The Fragrance Vocabulary

Fragrance is one of those things people usually appreciate, but very select few truly understand. And to be perfectly honest, I cannot remember the number of times I’ve blindly nodded in agreement when someone spoke ‘fragrance’. It feels like a whole different language!

Therefore, to help you in your search for the best perfume or cologne, we’ve covered the commonly used terms every fragrance aficionado should know – from ambergris to ylang-ylang!

Fragrance notes

fragrance wheel

Fragrance notes are scent compounds used to make up the perfume or cologne, and can range from flower to synthetically created molecules. These are usually grouped into the key fragrance families below:

  • Floral – Scent produced by flowers such as roses, lavender, jasmine etc
  • Oriental – Scent produced by spices such as cinnamon, resins etc
  • Woody – Scent produced by wood such as sandalwood, oakwood etc
  • Fresh – A combination of scent produced by fruits, herbs and marine or aquatic scents

Some other more unique fragrance notes are also described below:

  • Absinthe – Is a potent green aniseed flavored liquor made with the shrub of wormwood. It smells like licorice, slightly dry, bitter and medicinal.
  • Algae – Is a kind of seaweed which smells like a blend of seawater and fresh leaves.
  • Amber– Is an aromatic resin produced by forest trees and smells like warm caramel.
  • Animalic – Refers to animal-derived notes which smell primal and seductive.
  • Aquatic/Water Notes – Refers to the smell of ocean breeze that is a blend of fresh, dewy, and salty air.
  • Bergamot – Is a tree of the orange family which gives a citrusy scent that is crisp, refreshing but slightly herbal.
  • Cardamom – Is a kind of spice made from aromatic seeds of a plant from the ginger family which smells slightly earthy, minty and sweet.
  • Cedar – Refers to a type of timber with smells like fragrant wood.
  • Civet – Is a nocturnal mammal of the cat family found in parts of Asia and Africa. This animal produces a pungent scent in its anal glands which can be extracted to give a sultry, musky and warm scent.
  • Clover – Is a plant in the pea family which smells of freshly cut grass.
  • Cypress– Is a kind of coniferous tree like pine or fir which smells like the forest, green and woody.
  • Daffodil – Is a kind of flower that is usually yellow which smells like spring. Fresh and sweet.
  • Driftwood – Refers to wooden pieces which have been washed ashore. Hence it smells like a blend of dry wood and seawater.
  • Frankincense – Is an aromatic gum resin of the Boswelia tree which is usually burned as incense. Hence it smells smokey and woody, but is also slightly sweet and citrusy.
  • Freesia – Is a floral African plant of the Iris family which is fragrant, green and slightly peppery.
  • Green Tea – Refers to unfermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant which is pale in color, slightly bitter and smells earthy.
  • Herbal – Refers to the smell of herbs like basil, rosemary, tarragon.
  • Honeysuckle – Is a kind of shrub which smells like spring and sweet florals.
  • Incense – Quite similar to frankincense, it is smoky, slightly sweet, deep and rich.
  • Lily-of-the-Valley – Is a kind of flower of the lily family which smells fresh, sweet and dewy.
  • Metalic Notes – Refers to the scent produced by metal or minerals which smell slightly earthy, cool, clean and sharp.
  • Musk – Refers to glandular secretions of the male musk deer which smells sensual, warm, rich, deep and slightly animalic.
  • Neroli – Is an essential oil from orange peel which smells fresh and citrusy, but can be slightly bitter.
  • Oak Moss– Is a kind of fungus found on the floors of mountainous damp forests which smells earthy and can be slightly bitter.
  • Patchouli – Is a bushy herb of the mint family which smells sweet but earthy, and can be slightly pungent.
  • Saffron – Is a kind of reddish-purple flower native to Eurasia which smells leathery, warm, rich and intimate.
  • Sage – Is a kind of herb which smells hazy, woody and slightly peppery.
  • Sandalwood – Refers to a kind of timber from the Santalum tree which gives off a woody, warm and earthy scent.
  • Tonka Bean – Is a black seed of a South American tree which has a vanilla-like scent but is slightly nutty.
  • Vetiver– Is an essential oil extracted from the root of an Indian grass, giving it its slightly musty, woody and earthy scent.
  • Wisteria – Is a climbing shrub of the pea family with blue-ish flowers which smells sweet and rich, but can be slightly spicy.
  • Ylang-Ylang – Is a kind of flower native to the South East Asia region. It is a tropical plant which smells sweet, fragrant and slightly fruity.
  • Yuzu – Is a citrus fruit from Japan which smells like a blend of sweet, sour and floral notes.

Top notes, Middle notes, Base notes

fragrance notes period of evaporation

Just like how a combination of musical notes make up a song, fragrance notes are blended into 3 note scales to create the perfume’s or cologne’s fragrant accord. The purpose of each level if explained below:

  • Top notes are sometimes referred to as opening, or head notes and consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly. The top notes represents a fragrance’s first impression. Citrus, berries, lavender and ginger are common top notes.
  • Middle notes are considered the heart of the fragrance which appears after the top notes evaporate. The scent in a fragrance’s heart is usually pleasant and ‘rounded’ and lasts anywhere between two minutes and one hour after application. Common middle notes include rose, lavender, ylang-ylang, nutmeg and jasmine.
  • Base notes mingle with the middle notes to bring depth and solidity to a fragrance. It consists of large, heavy molecules that evaporate slowly and is typically associated with the dry-down period. Base notes are usually deep and rich, and provide the lasting impression. Common base notes include sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli and musk.

Hopefully you’ll now be able to navigate the perfume or cologne aisles like a pro!