After giving it some thought, I believe Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I could attribute this to any number of reasons, but I think it has something to do with that feeling one gets at the end of the grand meal, when the kitchen has been cleaned after so much work, (and scrubbing again,) and the knowledge that people are fed, and the house has been stocked with food for months in the cupboards and deep freeze. You may be saying to yourself, “That’s interesting, John, but what has this to do with fragrances?” Thanksgiving is also one of the most deeply scented of all holidays, when we take just about every herb and spice out of cabinets, and venture outdoors for what might be left of the rosemary, chives and thyme. So many of the foods that we prepare at this time of year are full of the most comforting (and stimulating) smells that it’s a double pleasure for fragrance lovers. Many of those scents we derive from perfume bottles during the year suddenly appear fresh from the spice grinder, the vegetable bins, from the oven, and take us on even further scented journeys.
Every year at this time I think about the spiciest of spicy fragrances (especially those filled with cloves, cinnamon and sage…) but as I was pulling together some great perfumes that I associate with this particular holiday, I cast my net differently. I thought more about the holiday in general, and that feeling of completeness, satisfaction, and even gratitude for a harvest of good things. What are perfumes that we associate with those feelings? What would I wear or recommend to people that not only reflect the season at Thanksgiving, but also depict our aspirations? With that notion in mind, a different selection came forward as representatives of the festive season – perfumes as gateways to the coming winter, the high holidays, and in my part of the world, the cold air.
No one holds the keys as to what belongs or doesn’t belong among Thanksgiving-inspired perfumes, but I’d love to know more about what you’ll wear at this time of year, and at your own Thanksgiving.
For some folks, Thanksgiving is about the smell of a wood stove. Half the fun of that smell is the stacks of wood which line the outside of a house or the wood when it’s brought in from the outside, with a bit of cold air still clinging to it. There are a lot of perfumes that do a great job at capturing wood smoke, but fewer that reflect the smell of dry, aged wood ready for the fire. Creed’s Spice and Wood is a modern classic in this family of fragrances. It’s got that signature Creed cedar (which is always balanced at exactly the right spot, enough to be noticeable, never too much.) A pinch of birch tar (and I mean a fraction of a drop) lends just that hint of smokiness, but it’s just a whisper.
The spices are represented by black pepper and clove, with the angelica and patchouli leaves as help-mates to render them as more amber-like and mildly sweet. Although there are opening notes of apple and citruses, they’re not terribly present in Spice and Wood – you wear this for its namesakes. The fragrance is somewhat linear, ending with a bit of oakmoss and iris, which are there to smooth out the experience and mellow it, but a sense of wholeness is created through this simple palette of spice and cedar, made-to-order for the den at a cabin in the woods at Thanksgiving time.
Some Thanksgiving smells are subtle, others are not. Comptoir Sud Pacifique’s Vanille Ambre belongs to that second category. Oh, sugary craziness! I really believe our brains go through complex gymnastics when we are faced with smells like Vanille Ambre – Mine, for instance, runs back and forth between a rich caramel flan that I recall from my days in college (one that I had at a Philippine house party, one of the best custards I ever tasted); then to sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar; and then to a rich, layered trifle. Clearly this is a dessert perfume, probably best summarized by vanilla cupcakes with a lot of vanilla frosting, but it’s a very satisfying fragrance.
The note breakdown is quite simple in Vanille Ambre (vanilla, amber, patchouli, and musk) but there are other small nuances going on – a delicate tropical flower, as you find in many of the Comptoir Sud Pacifique perfumes, and a kind of fantom fruity accord, something that smells like apricot or nectarine. The fragrance is at its best about 20 minutes in when it has burned off some of that “crème brûlée” smell from the onset. Then it takes on a really lovely smell of cooked foods, warm air, and a delightful bubbly, simmering, almost steamy scent of delicious foods. As it gets subtler, it grows in its coziness. It becomes affectionate, and very happy. This is a true holiday smell.
Usually someone brings flowers to dinner on Thanksgiving (or at least someone should!) I was thinking about this when I raided the cabinets and thought about a fragrance that captures that whirlwind of smells: fresh flowers on a table in the midst of people coming and going, festivities, early sunset, and cool weather. Piguet’s Fracas, the famous tuberose floral and fruited perfume, is all these things and more, and a perfect fit for this holiday. Fracas, for all its connotations of being dark and dangerous, is also a perfume of warmth and generosity. It’s the smell of a well-dressed woman coming in from the cold, opening up a tailored beige trench coat, revealing a beautiful silk blouse, a wool skirt, a warm embrace.
Fracas is not just deep, hypnotizing tuberose, either – it’s spicy with coriander, narcissus flower and carnations. Geraniums, oakmoss and peach add depth and nuance, and cedar and osmanthus are mellow mood-enhancers that let the floral goodness blossom with fertile roots. Taken all together, it’s a rich bounty of a perfume, almost over-the-top in its complexity and opulence – and it’s exactly for these reasons that it fits as a Thanksgiving day fragrance. It’s something to be worn on special days, generous days, just like this one.
There are some beautiful fougères in the market, and they cover many bases (greenery, woods, mild spices, sweet resins.) Rancé 1795’s Triomphe Millesime is singular for touching many of these sub-genres, but it has two qualities that make me think of Thanksgiving. First of all, it’s just a bit gourmand, but in an intriguing way. It contains a few less-often used herbs from the aromatic profile, like tarragon and clary sage, to create a green, sour, and rather delicious top-middle range to the profile. It merges perfectly with a citrus bouquet and other spices like cardamom and cinnamon so that the resultant smell is something like mulled wine or syrupy sweet kumquats.
Secondly, Triomphe Millesime is similar to Fracas in that it’s just as generous a hug from someone coming in from the cold. It has refinement with surprises, elegance, and sleek lines but also a festive air, a fragrance that you wouldn’t wear everyday, even though it emits such pleasant feelings around you. It dries down to a beautiful leather composition with flashes of vetiver and soft musk, with puffs of guaiacwood and incense smoke in the distance. It retains some of that initial tangerine spritz from the beginning but finishes with a cozy sensation of closeness – a holiday spent well, and time for a nap.
It might be oddly named because Atelier Cologne’s Vétiver Fatal is very freshly vetiver; so fresh that it has an herbal, vegetable quality to it: a bit of sage, some asparagus and some lemon thrown in as well. In reality, it has notes of orange, cedar, lemon, oud, vetiver, violet leaf, bergamot and orange blossom. But put altogether, they create a bright and soothing group of greenery that is more reminiscent of the kitchen and its gustatory delights than anything dark or dangerous.
What I enjoy about a perfume like Vétiver Fatal is how it transforms something like vetiver and orange blossom into an entirely unexpected experience – brighter than usual, much the same way that the dishes we eat at Thanksgiving are transformations of the fall harvest into delectable concoctions. This is vetiver for a festive season, served up on the best china, with a lemon wedge on the side.
I wanted to end this grouping of Thanksgiving fragrances with a nod to the holidays that are coming up for us later in the year. As I found myself purchasing food and baking the squash and all other sorts of preparation, I noticed the usual greenery that they sell at the front of most grocery stores. I really like juniper branches whenever they’re available, mostly for that great smell – cedar leaves and juniper alike (being in the same genus) have similar smells in their fresh state. A wreath of juniper with some berries is a beauty to behold, and ushers in the coming holidays.
I associate this smell with a very particular perfume, Kerosene’s Canfield Cedar. It’s a certain kind of cedar smell, something freshly woody with delicacy and sweetness that’s directly drawn from cool air, wreaths at the curbside, and the anticipation of snow. It is not a sweet smell, so it doesn’t remind me of Christmas trees or bay laurel, but something much more like the forest, both medieval and primeval, tapping into our urge to draw solace from trees. I don’t believe that Canfield Cedar was created as a festive perfume, but to me it has that celebratory nature, enhanced by the addition of sharp tobacco. Black pepper lends its pleasant kick as well. Here we also find a touch of wood logs creeping into the cabin for a smell of oncoming winter, and this is the lingering smell before it burns in the fire.
What fragrances does Thanksgiving make you think of, and what do you think you’ll wear?
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