A perfume house known for its extensive line up of intense, potent ouds seems to be doing some lovely things with gourmands as well. Some months back, I covered Montale‘s two treatments of a lovely chocolate-rose with Intense Café and Chocolate Greedy, but it still wasn’t enough to sway me or to tempt to actually buy a Montale fragrance. Montale’s Patchouli Leaves may be the first, a perfume I’m considering getting for its indulgently gourmand, caramel-praline treatment of the controversial note.
As I’ve tried to explain with this whole patchouli series, true patchouli is very different from the note so many people are exposed to in modern perfumery. It’s not the vile, purple, molasses syrup reeking of fruits and berries that accompanies so many florals or quasi-“chypres” in the aisles of Sephora. The original, real, true patchouli is smoky, spicy, very brown-red in hue, with hints of aged cognac or brandy, toffee, dark chocolate, milk cocoa powder, tobacco, leather, toasted nuts, dry woods, and incense. It’s a woody smell that can take on green, mentholated aromas, ranging from peppermint to medicinal camphor. It can also reflect earthy notes, whether dusty or like damp, black loamy soil. Whatever its many characteristics, the true, brown patchouli often has a negative reputation lingering from its days as a favorite of “dirty hippies” in the 1970s who doused themselves in it to cover the strong smell of pot (or a lack of hygiene).
The niche houses have tried to rehabilitate poor, maligned patchouli, refining it for the modern era with its modern tastes. Montale‘s version seeks to turn patchouli into something gourmand and indulgent, seeping the leaves for two years in Bourbon vanilla. The result is something that uses vanilla’s richness to soften and tame patchouli’s wilder side, creating a soft, affordable, cozy caramel (or caramel-praline) combination that feels wholly in tune with today’s love of gourmand fragrances.
Montale puts Patchouli Leaves into the Woody or Bois category, and describes the perfume as follows:
Beautiful Patchouli Leaves macerated for two years in the trunk of the Oak tree combined with Vanilla, Amber and White musk on a base of Cystus Ladaniferus from Tibet.
Fragrantica classifies the scent as an Oriental Woody. It lists its notes as follows, excluding the mention of any oak:
patchouli, vanilla, amber, musk and labdanum.
Patchouli Leaves opens on my skin with a spicy, slightly smoky, mellow rich warmth that floods over me like the deepest, smoothest wave of brown-gold-red lava. It’s quickly infused by rich Bourbon vanilla, boozy aged cognac, and a distinctly toffee’d nuttiness. It smells like pralines, vanilla, and toffee’d woods, flecked lightly by a smoky incense. Deep down in its depths lurks a balsamic, ambered resin with a faintly leathered element. The labdanum amber isn’t detectable in its own right, and you never think, “oh, amber,” but the dark, chewy note runs like a deep vein through the base, giving off a toffee, nutty aroma that amplifies the same characteristics in the patchouli.
There is great warmth and a golden haze circling around me like a plush cloud. Patchouli Leaves is sweet, but never excessively so on my skin; there is too much dryness, woodiness, and smoky incense for it to be cloying and syrupy in any way. The cognac and brandy aroma softens surprisingly quickly, retreating to the sidelines and leaving mostly a subtle nuttiness. Another surprise is Patchouli Leaves’ weight. For a fragrance with such richness, body, and potency, it is quite airy. It never feels opaque, dense, or heavy, perhaps as a way of countering the richness of the vanilla that is slowly rising to the surface. The initial bouquet is very strong and intense, projecting easily 6 inches in range, depending on the quantity you use, but the actual fragrance itself feels like a pillowy, praline-coloured cloud of patchouli.
Ten minutes in, subtle changes occur. Patchouli’s greener, “dirtier” side emerges with subtle hints of earthy soil, mentholated peppermint, and dark chocolate. The latter is like bitter-sweet chocolate, though it eventually turns into a dusky cocoa powder. The earthy note is simultaneously musky, dusty, and like sweet, damp potting soil that you find in a garden. It’s subtle, and much more muted than the chocolate and peppermint accord. And the medicinal touch smells like eucalyptus camphor, though it’s much milder here than in other patchouli fragrances that I have recently tested. As Nathan Branch wrote in his brief review of the scent, “Montale Patchouli Leaves has an earthy, leafy tone that reins in the sharp bite of actual patchouli so that you’re smelling what might be patchouli plants growing in a deep forest.”
All the notes are infused with a dry woodiness that, to my nose, smells more like aged, slightly smoky cedar than the lighter, milder oak. The notes blend together seamlessly, creating a beautiful spicy, sweet bouquet of: dark, smoky woods; toffee’d balsamic, amber resin; toasted nuts; damp, earthy soil; dark chocolate; chilly peppermint menthol; incense; Bourbon vanilla; and smoky cedar.
It takes about 20 minutes for the vanilla to rise fully to the surface. At first, it takes on an oddly musty dryness as it merges with the woods and the patchouli’s earthier side. As its sweet richness washes over the darkness, Patchouli Leaves loses more and more of its boozy, cognac, leathery nuances, its spiciness, and its dark, balsamic feel. A friend of mine recently compared patchouli’s rich, sweet, spiciness to a deep, fat, sub-woofer bass, and I think that’s a perfect way to describe the note’s most beautiful characteristics. Here, the sub-woofer is increasingly pumping out a deep, fat vanilla “thump, thump, thump” — both of the sweet Bourbon variety, and the drier, woody, occasionally dusty kind. The patchouli is on top, but its truly dark, balsamic, spiced smokiness has been tamed from a deep operatic bass to a mid-level tenor.
Forty-five minutes in, Patchouli Leaves turns softer, creamier, and more blurred. The notes fold seamlessly into each other, though I wish they had a little more separation and distinct shape at this point. The woody elements seem less smoked and dry, the fragrance’s hint of dusty earthiness is more muted, and the dark, bitter-sweet chocolate is turning increasingly into milk chocolate powder. The faint traces of mentholated camphor are replaced almost entirely by peppermint, but they’re not very significant as a whole on my skin.
More and more, the focus of Patchouli Leaves is turning almost entirely into a caramel praline bouquet, with all the other notes standing on the sidelines. The prominence of the patchouli’s smoky, woody, or earthy characteristics varies over the next few hours, but they are increasingly inconsequential, appearing in only the subtlest way if you really sniff hard at your arm. Around the middle of the second hour, Patchouli Leaves’ powerful sillage finally drops, hovering now only 3 inches or so above the skin. However, it takes about 5.75 hours for the fragrance to turn into a true skin scent. After that, it just lasts and lasts.
Ten hours have passed, and I’m still wafting toffee’d caramel, praline, vanilla patchouli. A few more hours after that, the perfume fades in large part, but remains very noticeable on small patches of my arm. All in all, Patchouli Leaves lasted an astonishing 14.75 hours with a small application (2 big smears amounting to a single spray) on my voracious, perfume-consuming skin. With a larger amount (approximating 2 sprays), Patchouli Leaves lasted 17 hours on tiny parts of my arm. Montale fragrances are known for their longevity, but still!
What makes it so surprising in the case of Patchouli Leaves is that I don’t smell anything strongly synthetic in the base — and synthetics are what usually give a fragrance enormous longevity on my skin. Even more astonishing is the fact that there is no ISO E Super in Patchouli Leaves. None at all. That is a first for any Montale that I have tested. How Pierre Montale managed to survive without imbuing the perfume with his usual gallons of ISO E Super, I have no idea, but he did it. (Bravo, and please continue!)
To like Patchouli Leaves, you have to love both original, true patchouli in all its manifestations and gourmand sweetness. If you don’t like both, you’re in trouble. The reactions to Patchouli Leaves on Fragrantica are highly mixed, with some posters having issues with the patchouli’s “hippie” element, while others can’t handle the sweetness. Those who love patchouli with all its earthy, spicy, or occasionally medicinal sides have much less trouble, and love it. Some examples of the range of opinions:
- My new OBSESSION! It’s drop-dead gorgeous. The amber is not synthetic like most ambers. This is a warm, mellow, slightly sweet amber perfume. Patchouli is intense–rich and nutritious like a peat bog. I smell plenty of dark, damp soil, full of partially decayed mosses and leaves. [¶] It reminds me of Prada’s Amber, but Prada is spicy, and I don’t get that spicy quality in Patchouli Leaves. [¶] So earthy, yet so heavenly.
- Patchouli patchouli patchouli, a floral note drifting by.
A tidal wave of sweet sweet patchouli, if you like pot brownies then this’ll probably tickle you in your bad spot. […] OH!, a moist dampness is present as well. [¶] A hippies wet dream.
- Very sweet and creamy patchouli. After 1 hour smells like some eatable sweety made of patchouli and vanilla. Reaaly too sweet.
- Patchouli Leaves smells like a cheap head shop perfume. The vanilla is awful sweet and unnatural, the Patchouli is sweet and unearthy, the amber is sweet and cloying. Allover it smells cheap-oily. For the goths out there: You don’t want this patchouli, you’d smell like your hippie grandma, who has lost her sense of smell by using too much acid.
- This is definitely a hippie patchouli. It begins smelling intensely of mud and tilled soil, then it transforms into a bodily, sweaty patchouli within about a half hour. If you are a hippie, this is you in liquid form. It’s genius, but it’s not something I’d wear.
- In the nutshell: remove cocoa note and you get l’instant pour homme extreme from guerlain. This is classy, deep, dark evening scent.
- This is completely stunning. It creates a certain warmth that really puts me at ease. […] I can definitely smell patchouli (duh!), but it’s not what I have always known patchouli to smell like. Two people at my work wear some kind of patchouli scent, but on them it smells like dirt. It is obviously NOT Montale! Instead of smelling like a hippy, I smell angelic: fresh patchouli leaves mixed with a gourmand vanilla. Top shelf stuff!
Basenotes, however, has a very different, positive take on the scent. Out of 30 reviews, 24 are positive and only 6 are negative. Their perception of things:
- Best patchouli ever made. Sorry Borneo and Coromandel, but you’re a step below of Patchouli Leaves. Opening is raw and earthy, then join the vanilla and make it creamy and sexy. Projection is huge, same with lasting power (over 12hs).
- Or. Gasmic. [¶] My girlfriend suggested I use “smellgasm” or something similar but I just felt, in my bones, that it wouldn’t do this superlative scent justice. […] My goodness this stuff is dangerously divine.
- I’ll tell you what I got with wearing this- old book pages in a library vanilla and I loved it. I’m going to own this some day (I hope). I sit down on the sofa and wear this as I read a book and it’s so comforting to me.
- it’s like a big scoop of Mint Chocolate Patchouli ice cream on me for the first 5 minutes. It develops quickly and warms into a loamy patchouli within 15 to 30 minutes on my skin, but it starts out as patchouli wearing a winter coat of bracing green (mint and/or lime and/or lavendar) and dark chocolate-oak boots. Granted, this feeling of coolness is very fleeting. It begins morphing almost immediately into a warmer patchouli and amber brew with a touch of vanilla.
- Holy Smokes! This patchouli is no joke. This is not a classy, refined patchouli like Chanel’s Coromandel. This is not a dry, chocolaty patchouli like Borneo 1834. This is a sting-your-nose, transport-you-to-the-Grateful Dead-lot-circa-1989 kind of patchouli. […] This patchouli is very earthy and very rich. The juice itself is dark and seemingly thick. […] After about an hour the ferocity subsides considerably, leaving an amber/vanilla/patchouli that is indeed more akin to Coromandel, albeit more earthy.
- This smells like the woods. Sweet, dry, powerful, earthy, serene. And it has the most beautiful deep brown colour. However, there is a lot of amber here. A LOT. A very beautiful fragrance that works amazing is the autumn.
- Like eating dark chocolate with your lover under a tree after it has rained.
The people at Basenotes seem to have a better understanding and appreciation for real patchouli than those at Fragrantica, which probably explains why 24 out of 30 people gave Patchouli Leaves a positive rating. For me, I don’t think the fragrance is as “hippie” or “dirty” as they do, but my skin amplifies base notes and obviously brought out more of the vanilla from the start. On other people, the fragrance may be indeed have more of an earthy funk like damp soil or a medicinal touch for the first hour until the vanilla rises to the surface.
With regard to other patchouli scents, I agree with only some of their comparisons. Patchouli Leaves definitely isn’t as refined, nuanced, or gorgeous as Chanel‘s incense, white cocoa, and light patchouli amber fragrance, Coromandel, which is one of my favorite perfumes. Someone at Fragrantica wrote Les Nereides‘ Patchouli Antique was a better interpretation of note, but for me the two scents are extremely different as Patchouli Leaves is very gourmand and vanillic, while Patchouli Antique is very musty, dusty, woody, and minty. They also preferred Reminiscence‘s Elixir de Patchouli which many people on Fragrantica repeatedly find is similar to the Montale. I don’t agree with that either. To me, the Elixir is significantly more woody, and smoked, with a mildew-y swamp quality from the strong vetiver. It is also more ambered and less vanillic, in my view, but it may be a question of skin chemistry. As a whole, the strongly gourmand touch in the Montale separates it out from all the patchouli scents that I’ve tried thus far, which is why I think Serge Lutens‘ Borneo 1834, David Jourquin‘s Cuir Tabac, or Profumum‘s Patchouly also don’t compare.
To be honest, I like Patchouli Leaves, but I’m not in love with it and something holds me back from committing fully. It’s not as chic as Coromandel, or as beautifully spiced as Profumum’s more ambered Patchouly. My main problem is that I’m not really into gourmand scents, and that is the essence of Patchouli Leaves on my skin. Deeply vanillic scents always leave me a little cold, even when they turn into caramel praline. I would prefer more spice and incense, and for the patchouli to really shine through as the main star, instead of being tamed by the equally significant vanilla.
On the other hand, Patchouli Leaves has some definite positives that I find hard to ignore. It’s a cozy scent that beats out all the others in terms of its projection and astounding longevity. It’s also extremely affordable, with one discount retailer selling the large 100 ml bottle for $104 instead of $160. Given the strength and richness of the fragrance, that 100 ml bottle may last you until the end of days. Those unwilling to commit to eternity can also go with a 50 ml bottle that costs roughly the same amount at retail.
At the end of the day, Patchouli Leaves will only work for you if you know and love patchouli in all its true, original manifestations. If that is you, and if you adore sweet fragrances centered around vanilla, then you should definitely give the Montale a sniff. It is an incredibly warm, rich, smooth and indulgent take on the note, and a perfect scent for a cold winter’s night curled up before the fireplace.