A tableau of musky, humid Havana painted in dense, opaque oils; an old-fashioned speakeasy where the rum runs wild; the refined drawing rooms of an old, aristocratic London club where the rich leather armchairs are always accompanied by snifters of the best cognac and a fresh pipe; and a testosterone-laden version of China’s osmanthus, given musculature through an emphasis on its leather, smoky black tea, and apricot tang — there is so much more to Tabac Grande than merely the tobacco in its name. It’s a complex attar from Sultan Pasha Attars, and its review today will mark the start of a short series on several new releases from the brand.
Tabac Grande is an attar or concentrated fragrance oil (“CPO”) that is 90% all-natural. It was released earlier this year, and its note list includes:
Top: Hawthorn, Saffron, Cognac, Coffee, Tobacco;
Middle: Saffron, Osmanthus, Damascena Rose, Heliotrope, Tonka absolute, Tobacco, Honey, raw Cocoa, Jasmine Grandiflorum absolute;
Base: Tobacco, Hay, Tonka absolute, Amber, Ambergris, Musk, Civet, Immortelle, Castoreum, Hyraceum, Bengali Oud, Vanilla, Virginian Cedar, Himalayan Cedar, and Cade.
The first thing that strikes me whenever I try Tabac Grande is the apricot liqueur that gushes like a geyser over my skin from the very first minute almost all the way through to the very end of the attar’s development. It’s multi-dimensional in a way that floods the senses: tart, tangy, sometimes a little sour, sweet, musky, and thick with pulpy flesh that drips ripe juices in such a photo-realistic way that I’m surprised it’s not running down my chin. But the liqueur is also unctuous, dense, and practically opaque, thanks to the stickiest, thickest, and darkest honey, as well as ambergris and the heaviest immortelle syrup imaginable.
All of this feels practically fermented, as though apricots had been layered in honey and syrup, then macerated in toasted oak wood barrels over decades to turn almost tannic and leathered, so steeped and aged in sweetness that the fruits have transformed into cognac. But this is no ordinary cognac, either. It’s cognac on steroids, its muscles ripped and roaring with the olfactory equivalent of testosterone. Forget Kilian‘s Apple Brandy, this apricot version blows it out of the water in its alcoholic realism, liqueured heft, and golden richness. Davana is frequently used to create a boozy accord, whether rum or cognac, and it also has a strong aroma of apricots, so that’s clearly the source for some of what is going on here, but it’s not responsible for everything. Quite separate from the concentrated davana liqueur is the osmanthus, and what an osmanthus it is. Unlike the gossamer thin, practically tofu floral version of the flower that we’re benighted with in so many modern fragrances, this is the fruited version that not only wafts its rich apricot purée aroma but, just as distinctly, its innate leatheriness with its Lapsang Souchong, smoked black tea undertones as well.
The multi-dimensional apricot and its DUI-drunk-driving levels of cognac booziness are merely the beginning; there is also the leather-tobacco. This is where things become complicated to explain, and there are three reasons why. First, like all the Sultan Pasha attars, it’s often difficult to tease apart where one note ends and another begins. Second, as I keep emphasizing with all the Sultan Pasha attars, the quantity you apply makes a monumental difference to the notes that appear on one’s skin. In this case, even more so than with some of the other attars, I think. When I applied anything more than the slightest, tiniest amount, the result was not tobacco, but leather on my skin. I’ve tried Tabac Grande multiple times and anything beyond a single, barely wettened swipe of the atomiser stick — essentially amounting to half of one single drop — seems to obliterate the tobacco on my skin in the opening stages and, in one instance, obliterated it for as long as the first four hours. Depending on try, 90% to 100% of the note felt like leather; but sometimes, only sometimes, the tobacco was clearly layered within and would poke out shyly. The less fragrance I applied, the more the tobacco came out individually, distinctly, properly, and strongly. One fractional swipe too many and the tobacco became buried behind a thick wall of cognac-laden leather that was part osmanthus, part musky castoreum leather.
The third and final difficulty in teasing the leather-tobacco accord apart is the nature of the tobacco itself. It typically smells like very fermented and immensely raw tobacco, as though the oily, dirty juices had been wrung out of the barely dried leaves and then left to reduce into something that is as tannic as leather. In short, the tobacco itself is like leather! Yet, at other times, the tobacco is completely different, either as fragrant and smooth as an unsmoked Cohiba cigar, or as sweetened and fruity as pipe tobacco.
These two or three main elements are the foundational structure upon which Tabac Grande is built, the backbone upon which everything else grows, like sinew, muscle, and flesh. As a result, the fragrance rarely follows the same developmental route twice on my skin, at least in so far as the nuances or prominence of its secondary notes. In one recent test, the boozy, honeyed osmanthus/davana apricot liqueur was conjoined with immensely musky castoreum leather, leathery (cade) woods, smoky cedar, dark musks, and a wonderful, heaping pile of raw, semi-bitter, black chocolate. Moments later, the rushing rivers of darkness and sweetness were joined by thin trickles of tonka, vanilla, sweet rose, amber, and a moderate pinch of tobacco. For the most part, Tabac Grande felt as though it were layer upon layer of sticky, musky, leathery, ambered, and highly alcoholic boozy sweetness.
Different parts shone at different times, sometimes to wonderful effect. For example, the leather. It was particularly enticing when it was laced not only with the cognac but also with a fine mist of bitter chocolate and a hint of the osmanthus’ smoky Oolong tea. The result was a leather that felt richly aged, burnished, glowing, and smooth, the sort of leather that evokes the old, private, men’s-only, aristocratic London clubs like White’s, Brooks, or Boodles where Beau Brummell, Gladstone, and Churchill once held sway. In this version of Tabac Grande, the rose joined the leather, booze, and chocolate on center stage after 20 minutes, and what a rose it was. It was syrupy, beefy, dense, and dark — far darker than anything in Tom Ford‘s famed Noir de Noir. The tobacco wafted the sweetened aroma of a pipe, as thin ribbons of vanilla and tonka plushness wrapped around it.
A scant hour later, everything changed, the rose vanishes, and Tabac Grande turned its focus to highlight the osmanthus in all its leather and tea notes, suffused with boozy apricot purée, then enveloped in a thick, dense haze of muskiness that sometimes skewed a little animalic, thanks to the civet, castoreum, and hyraceum. The tobacco danced in and out, playing a coy, flirtatious game from behind the solid wall of the main notes, but it rarely stayed in one place long in solid fashion. Instead, the oud gradually reared its head, adding to the sense of smoky leather.
Then, roughly 7 hours into Tabac Grande’s development, the boozy leather receded to make way for the immortelle, a slew of resins, and, finally, the titular note, the tobacco. As it took over center stage from the leather, the latter turned into something more like creamy suede, thanks in large part to the increasing plush creaminess of the tonka and, I suspect, a bit of the Butter CO2 that Sultan Pasha likes to use in some of the attars. The leather feels a lot like the drydown calfskin leather/suede of his Ambrecuir, only here it’s heavily coated with thick, treacly, balsamic resins led by the Tolu Balsam, and sometimes infused with the osmanthus’ smoky tea-like qualities as well. In this version of Tabac Grande, the cognac-immortelle-resin-tobacco accord essentially makes up the main heart stage and lasts for hours, wafting powerful waves of sweetness, booziness, muskiness, somewhat smoldering or smoky resins, and immensely golden, ambered warmth. In the background, there are occasional, muted, quiet streaks of a leathered smokiness and a muskiness that is sometimes animalic. Tabac Grand’s drydown tends to start somewhere around the 14th hour, and basically consists of a sweetened, resinous darkness that is primarily led by Tolu balsam, but also strands of something tobacco-ish, immortelle-ish, and ambered.
Other tests of Tabac Grande yielded different results, although the 2-strand core of multi-faceted, apricot brandy and leather was always the same and always dominated the opening stage. In one version, the honey felt quite separate from the apricot brandy; there was no clearly discernible bitter chocolate woven into the leather; the Tolu balsam emitted big puffs of black licorice; the smoky cedar wasn’t so fleeting; and there was no rose whatsoever but distinct ripples waves of jasmine instead, from the 2.5-hour mark until the 6th hour, smelling indolic, smoky, floral, and syrupy all at once. In addition, both the vanilla and the tonka plushness appeared only at the very end, and in such ghostly, elusive fashion that I sometimes wondered if I imagined smelling them underneath all the resins.
In another test, the apricot cognac-leather was primarily accompanied by an incredibly heavy muskiness in its opening phase. There was little else, merely a monolithic, dense, linear mix of booziness, leather, and dark musks for almost 6 hours straight before a small quantity of leathery tobacco showed up. Eventually, that tobacco became a significant part of the blur, but it was nevertheless still a monolithic blur. The tobacco was the sum-total when you sniffed the fragrance on the scent trail and from a distance but, up close, everything was swallowed up in a haze of dark, musky sweetness. Apart from the tobacco, the other notes often felt more like amorphous, fleeting impressions rather than a concrete, solid note of, say, ambergris, chocolate, jasmine, rose, vanilla, castoreum or osmanthus leather, or resins. Actually, some of those didn’t show up at all, particularly the florals.
This last version was the direct result of my applying too much of the attar. Even for me, even with all I know of the Sultan Pasha line, it’s difficult for me to get into the proper mindset the very first time I apply one of them after a long period away from them. When irregular usage is combined with an actual bottle (as opposed to the sample vials), I always make the same mistake and end up applying too much, usually out of greed and the pattern of thought that I’m used to with conventional fragrances where I think, “I’ll give it a good few swipes and have a really monster cloud.” This may work with attars from every other brand, but it never ends well with the Sultan Pasha ones in my experience. It consistently screws up the balance, the complexity, the nuances, and the layers in the scent, resulting in something completely topsy-turvy and simplistic that usually emphasizes 2 accords, maybe 3 at most, in a behemoth bulldozer that has few to no finer points. By the way, in case you’re curious as to what constituted “too, too much” in the case of Tabac Grande, I’m talking about 2 swipes of the atomizer stick from a bottle over a wide expanse of skin, so about 2 drops or 3 tiny ones.
My favourite version of Tabac Grande was the first one that I’ve described in detail above, and it resulted from an extremely low dosage application. To the extent that one can estimate or quantify the vagaries that are involved when using a barely wettened atomiser or paper clip, I’ll call it the rough equivalent of half a drop. (I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous.) Using fractionally (just fractionally) more, say roughly the equivalent of one small drop, gave me my second favourite version of Tabac Grande.
And this one transported me straight to Cuba. Like every other test, this version opened with a tsunami of heavy, sticky fruited sweetness, but this one was more akin to rum than cognac. To be precise, it was apricot rum infused with buckets of dark, slightly smoldering honey and syrupy immortelle over an immensely resinous leather. The latter didn’t smell so much like osmanthus leather, nor a particularly castoreum-driven one, either, but primarily like Tolu balsam leatheriness supplemented with some castoreum. Whatever the precise proportions of the leather’s components, the tobacco showed up quickly in this version, about 20 minutes in, wafting not just the aromas of pipe tobacco but the scent of unlit cigars as well. Hanging over everything was an ambered haze, more golden and redolent of caramel-tinged ambergris than the heavy, animalic-based muskiness that I find in so many of the Sultan Pasha attars. The basic effect felt very Cuban to me, even more so than Parfums de Nicolai‘s Cuban-inspired Cuir Cuba Intense or Sultan Pasha’s Carnival d’Havana. (More on that in a minute). The vibe of Tabac Grande in this version strongly evoked old-fashioned speakeasies or dimly lit Havana clubs where the rum flows freely as men smoke thick, giant cigars while leaning back in leather booths, listening to jazz, blues, or even perhaps the tango, while smoke curls up in the sultry, humid air. Rum is really and truly everywhere, cascading over the tobacco, the leather, the occasionally licorice-scented Tolu resins, and the muskiness of heated humidity that has been rendered so solid and concrete that it might as well be an actual olfactory note in the fragrance. The result is sexy and masculine, but it’s the sort of masculinity that invites tobacco-obsessed women to partake as well, much like when they take their boyfriend’s leather jacket to wear for themselves, reveling in the sweet muskiness of his aroma layered into the leather itself.
All of this is what I had expected Sultan Pasha’s Carnival d’Havana attar to be like but, on my skin, it wasn’t. Not really. What hit me from Carnival’s opening minute onwards was an intense, loud, almost bombastic muskiness. It blanketed everything, silencing some notes while turning others into impressionistic abstractions. One of the few things to survive were the fruits, but they felt more like gourmand jam instead of pure alcoholic booze. The tobacco was impressionistic, while the leather was barely there. In addition to being much sweeter and muskier than Tabac Grande, I think Carnival d’Havana is also significantly woodier; its singed woods and oud far exceeded the minor, fleeting wood note in Tabac Grande. It also had a prominent amount of Mysore sandalwood, which was one reason for its creamy finish. Tabac Grance has no Mysore, and its finish consists mostly of balsamic resins with some amber.
When taken as a whole, I think Tabac Grande is more clearly tobacco-related than Carnival, except this is tobacco that often feels as raw, oily, and tannic as leather before being loaded up with actual leather, then with drunk-driving, DUI-levels of booze to give it an extra, extra degree of brawn. In short, it’s basically the Conan the Barbarian version of a cognac-tobacco-leather fragrance, but its heaving muscles are occasionally squashed into an expensive suit to result in the strange, sometimes disconcerting juxtaposition of (moderately) refined masculine sophistication with chest-thumping testosterone.
Tabac Grande has monster longevity on my skin, moderate projection, and, depending on how much I apply, a big to huge scent trail. No matter how little I apply, the attar lasts a minimum of 16 hours on my skin, but the average is more like 20 hours. With 2 light swipes of the atomiser, Tabac Grande lasted in one test more than 28 hours and through a shower, albeit as the softest, thinnest lacquer on the skin. But it was clearly there, wafting a musky, resinous, licorice-scented Tolu balsam sweetness. In terms of projection, it obviously depending on how much I applied, but Tabac Grande’s opening numbers typically started at about 3 inches with the smallest fragrance amount, going up to 4-5 if I used more. The sillage was the greatest beneficiary of an increased dose, going from 5-6 with a 1-drop equivalent to 9-10 with a 2-drop amount. (But don’t apply 2 drops! The fragrance smells much better with less!) Generally, Tabac Grande turned into a skin scent around the 7th hour if I applied a tiny amount, and between the 9th and 10th hour if I applied more.
There isn’t a huge amount on Tabac Grande out there, but one fan is Luca Turin who gave the fragrance a Four Star review, writing that it evoked the scent of North Carolina and its buildings which were
full of tobacco to the eaves. The rich, complicated smell of cured tobacco was everywhere, as always poised midway between delicious and poisonous. Tabac Grande Attar smells just like it. When I met the perfumer of SPA he kindly gave me approximately 1 ml. Given the power of the stuff, that turns out to be a lifetime supply.
On the Basenotes thread for the Sultan Pasha attars, there are a handful of descriptions from when Tabac Grande was first released. (Most of the discussion and analysis of the SP attars has moved to a private, closed Facebook group since that time.) In Comment #186, “Mandaguy” wrote:
Tabac Grande is terrific. It is deep and rich. The most prominent notes to my nose are comforting moist cigar tobacco (without the sharp spice), honey, rich incense, amber and a really interesting anise (black licorice) note that provides a perfectly interesting edge to the composition. In fact, the anise note blends with the tobacco/honey/incense in a way which resembles a beautiful coffee accord.
“The Bark” provides a wonderfully in-depth description in Comment #204:
I have to admit, at first whiff I thought this was perhaps a bit much for me – this isn’t you’re polite tobacco fragrance, smooth like Parfum de Marly’s Harod or rough and sweet like Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille. No, this is 100% alpha-male tobacco, rich, moist, dark raw and unadulterated with cognac. I went through a tobacco-fragrance kick several years ago and kept coming across marketing selling the fragrance as “aristocratic old-world board rooms with leather chairs and polished wood carvings.” You know, money, power, etc. But the fragrances hardly ever lived up to that. This… THIS smells like that, without ever capturing anything remotely “pipe tobacco-ish” as this is more about hand-rolled tobacco leafs saturated in cognac. Actually, it smells, from my recollection, a bit like Parfum d`Empire’s Fougere Bengale, to which it shares a number of common notes.
The beginning is so thick and chewy, it really made me look to the floor for a spittoon. It’s also a bit boozy, so now I’m conjuring images of an old bar – to which I found the perfect photo for below. The opening gradually began to grow on me – it’s not that I disliked it, rather the intensity and darkness of the tobacco and cognac here is unlike anything else I’ve experienced so it takes a bit to regain my senses and make sense of which way I’m walking. As it develops, I definitely get some hay which reminds me of the aforementioned Fougere Bengale, along with the tonka that smooths it out some. Make no mistake, this, even with a touch of honey, doesn’t become a confectionary holocaust by any means – there’s some dark cocoa lingering in there that keeps it somewhat dark and bitter while floral notes help balance it out a bit though I admittedly didn’t pick up any rose. Interestingly Bengali Oud is listed as a note, not that it’s in PdE’s FB, but the name connection nevertheless bears resemblance.
As this dries down further, it really becomes softer with a very appealing aura. The areas under my shirt where I dabbed some are still somewhat animalic and raw, but other, exposed areas less so and it’s become warm and comforting. I do sense a bit of amber that gives it a warm glow along with woody and vanilla notes and the booziness feels, for the most part, long gone, like I’m ok to drive home now (or at least ride a horse if I’m circa 1900.) Ultimately I find this to be quite the alpha-male statement fragrance that has a certain vintage quality to it and perfectly enjoyable on a cold winter’s night (and bonus that I don’t have to worry about missing that spittoon on the floor – those spots must be a pain to clean!).
I know exactly what he means about the spittoon, because I had the same thought several times. It’s the same note that I’ve described as the oily, dirty, and almost bitter juices wrung from raw tobacco that, on my skin, end up feeling as tannic as leather. It’s actually difficult, in my opinion, to know where the tobacco ends and the leather begins, and the balance consistently tipped towards the leathery side whenever I applied too much. (The fact that the cocoa, osmanthus, and castoreum also contribute to the bitter “leather” impression doesn’t help in teasing out the individual notes.) Still, even if “The Bark” and I used different comparisons or descriptors, I think we had largely the same experience and overall vibe from the fragrance, from the Alpha Male impression down to its almost DUI-levels of alcoholic stupor. (Killian Hennessy, eat your heart out, your fragrances have got nothing on this degree of booze.)
Before I finish the review, I want to get to a few housekeeping matters. First, you can buy Tabac Grande as part of a sample set or in solo sizes, starting at 1 ml for £50/€57. (See the Details section below.) As Luca Turin mentioned, given the power of the stuff, that 1 ml size “turns out to be a lifetime supply.”
Second, if you place an order during the next three weeks, there may be a small delay in processing. Sultan Pasha does everything by himself, from start to finish. In addition, there is a family matter which will take up some of his attention for a few weeks starting at the end of August. He also has plans to attend the Pitti Fragrance Fair in Florence from the 8th of September until the 13th, during which time he’ll obviously be unable to fill orders. In short, he’s going to be juggling quite a number of things over the next three weeks, and he is a one-man show, so I hope you’ll be a little patient.
Third, if you’re new to the blog and to the Sultan Pasha line, you may want to read my Overview post. It discloses that Sultan Pasha is a friend of mine, but, as I explained there, my relationship with him does not influence what I say about the fragrances. If I choose to write about them, it’s because I think there is some beauty, quality, appeal, and/or merit to them. (Plus, not all the reviews are unqualified positives.) The only thing that does impact my decision to write about the fragrances is my standard policy of not writing negative reviews for any small or indie company that is just starting out, isn’t well known, and lacks financial resources and/or PR coverage. Beyond the disclosure, the Overview discusses Sultan Pasha’s olfactory background, the nature of the fragrances, the materials, and the very unusual, particular way that you apply the oils (ideally, the tip of a paper clip!). It also provides links and brief summaries of the other 26 or so SP attars that I have covered.
Finally, in terms of upcoming reviews, over the next 7-10 days, I will cover the new Al Lail, the older Pure Incense, and the new Thebes in its G1 and G2 versions. After that, there is a good probability that I’ll review two upcoming attars, Vertige and Fougère du Paradis. Quantities of the latter are limited to roughly 12 ml or so at this time because it is dependent on a material that he’s having trouble obtaining in a small MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity), as opposed to a huge 5 kilo one. I hope to cover it anyway, if all goes according to plan, because Sultan Pasha doesn’t do many fougères. I may also review the new Mughal Bouquet but, as with several of these, it will depend on my testing schedule and on how much I can fit in. As you can see from Tabac Grande, the attars are so complex that each one needs extensive testing. What I don’t think I’m going to cover is the new Sohan d’Iris. Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that I wasn’t wow’d. By the standards I have for the SP attars, it was merely okay. (Granted, that still makes it better than 80% of the new releases from regular brands, but I expect more from this line.) We’ll see if additional testing changes my mind or, at a minimum, gives me less reason to shrug.
So, to sum up today’s post, if you’re a hardcore tobacco lover, and if you love boozy or leathery fragrances just as much, then Tabac Grande is a must-try. Next time, it’s the turn of the fantastic Pure Incense, and a must-try in its own genre.
Disclosure: My bottle was kindly provided by Sultan Pasha. That did not impact this review, and my opinions are my own.