There are 104 Montale fragrances registered in the Fragrantica database, all of which were released in the last eight years. It is impossible to keep up, so I am just going to give a brief rundown of some of the most popular ones (well, the only ones I’ve tried outside of Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, that is, but I refuse to talk about that one).
Blue Amber: Ambers, and especially vanillic ambers, are the comfort blankets of the perfume world for me, so I have to constantly be on guard against my Pavlovian response to them (basically, sit, roll over, and present tummy for rubbing), otherwise I’d end up with ten bottles of minute variations on the same theme. My response to Blue Amber’s big, dopey play-dough amber is initially the predictable one – I want to roll around in it. Done in the Montale style – rich, slightly synthetic, and none too subtle – it has the potential to be someone’s baby bear porridge of the amber category. Weight-wise, it sits between the sheer woody-rose amber of Histories de Parfums’ Ambre 114 and the heavier, more aromatic Ambre Precieux by MPG. Blue Amber is nicely balanced – its toffee and whiskey opening is cut with a huge dose of that icy bergamot oil Montale uses in their aoud compositions, and a big saltmarsh vetiver note in the base adds a pleasing shot of brine. Salt and lemon are very effective palate cleansers. Still, my wallet is safe. It is very nice but, in the end, nothing exceptional. Ambre 114 satisfies me on the sheer amber side, and Ambre Russe is my heavy hitter for winter. Having established – after much trial and error – my North and my South of the amber territory, I am finding it easier to dismiss contenders that fall in the middle.
Black Aoud: Black Aoud is the benchmark for rose oud fragrances in modern Western perfumery. The problem with benchmark fragrances is that, just like in the computer industry, competitors come along and move the model forward or improve upon it, so if you circle back to try the prototype after having tried the mutations, it can seem like going back to a typewriter after having worked on a laptop. Black Aoud seems static and unexciting to me after having been wowed by some of the great riffs on the rose-oud-patchouli theme, like Rosam (Histoires de Parfums), Rose Gold Oudh (Tiziana Terenzi), and Rose Nacree du Desert (Guerlain), as well as brutally synthetic when compared to real oud oils.
It is worth trying only if you are curious about what Montale’s oud accord smells like, because it is presented in exemplar form here – it smells alcoholic, high-pitched and vaguely poisonous, like sticking your nose over a pan of vodka off which you are boiling the alcohol. Personally, I get a desiccated rose petal note only in the opening, after which it is pretty much this boiling-alcohol style of oud accent until you reach the drydown, which is more pleasant and based around a bland patchouli and sandalwood pairing. I don’t know where all this talk about a dark, masculine rose comes from. To me, this is an almost blindingly bright and synthetic rose-oud that is neither very dark nor mysterious. It doesn’t evolve much and just sits on the skin, belching out these objectionable, almost brutal rubber oud fumes for a few hours and then nose dives into that pale patchouli and sandalwood combo.
I am in the minority on the longevity and projection also – it may be the newer, weaker versions I am testing (a mini directly from Montale Paris and a recent sample from a respectable web retailer), but the scent is extremely weak on my skin after the first couple of hours and I can barely perceive it after five hours. It is perhaps worth owning if you are the type of person who likes to collect the important milestone fragrances that have defined perfumery. But above and beyond that – meh. You can do better.
Red Aoud: Red Aoud has an opening so obnoxious that you just want to slap its face. Really, it is quite an ugly cacophony of notes – red pepper, that fake chocolate/wheat note from Chocolate Greedy, the sour fizzing Montale oud, and bready cumin – all tumbled in together with no thought as to the outcome. But wait half an hour and all I can say is, Oh. My. God. The snowstorm of notes banks down to reveal a warm, rich gourmand oud that is deliciously reminiscent of halva, that Middle Eastern sweet made from pounded sesame paste and honey. The cumin and saffron notes contribute a bread/pasty feel and the sandalwood adds creaminess. But what really makes Red Aoud special is that red pepper note. It is pulpy, sweet and vegetal all at once, and smells exactly like pureed roast red peppers. Placed against a backdrop of mouthwatering creamy and sugary notes (the honey, the cocoa, and the pastry notes), the red pepper note sings out loud and clear. That, for me, is the secret of Red Aoud – it is half-vegetable, half-dessert. I think it succeeds for exactly the same reason Safran Troublant succeeds – they are both fragrances that balance an array of edible and inedible notes that are just disparate enough (but not clashing) to make you think of dessert but hesitate before putting it in your mouth.
When I first tested Red Aoud, I was disgusted. I thought it was an awful fragrance, stomach-turning in its richness and head-spinning in its mess of notes. Now I am obsessed with it. I am not claiming that it’s a great fragrance, but something in it works on me like no other, and I find myself wanting to wear it at least twice a week. I only have a drop left in my sample and I am rationing myself until I can get a bottle of it. I should mention that it is an extremely loud and bombastic fragrance, lasting for days on skin and hair, and weeks on clothes. I love its loudness and vulgarity. Red Aoud is all tits and ass, and wolf whistles from construction workers. And who doesn’t need a bit of spray-on sexual confidence sometimes, I ask you?
White Aoud: This is probably my favorite Montale, out of all that I’ve tested to date, and the only one of which I own a full bottle. The color white in the title and on the bottle captures the character of the scent very well – it is a dusty white cloud of saffron, rose, and vanilla, like a delicate Indian pudding freeze-dried, pulverized and made aura. For once, the medicinal oud used by Montale doesn’t bother me, and indeed I think the sweet, dessert-like properties of the fragrance need its antiseptic, ‘hospital corridors’ sting to provide lift and make it airborne. There is a cheap rosewater smell to the fragrance that I find moving and nostalgic, perhaps because it reminds me of the Roberts ‘Acqua Distillata Alle Rose’ rosewater facial toner I used to use as personal fragrance when I lived in Italy (and was too poor to buy real fragrance). Due to the dusty dessert saffron, rose, and vanilla, there is a slight familial resemblance to Safran Troublant, one of my all-time favorite fragrances, and a definite point in its favor. Funnily enough, I find myself wearing White Aoud far more than I wear Safran Troublant. I enjoy the sting of the medicinal oud and the way it takes the central rose-saffron-vanilla accord out of the straightforward gourmand category. But most of all, I find this sweet, milky oud pretty, easy to wear, and thoroughly enjoyable from top to end.
Patchouli Leaves (the ‘Brown’ Montale): The bottle for this might be silver, but the liquid is this dark, sludgy brown that announces its patchouli richness well in advance (and can stain clothes, by the way). I always think of Patchouli Leaves as the ‘brown’ Montale, therefore. Out of the vaguely familial group of ambery, vanillic patchoulis, I find Patchouli Leaves to be the most satisfying and comforting. The marketing copy for this boasts that the patchouli leaves for this fragrance were first soaked in vanilla extract and then left to macerate for two whole years in an oak barrel. The top notes, consisting of insanely rich but dry patchouli that has a raisin-like booziness to it, like aged cognac, suggest that this might in fact be true.
The dark, boozy patchouli is joined very quickly by a buttery, warm vanilla and amber that serve to sweeten the mix. All in all, the impression is of a warm, golden river of almost drinkable, spiced brown patchouli, boozy vanilla, and thick amber. In fact, Patchouli Leaves is easily the friendliest patchouli fragrance out there. It is mouth-wateringly good; almost gourmand in a way. The amber is slightly resinous, adding at parts a slight roughness to break up the smooth vanillic undertow and a touch of powder towards the end. This is not for people who like their patchoulis raw or as they might say, ‘authentic’, since the patchouli here has been shorn of its claws and stripped of its menace. But my God, it is sexy and rich and as comfortable as putting on a great big woolly sweater over your work clothes when you come in from the rain.