An alcoholic harem master lies drunk in a pool of Calvados brandy in a seraglio made of amber, tobacco, and gold. A hookah lies next to a vat of booze, and wafts a fragrant fruitiness that mixes with the smell of musky cedar from the swamp which circles the harem like a moat and fortress barricade. Within the palace’s high walls is a small apple orchard dotted with bales of hay that are lightly coated with honey. In the lush gardens, exotic Indian davana flowers emit a tiny apricot scent, next to the custardy richness of ylang-ylang. At the palace’s heart is a courtyard where nubile concubines lounge on aromatic woody divans, dressed in thin silks made from vanilla. They dust their bodies with a light sprinkling of cocoa, as they nibble on toasted nuts and puff on a hookah. The sultan’s favorite, Leila, watches with a smile, glowing like a jewel in red and gold fabrics that match the stream of fruited liqueur pouring from a nearby fountain. The air is indolent, warm, musky, sweet, and filled with the smell of decadence, but darkness lies just around the corner. Slowly, shadows of tobacco and dry woods sweep over the ambered gold, covering it like an eclipse does the sun, until night finally falls over the harem. And, still, no-one bothers to help the drunken man collapsed in their midst. They all know what happens when you overindulge in the delights of the seraglio, or l’Or du Sérail.
Or du Sérail is a fragrance from Naomi Goodsir, the Australian milliner and designer, and was released a few months ago. It is an eau de parfum that was created by the prolific, legendary Bertrand Duchaufour, and it very much bears his signature. It’s a fantastic scent with a particularly stellar opening whose rich booziness I found to be compulsively sniffable and almost intoxicating. Later, Or du Sérail turns into a cozy, completely seamless, oriental blur of multi-faceted depth and sweetness that is very accurately summarized by Naomi Goodsir’s poetic description on her website:
citadel of MURMURS,
voleur de NUIT,
by Bertrand DUCHAUFOUR
Oriental tobacco (2014)
A gourmand & textured perfume,
evocative of a golden tobacco.
An ambery, woody, musky & greedy
Or du Sérail has a long list of notes, roughly 20 in total. Peony Melbourne provides the following pyramid:
Head Notes – Cistus, Apple and red fruits, Mango, Rum, Sweet Orange, Davana, Sage
Heart Notes – Beeswax, Coco, Geranium, Ylang-ylang, Turkish Tobacco, Amber
Base Notes – Labdanum, Oak Tree, Cedar wood, Musk, Vanilla, Maté
Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that I love boozy fragrances, and the boozier it is, the more I love it. I really, really love the opening of Or du Sérail…. It begins with a wonderful tidal wave of heavily liqueured, ambered sweetness. Brandy oak barrels bob along a vast ocean of Calvados, whose waves spread apple’d alcoholism out as far as the eye can see. A tiny suggestion of rum lurks at the edges, next to the liqueured apricot of the davana flower. A second wave of cognac hits you, but this one is infused with the aroma of bright red apples, as well as a sprinkling of tart red fruits, and a small slice of orange. None of them feel cooked, gooey, or saturated with sweetness. Rather, they are fresh fruits with a distinct nuance of tartness.
Hookah tobacco leaves lie like a blanket over it all. They are fruited and sweet, but not too sweet. In fact, there is no suggestion of any narguilé smoke in the air at all. This tobacco is unsmoked, fragrant, and a little dry. As if by some accident of mixture, the aromatic pile contains wisps of dry hay that sometimes feel coated by a light smear of honey. There are also a few leaves of dried maté or Yerba Mate which people in South America use as a tea and which has a herbal, leafy, or earthy aroma. Here, it merely seems to accentuate the hay undertones, as well as the tobacco.
For the most part, Or du Sérail’s opening bouquet is primarily a delicious cocktail of rich, alcoholic delights and drunken fruits, dusted lightly by a veil of fruited hookah tobacco. It is lush, decadent, and intoxicating — though not literally, no matter how drunk I occasionally feel on a mental level. It is a heady brew which is a hedonistic sybarite’s joy, and a complete 180 from Naomi Goodsir’s earlier Bois d’Ascece which was far too ascetic, austere, and dry for my personal tastes.
As I’ll discuss in further detail a bit later, this new Goodsir fragrance very much feels like a Bertrand Duchaufour creation. His signature first becomes apparent is Or du Sérail’s airy strength. A reader of the blog, Tim, coined the term “heavy weightlessness” to describe the perfumer’s style, and that description holds true for Or du Sérail as well. Three big smears amounting to 2 small spritzes from an actual bottle results in a very strong bouquet of great richness. It feels as though it bears great depth; yet, it is simultaneously very airy in body, and as light as cotton fluff. The heady, intoxicating cloud initially projects maybe 3 inches at most, though I have the strong suspicion that spraying from an actual bottle would create a much bigger cloud whose tendrils would waft about you with some tenacity.
Later, Or du Sérail grows deeper in body, but a hair softer in sillage. The interesting thing is that the perfume doesn’t drastically drop or change in the way that many fragrances do after a while. Instead of having a huge opening burst that soon softens, Or du Sérail stays pretty consistent. At the 90-minute mark, the perfume hovers about 1.5 inches above the skin, but it remains there for an incredibly long time without change. Well over 7 hours, in fact.
Like many Duchaufour fragrances, Or du Sérail changes slowly, sometimes just by fractional degrees. Some of the changes are so subtle that you’d be hard-pressed to notice them at the time unless you concentrated deeply. Yet, before you know it, they’ve all added up, and the perfume has turned into something different than it was at the start. That pattern holds true for Or du Sérail where some of the secondary notes shift by micro-degrees, while the main essence continues to be sweet, boozy, tobacco amber with fruitiness for a good portion of the perfume’s first five hours.
If you pay attention, however, you will notice that Or du Sérail slowly — very slowly — turns much woodier and drier. The long journey first starts 15 minutes into the perfume’s development, when the cedar and a woody-amber accord begin to stir in the shadow, while the tobacco grows much stronger. Not long after that, all three notes become almost as dominant as the boozy Calvados brandy with its infusion of fruits, though it takes hours from Or du Sérail to turn completely dark.
I have to say, the woody tonalities are my least favorite part of Or du Sérail. First, there is a definite woody-amber element that occasionally smells like cypriol, and is mixed with an aromachemical. Cypriol or nargamotha is a type of dry grass with a peppery, woody aroma and whose oil is often used as a base for agarwood by perfume companies who don’t want to spend the money on actual or substantial doses of oud. As a result, I’ve noticed a tendency for some people to smell cypriol, and think they’re detecting “oud.” It’s all about mental associations, and I make it here too as there is a very infrequent suggestion of “oud.” It is slight, however, and overshadowed by another note, a woody-amber aromachemical which feels slightly peppered in nature. (AmberMax?) It’s not my favorite part of the scent, but given that some people can’t detect aromachemicals and the majority don’t mind when they do, let’s move on.
Much more dominant is the cedar which is extremely musky in nature. In fact, it smells flat-out marshy at times, evoking images of a slightly damp, wet cedar trunk that is somewhat rotting away and has a vague earthy, meatiness about it. It is a note which fluctuates in strength. It also weaves in and out. Sometimes, it is a big part of the top notes. At other times, it lurks at the edges, though never fully out of sight. The woody-amber aromachemical does the same. I wish both of them would stay far in the periphery, but Naomi Goodsir specifically mentions “woody” and “musky” in her description for Or du Sérail, so they are clearly intended to be significant elements. I appreciate how the notes are meant to cut through the boozy liqueur, amber and fruits, and to thereby keep the perfume’s sweetness in check. I simply wish the cedar didn’t smell quite so fetid, and that a slightly peppered aromachemical had not been used (at all).
On the plus side, the apple note is lovely. It skews so red visually, with a touch of greenness. Best of all, there is a crisp feel to it, as if you just sliced into a hard, fresh Braeburn or Honeycrisp apple, and its juices squirted out to drip into the apple Calvados. I haven’t found a lot of fragrances that include a fresh apple note, and it’s a lot more substantial here than what I’ve previously encountered, so it’s quite a happy delight.
In contrast, I have to say that I don’t detect most of the other fruits in any clearly delineated or substantial way. Apart from the apple, everything really subsumes itself into a general, indeterminate “fruitiness.” The mango never really appears on my skin, though I thought for one moment there might be a small hint of it. The orange is only a momentary flicker at the start, and the red fruits are merely an abstract suggestion a lot of the time. To my regret, the lovely dash of rich apricot (one of my favorite fruit notes in perfumery) also fades away quite quickly, and drops into the general sinkhole of something “fruited and boozy.”
As time passes, Or du Sérail continues to display an interesting juxtaposition of contrasts between boozy sweetness, fruited darkness, dark tobacco, dryness, woodiness, and muskiness. None of them really dominate in the first hour, except the Calvados apple brandy. Even so, Duchaufour brings in other elements to undercut any potential sugared excess. Roughly 20 minutes into Or du Sérail’s development, the geranium briefly pops up at the edges, adding a piquant, slightly bitter touch of greenness. Yerba Mate herbal leaves join in as well, though both are extremely muted elements that rarely display themselves in any distinct, clearly defined manner. And, throughout it all, the tobacco, musky cedar, and dry woody aromachemical continue to grow more and more noticeable.
Or du Sérail’s development feels as though it were timed and balanced by a master. The dark, dry touches become stronger at the exact moment that the vanilla starts to creep out of the base. It’s lovely, creamy, and rich like an eggy creme anglaise sauce. Yet, it’s only a thin layer; and it is silky and delicate, not gooey, heavy, or unctuous. It doesn’t feel really “foody” at all, thanks to the counterbalance provided by all the drier elements. It’s also not a hugely powerful presence, as it tends to dart in and out of the sidelines during the first two stages of the perfume, working from afar to indirectly provide an additional layer of depth to the fragrance.
By the start of the second hour, Or du Sérail is primarily a mix of boozy Calvados amber with hookah tobacco and dark woods, lightly infused with tart, fresh fruits and resting atop more woods that are coated with the thinnest sliver of silky vanilla. And it is after this point that the rest of the perfume’s development becomes very hard to explain. The notes increasingly merge one into the other, overlapping, losing shape, and resulting in seamless, rich blend that can’t be really teased apart. There are fluctuating levels of woodiness, especially the “oud”-like touch and the peppered woody-amber aromachemical. The tobacco feels thicker, deeper, and chewier, but it’s also become fused into every atom of the alcoholic ambered haze, instead of a clearly separate note. In the same way, all the fruits except for the apple have melded into one.
Or du Sérail comes close to being “prismatic,” a term I use to describe a scent that throws off different notes like light reflecting off a chandelier, changing each time you wear it. Yet, something about Or du Sérail doesn’t really qualify because there is a clear progression of darkness taking over, and of the tobacco triumphing over the boozy amber. In addition, there are rather major shifts which occur late into the perfume’s development and which render the term “prismatic” somewhat inapposite.
Nevertheless, from the start of the 2nd hour until well into the 9th one, Or du Sérail definitely has notes which weave in and out, fluctuate in prominence, or disappear altogether before they suddenly pop up again at the periphery. For example, at the start of the 4th hour, the vanilla feels much stronger and is infused with toasted nuttiness, as well as hints of semi-sweet cocoa powder. A momentary flicker of caramel seems to pop up as well. Then, they all seem to sink back into the base, as if swallowed up by an increasingly dark quicksand made of tobacco, amber, dryness, and musky woods.
The same thing happens to other notes. Sometimes, the hay is quite noticeable, sometimes, it’s the touch of honey that coats it. The geranium, yerba maté, and apricot have long since vanished, but the ylang-ylang suddenly shows up at the end of the 5th hour to add a hint of velvety, custardy floralcy to the mix. Then, it vanishes, seemingly forever, until it pops up many, many hours later to briefly wave a languid, creamy arm. These are all small touches though, and they do little to counter the growing wave of tobacco and dry, musky woods that slowly sweep over Or du Sérail like nightfall. Interestingly, the tobacco has transformed from fragrant, unsmoked hookah leaves into something darker and chewier, almost like wet tobacco that has been concentrated down a little.
As for the “oud”, cypriol, or whatever the blasted aromachemical note may be, it is the most temperamental ghost around, annoying me for hours with its constant “peek-a-boo” games, until it suddenly decides to sit down, chat, have tea, and move in forever at the start of the 7th hour. I would rather it packed up its bags and left entirely, but Or du Sérail is now almost fully tobacco’d and woody at this point. Even the Calvados cognac amber has gotten tired, and slinks off to sit on the sidelines, watching while the tobacco and woods wrestle in a fully fused merger of arms and legs for supremacy.
Everything turns into a dark oriental blur, until the vanilla decides to pop up like a long line of prancing cheerleaders at the end of the 10th hour. Now, Or du Sérail is starting to display a distinct similarity to a combination of Tom Ford‘s Tobacco Vanille with Oud Wood, as well as to his recent Tobacco Oud flanker which was rather like a mixed-tape compilation of several Private Blends in one.
There are differences, however. Or du Sérail lacks the strong Christmas Plum Pudding note that is such a big part of Tobacco Vanille’s foundation, not to mention its sticky, saturated sweetness that can sometimes feel cloying. As a whole, Or du Sérail is significantly boozier than the Tom Ford in its opening, and later turns much drier and darker. It also lacks Oud Wood’s strong mix of spices. However, if you take those fragrances’ tobacco, vanilla, oud-cypriol, dry woods, muskiness, sweetness, booziness, and dark amber, mixed them all together, you would get something extremely close to Or du Sérail’s final drydown. The essence of the two main Tom Fords, especially in their later periods, is present in such a way that I feel like Yoda: “the force is strong in this one.”
Or du Sérail remains that way until its very end when, in the last two hours, it finally turns into simple tobacco darkness. It is a very long end at that, if I might add. The perfume lasted just under 16.5 hours on me. It didn’t even turn into a skin scent on me until the 7.5 hour mark. Up to that point, Or du Sérail chugged away roughly 1.5 inches above the skin, but even at the 11th hour (literally), it wasn’t hard to detect the perfume up close. I certainly didn’t have to snuffle away at my arm until well after the 13th hour had passed.
Or du Sérail is a super fragrance, even if it isn’t hugely original, distinctive, or unique. I’ve already talked about the fragrances which it resembles in its drydown phase, so let me briefly discuss ones which it may appear to resemble during its first 8 hours when it is golden haze of alcoholic, sweet, oriental delights. You would think there would be a lot of close similarities, but I think Or du Sérail actually differs from some of its (many) compatriots in the boozy amber genre. I may not like the musky cedar or the dry woody-amber aromachemical, but they ensure that Or du Sérail is drier, less gourmand, and less heavily foody than some of its colleagues. For example, Or du Sérail may have boozy sweetness, but there is none of drunken gourmandise excess of Duchaufour’s ridiculously over-the-top, kitchen-sink fragrance, Fusion Sacrée for Majda Bekkali. (No, I will never, ever get over Fusion Sacrée.)
By the same token, the tart crispness of Or du Sérail’s fresh apples ensures that it is different from Hermès‘ Ambre Narguilé‘s stewed rum raisins and apple-cinnamon pastries. The alcohol is different here, too, as it’s not rum but something much less sugary that has also been soaked in oak-barrels. Finally, unlike the Hermès scent, Or du Sérail is substantially woodier, darker, muskier, and more heavily tobacco’d. Those things — as well as Or du Sérail’s focus on apples, body, potency, and huge longevity — also distinguish it from Frapin‘s orange cognac amber, 1270. Plus, there is the fact that the orange in Or du Sérail is quite different. It is a very minor element, and it’s not cooked, caramelized, or dipped in chocolate, either.
On the surface, and in the first few hours, Or du Sérail bears the closest kinship to Kilian‘s New York exclusive, Apple Brandy, which is another Calvados-centric fragrance. However, Or du Sérail has substantially more going on, with a plethora of notes that don’t exist in the singular, rather linear Apple Brandy. The latter has woodiness, but of a different sort to the kind here. More importantly, the Kilian fragrance has no heavy waves of tobacco, honeyed hay, flickers of green, tiny floral touches, or any truly dark oriental elements. Apple Brandy feels like a purely alcoholic amber, as opposed to a multi-faceted oriental. Plus, the few similarities that exist between the two fragrances fade away completely as Or du Sérail develops, turning even darker and woodier, with the tobacco finally triumphing over the Calvados apple brandy.
As a whole, I absolutely loved Or du Sérail’s opening, enjoyed the middle phase, but was unmoved by the finale. There wasn’t anything terribly wrong with it, but it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Plus, I could have done without the aromachemical woods which I disliked from start to finish. Still, I think the perfume is very well done as a general matter, and much more complex than you’d think from a passing sniff. It would be easy to dismiss Or du Sérail as a mere fruity, tobacco, boozy amber, but this is a scent that rewards very close attention due to its prismatic nature, the subtlety of some of its notes, and their “hide and go seek” game. It shows the technical mastery for which Duchaufour is so praised, and thankfully avoids the excesses of the terrible, shudder-worthy Fusion Sacrée by keeping things in a nice balance.
Normally, I would give you comparative opinions and quotes from other sites or reviews, but I’ll have to skip that this time. My schedule is a bit insane this week. In addition, I’m expecting any day now the arrival of several, brand new releases which means that the next 7 or 8 days will quieter than usual as I give each of them a few tests. If you wish to read up further on Or du Sérail, Mark Behnke at Colognoisseur gave it a great review, calling the scent “kaleidoscopic” and “a multi-layered fragrance full of fascinating olfactory nooks and crannies which reward the wearer who explores every facet offered.” There is also a positive assessment at Australian Fragrance Junkies. Finally, you can turn to Fragrantica and Basenotes. The latter has a few mixed reviews. One person experiencing an “ashtray” note, while another found the opening to be far too much for his tastes and much preferred Bois d’Ascese.
I want to make a brief comment about cost and availability. Or du Sérail is priced a little higher than its other siblings in the Goodsir line. It retails for $185 or €125 for a 50 ml bottle, compared to $150 or €110 for the others. Or du Sérail feels like a much richer, more opulent fragrance than the lovely but stark Bois d’Ascese, so perhaps that is why, but I thought you should know. Given Or du Sérail’s notes, body, and massive longevity, I don’t the price is too bad for the scent in question. The weirder thing is availability. Outside of the usual big sites like Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and Premiere Avenue, I’ve had some trouble finding Or du Sérail at some of the smaller vendors which usually or previously carried Naomi Goodsir fragrances. A few don’t have any stock on their website for any of the fragrances in the line (almost as if they’ve stopped carrying Naomi Goodsir but don’t want to say it), one former retailer no longer lists the brand at all, while others only carry Or du Sérail’s two siblings. And, unfortunately, I don’t think Naomi Goodsir is carried in Canada or the U.K. at all. Still, it’s not impossible to find Or du Sérail or to get samples (including a 5 ml decant from Premiere Avenue), but your more local stores may not carry it.
The bottom line is that I really like Or du Sérail as a general whole — with the word “love” be wholly appropriate for that glorious opening — but I don’t think it is for everyone. People who struggle with really boozy fragrances should stay far away. Very far away. Plus, Or du Sérail also has some definite gourmand elements, so those of you who dislike sweetness of any kind would probably have issues, especially if your skin chemistry amplifies such notes. That said, I think the perfume is generally unisex, and its darker elements don’t make it skew very masculine, thanks to the overall complement of notes.
So, if you like dark, rich orientals centered on tobacco with some sweetness, you should give Or du Sérail a test sniff. If you absolutely adore any of the other fragrances mentioned here — from Kilian’s Apple Brandy to Frapin 1270, Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, Tobacco Oud, or Oud Wood — then you should probably rush to put Or du Sérail high on your list of things to try. And, if you’re a brandy or Calvados lover, I would bet money that you’ll be intoxicated by the glorious opening and end up feeling like a hedonistic lush drunk in a Turkish harem.