure essences with thousands of stray molecules and off-notes, which are collectively impossible for even the best nose to tame. Yet I'm to believe that the same stuff fell neatly in line for handsome Hayride? I'm not buying it. 

The more plausible explanation, and an intriguing one, is A/B testing at work. Well, not true A/B, but a training wheels version of it: Nilsson may have opted to go halfsies on his perfumers organ, and split his "hay" category into one "natural" (A), and one "synthetic" (B). In doing so, he would likely see which one sells better, and eventually discontinue the loser. My guess is there would be multiple data points, with the extra expense of A's tinctures (in both time and money) eclipsing its profits in the long term. 

If I were advising him, I'd tell Nilsson to consider perfumery a design enterprise in the same vein as the automobile industry. When a company produces two different but very similar cars (same wheelbase, drivetrain, dimensional specs), they cannibalize their sales. Cut one, and see the other's bean pile shoot up. And in regards to the whatever-grass-concrete-co-absolute nonsense, I'd recommend he ditch it and use the ready-made stuff that smells good instead. Why try to reinvent the wheel? 


Hayloft (Pineward)

The Hayloft by John William North, 1867

Pineward offers two "hay" themed fragrances, Hayloft and Hayride, and both are interesting. Of Hayloft, the perfumer writes: 
"This summer I co-distilled about 10 pounds of hay, bison grass and sweetgrass to create a rough and gorgeous hay/sweetgrass/bison grass concrete, which was then filtered and evaporated to create a rich co-absolute."

Why he went to all of that trouble instead of just using a high-quality coumarin is beyond me, but the result is an unsettling ambrosial effect of dry-nutty and semisweet essences. There's a skanky bit of honey blended closely to a soft lavender note. Both are intertwined with a sort of amaretto (bitter almond liqueur), and something grassy-vanillic, which is probably saffron, if the notes list is anything to go by. 

Hayloft's opening is garrulous. Hayloft has a lot to say, or at least it seems to, at first. Eventually its barrage of notes coalesce into a linear accord that smells at once edible and earthy, the kind of weirdness I haven't sniffed since Thierry Mugler set A*Men loose on the world. By the middle of the day, the animalic twang of honey amplifies the sweetness of the saffron to form a Franken-hay more evocative of a Yankee Candle from Hell than anything you'd find in a barn. The balance is off; there's the strange liqueur-like thing vying for attention amidst the din of "hay/sweetgrass/ bison grass concrete co-absolute," and a desperate lavender trying to be heard. Save yourself the money and the migraine, and just get Serge Lutens Chergui instead. 


Gristmill (Pineward)

A gristmill grinds grain into flour, which raised the expectation that Pineward's Gristmill would smell grainy and powdery. It is hailed in fragcom forums as the "mainstream" masculine of the line, apparently for smelling conservatively woody. Weirdly, Nicholas Nilsson cites "Edelwood oil" from the fictitious tree in the TV miniseries "Over the Garden Wall"as part of the formula, and I have no idea what it's meant to smell like. 

What Gristmill actually smells like is a brief bust of cinnamon and woody sweetness in the top accord, followed by a restrained assemblage of cedar and oak, with the pertness of natural labdanum welling up between the floorboards. Eventually cedar and labdanum struggle for dominance, and the heart stage is unavoidably good (these materials smell great), but also a bit too simplistic to be taken seriously. By hour three, all I can smell is the ambergris-like twang of brutish labdanum wearing a victory crown of cedar twigs. It's an accord searching for a perfume, and unfortunately there isn't much of one here. 

Despite my reservations about Gristmill, I would still recommend it to anyone who seeks a pleasant woody niche frag for daily wear. I wouldn't buy it myself, but the materials are high quality, the composition is inoffensive, and the end result is a comfortable fragrance that fits most occasions. For once, the cinnamon in the top is well-judged, and despite the cookie-crumble drydown, this stuff always smells pleasant and civilized. It's just too bad its gigantic labdanum wasn't mated to a more sophisticated chypre structure -- Nilsson might have made a good fragrance into something great. 


Brokilän (Pineward)

Some perfumes are designed to misdirect the customer. Consider Irisch Moos, ostensibly a masculine barbershop fragrance. Get to know it and you find that it's Mitsouko done on the cheap, little more than a blaring bergamot resting on a ton of sweetened oak moss, and as manly as Catherine Deneuve in "Belle du Jour." Or lay your schnoz on Chrome Legend: supposedly an XY aquatic, but really an XX tea floral pitched to XY buyers. 

Companies use briefs to meet perceived market demands, and the things they settle on aren't always a true match. Brokilän is Finnish for "Broccoli," which raises questions about what Nicholas Nilsson, Pineward's perfumer, had in mind. The fragrance is marketed as containing exotic materials like "black hemlock" and "Vietnamese oud," none of which correlate with anything in the cabbage family. I think it's all hooey; Brokilän smells only of octin esters and methyl heptin carbonate (violet leaf) mixed with an excess of cheap galbanum resin and a smattering of pine. $80 for 17 ml is a bad joke. 


Fanghorn II (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

When I think back on the "green" fragrances I've owned and worn over the past ten years, the greenest of them was probably Tsar by Van Cleef & Arpels. Every spray of Tsar was like a handful of glittering emeralds, the scent of woods and leaves and mosses and pine needles, with an expansive breath of lavender, juniper, and rosemary whistling through the branches. It smelled lush and was almost formless in its abundance, a fragrance of regality and heraldry befitting its name. I rue that I wore every last drop of it and then discarded the empty bottle, for now Tsar is long discontinued and priced at $150 an ounce.

Wearing Fanghorn II reminds me of that intense greenness, although there is something pleasantly "off" about how it smells. It opens with a bitter blast of piney greenness that practically glows in the air, a dense, textured, intensely woody buzz of evergreen needles, sappy woods, and bright terpenes. No wonder it was voted "Best Artisanal Perfume" of 2021 in Basenotes' North American category. It's very hard to ignore something this focused and full-throated. As it dries there are shades of artemisia, juniper, sweet black hemlock, and a mineral stoniness, which is suggestive of a craggy landscape under all the heavy branches. Everything gets dustier and drier with yet more time on skin, and I get a weirdly antiquated vibe of sixteenth century cedar closets and timber cottages nestled in the wilderness of Renaissance Europe. Mysterious stuff.

Nilsson achieves a balance between crisp green needles and sticky woods by using a saccharine hinge of caramellic hemlock to connect them. At times its sweetness threatens to turn Fanghorn II into a candle, but it's complex and dynamic enough to skirt the realm of functional fragrance. This is Pineward's "core expression" and signature accord, and it's great if you want "green," but I still prefer the sunnier elegance of White Fir. 

By the way, what does "Fanghorn" refer to? It sounds like an Old Spice shampoo, not an upscale niche fragrance at two dollars per milliliter. In the age of Proctor & Gamble, let's be a little more careful with our names.  


Funerie (Pineward)

An AI-Generated Image

Funerie is probably Nicholas Nilsson's most artistic composition. It's tempting to give it a bad review; it is so challenging that it is nigh unwearable. Its "morel mushroom" top note is stale and mushroomy and will likely repel people. And even when that burns off, what remains is so unilaterally plangent that only the peppiest optimist could experience it unscathed. Yet despite all of this, it impresses me. I think it achieves everything a good perfume should: it transports the wearer to a different time and place. 

Nilsson suggests on Pineward's site that he intended to impart a gothically funereal vibe here, and one sniff sends my imagination to a foggy graveyard. I'm immersed in mushrooms, followed by the bitterness of synthetic isoquinolines, tinged in the periphery with pinewood and a very remote dried rose. Eventually the terpenes of desiccated pine needles and a weirdly camphorous quality permeates the air, evoking the sense of lying supine in a coffin, which is itself laying in a cracked and craggy mausoleum nestled somewhere in a patch of old pine woods. Cold air drifts through the broken stones, and its icy fingers weave through the coffin's splinters, carrying the essence of its wood and a bouquet of dead flowers on the lid above my chest. 

Longevity here is nuclear: one or two sprays will last well over twelve hours. Funerie is a perfume that will intimidate and irritate most of the noses out there, especially those that are accustomed to "fresh" and "sweet" fragrances. But there is a phalanx of people who are into the whole Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab "Goth" aesthetic who will enjoy it. It's a perfume that reminds the wearer of his mortality, while conjuring a moribund fantasy of the afterlife. The fragrance is also legible and concise, with a technical precision not often found in contemporary perfumery. Very nice work. 


Chandlery (Pineward)

Pineward, an outfit 
that is ostensibly focused on pine fragrances, seems to excel when it avoids pine altogether. While the use of evergreens is commendable, they work better when approached from reflex angles that are wide enough to allow for other modalities to fill out the plane. The hissy terpenes of crushed fir needles smell best when surrounded by diverse notes of varying textures and volatilities. It brings me pleasure to tell you that Nicholas Nilsson's Chandlery embraces this ideal.

Chandlery is only barely dusted with the vaguest hint of pine, a tiny dollop near the edges to lend it a rustic aura. That touch of green rests on a robust aromatic fougère, the kind that hasn't been offered to men in any serious way since the 1970s. But its DNA goes deeper than Paco Rabanne territory; I smell Caron Pour un Homme and even Trumper's Wild Fern in there. It opens with a breathtaking lavender and anise accord that is so focused and easy on the nose that it's all I can smell for fully thirty minutes after application. Its crystalline timbre then mellows into a repose of green champaca, hay-like coumarin, jasmine, sandalwood (Australian), and a mildly animalic musk. Every note fits neatly into the others, and every accord feels sturdy, fresh, natural, and invigorating. On a technical level it's an olfactory expression of F.L. Wright's Fallingwater, and artistically it's akin to wearing a Milton Avery, all languid lines and limitless color fields. 

This is the only true fougère in the range, and it succeeds by offering simple and well-balanced accords comprised of high quality materials. Nilsson meets a very basic luxury standard with a fragrance that is antithetical to tech-hoodie Tesla-driver chic. Chandlery is worn by folks who are reluctant to surrender their flip phones and eager to spend their Sunday afternoons fishing. It is what all fougères should smell like: a summer breeze carrying a whiff of adventure through the open wilderness.  


Katabatic (Pineward)

It turns out that cinnamon is a difficult note for perfumers to work with. The notes list for Katabatic looks like trouble: ruby cypress, camphor, birch leaf, ravintsara, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, bitter almond, red fir, cedarwood, sandalwood, orris root, dragon's blood resin, oakmoss. Cinnamon, cloves, and star anise? Better have some wicked contrast to offset all that fetid spice. My qualm with fragrances like this is that they're usually going for some sort of "hi-fidelity" cinnamon that quaintly skirts the pitfalls of winding up like Red Hots or toothpaste via superior materials and blending. The problem is that pricy chems and a deft touch do precious little when the idea behind them is lacking. 

Nicholas Nilsson's idea for Katabatic may have been to laser-focus on cinnamon, to make an "ode" to cinnamon, to render the spice with mind-numbing woody dimensionality, to be to cinnamon what Nahema is to rose. It's rather unclear, because the cinnamon is certainly intense, but it's a burning ruby nestled in a plastic setting. Right out of the atomizer, the fragrance smells overwhelmingly of Close-Up toothpaste. I let it sit on the strip for an hour, and returned to it expecting to smell a different animal. Nope, it still smelled like Close-Up toothpaste. I walked away and went about my day, and when I returned hours later, I told myself, "Okay, this has surely evolved." It had not. Close-Up. Toothpaste. Like I'd smeared it everywhere but on my teeth. 

It's an unfortunate reminder that indie brands need evaluators and range editors, just like everyone else. Pineward's range is too large. There are simply too many perfumes, and while some of them are clearly inferior, none beg to be rejected the way this one does. There's no room for something like this in a crowded market where thousands of overpriced perfumes are competing for that key moment when a euphoric sniff sends a man's dollars fluttering from his wallet like little green butterflies. I'm embarrassed for Nilsson, and worse, I'm offended that anyone thinks this is worth real money. Perfumery has lost the plot; there's no story here. Cheap toothpaste smells nasty. I don't use it. An ounce of Katabatic is $135. Only an idiot would buy it. 


Ponderosa (Pineward)

Some perfumes succeed by conjoining the known essences of things in nature into new and unforgettable accords. Picture the gaunt lemon aldehyde and intense woody-mossy experience of Halston Z-14. Yes, the notes all jump forward at various stages to announce "I'm cinnamon," or "I'm pine," but the nose can only interpret them by assessing the novel entirety of Z-14. Then there are perfumes that are olfactory advertisements for the bountiful spoils of pulchritudinous lands that aren't found on any map. Their beauty is abstract but familiar, the paradoxical effect of taking known notes and composing them into a hauntingly alien tune.  

Ponderosa is one such fragrance, a strikingly smooth and binate accord of cedar and burnt vanilla that smells expansive and salubrious, yet also feels warm and comfortable in its raw simplicity. Perfumer Nicholas Nilsson attempts to pontificate on its connection to actual ponderosa by claiming it contains the resin absolute, but I'd be more impressed if he said it was a reconstruction, which would at least align him with greatness. It smells like one to me, a robust but unassuming assemblage of woody and sugary notes that coalesce into the general impression of pinus ponderosa. Very good stuff, made all the better by a mystical wisp of fruitiness. A natural beauty that does not occur in nature.