Brooks Otterlake

Black Incense Malaki by Chopard

Black Incense Malaki is a superbly done oud-leather that outshines some notable entries in the category (including Guerlain's Bois Mysterieux).

Unlike many others in Chopard's "Malaki" line, Black Incense Malaki preserves the DNA of the refined original Oud Malaki, but amps up the oud accord in the base so that you get a fairly well constructed riff on Hindi oud, and then layers a smoky, raw leather on top of it (a leather that is very similar to that from Gucci Guilty Absolute).

Despite the name, there's no incense here. The prominent smoke comes from the leather, which dominates the opening until this settles into a sweet-spicy oud-dominant mid.

Bergamotto Marino by Gianfranco Ferré

A more refined, polished, and rich predecessor to Acqua di Parma Colonia Pura (which similarly blends EDC tropes into marine territory, albeit with a heavier hand with the aquatic aromachems), Bergamotto Marino is a lovely, simple blend that is distinguished through its very creamy, rich ambergris-musk base.

That base is lightly applied, but adds a warm, salty glow to this otherwise crisp, refreshing fragrance.

Falcon Leather by Matière Première

The closest thing to Falcon Leather is actually Carolina Herrera Mystery Tobacco, to the point where this could be its flanker (Mystery Leather). I like Mystery Tobacco and I like this, too, though this is a little more straightforward.

It's a dark, plummy, chocolate-y leather, not terribly unique, but nevertheless elegantly composed and devoid of harsh edges.

Nero Oudh by Tiziana Terenzi

Nero Oudh opens up animalic in a barnyardy, manure-and-earth sort of way, but that skank dissipates within minutes and is supplanted by burnt rubber tones.

Nero Oudh then settles into a pitch black, totally unsweetened, tarry-smoky-woody floral with a "petrol fumes" undercurrent. It's actually pleasant, in its own way, and not as challenging as that might all sound. In the air, it all blends together into something like a very dark, earthy leather accord.

In its commitment to unrelenting darkness, Oudh wears a bit like a base without a mid, but it is one of the darkest fragrances I've tried, so that is an accomplishment of sorts.

Blu Mediterraneo : Fico di Amalfi by Acqua di Parma

Purchased from discounters, Fico di Amalfi can be defended as a good bargain, but only up to a point. This creamy, clean, citrus-musk with a hint of lactonic fig isn't unpleasant, but there's not much to it.

The "fig fragrance" genre has been done with more creativity and depth in the designer realm (Salvatore Ferragamo, Marc Jacobs) and in the niche realm (L'Artisan, Diptyque).

Perfume Calligraphy by Aramis

The original Perfume Calligraphy was the first of three oud-themed releases for Aramis. This original release was quickly overshadowed as the fragrance community more warmly embraced its flankers, Calligraphy Rose and Calligraphy Saffron. All three have since been discontinued and are destined to fall into obscurity, given the wave of oud-themed scents that crested after their release (and is still with us now).

I dissent with consensus, and the original Perfume Calligraphy remains my favorite of the three in the Aramis trio. Perfume Calligraphy manages to be dark and smoky while also remaining fresh and zesty, a feat its thicker, richer siblings don't achieve.

Calligraphy opens with an effervescent citrus that verges on grapefruit, conjuring up a smoky, translucent sheen thanks to how it mingles with spices and incense. At the heart lies a smooth, sleek rose, and, beneath it all, you get a very clean faux-oud base, dark and abstract. The overall feeling is, indeed, synthetic, but it's hard to identify a more authentic or richer version of the smoky-smooth effect Calligraphy delivers.

Honey Oud by Floris

Released alongside the magnificent Floris Leather Oud (which is one of the best modern leathers), Honey Oud borrows the same base but goes for something tamer, more versatile, and a bit more conventional in comparison: a honey-dipped floral-vanilla with a gentle, smoky-medicinal oud base.

The honey is bright and light, adding a unique, slightly funky edge to what might otherwise come across as just another rose-oud (nicely executed with some depth, but otherwise unoriginal).

In the air, it all blends together in a seamless floral and medicinal accord with a slightly chalky texture. It's unusual, but pleasant.

Not an all-timer, but nevertheless a reference fragrance for its particularly beautiful execution of honey.

Tobacco Oud by Tom Ford

Tom Ford has become so ubiquitous, and now has so much competition, that it's increasingly difficult to remember why the Private Blend line was a game-changer for the broader industry and the fragrance community.

The year in which Tobacco Oud released, 2013, arguably marked the end of the Private Blend's influential run. In 2013, alongside Tobacco Oud, additions included London and Oud Fleur and Plum Japonais, which mostly felt like natural extension of the lines as it had developed to that point.

Upon release, Tobacco Oud was received by many as "Tom Ford"-y to a fault. Gillotin, the perfumer behind the smash-hit Tobacco Vanille, returned to do a darker take on tobacco with facets of Amber Absolute (smoky amber) and Tuscan Leather (an ashtray drydown), and, in name and packaging, a nod to Oud Wood (though there's not much, if any, "oud" here, so that's really just spin). So, depending on who you talked to, Tobacco Oud was either a sign of the house running out of new tricks, or, more charitably, a welcome remix of TF's greatest hits. (Indeed, just a few years later, the Private Blend would shift towards issuing outright flankers.)

In the broader scheme of things, though, Tobacco Oud is fairly unique. I'm a tobacco fragrance junkie, and I've tried many, many tobacco scents and can't say I've tried much of anything that falls into a similar vein.

Tobacco Oud delivers a very linear dose of raw, rich tobacco with cold, ashtry smokiness, and a bit of booziness to provide some moisture. As it slowly fades out, the late drydown takes the form of a grayish, ashy amber, like a pipe that has gone out but is still warm. It is certainly not pretty, and in heavy application quickly becomes nauseating (so go light on that trigger, I say). This is one scent that will get friends asking if you've been out smoking.

Even in the broader luxury/niche space, it's not all that common to encounter such a full-bodied tobacco accord in a scent. This offers the kind of tobacco you usually have to go to artisanal perfumery in order to find. The downside is that that's almost all you get - it's a one-effect perfume. It's aggressively straightforward even by Tom Ford standards.

Allow me to propose that what Encre Noire does for vetiver, Tobacco Oud does for tobacco, and for both, the severity and purity of the experience is the point.

Hermèssence Ambre Narguilé by Hermès

Ambre Narguilé doesn't get the credit it deserves for jumpstarting the sweet tobacco genre. This acclaimed ode to shisha was released the year before Chergui and a good three years before Tobacco Vanille. It established a template for mingling Middle Eastern opulence with the aesthetics of Western luxury fashion.

Nobody but Ellena can play with such a rich concept and still render it transparent, with warm tobacco and spices suspended like golden vapor. It's a stunning achievement that we can only take for granted because Ellena has made this style his trademark.

There's certainly tobacco and amber in there, but there's also a lot of aromatic spice, which suggests apple pie for some people, but feels more genuinely Middle Eastern to me in texture.

Perhaps Ambre Narguilé remains somewhat overlooked because it eschews opulence for a translucent, friendly shimmer. I must confess that I find it more amiable than revelatory. Still, even now, almost two decades later, it's hard to think of a true peer for Ambre Narguilé, and that is quite an accomplishment.

Essence No. 3 : Ambre by Elie Saab

Elie Saab's Ambre's strength and weakness is that it is perhaps the ideal amber-and-practically-nothing-but fragrance. It does amber with as much clarity and balance and beauty as it can be done, but amber is, well, almost all there is (with some nuances from ylang-ylang and patchouli to help support it, but they magnify the amber rather than obscuring it).

It's impossible to fault the tremendous care with which this has been made, though. It's as smooth as silk with an irresistible shimmer.

Les Jeux sont Faits by Jovoy

A satisfyingly complex boozy, woody scent with a prominent labdanum backbone. I love labdanum, so I'm perhaps an easy mark for this, but Les Jeux sont Faits keeps revealing new, intriguing woody facets that keep it from being just another labdanum bomb.

Worst you can say about it is that it's not the most distinctive offering in this category, and performance is on the lighter/more fleeting side.

Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens

Ambre Sultan is, for a certain generation of fragrance enthusiast, the reference amber. (Tom Ford Amber Absolute was yet another darling in this category, though, post-discontinuation, that one has fallen from its pedastal due to lack of availability.)

Like Chergui, Ambre Sultan's appeal has been diminished somewhat by a veritable tidal wave of niche competition, some of which is quite formidable. Still, Ambre Sultan distinguishes itself through delicate construction and its overall completeness. There is nothing "missing" here.

Ambre Sultan is a very perfumey, very herbal amber. It's a touch honeyed and more than a touch doughy, with its sweetness balanced by the medicinal tones of bay leaf (which is almost overdosed here, giving Ambre Sultan its "signature") and oregano. If the combination of bay leaf and oregano does not sound appealing to you, then stay away from this one.

Would I recommend Ambre Sultan as the reference amber today? Maybe, but more than likely not. Ambre Sultan straddles the line between classic and contemporary well enough to feel timeless, which is a great virtue, and it feels more complete to me than some of the others that get nearly as much attention. In that regard, you gotta give it credit.

But, on the other hand, there have been so many ambers to follow it, and many of them are more "ambery" ambers. Ambre Sultan wraps its amber accord behind a veil of incense smoke and herbal notes.

For those seeking a less perfumey, more contemporary take on the theme, the best, clearest articulation of the modern, vanillic amber that I've encountered is Elie Saab's Ambre, in which Kurkdjian crafted a purer, more focused, more wearable version of his Grand Soir concept. It really is nearly an amber-and-almost-nothing-but-amber perfume, but Ambre has a depth and roundness to it that I find missing in most of the other celebrated vanillic ambers.

Bois d'Ombrie by Eau d'Italie

Love this or hate this, it's hard to argue that it's not interesting. In Bois d'Ombrie, Duchaufour has created a uniquely vegetal perfume, and whether you enjoy that vegetal texture (which, to me, is a bit foody in a savory way; this reminds me of spiced yams) is wholly up to you.

Bois Mystique by Houbigant

This is often cited as an alternative to Creed Royal Oud, and while this is much more incense-y than the Creed, they do exhibit a similar ambiance: green, woody, classy, and confident.

In the head-to-head, I'd give Royal Oud the edge (there's a deeper and richer quality to it), but that's not to say it doesn't deliver. This is a lovely, easy wear, and like Royal Oud, makes for a standout office scent.

Bois Mystique offers a dense, smooth blend, but I get amber, cedar-y woods, and polite incense, with peppery spice on top.

Ombre Noir by Lalique

Initially released with little fanfare, Ombre Noire seemed positioned (through name and bottle design) as a successor to Lalique's Encre Noire series. But after a short market run, Ombre Noire was relegated to the status of an exclusive release that can be only ordered from Lalique directly.

Ombre Noire is in some ways a natural evolution of the Lalique masculines that preceded it, but also feels like a late revisitation of some tropes from fragrances like Gucci pour Homme (the Tom Ford version) and Michael for Men (the 2001 release). It's boozy, woody, dry, and a bit serious.

The opening is quite green with pronounced mint, fig, and a slight boozy tone that gives it a rich, golden-brown shimmer. This gives way to dry papyrus, creamy resins, and cedar. There's a tobacco impression that the hay-like facets of tonka help produce, but there's not much in the way of sweetness here.

It's inarguably sophisticated and polished. If it had been more widely released a decade earlier, Ombre Noire might have been embraced as the inheritor of the GPH1 legacy. But it also lacks a clear signature effect, which is why it's a bit of a very well-made also-ran.

Vanagloria by Laboratorio Olfattivo

The undeniably talented Dominique Ropion said he was able to craft this ode to vanilla with total freedom. Ropion previously mingled rich vanilla with medicinal facets in the magnificently elegant Lalique Le Parfum, and here he goes for less classical take on the note that allows him to play with similar facets. In Vanagloria, the vanilla--sourced from a unique CO2 extraction--is earthy and smoky, even a little musty. It's a more abstract than photorealistic take on vanilla, but those raw textures, so often missing from vanillin, are present.

Ropion accents the vanilla with creamy tonka, lemony olibanum, saffron, and a pineapple accord. This gives it all a citrusy dessert facet, but the medicinal, earthy-woody tones balance out any foodiness.

It's simple, but distinguishes itself in the midst of a crowded genre. Thumbs up.

Arpège pour Homme by Lanvin

The "Aughts" are now firmly in our rear-view mirror, and, as it pulls further back, we can now see the throughline of the decade's dominant fragrance aesthetics.

Arpège pour Homme is a very streamlined, floral vanilla-amber very much in the vein of stuff like Rochas Man (though Arpège is better than Rochas Man, and not quite as gourmand). The use of iris here calls to mind the other iris designer of the time, Dior Homme, while certain aspects also evoke YSL M7.

There was an appetite for "sleekness" at this time (all those shiny fabrics and futuristic fashion designs), and Arpège pour Homme is as smooth and cool as a sheet of frosted glass. The vanilla hasn't been candied (it isn't the deepest vanilla note, but has some of that doughy feel you sometimes get, keeping it from feeling foody), and what sweetness is here mostly emerges from the orange in the opening.

In the context of the designers of its era, it's inarguably nice stuff. Given, though, that this style has trickled over into niche in a big way, you can now find higher-quality vanillic florals for the prices this is now commanding.

Armani Privé Iris Céladon by Giorgio Armani

Designer exclusives are always a mixed bag, but credit where credit is due, Iris Celadon is pretty lovely: a creamy, balsamic, cool patchouli and musk scent with a dark chocolate undertone and an iris/orris spine.

The iris here is buttery and earthy, more of supporting structure than the star.

Kokorico by Jean Paul Gaultier

Kokorico is an oddball fragrance that was dismissed by the market and was treated up until discontinuation as a curiosity by fragrance collectors, which is entirely fair. It is genuinely weird, like dark chocolate that was dropped in grass and dirt. Accordingly, it doesn't feel like a true gourmand, even if the chocolate is more edible than the likes of many more raw cacao notes. It's too earthy and too green.

I quite like it. Combined with the supporting notes, you're left with a dark, enigmatic aroma that doesn't really have a true peer (though Micallef's even stranger Akowa seemed to use Kokorico as a jumping off point for its concept). Kokorico might have had a longer lifespan if it had been released as one of the Lalique masculines that were being produced around the same time, since it shares that line's same interest in slightly niche-weird aesthetics.

One final note: beyond the prominence of a cacao note, I don't find any real kinship between this and the Guerlain L'Instants.

Coeur de Noir by Beaufort London

As a lover of smoke, but one who finds some of the other smoky Beaufort stuff unwearable in polite society, this is a capable Gothic leather with a seductive twist beneath the swirls of smoke. A "Phantom of the Opera" leather, if you will.

It is first and foremost a dark, smoky leather with an ink facet and a gently sweet base. The leather is harsh to start but settles into a soft suede, darkened by the pleasant ink accord touted by the notes pyramid. There's some earthy, cedar-y backing in the base that might suggest tobacco.

I don't think "rum" is distinct enough to merit listing in the pyramid. That said, the "paper" element is certainly there (an "old book" aroma established by the gentle vanilla swirling with the earthy notes).

Coeur de Noir's shortcomings are the same shortcomings that recur in the Beaufort line as a whole: a penchant for dramatic effects rather than compositional nuance and completeness. In the transition between opening to drydown there seems to be something missing that could take this from a good scent to a great one. Structurally, Coeur de Noir almost seems to be missing a mid altogether.

This does wear somewhat differently on folks. On me, it's quite smoky to start, with lots and lots of birch tar, but that smokiness dissipates quite quickly for my wife, who gets to the dark, creamy suede base much sooner.

Japon Noir by Tom Ford

It's easy to see why Japon Noir was discontinued.

Japon Noir is essentially "Tom Ford revamps CK Obsession for Men." It's more streamlined and sleek than Obsession, with some added leather and dark, fruity nuances reminiscent of Plum Japonais, but, yeah, that Obsession DNA is right there at its heart.

It's not bad, but it's a bit shallow and unimaginative, and must have seemed quite underwhelming when the original lineup debuted due to its lack of a "statement"-making effect.

Memoirs of a Trespasser by Imaginary Authors

Probably the most satisfying scent in the Imaginary Authors lineup, though it is more notable for what it is not (a gloopy gourmand or heady incense-amber) than what it is (an eminently wearable, straightforward smoky vanilla).

Five O'Clock Au Gingembre by Serge Lutens

An easy-to-wear "natural ginger soda" sort of scent: honeyed, fizzy, aromatic.

I find it more pleasant than thrilling, but it would make for an undeniably sophisticated office scent.

Palo Santo by Carner Barcelona

Word to the wise: this completely falls apart in warmer weather, so if you live somewhere where it's warm all year you might want to just stay away.

The name is curious since nobody will smell this and immediately think of palo santo. We may be able to evaluate it as a kind of abstract portrait, a riff on palo santo's lactonic and woody facets.

Boozy, almost gooey warmth defines the opening of this scent, giving off an impression of davana mingling with warm milk with rum.

In the mid and especially into the drydown, this does start to coalesce into a squint-and-you'll-see-it palo santo accord: a bit green, a bit woody (mostly an effect of guaiac, cedar, and vetiver having been blended tightly together, methinks). Texturally, it's somehow both milky-creamy and dry-sandy, both scratchy and smooth.

Like many lactonic scents, it's a wear-with-caution kind of thing, since out of context milk aromas often read as "off" to passersby who catch whiffs of your sillage. Personally speaking, though, I'm enjoying this fairly novel creation.

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