I hate citrus

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Growing up I had a treehouse built into my grandfather’s old orange tree. It smelled of everything orange: the fruit certainly, but also orange blossoms, and a diffuse sappy greenness, which nonetheless carried the spirit of the oranges well beyond fruit-bearing season. If it sounds magical, that’s because it was. Best of all, those orange smells mingled with darker, woodier, more resinous smells: the lumber of the treehouse and the dirt from the ground below.

My father also loves the smell of citrus, particularly neroli. He loves a classic eau de cologne in a way that always makes me think I’m missing something. The eau de cologne is one of the oldest styles or genres of perfume based on a recipe of citrus, herbs, and musks. The French school leans on lemon in the opening, while the Italian school favors orange notes, including neroli. The Russian version tends to be drier and more abstract. It is a classic and generally a must-have for anyone who likes fragrance.

Still, I don’t care for it. In my ever-expanding perfume horde, there remains a noticeable gap where an eau de cologne ought to be. Even Chanel‘s exceptional Eau de Cologne makes me want to scrub it off well before the drydown. Although, admittedly, that opening is sheer, back-straightening perfection.

So what gives? Why don’t I care for citrus for citrus’s sake? Maybe it’s the built-in preciousness in most eaux de cologne, that fresh-scrubbed baby angel thing, with nothing even remotely dirty to balance it out. I like citrus best when it is shorn of its squeaky clean pretensions. Perhaps that’s why I like Etat Libre d’Orange‘s Cologne, which combines a typical citrusy opening with a leathery base. In a perfect world someone would cook up a cross between Institut Très Bien‘s Cologne á l’Italienne and YSL‘s Kouros (both, incidentally, by the great Pierre Bourdon), a snappy mix of bright freshness and dirty bathroom.

My general ambivalence toward musks also makes eau de cologne a hard sell. Citrus notes are some of the most volatile in perfumery, meaning they evaporate quickly, and thus can only be properly smelled for a bit. To make them stick around longer, nearly all colognes use heavy doses of musk, which act as a fixative to prolong the citrus smells. By the end of the day, that’s most of what you’re smelling. A notable exception is Mugler‘s Cologne, which smells musky/industrial and is all the better for it.

So, here’s an easy fix: let an eau de cologne disappear naturally. It doesn’t need to stick around for hours like a normal perfume. It’s supposed to disappear right away. Once someone kicks out a great one that doesn’t overstay its welcome, I might just reconsider my position.

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Mint for men

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At my favorite breakfast place with my best friend, I was drinking mint tea. Actually, he was drinking the tea and I was pinching sips. When I brought the stuff to my nose, I noticed a bleachy quality, the same thing I notice in lavender essential oil. When I brought it up, he mentioned that all those plants are from the same family. The lamiaceae family, which, as it turns out, includes the full spectrum of aromatics so vital to “masculine” perfumery: lavender, sage, and, less often, mint.

I picked up a bottle of Guerlain’s Derby this weekend. I walked in expecting to buy something else entirely and then found myself, led by the nose (pun definitely intended) by this dry and teeming man-chypre. I generally agree with Luca Turin’s edict that “there is nothing so good as a good chypre,” and few things, I found, are as good as Derby. It is as dry and dignified as its brother in quality and comportment Chanel Pour Monsieur, but not quite so buttoned up. Even, perhaps, a bit of a rogue.

In typical Guerlain fashion, the composition is dizzyingly complex, but not so crowded that a bright mint note doesn’t stand out. In Derby’s spicy surround, it is rendered creamy and rich, far from the stridency found in toothpaste, etc. Here, mint was used as one would use lavender, a gentle nod to fougère structure that further expands the emotional reach of Derby.

Mint crops up in a few other masculines: Frederic Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur, Comme des Garçons’s 2 Man, Heeley’s Menthe Fraiche, and perhaps most inventively in Dirty by Gorilla Perfumes. Each one is very good, and makes the case for using mint in novel ways, not just in masculine fragrance. However, there’s something about how it crops up in the heart of Derby, radiating out from among the bed of spices and leather. The stuff positively sings. Perhaps thats because, more than any other perfume I’ve listed, Derby employs mint for emotional impact. More than a cooling element, or a stand-in for other more common aromatics, Derby’s mint flirts with near edibility. It is inviting, comforting, and substantial.

Derby is the rare “for men” fragrance that fits me just fine. In its current incarnation at least, it is neither a chest thumper nor a club shouter. It is relaxed and refined, more dashing than anything else in its league. If Cary Grant had smelled this, I wonder, would he have thrown out his Green Irish Tweed?