Men’s Cologne – Understanding Fragrance Differences

This article is based off my interview with Alex who is a men’s perfume expert.

It’s one thing to decide you’re going to wear scent, but how do you tell which one’s right for you?

Your average menswear store, even if it carries fragrances, doesn’t have a “perfume counter” like the ladies’ section does.

That’s good, in one sense, since you’re a lot less likely to be sprayed unexpectedly with an unwanted sample. Seriously, does anyone like that?

But it also means you have little to judge except the packaging and the price.

So what makes the difference between one cologne and the next?

Today, we are going to focus on 8.

1. Composition

When perfumers talk about “composition” they mean the different elements that make up the scent. A lot of the time this will be phrased in the form “notes” (as in “notes of sandalwood,” “notes of bergamot,” etc.)

The “notes” come in different orders and amounts depending on how they’re combined.

The best perfumes have a unique composition that sets them apart from imitators. Some achieve this with very rare or expensive ingredients that other companies don’t have access to, while others construct the blend so that scents come in unusual orders or combinations that other companies haven’t thought of or perfected yet.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge composition in a store without a tester. Some packaging lists “notes,” but they’re usually written by the marketing department, not the people who created the scent, so take them with a grain of salt. When in doubt, ask to test the scent, and don’t buy if you haven’t.

2. Release Year

Perfumes go through yearly variations just like wines, and for much the same reasons – the ingredients used are never exactly uniform, so the same blend in 2008 might become slightly sharper-smelling in 2009 if the lavender crop was bad (just as an example – I don’t actually know of any lavender blight in 2009).

There’s also a fashion element. Scents tend to be constructed to go with styles and attitudes, so that experienced perfumers compare decades much like we would for clothing. The 1980s top brands were – no surprise here – big, aggressive, sharp, and full of dry notes. The 1990s cleaned it up and had lighter, sweeter smells.

In buying terms, that means that your perfume gets “dated” long before it actually goes bad. If you’re updating your wardrobe and not your colognes, you might end up with a clash. On the flip side, it means that a really good scent from an older year might become a valuable treasure if it does go with your style – you’ll have both a good fit and the prized uniqueness talked about under “Composition” above.

3. Brand and Budget

Major brands have a “feel” to them that’s part science and part marketing. Prada perfumes are made to have a family of familiar scents. If you’ve worn one for years, the newest Prada blend should feel comfortable to you, even if it’s not the same scent.

It’s also a big part of the image colognes have sold for year. The, “Oh, are you wearing…?” moment (usually involving dancing or other close embraces) has been the center of many a time-worn ad campaign.

Budget and price are a triage factor. It gives you a range of brands that you can afford to buy semi-regularly, from which you make your selection.

4. Oil Content

The oil content determines how long your cologne lasts. The more oils, the stronger and longer-lasting the scent, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing – you get more effect, but you also have to be careful how much you put on, to avoid an overwhelming smell.

Eau de Toilette blends (EDTs) tend to have a shorter longevity than other perfumes. Some brands make both and EdT and a cologne in the same scent, so check the box to make sure you’re getting the one you want – the EdT will be subtler and more of an accent, but it will also only last between 4-8 hours on average, as opposed to some perfumes that can go up to 24 hours.

5. Strength

The strength of the cologne affects its “projection,” or how far the scent travels. A stronger cologne can be smelled several steps away, while a milder one is only noticeable by someone in a close embrace.

Strong smells aren’t necessarily better than mild ones. Anything that’s perceptible more than a step away is overkill. You can buy and wear a strong smell, but it requires much more careful application. Only a tiny dab is sufficient with powerful blends.

6. Classification

All perfumes can be arranged into general groups. The classification system is a little arcane, but it can be useful for finding scents similar to the ones you already like.

Some packaging will list the fragrance family, as will most company websites. You can also ask salespeople, though that usually only works if there’s a separate fragrance department – most floor salesmen won’t know the difference.

7. Concept

The advertising and packaging usually give you a good sense what the “concept” of the scent is. Think in terms of adjectives: is it “manly?” “rugged?” “romantic?” “sensual?” “sexy?”

Concept can be a double-edged sword, since some are thought up by perfumers drawing inspiration from things around them, while others are thought up by marketers. So you’ll get concepts like “toasted marshmellow” that are more gimmick than anything. But a “piney campfire” is a totally legitimate inspiration, and done right that could be a good scent for a man with an outdoors feel.

It takes some experimenting to find a concept you like, but they’re a good guideline to the sort of fragrance families you like.

8. Price

Here’s an important rule for price: the more you pay for a fragrance, the more you should demand from it.

That is to say, if you’re choosing between a $30 bottle of cologne and a $300 bottle, the $300 bottle needs to be bringing about ten times the advantages that the $30 bottle does.

There’s exceptions – every year, some brand hits a formula that’s much better than everyone expected. If you follow websites and forums dedicated to the industry it’s usually easy to spot these flukes and snap up a few, but for the most part you can expect the top-shelf brands to have the ingredients and engineering to put them well ahead of cheaper counterparts.

You don’t always get what you pay for. The most expensive perfume isn’t always the best. Test before you wear, and if possible check websites  that offer a ranking of products tested to see what other people are saying.

 

For more information about cologne – visit my friends over at FrangranceBros.

  • David

    Thanks, but this would have been more helpful if you went further into classifications. As Alex said, this is the way you can buy into different brands, but retain the same fragrance family that you like. It’s also the way you can change it up appropriately for the seasons. The rest of this info was too technical for me, Joe-consumer.

  • JC O

    There’s a fantastic option out there that you should look into and let people know about — I know of two companies (the Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance — there may be others out there) which decant scents into small bottles. Instead of dropping $50-200 on a bottle of cologne that you may or may not love enough to wear til it’s empty, you can spend about $3-4 for .5ml of the most expensive ones or 1ml of the less costly options.

    If you don’t know where to start, you can emulate famous men — Perfumed Court has a list of celebrities (not just modern pop stars — Churchill’s in there, Gary Cooper, etc) and their preferred scents — Some of them wear the same scent, but there are about 80 options there, and they charge $30 to pick 9 of them. That’s what I did my first time and I loved 1 (L’artisan Timbuktu — Hugh Jackman’s), liked 4 or 5, wasn’t fond of 2 or 3, and absolutely hated 1 (Guerlain Vetiver — what Harrison Ford and a couple others wear. That stuff clung to my skin for 3 or 4 days and drove my allergies nuts.)

    Not only do you get to sample some nice stuff cheaply, it means you can have more than just one or two scents without breaking the bank. You can choose scents to suit your mood, your destination, your company, etc. And if you don’t like one, you can always give it away to someone else to try whose body chemistry it may suit better. Worst case, you’re only out $3-4 dollars instead of $100 or more. (They do sell larger decants as well. Once I found a couple I liked I ordered them in the 5ml roll-on bottle. It seems to last much longer that way, and the scent is subtler… not broadcast through the room and shoved in people’s faces (“that’s a lovely scent, my dear, but must you marinate in it?”), just something people notice when they get close to you

    (side note: Once Donna Karan’s Fuel for Men was finally rereleased in the USA, I switched back to that and wear it about 90% of the time. Love that stuff).

    Also, you can check another website, BaseNotes, for more extensive information about any given fragrance. Know that you like something with bergamot and cedar notes? Or just know that you like one cologne? Look it up and you can find others that share similar characteristics. Once you figure out what elements of a scent appeal to you, you can start branching out — maybe bergamot and cedar with tobacco, or chocolate, or jasmine and gardenia.

  • menstyle

    Thanks for the feedback David!

  • menstyle

    Thanks JC. That does sound like a great idea. Thanks for the great feedback!