I’m very attracted to certain foodie notes in fragrances, especially coffee, chocolate, chestnuts, and milk, despite the sad fact that very few fragrances do those notes justice. Coffee, when taken too far, can smell bitter and burned. Chestnuts lose all the peculiar mealy, soft-ish charm they possess in the flesh and become an overly sweet sponge to other more distinct notes. Chocolate, well. Chocolate is a minefield. Too much vanilla and the impact is diluted; not enough and its intensity turns the stomach.
But milk is possibly the trickiest of foodie notes to get right. Some of the perfumes that aim for a straight-up approach are very good: Au Lait by DSH Perfumes, for example, smells warm and natural. But more often than not, there’s a buttery note in there that smells congealed and rancid, like movie popcorn or the artificial, stale sweetness of condensed milk.
Perfumes like Matin Calin by Comptoir Sud Pacifique and Au Lait by Alkemia, to name but a few, sound appealing in a comforting, nursery-ish way, but end up smelling like something a breast-fed baby might spit up. I think part of the problem is that the glassy chill of fresh milk is very hard to capture, so lots of sugar or buttery notes are added. And when those notes are added, we heading out of the strictly lactonic (milky) category and into the butyric (butter) one. It’s like beating a pail of milk and seeing the chunks of butter form.
In the opposite direction altogether, we have perfumes whose notes give off a milky quality without directly referencing milk. These perfumes, I am inordinately fond of! Materials that communicate milkiness include sandalwood (Cadjmere by Parfumerie Generale is a good example), coconut, fig leaf, (Diptyque Philosykos), peach lactones (Rush by Gucci), nuts/wheat (Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur), some musks (Love’s True Blueish Light by Ava Luxe), saffron (Santal Carmin by Atelier Cologne), tonka bean, and of course, vanilla (Un Bois Vanille by Serge Lutens). In a way, I enjoy the milkiness more in this sort of perfume because the milkiness is incidental, just a natural feature of the material that’s been harnessed for its textural quality.
Reviews for Palo Santo by Carner Barcelona are a bit mixed, but maybe that’s because the perfume itself is a bit mixed. It’s a mash-up between the straightforward treatment of milk from the first category we talked about, and the more abstract approach of the perfumes in the second category.
There’s a lot of hot, sweet milk here, that’s true. It reminds me of the thick, sugary milk in a rice pudding that’s almost been completely absorbed by the rice (but not quite). Perhaps food and culture plays into the differing perceptions of milk in perfumery – for me, this type of cooked milk smell is nostalgic and delicious, but for others, it could as well seem gross. This is the straightforwardly foodie part of the scent.
But even I would get tired of the relentless milkiness were it not for the surprising prominence of two other key players here – a harsh, smoky vetiver-cypress accord that reminds me very much of Chanel Sycomore EDT and a gaiac wood note in the drydown that’s in turn rubbery, fuel-like, and slightly meaty or gamy.
The sweet milk is all there, upfront, but so too is that rooty vetiver. The first time I wore it, I was shocked that the image that jumped to mind was of me drinking a glass of warm milk in a cypress forest while also wearing copious amounts of Sycomore EDT. The grassiness of the vetiver, its inky, sooty smoke – it mitigated (for me) almost entirely the round wholesomeness of the milk accord, and made it not only digestible but graceful. The coup de grace is the rubbery, smoky gaiac wood; it lends a quasi-industrial grayness to the picture that roughs up the milk even further.
If there’s a criticism I could come up with about Palo Santo, it’s that at times the two halves of the fragrance – the sweet, milky side and the smoky vetiver-gaiac side – seem like two separate scents smashed together rather than one integrated whole. That means that there’s plenty of opportunity to study that milk note in isolation and find fault with its simple, syrupy sweetness. But when it’s merged with the vetiver, smoke, and gaiac, the clumsy seams of the scent melt away and the whole thing is charming. Palo Santo is a good example of a balanced milk scent, and seeing as how that’s something of a rarity in perfumery, I rate it really quite highly.
Palo Santo can be purchased here.