It was a cold Spring, that April in 1986, when I went behind the Iron Curtain and visited the Soviet Union. Snow still lingered in parts of Moscow and the rural countryside that my group visited. I remember the grimness of Moscow, and have crazy stories about my time there: from our Russian minders; to the bugs in the telephone at the vast hotel where we stayed (either the Hotel Ukraina or the Cosmos) in Moscow; to stomping through birch forests to use a medieval, wooden out-house; and how I was interviewed on camera in the lobby for a news piece about the recent U.S.-Russian ballistic nuclear arms treaty. They quickly yanked and cut that interview when the journalist discovered I wasn’t just some mindless, young tourist who would babble about the glories of peaceful Mother Russia. To his unmitigated horror, I answered his question by giving a concise, Cold War breakdown of the history of nuclear arms talks and treaties between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. going back to the 1960s. His dirty looks followed me all across the giant lobby as I left….
My group ended up being kicked out of the Soviet Union after someone on it was caught engaging in black market dealings and a few other transgressions. (Not me!) It was probably just as well since we were in Kiev at the time and, as I mentioned, it was April 1986. Kiev, for those of you who don’t know, is in the Ukraine, and less than an hour’s drive from Chernobyl where the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history occurred only a few days later. We would have been there, but, instead, I was back in Paris when news of the disaster hit. The prevailing winds drew most of the radioactive fall-out away from the city, but my mother was still relieved that we left earlier than planned, even if it was under less than glorious circumstances.
Though I went to the Soviet Union, I saw enough of old Russia during my time there, from the magnificent old churches to the palaces. It is always Vladimir, however, which comes instantly to mind when I think of that trip. It was one of the ancient capitals of medieval Russia, and two of its cathedrals are now World Heritage sites. The solemn grandeur of those enormous, dark, often candle-lit churches — and Dormition Cathedral, in particular — with their huge walls covered in icons, painted figures and gold is something I will never forget. It instantly took me back in time to the Russia of Rasputin and Catherine the Great.
In a way, so too does Ambre Russe by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the founder and nose behind Parfum d’Empire. Well, it takes me back to Russia, though it’s more to a tea room filled with large samovars and smoke as people lounge on velvet or leather sofas and knock back drinks over plates of sweetened fruits. But it’s certainly more than I expected. Unfortunately, the perfume was also significantly less than I expected. It didn’t live up to its wonderful opening and that trip back in time; it was too sheer, light and airy to be the true molten, luxurious, opaque marvel of Rasputin’s boozy, intense, dark, opulent Russia. However, those who prefer more lightweight, airy approaches to their booze and amber Orientals, may enjoy Ambre Russe very much indeed.
I don’t think any perfume house has better stories or descriptions to accompany their fragrances than Parfum d’Empire, and Ambre Russe is no exception:
An opulent elixir, as passionate as the Slavic soul. In this intense elixir, the opulence of the Russian Empire is conjured by the golden warmth of ambergris, intensified by vibrant spices, the smoky aroma of Russian tea and the spirituality of incense. Ambre Russe, a fragrance for impassioned souls. […]
In the flamboyant world of Ambre Russe, nothing is done in half-measures: parties are as intoxicating and sparkling as the champagne that flowed in Imperial Russia but they can end in the white brutality of an icy shot of vodka.
Ambre Russe also conjures the warmth and comfort of dachas where Russian tea, laced with cinnamon and coriander, is brewed all day long in samovars. It’s slightly smoky aroma melds with those of the birch and juniper tar rubbed into the legendary Russian leather. At last the golden facets of Ambre Russe are burnished by the incense of the Orthodox Church, before melting into a cloud of musk. And the celebration ends in mystic ecstasy. Ambre Russe: as impassioned and uncompromising as the Slavic soul..
I don’t know who writes Parfum d’Empire’s descriptions, but I want to meet him or her, and bow down in awe. As for the perfume notes, Luckyscent offers the following:
tea, incense, vodka, champagne, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ambergris, vanilla, leather.
Ambre Russe opens on my skin with so much depth, complexity and nuance that I couldn’t stop sniffing my arm. The very first thing you detect is citrus note like that in really good champagne. It is light, fresh, fruity-sweet, and absolutely sparkling. It is followed by a “chaser” of vodka and spices. The alcoholic blast is accompanied by: treacly cardamom; slightly woody-citrusy coriander; endlessly spiced, rich honey, the slightly tarry aspects of the birch tree; browned, aged leather; and, finally, rich ambergris. The amber, honey and boozy sweet notes combine with the tarry, leathery undertones of the birch to create a note of tobacco. Rich, warm and just like that in fruited pipe tobacco.
Despite those many notes, it is truly the intense booziness of the scent, combined with the plethora of spices, which dominates those opening minutes. It feels a lot like the opening to my beloved Alahine, though the latter lacks some of the leather and tobacco undertones that are here. Ambre Russe also has a significantly drier feel to it, along with a faintly bitter, smoky edge and black tea notes that truly conjure up a Russian samovar. And, as the clock ticks by, Ambre Russe becomes even drier, woodier, dustier, and smokier. Hints of cumin appear, though they never evoke curry, stale sweat, or body odour. Instead, the cumin feels much like the dry, dusty powder. Unless you are a truly extreme cumin-phobe, I wouldn’t worry; the cumin is so minute and fleeting a note in Ambre Russe that I don’t think most people would detect it, especially given the extreme booziness of the scent.
Speaking of which, the champagne note slowly turns more into that of spiced rum, accompanied by the vast amounts of dried, stewed fruit that are a large part of the perfume’s base. The fruits feel like rum-raisin and stewed prunes, but there is also a surprising amount of stewed oranges to the note, thanks to the champagne. At times, the combination feels closer to fruity champagne, while, at other times, its more like simple, rich, spiced fruit. It flickers back and forth, but the truly odd thing about it is just how damn light, airy and sheer it feels. For a perfume with such strong notes, especially in the beginning, Ambre Russe is surprisingly lightweight in feel.
The swirl of dusty spices and fruit sit atop a subtle leather note. It feels honeyed, aged, and rich — much like the old, burnished, and oiled leather riding saddle that I once had. There is a faint powderiness that also appears, but it is generally well hidden under the warm smoke from the incense, the equally smoky black tea, and the strong hints of pipe tobacco.
You almost feel as if you’re in an old Russian tea-room in Kiev. The ceilings are a little black from decades of smoke, old icons cover the wall, birch trees logs are tossed into the fireplace, and the bells from a medieval cathedral chime in the background. As you collapse into the comfortable, soft leather banquets, a server puts champagne flutes on the table, next to strong black tea from the Samovar that is infused with massive dollops of cinnamon-honey. Stewed fruit are the only thing to save your stomach, as you ponder the baffling question of why a tea room is filled with sacks of dry, slightly dusty spices.
About 90 minutes in, Ambre Russe turns into a cinnamon-flecked amber perfume with incense smoke. Yes, there are undertones of honey, leather, tobacco, birch, and stewed fruit but they are light and grow increasingly subtle. To be honest, after that glorious opening and particularly after the second hour, Ambre Russe settles into little more than a light, cinnamon, boozy amber on my skin, and remains that way until the very end.
It is also incredibly — and, for my personal tastes, disappointingly — sheer. As early as the thirty minute mark, Ambre Russe starts to get sheerer and softer until, midway in the fourth hour, it feels as gauzily transparent as a thin, ambered kleenex. On my skin, the overall development of Ambre Russe was fully in the mold of a Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance — and I do not mean that as a compliment. In fact, there are quite a few tonal similarities between Ambre Russe and Ambre Narguilé, especially given the boozy rum, smoke, pipe tobacco, and stewed fruit notes. But, ultimately, Ambre Russe is significantly drier, woodier, and more dustily spiced. It also does not tip-toe up to the edges of the gourmand category in the way that Ambre Narguilé does.
Sillage and longevity also differ. In the first 20 minutes, Ambre Russe had good to average sillage, but after that, it projects little and its insubstantial weight turns the perfume into a skin scent surprisingly quickly. I tried it twice and, on both occasions, Ambre Russe turned into amber kleenex on my skin before the end of 2nd hour. (Far before Ambre Narguilé did on my skin.) Thereafter, Ambre Russe remained as dry, dusty spices and smoke over the lightest possible boozy amber base. That’s truly about it. However, Amber Russe has surprisingly longevity and lasted approximately 11 hours on both occasions on my perfume-consuming skin. At the end of the day, though, I found it to be an anorexic scent with little body and overall depth in the long haul.
I realise that not everyone shares my love for opaque, thick, molten perfumes, but that isn’t the real issue here, in my opinion. It’s that Ambre Russe’s beautiful, skeletal structure is there, but without the depth, complexity and nuance of its early start. It feels like a Lite or Diet version of a true, boozy, spiced amber. That said, those who prefer lighter, sheerer ambers may find Ambre Russe to be a perfect compromise, especially in light of some of the spices. Its lack of sillage, but serious longevity, may also make it perfect for those who worry about wearing serious orientals to a conservative office-environment.
I should note that I seem to be in the minority on the issue of Ambre Russe being far too thin. Take, for example, Luca Turin‘s admiring, four-star review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide in which he writes:
Ambre Russe is quite simply the biggest, most over-the-top, most expansive, most nutritious amber in existence. If there was a cross between pipe tobacco and pain d’épices, this would be it. To call this an oriental is like saying that Nicholas II was no genius.
Notwithstanding that incredibly amusing last line, I couldn’t disagree more on the “nutritious,” expansive nature of Ambre Russe. But then, I rarely seem to agree with His Majesty….
There is a lot of love for Ambre Russe out there, along with a few polar opposite reactions. Perhaps the funniest (and my favorite) description for the perfume comes from Patty at The Perfume Posse who writes:
This amber rolls in fueled by vodka and lust after a handful of Exstasy and Coke hit the pleasure palace center of the brain, and you settle in for the long night partying in Kiev. As the morning light reveals the detritus of the night’s Pan-like revelry, you find yourself deep in conversation with a beautiful/handsome poet who talks about life and love as an art form, and the amber turns to beautiful glowing warmth, glad for human comfort and conversation. If only you could find your clothes, car and dignity, this would have been a great night.
Absolutely fantastic! Another favorite comes from Fragrantica where “Espi” writes:
Wearing Ambre Russe is like sitting next to a drunk but very attractive Russian sailor in a nice and comfortable pub. The only thing I don’t really get is why he’s got spiced honey smeared all over his body! 🙂 Quite the intoxicating smell [….]
Others talk about leather armchairs, expensive cognac, cigars, and old-world, sophisticated opulence. On Luckyscent, more than a few have given descriptions similar in spirit to this one from “yonderblues” who writes about “a room lit by candles filled with ladies in brocade dresses, surrounded by chavalier in their tall leather boots, sabers slapping their thighs and the scent of tobacco trailing after them.” I personally think these descriptions would be more apt if Ambre Russe were not quite so lightweight and gauzy since that completely destroys any sense of “opulence” in my mind, but, again, I have very different standards and personal tastes.
The main objection by those who hate Ambre Russe is the booziness. On both Fragrantica and Luckyscent, the negative reviews seem to center upon the opinion that there is just too much damn alcohol and vodka in the perfume. A handful of those commentators state that they don’t drink and don’t want to smell as though they do (“I hate vodka. I don’t drink.”) which is an extremely valid consideration. I honestly don’t think the vodka is that strong, especially after the first 15 minutes, and thought the fruity champagne note was much more pronounced, but, clearly, it’s all still too much alcohol for some people. As with everything in perfumery, interpretations are subjective and depend on your personal tastes, preferences, and history.
All in all, if the notes sound appealing to you, and if you love very dry, boozy, spiced amber Orientals, I would definitely give Ambre Russe a sniff. Those who are completely phobic about cumin — in even its mildest, most microscopic manifestions — may think that the perfume smells like “Rasputin’s armpit” (to quote one commentator at the Perfume Posse), but I don’t think most people will. It’s a very pretty spiced amber, and I think it’s extremely evocative of Old Mother Russia.