I don't know about you, but traditional summer fragrances bore the living daylights out of me. Summer is bad enough without having to deal with subpar fragrances. If I'm going to be dealing with the hell of chafing thighs, make-up that won't stay on my face for more than five minutes, and sand in every crack, then you had better believe I am at least going to be wearing something interesting in consolation.
Citrusy colognes and straight-up vetiver – yes, they provide a cooling function in summer, it's true. Splashed on straight from the fridge, they make you feel fresh. But using cologne as a replacement for a shower is always going to be a poor second to actual running water. Plus, it's vaguely insulting to perfume. If all we demand of perfume in the summer is that it makes us feel clean, aren't we just reducing it to the status of soap? Something about that chafes, and for once it's not just my sweaty inner thighs.
Another problem I have with summer colognes is their simplicity. Compared to the gouty complexity of winter perfumes, they are the Basic Bitches of the perfume world. Content to run through a few tried and tested tropes in an infinitive number of minute variations – orange, lemon, vetiver, white musk, and de-weaponized oakmoss – they reach the end of my rope in no time at all.
Are you with me? Then let this be our battle cry. Issue a bold manifesto to the sky Gods of perfume companies, beating your chest and crying out: I don't particularly want to smell like a lemon. Or if I do want to smell like a lemon, let it at least be an interesting lemon and make it so it lasts more than 20 minutes on the skin. Close your eyes and whisper to yourself, “I am a strong, confident woman*. I deserve better in summer. Perfume deserves better in summer.”
*This is a Friends reference, so if you're under 30, I may have lost you.
Without further ado, let me unveil the top 12 strategies for choosing perfumes that work brilliantly for hot summer weather but that won't bore you to death.
[chapter]Strategy #1: Replace lemons with earth, stone, and water[/chapter]
Lemons, oranges, pomelo….meh. I like them for the first few seconds when they hit my nose – or palate – but the thrill is over too quickly, their bright fizzle evaporating within minutes only to be replaced with sickly neroli, orange blossom, or white musk in a desperate effort to extend the citrus effect (always a deeply unsatisfying conclusion).
Let me suggest an alternative to citrus: dank, earthy notes that give you a feeling of cool soil, rainwater, wet moss, and dark, underground spaces. These notes, technically known as geosmin and petrichor, not only last much longer than citrus notes but also perform much of the same function, which is to cool the body and mind down on a hot day. These notes are also far more interesting than citrus.
Be forewarned, though, that there is a certain dankness involved, because although damp and cool, these notes are not as “fresh” or “clean” as a lemon or pomelo. But I'll be damned if you won't smell interesting and cool in every sense of the word.
Bat by Zoologist
Bat is perhaps the most “niche” of the collection in terms of odd-duckiness. I'm not going to lie: the first few minutes of this fragrance are a bit of a shock, floating up to the nose as a fetid miasma of the petrol-like fumes of a rotting banana mixed with the dankness of wet soil. But relax into it, and you begin to realize that this is as pure a representation of geosmin as you're ever going to get in a perfume - geosmin being the powerful material responsible for the odor of wet, mossy soil in perfumery.
The geosmin is carefully extended with a camphoraceous, almost minty bitterness on top and a deeply mushroomy myrrh on the bottom, ensuring that it stays present throughout the perfume's development. Green, gaseous bananas and milky figs flesh out the structure that it never feels too gloomy. In fact, insofar as it's possible for a perfume to be both damply cold and tropically warm, then Bat is. For people used to moving between chilly, air-conditioned buildings and the scorching heat of the city all day, I can't imagine a scent that mirrors that weird sensory experience as accurately as this.
Supercell by Sixteen92
Supercell, by perfumer Claire Baxter, who won the 2017 indie perfume award for her Bruise Violet at the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards in Berlin, is a greenish petrichor perfume. It is not incredibly long-lasting, but its effect is so pleasing that I heartily recommend it for cooling down on sweltering days.
The scent opens with wet, sweet grass, transitioning slowly to the electric smell of rain on hot asphalt and damp soil. The name “Supercell” seems to refer to the ion-charged air particles present in the air just before or right after a storm breaks, and for once, I find that the perfume lives up to the promise of its name. It is both dewy and protein-rich.
Want the original petrichor experience? You really can't do better than mitti. The Indians have been making mitti attar for over two thousand years now, distilling clods of baked earth directly into sandalwood oil, and capturing the euphoria-inducing smell of the first monsoon rains hitting the dry, cracked earth of India after the summer drought. For Indians, mitti is the scent of longing, but also of relief.
It makes sense, therefore, that mitti attar is primarily used as a cooling attar in the hot summer months. Indians have always used attars in an ayurvedic manner – more as a way of managing their bodies response to weather conditions, let's say, than out of a desire to smell nice (although that's a side benefit that nobody's turning down). Attars such as mitti (baked earth), Jannataul Firdaus (“Garden of Eden” – soapy, fresh herbal attars), and ruh khus (vetiver root) are used to cool the blood in hot weather, whereas other attars such as musk, shamama, and ambery attars are seen as “warming” attars to get sluggish circulation going in the depths of winter.
There's a catch with mitti, though: it's extremely difficult and expensive to track down the genuine article these days. The restricted flow of sandalwood oil to the traditional attar-making cities such as Kannauj, coupled with mass market demand for cheap, synthetic oil dupes of famous Western fragrances means that the art of traditional Indian attar making is under serious threat. In the USA, buy only from sources such as White Lotus Aromatics, and in Europe, Aromata Mirabilia in Lithuania. These companies buy directly from trusted attar makers in Kannauj and stake their reputation on stocking on the real deal.
But make an effort to track it down and you will be amply rewarded with the rich scent of cold, damp earth mingling with the savory buttermilk twang of real Mysore sandalwood. I can't think of anything better to smell of on a hot, sweaty day than the red, cool earth of India after the rains.
[chapter]Strategy #2: All the spice….with zero fat or sugar[/chapter]
If you think about it, it makes sense to fight fire with fire. On a hot day, a good spicy curry will make you sweat hard, which in turn brings the body temperature down. The trick with wearing spicy fragrances in summer is ensuring you go for ones that cut the spice free from any underlying stodge such as vanilla or amber. A smidge of resin or sandalwood is fine, but in general, think pure and fierce.
Also, be aware of the different properties of spices and choose accordingly. For example, cardamom and juniper are cooling green spices, whereas cumin, black pepper, and chili provide a long, hot burn.
Blackpepper by Comme des Garcons
It's a show that lasts barely 20 minutes, but in that time, you get hit with all the most exciting facets of black pepper, ranging from that weird lemon peel screech at the top, the pungent oiliness, the dusty engine oil aspect, and the sappy licorice note underpinning everything. It's also bone dry, in that elegantly sooty way of Black, which makes it a perfect spice fragrance with which to fight damp undershirt syndrome on a humid night. Just spray, spray, and re-spray to keep the oily black pepper exploding over and over again.
A Quiet Morning by Miller et Bertaux
But spices have to play over something sturdy, or else they fade away into the ether like Blackpepper above. A Quiet Morning is actually a sandalwood fragrance, but instead of trying to fake a Mysore-like creaminess, the fragrance takes the unusual route of emphasizing all the facets of Australian sandalwood that people usually complain about, such as the harsh, green “pine” notes and the soured yoghurt facets. If that weren't enough, a bitter, musky cedar joins in midway through, underscoring Australian sandalwood's tendency to smell quite like cedar under some lights.
All this might be a turn-off except for the fact that the balance has been perfectly managed here so that the end result is smoky, rugged, and pleasantly soapy. The focus on aromatic elements rather than creamy or sweet ones means that the saffron and turmeric are set free to smell delicately and authentically of themselves. India in a bottle without the Bollywood pastiche.
Santal Cardamome by Fragonard
Dark Horse by Dame Perfumery Scottsdale
It is not a sweet fragrance, but there is a thickness there that gathers force behind the bright, clear spices at the front, slowly adding body and something for you to grab on to. Imagine clear egg whites sprinkled with warm, brown nutmeg and whipped until the mixture becomes foamy, and you have an idea of its general texture. Dark Horse shines in hot weather, giving you all the thrill of a fresh spicy oriental but none of the ambered weight with which it usually comes saddled.
[chapter]Strategy #3: Vetiver with a twist[/chapter]
Vetiver is such a classic summer note, isn't it? But instead of relying on fresh, dewy, or citrusy vetiver compositions, I say go for vetiver that's been twisted slightly, taking it out of the citrusy/fresh genre and giving it more interest, be it in the shape of licorice, coffee, or tropical flowers.
Liquorice Vetiver by SP Parfums (Sven Pritzkoleit)
Liquorice Vetiver is a twist on the traditional salty vetiver masculine, but done with a flick of the wrist that renders all the harshness out of it, like fat from a piece of bacon. The fragrance fuses an almost mentholated liquorice note – almost certainly the salty Scandinavian kind – with a ferrous vetiver, and what emerges is something like stale, dark chocolate dust. Liquorice Vetiver is bold, dry, and no-nonsense, making it a good choice for vetiver fans who have grown tired of all the fresh and citrusy vetiver variations for summer.
Woody Perfecto by Parle Moi de Parfum
Despite the minimalism, it smells sexy and good-humored. The coffee brings a roasted, woody facet, the vetiver smells like charred grass or hay, and the leather is bone dry; overall, it emits the slightly subversive vibe of smoking cigarettes in a borrowed black leather jacket at a summer festival. An elegant, clipped little scent, Woody Perfecto is a surprise standout in the Parle Moi de Parfum line and a twist on vetiver that will almost surely convert the vetiver-averse.
Translating roughly to “the spirit of vetiver”, ruh khus is an essential oil distilled from wild vetiver roots using traditional methods in Northern India. Don't be put off by its lurid green color - this comes from the copper vessels used in the distillation process, which also add a slightly metallic tinge to the aroma profile of the oil itself. As opposed to attars, which are distilled directly into sandalwood oil, ruhs are not distilled into oil and are therefore the purest essence of the aromatic material.
The smell of Ruh Khus is deeply cleansing and spiritual, encompassing as it does all the possible facets of pure vetiver oil, from soft, rosy notes to deep green foresty aspects. The main “flavor” bouquet of a Ruh Khus is the grassy-nutty-rooty aspect of vetiver root, rather than the classically French treatment, which usually emphasizes its fresh or citrusy facets.
Get your hands on a good ruh khus, and behind the grassy-nutty notes, you may be surprised to discover a hidden depth to vetiver that you just don't get with essential oils bought in the health food store. Depending on the producer, you might detect notes of sweet spices, smoke, earth, rose, olives, grass, clay, marsh water, saffron, or hazelnuts. Buy it from a reputable vendor and prepare to be bowled over by how satisfying a pure vetiver distillation can be. The Indians use it to cool their blood in hot temperatures – why don't we follow their example?
Vetiver Blanc by Sultan Pasha
Another tactic with vetiver is to take it in a tropical floral direction. Vetiver Blanc by Sultan Pasha is an attar that does just that, pairing a humid vetiver root with gardenia and tuberose absolutes to create a soft, creamy jungle island vibe that makes one think of Gaugin-esque beauties and the hummus-rich earth of the rainforest.
Don't be afraid of the white florals here: they bring all of their sultry character but none of their stuffy, ladies-who-lunch associations. Sultan Pasha has a particular talent for turning white florals into blends that men feel comfortable wearing. Like his highly popular Jardin d'Borneo series, Vetiver Blanc is a blend charts an unmistakably green course.
The galbanum and the vetiver lend a smoky, rooty character to the blend, and it is this element that keeps the florals from dissolving into a big white floral mass of sugar and cream. With a whopping 35% dose of real ambergris in the blend, the attar fades out on a long, golden, salty trail that mimics the smell of skin after a long day at the beach. One of the rare attars that is perfectly suitable for hot summer months.
[chapter]Strategy #4: Fresh orientals[/chapter]
In theory, any perfume can be worn in summer, even the heaviest. But even as one is defiantly and opulently anointing one's body with the pungent carnation of Opium or the fruitcake stickiness of Amber Absolute – crowing “I will like what I like, when I like - HAH!” to the universe, who is not even listening - there is something intrinsically wrong about it. Let's admit it, in hot weather, heavy, sticky resins and vanillas stick in one's craw as insistently as the label you forgot to cut out of those tight pants.
But you love orientals, and you don't want to give them up. Well, don't worry. No need for oriental lovers to start sighing depressively in the direction of all the 4711 lined up in the local pharmacy just yet. If you're smart about it and plump for fragrances that do oriental in a fresh way, leavening the heft of vanilla, spices, and resins with citrus and green, leafy herbs, then you get to continue enjoying the genre while also leaving some oxygen in the room for other people.
Shaal Nur by ETRO
The topnotes are infused with bitter, woody lemon and a whole basketful of Italian kitchen herbs, drenching the scent in a citrusy sparkle. But just when you think you've condemned yourself to another boring summer cologne type thing, it performs a graceful swan dive into a bed of smoky, sweet opoponax and vanilla - this is the point at which oriental-lovers will feel their butt unclenching. The scent never gets the chance to wallow in the turgid stickiness of resin, though, as that dry, woody vetiver keeps things fresh and lively.
Dune by Dior
Dune is so good in summer because it is warm and cool at the same time. It is thoroughly abstract and therefore resistant to analysis, but it appears to be structured around a fuzzy, sandy-textured amber shot through with peachy aldehydes and faintly bitter undercurrents of anise, moss, and citrus fruit. Although traditionally classified as a feminine, men can absolutely wear this. To my nose, Dune smells like a sweet oriental rubbed into a masculine aftershave, something woody and harsh like Brut. Which is exactly why it works.
Douce Amère by Serge Lutens
It's totally weird, and you'll tie yourself into knots trying to figure out whether it's a bitter tonic for your liver or a creamy, bready, vanilla-soaked gourmand, but either way, that persistent thread of sharp greenery makes it a great wear in summer. Douce Amère satisfies because it gives you all of the interesting parts of a full-on oriental and none of the stodge.
Fils de Dieu by Etat Libre d'Orange
Fils de Dieu works because it triggers all the right responses in our salivary glands – hot, sour, aromatic, fresh – while also giving us the creamy rice mouthfeel of a pudding at the end, to sweeten and calm the mouth. Although technically a gourmand, I think of Fils de Dieu more as an aromatic oriental with a sour citrus vein running through it. It's perfect for summer, because it's has the same psychotropic effect on the nerves as the smell of a gin and tonic, or a squirt of whatever suntan lotion your mother used on you when you were little. In fact, Fils de Dieu should come with a trigger warning (may cause drooling, beatific smiling, and general time-wasting at work).
[chapter]Strategy #5: Dive into an ice-cold drink[/chapter]
Cold tea and coffee for me in summertime, please, and hold the sugar. Add in some aromatics for interest and you carry me through to cocktail hour, which is when someone will inevitably say that it's five o' clock somewhere in the world to justify opening a bottle of something chilled at lunchtime. Thankfully, there are perfumes with the same effect without the attending heartburn.
Philtre Ceylon by Atelier Cologne
Philtre Ceylon is essentially a cold, black tea fragrance with a hit of leafy mint for added freshness. There is spice too, but the perfumers have cleverly sidestepped any reference to hot, sweet chai or to the vague milkiness that seems to come along with chai for the ride. Philtre Ceylon does a great job of retaining a dark, bitter edge that works very well in hot weather.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your liking for Atelier Cologne – the strangely glassy white musk that forms the base for most of their fragrances eventually shows up here as well, diluting the pungency of the tea. But the black tea accord up top is just so well done that it would be curmudgeonly of me not to give this an unreserved two thumbs up for casual summer wear, especially if you're a tea freak.
Gin & Tonic by Art de Parfum
Beyond matters of structure, it's also very good: the fresh, bitter topnotes of juniper and lime sparkle as expected, but there is a cool cucumber water effect underneath that softens the angular woodiness of the aromatics. A clean, salty musk follows – mostly Ambroxan – but it feels natural and relaxed, not chemically appointed.
Bohea Bohème by Mona di Orio
However, it would be a real pity if this wonderful fragrance went unnoticed. It is a minimally smoky, peppery tea scent that stretches itself over a sparse structure of wood, herbs, and greenery, all of which of course makes this an elegant wear for the summer. But the scent distinguishes itself even further with an opening bristling with camphor and mint, providing the wear with a surprising jolt of bitterness that one can almost feel at the back of the tongue.
The drydown is a marvel, the woody tea and camphor levelling out into a note of sweet, papery tobacco and sun-scorched hay that takes on an unexpectedly rustic feel, diverging from the cool, urban aesthetic of the first half of the fragrance. Bohea Bohème does not have any heavy amber or vanilla weighing down the tea, therefore rendering this a most pleasant option for the hot summer months.
[chapter]Strategy #6: Go lean, mean, and terribly green[/chapter]
Many people associate green fragrances with spring, green being the scent of rebirth and new growth, etc. But those are perhaps the gentler, more floral green variants – perfumes that remind us not only of the budding leaves but also of the tender, dewy flowers peeking out from underneath.
For summer, a different type of green is called for, namely, the kind that will suck all the moisture out of the room and whip the sweat off your brow. Green so mean that you feel the slap of it on your bare backside. What we're looking for here are the cut-grass, rubbery sternness of galbanum, the hay-like pissiness of narcissus, the poisonousness of tomato leaf, and the inky bitterness of oakmoss. Picture the acrid green smoke pouring off the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy throws that bucket of water on her, and you've got the idea.
Mito EDP by Vero Kern
It doesn't hurt that the topnotes also recall, briefly, the splendor of old Eau Sauvage, before slipping into a sturdy base of greenery that glows an evil shade of chartreuse for hours on end. A perfume equally at home in the deep shade of a cypress tree as it is high tea in a palace, Mito is indeed a mito, or legend, as they say in Italian.
Corsica Furiosa by Parfum d'Empire
If you love the sharp, poisonous stem cell stink of tomato leaf and fennel, then you'll love this. It easily replaces Sisley's Eau de Campagne for me as the leading tomato leaf option for summer.
Dryad by Papillon Perfumery
It is genuinely oakmossy, but in a natural, outdoorsy way rather than in a straight-laced chypre manner. And although reminiscent in feel of both Vol de Nuit and Bandit, Dryad never feels bogged down by the references – it winks at them at it sails past, but is happy to trip along its own path. For fans of the witchy, pagan green chypres of yesteryear, Dryad is a must-have, but it will also please those who like the leaner, meaner structure of modern fragrances.
Bois Blond by Parfumerie Generale
But Bois Blond is an excellent hay scent for summer precisely because it eschews all the regular tropes associated with hay and chooses instead to emphasize its aromatic side with a collection of dusty green notes: galbanum resin, mint, oakmoss, wheatgrass, and herbs. The fragrance picks out and highlights the scorched grass and minty, lime-peel resin facets of galbanum that, when taken as a whole, form an interesting dryness that catches at the inside of one's throat, like a whole pitcher of lemonade drunk too fast.
Funnily enough, although Bois Blond doesn't immediately strike the imagination as “hay”, it ends up providing a more naturalistic picture of hay than most coumarin-dominated fragrances, which all seem to plant hay in the context of a rich, sweet oriental fantasy of powder and tobacco pipes. This makes it one of the rare hay-themed fragrances one can actually wear in hot weather without feeling like you are drowning in a pot of cherry tobacco syrup.
Romanza by Masque Milano Fragranze
All that is a fancy way of saying that the bitter, pissy tones of narcissus are played up by civet, and so the fragrance has a startlingly dirty, almost sexual side, while jasmine plays up the white floral side, myrrh the earthy side, galbanum the sharp, green leafy side, and so on.
This nuanced piece of staging results in a glowing Green Goddess of a fragrance, both bitter and feral, and despite what most reviews say, far more suited to cutting through the heat of a sweaty summer night than welcoming in the rebirth of flowers in the spring. Impressive longevity, too, for what it matters.
[chapter]Strategy #7: Funky fruit, not juicy fruit[/chapter]
If you must do fruit in summer, then why not go for specimens that will make you smell less literally like a fruit bowl and more like the interesting rotty phase when the fruit is about to collapse and soil itself like a teenager after a big night out?
Hear me out.
I know that people like to counteract the stale, sweaty-smelling scent of hot skin by covering themselves with fresh, fruity smells that cut through the fug and create an illusion of cleanliness. But take my word for it: fruit that smells as crumpled as you do right now will make you smell disheveled and sexy and all kinds of interesting.
Le Parfum de Therese by Frederic Malle
But sorry, Momma, it smells like sex. Lazy, multi-stage, sweaty sex in the sand dunes with someone you wouldn't necessarily introduce to your parents. This is a perfume that glows in its own watery, salty, melony way under the heat of the sun. It's fruit, but not as we know it, Jim.
Escentric 04 by Escentric Molecules
Whereas Molecule 04 is basically diluted Javanol, a sandalwood replacer that gives a rich, steamy-tropical creaminess to a perfume, Escentric 04 takes things one step further by adding Polysantol, a powerful sandalwood synthetic that adds tremendous volume and diffusion. In other words, the wood accord here is both loud and creamy-sweet. But it's been made summer-friendly (and more complex) through the addition of a bright, fizzy combination of pink pepper, grapefruit, and rose, as well as an uplifting and realistic marijuana note.
Radiant without any chemical harshness, Escentric 04 has all the sparkling freshness of a raspberry champagne cocktail and the naughtiness of a joint shared between friends on a rooftop in the city. But what really seals the deal is that, as the day wears on, that pink grapefruit note turns slightly, verging on urinous or rotting, which contrasts beautifully with the laundry-clean woodiness that makes up the body of the scent. It's this tiny note of fruit rot that makes this one such a winner.
Pulp by Byredo
But the slightly garbagey fruit smells weirdly delicious and addicting. You'll want to swim in it. You'll emerge smeared with sticky fruit juices, your skin a bright shiny purple. And you'll smell bloody amazing.
Eau Absolue by Mona di Orio
There is something subversive about a “dark” citrus when everyone else is wearing clean, bright fragrances that smell like you just stepped out of the shower. Eau Absolue basically smells like hot skin sweating its way through the remnants of 4711 at the end of a long day, and there is a certain grubby, garage-chic appeal in that.
[chapter]Strategy #8: The lighter side of oud[/chapter]
Oud in summer? It makes sense and you know it. After all, oud resin is harvested from the steamy, hot jungles of the Far East, and traditionally consumed by people living in the hot, arid desert-like conditions of the Middle East. If you're cringing at the thought of wearing oud in the heat of summer, then consider that the Arabs might know something that we don't, and that it's precisely the heat that's needed to set free the pungent, sour, smoky aroma of oud from the skin.
But I'll go gentle on you here; all the ouds I recommend here are on the fresh side of things, insofar as oud can ever be truly considered a “fresh” sort of smell. Think vetiver, citrus, and minty, green Kalimantan ouds, all things designed by nature to keep things cool.
Also, these choices don't focus too strongly on oud's traditional partner in crime, the lush Taifi rose, a note whose sweetness normally serves to balance the smoky sourness of the oud. The rose-oud combination is an ancient one, and it's proven to have the golden ratio, but there is also a syrupy voluptuousness to rose that might not be the thing in summer.
Crop 2016 by House of Oud
But the fragrance is not at all what you might expect (or fear) and this is due to two factors: the intrinsic nature of Kalimantan oud, to begin with, and the way the supporting notes have been handled to highlight the oud.
Kalimantan oud oil comes from trees harvested on the island of Borneo, formerly known as Kalimantan. Oud oils from Borneo have a unique profile that sets them apart from the stinkier, more leathery oils you might be used to, such as Hindi or Cambodi oils – Kalimantan ouds are bright, green, and sweet, with a fruity-terpenic shininess to them. Crucially, Borneo oud oils are minty and fresh. In fact, many people have a hard time identifying Borneo oils as “oud” because their noses have been trained to reject “mintiness” as one of the possible characteristics.
The perfumers have cleverly chosen to accentuate the bright green, herbal flavors of the Kalimantan oud with a host of complimentary notes, such as black tea, aromatic sandalwood, and mint essence. The tone of the perfume is therefore pitched between a delicate mint gelato and mint-apple tea; it is clear, delicate, and refreshing.
In fact, while most oud-based perfumes have a firmly Middle-Eastern aesthetic, I feel confident as pegging the feel of this perfume as Japanese. Definitely recommended for sampling, especially if you love the idea of oud in the summer but need to keeps things fresh and clean for the office.
Oud Assam by Rania J.
But Oud Assam is an exception. It doesn't last too long, but what it achieves in those few short hours is remarkable – a wave of authentic Hindi (Assam) oud in all its sour, stinky, cow yard glory, beefed up from the back end by a salty, marshy vetiver.
There's no rose, no sweetness, and absolutely zero dumbing down of the oud idea for a Western audience. I appreciate this perfume even more in hot weather because the vetiver (and lack of rose) makes this quite dry and bitter, like a good cold glass of Campari. It's not fresh, per se, but there is a certain leathery leanness to its structure that lends itself to hot weather.
Mukhallat Dahn al Oudh Moattaq by Ajmal
Subtle touches of rose, musk, vetiver, and greenish herbs provide an excellent showcase for the aged oud, grounding it and building a buttressing layer of complexity, body, and richness. The other notes are not syrupy or sweet, making it a smart summer wear. The beautiful, aged Hindi oud is the star of the show here, leveling out into a spicy, honeyed, balsamic glaze that pumps out intoxicating waves of aroma throughout the day.
In the far drydown, the earthy, sweet tones of ambergris rise up, introducing a slightly sour, civet-like character that nonetheless never strays into the territory of marine filth. Instead, it adds a warm, animalic glow to the attar and simply amplifies the beauty of the aged oud and the rich, red Turkish rose. Beautiful, pure, and kind of austere, this is one Hindi oud that I'd feel comfortable to recommending to any oud lover in the dead heat of summer.
Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan
I doubt that any Aquilaria trees were harmed in the making of Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan, given its low price point of roughly $23 per tola (12mls). And yet, the absence of any real oud does not stop this cheap little mukhallat from achieving the remarkable feat of smelling authentically oudy.
It works brilliantly for summer because it does not contain any sweet florals or rose. Instead, it seems to be constructed around a robust core of oud synthetics bracketed on either end by tree moss, vetiver, amber, and some industrial smoke notes.
Dehnal Oudh Kalimantan passes pretty convincingly as an oud oil for much of its time on the skin. The name Kalimantan is designed to pull our expectations in the direction of Borneo island, formerly known as Kalimantan, which, as I've discussed above, is famous for a style of oud that is sparkling, sweet, and minty. It does not resemble Borneo-style oud to my nose, apart from a brief hit of mint or camphor at the start, but it does possess a very fresh, grassy, and non-animalic character that is very pleasing.
Resins and a dank, smoky vetiver note bring up the rear and extends the rubbery oud notes for as far as they will go. This is really fantastic in summer, because it is not floral or sweet, nor is it stinky or animalic - and at that price point, you can literally slather it all over your body and not care if sweat or seawater sluices it off.
[chapter]Strategy #9: Ash, sand, asphalt, and smoke[/chapter]
When things get so hot and steamy your bare feet start slipping in your shoes, then it might be time to turn to unusual notes in perfumes like ash or sand that will make you feel like you are at least mopping up all the wet. Desert-dry, sandy-textured perfumes are good for this, as are grainy smoke, benzene fumes, and dry, industrial accords that mimic the hot, tarry asphalt.
These types of perfumes won't cool you down (try stepping into a lawn sprinkler for that) but they will make you feel more at one with the grit of the urban jungles we are oftentimes forced to do summer in.
Taklamakan by Stephane Humbert Lucas 777
Taklamakan is essentially a sandy, resinous vanilla with lots of papery cedar and patchouli, all materials stripped of their moisture and denatured into a fine-grained, red-gold dust. It smells like dry, warm sand, and also, sometimes, like bubblegum and the steamy-arid inside of a Finnish sauna. It bears some resemblance to L'Air du Desert Marocain, especially in that papery cedar drydown, but Taklamakan is softer and easier to wear: it has all the dryness of sand, but none of the harshness of the desert.
Amber Ash Sheikh by Abdul Karim Al Faransi
Amber Ash Sheikh is an impressive, potent labdanum bomb with the feral honk of freshly-pored road tar and hot ash. It costs all of £20 for a ¼ tola (3ml), and trust me, you won't need more than that in your lifetime. Subtle it is most certainly not, but if you are a fan of extremely smoky tobacco scents such as Jeke, Tribute, and Patchouli 24, but bemoan their heft in summer, then give Amber Ash Sheikh a go.
The texture of this attar is at first bone-dry and ashy, presenting as somewhat similar to the drier aspects of Soleil de Jeddah by Stephane Humbert Lucas. But unlike that perfume, there are no bright citrus notes in Amber Ash Sheikh with which to brighten and moisten the ash. There is, however, a molasses note hiding behind the smoke and ash, which brings forward a faintly bittersweet, tarry edge that adds depth and texture.
Over time – and this is an attar that plays out on the skin over the course of a day or more if you don't shower (heck, even if you do shower) – the bittersweet molasses note emerges from the shadows, imbuing the blend with a sticky “black” note pitched halfway between soft black licorice vines and buckwheat honey. The stickiness of this accord is leavened by sour, dusty wood notes, which have a mitti-like pungency to them.
Later on, the attar smoothes out into a rich labdanum accord, with a textured, bittersweet background that brings it quite close to the incensey amber accord in Amber Absolute and the dried-fruit, copal-myrrh bitterness of Norma Kamali Incense – just with more air between the notes. Dark, dry, and phenomenally ashy, this is one oil that will suck all the moisture out of a humid summer night.
A City on Fire by Imaginary Authors
It smells as if it belongs to the same family as Comme des Garcons Black, both being essays on dry, crisp “clear” smoke, but they are spiced quite differently; Black with sappy licorice, and A City on Fire with a sharply medicinal clove. A City on Fire is even sheerer than Black, which makes it perfectly suited for creating a translucent veil of smoke in the summer months. It is great for layering too.
Kerbside Violet by Lush
I came for those sappy, joyful little violets but stayed for that weird industrial-urban vibe, pitched halfway between the soles of rubber shoes and a ball of sourdough on its second proving. It's a perfect “urban jungle” floral for summer.
[chapter]Strategy #10: Non-sleep-inducing lavender[/chapter]
If you are one of the people who enjoy good, simple lavender colognes in summer, then you need not worry – you are well-catered to, with plenty of solid options that don't cost the earth.
But if you, like me, are one of those people who find lavender to be too simple, pungent, or staid on its own, then read on. Again, most of these lavender options are on the “unfresh” side of things, but what you lose in cleanliness, you make up in interest. These are perfumes that are also as far away from your grandmother's kitchen garden as it's possible to get.
Grimoire by Anatole Lebreton
Don't be afraid of the cumin here – it is only there to lend a human dimension to the dryness of the lavender and incense, like the sweet, damp, oniony sweat under the arms of an ancient gardener tending a Mediterranean herb garden.
Grimoire has a natural elegance to it that doesn't labor any particular point. Have you ever seen the photos of the Italian men coming and going from the Pitti men's fashion shows in September? This scent is the living embodiment of that.
Bonfires at Dusk by Arcana
Uniquely restful, I heartily recommend Bonfires at Dusk for forest hikes, where it seems to meld with one's own body temperature and skin musk to form a glowing, herbal, earthy aroma that radiates for days (or until you wash it off).
MEM by Bogue
Unusually for a modern perfume – although this isn't really a modern perfume – MEM reveals its true complexity in the base, where a silty, musky ambergris lights up all the other elements like a blowtorch. Antonio Gardoni used real animalics for the base, and it shows. The perfume is complex, beautiful, and abstract. By far one of the most exciting perfumes I've put on my skin lately.
Wearable in summer? Sure, why not? It has lavender in it, so it must qualify somewhere in the fine print. It is denser and more complex than Jicky, that's for sure. But it's such an interesting take on lavender that I'd be tempted to give it the old college try anyway.
[chapter]Strategy #11: Rubbery, sheer, slightly squeaky leather[/chapter]
Wow, that strategy's title is oddly specific, isn't it? Ha!
Anyway, exactly as I've written on the tin, if you are going to wear leather perfumes in the sweaty heat of summer, then you'd do best to stick to rubbery, sheer, slightly squeaky leathers that glance you with the skein of a freshly tanned hide but none of the thick resins or vanillas with which some leathers come equipped.
This is trickier than you might imagine: most perfumers soften the quinoline bitterness of raw lather with something sweet and creamy. Tuscan Leather has that bright pop of raspberry. The gorgeous suede of Leder 6 by J. F. Schwarzlose is engulfed in a cauldron's worth of sweet milk. And you might forget about Cuir Ottoman for summer – its thickly powdered iris is the equivalent of a sheepskin rug.
For summer, you are looking for the sharp, the fresh, and the whippet-thin. Rubber works well, because of its bland, faceless androgyny, but so too does lemon, tea, herbs, and violet leaf. Just rule out anything that's too sweet or fuzzy in texture.
Cuir X by La Parfumerie Moderne
If I were to visualize it as a person, it would be Michael Fassbender's character in Prometheus, David, a sleek android with a ferocious intellect and a perfectly smooth, slim physique. Like David, Cuir X is a suede glove fitted tightly onto an industrial bone structure. Its fuzz-free sleekness and rubbery undertones make this a perfect leather for the heat of high summer.
Whip by Le Galion
In the base, galbanum resin and vetiver work together to produce a dry, rubbery green leather note, it dustiness eventually balanced out by the cool, cut-stem floralcy of white jasmine, violet, and iris. A summer version of Bandit, perhaps, with a traditional eau de cologne top half? Sounds about right to me.
Osmanthe Yunnan by Hermes
The tea note in Osmanthe Yunnan is quietly smoky and tannic, and when the milky lactones of the peachy osmanthus join in, I can't help but think of a fine nubuck leather satchel filled with loose, fragrant black tea leaves and dried apricots. Admittedly, this is a watercolor of a scent, and you need to spray a lot (and repeatedly) to achieve a bubble of scent around you that will endure through the brutal heat of a long summer's day. But my God, is it ever worth it for the sheer beauty of it alone.
[chapter]Strategy #12: Florals – go either ice-cold or salty-hot[/chapter]
In summer, you can go one of two ways with flowers: either you arm yourself with florals that have enough ice or metal in them to cut through the fug, or you throw your hands up in the air, declare defeat, and simply give yourself over to the creamy bliss of tropical leis and suntan lotion in a sort of “if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em” sort of move.
Chanel No. 18
Opus X by Amouage
Opus X contains four different types of rose materials, but most startling is the rose oxide, which drenches the heart in a noxious bitterness that smells like spilled blood or iodine. The fragrance turns on a geranium axis, its peculiar blue-green rosiness providing a petroleum-on-a-puddle gleam that snaps your head to attention. It also smells quite like freshly cut rhubarb stalks, with their peculiarly raw, astringent greenness.
Although not a standard “refreshing” green garden rose, I think that Opus X provides a far more arresting alternative than the usual choices from Diptyque or Jo Malone. It will cost ya, though.
Manoumalia by Les Nez
Manoumalia is primarily a sultry ylang ylang composition, and certainly in the first half of the composition, this note dominates with its benzene, rubber, custard cream, and banana-like gassiness, with a faintly bitter, earthy undertone of soil and decay running underneath. It feels utterly naturalistic, and a bit wild.
Tropical gardenia – tiaré – and a bitter, vegetal tuberose joins in later on, helping to move the fertile, bosomy ylang into the milky, almost ambery embrace of the sandalwood base. Crucially (for me, at least), Manoumalia is unlike most white florals in that it never becomes sweet or creamy in that slightly stultifying way that most in the genre do.
It is not particularly bright or sunny, either. Rather, the tone here is rather somber and earthy, a thousand tropical flowers locked into a complex dance of life and death in the unscrutinized depths of the jungle. It's an incredibly beautiful, alive kind of fragrance, and exactly the sort of thing when you want to give yourself body and soul over to an island fantasy but not necessarily one that involves flip-flops or drinking cocktails at a tiki bar. If Manoumalia is too rich for your blood, then try Songes by Annick Goutal: it's Manoumalia on training wheels.
Lys Mediterranee by Frederic Malle
Then, in a stroke of genius, the botanical richness of the lily is cut with the briny, ozonic air of the seaside, effectively thinning the double cream of the flower down with seawater and opening up some air pockets in the composition. The combination of salty, creamy florals and the lung-clearing ozone calls to mind the fresh air on a deserted beach, but not suntan oil or bronzed limbs.
If you do want the suntan oil effect, then Aqua Allegorica Lys Soleia by Guerlain and Vanille Galante by Hermes both do the sunny, salty beach lily very well. They are also much creamier and heavier than Lys Mediterranee.
However, if you really want to push things to pastiche-levels of suntan oil, you could always try the little piece of rose-gold-colored grotesquerie that is Tom Ford's Orchid Soleil - a cross between the super-mentholated, rubbery Tubéreuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens and Bronze Goddess by Estee Lauder, with a side of masa thrown in for good measure. I quite like it because it seems like a fragrance that is good-naturedly trolling us with its extreme levels of grossness, but you definitely need to wear it with a knowing wink for it to work.
For those of you that eschew traditional summer scents, what are your favourites for the hotter weather? Let us know in the comments.