Dry vs Sweet vs Bitter : Perfume Descriptors (New Video)

What does dry mean when applied to a perfume? In fragrance, dry is used to describe compositions that are not sweet–it’s similar to wine terminology. Since the distinction can be confusing, I made a video comparing and contrasting different woods based on their main characteristics–dry, sweet or bitter.

Examples can be drawn from the whole perfume wheel, but I decided to focus on woods, because it’s easy to see why cedarwood is classified as dry and sandalwood as sweet. There are also many excellent perfumes on the market that fully explore these characteristics of raw materials and make them the key elements of their structure. The creamy sweetness of sandalwood in Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore, for instance, is its hallmark trait. The dryness of cedarwoods gives Cartier Declaration and Hermès Poivre Samarcande their pleasing sharpness.

As for bitter woods, I used the example of Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan to describe how some balsamic notes read as bitter and woody. This bitterness makes Ambre Sultan more multifaceted and contrasted, especially since the composition is based on heavy, dense notes.

My A-to-Z Perfume Vocabulary contains the most common descriptors used in perfumery, and of course, if you have a question about a term that confuses you, please don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments.

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27 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this fascinating post and video. For me, this seems to be the most complex topic that you have discussed in a while. I think I’ll have to watch your video a couple more times to get the most out of it. I don’t know any of the fragrances that you have mentioned, although I’ve heard of them. As I’ve said recently, I really must break out of my vintage perfume bubble. Owning more perfume than I could ever use, I feel a little fearful of testing new fragrances, lest I find yet another one that I think I won’t be able to live without! (I also need to wear more of my good scents on a daily basis, rather than just when I’m going out, before they go stale. Besides, I probably appreciate it more than most of the people that I might encounter!)

    I think that perhaps the bitter and dry perfumes might be best for the Australian summer and spring, whereas the sweeter ones would be less cloying during the winter and autumn. I look forward to trying some of the ones you have mentioned, the next time I venture back into the city. It has been about nine months since I’ve been there, partly on account of COVID-19.

    Thanks again.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline August 21, 2020 at 7:41am Reply

    • Victoria: You can smell what you have looking for the dry vs sweet vs bitter notes, and that would be a fun exercise. I only mentioned the ones I did, since that’s what I had on hand. Sweet woods are also made so by adding other notes, such as vanilla, benzoin, sweet florals. It’s easier to make a dry wood sweet than a sweet wood dry. August 21, 2020 at 7:57am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Thank you for the tip. Yes, that would indeed be a fun exercise – to try to identify the different notes using the fragrances I already have. This is such a fascinating area. I became more interested in woods when you first wrote of the Mysore Sandalwood Soap! August 21, 2020 at 8:02am Reply

        • Victoria: That soap is definitely worth trying. It smells like real sandalwood. August 23, 2020 at 7:13am Reply

          • Tourmaline: I remember buying some at the time, for myself and for my younger brother, and both of us being impressed. I could smell the scent from the bathroom wafting down the hallway! August 23, 2020 at 7:16am Reply

            • Victoria: That sounds right! 🙂 August 23, 2020 at 7:22am Reply

              • Tourmaline: 😊 August 23, 2020 at 7:25am Reply

    • Peter: Mahalo Victoria for this latest post. Tourmaline took the words right out of my mouth. I agree that it may require more viewings.

      I didn’t care for the sample of SL Ambre Sultan. I thought it was the herbal notes, but now I’m wondering if it was the ‘bitter’ note that I didn’t like.

      Your ‘A to Z Perfume Vocabulary’ is a new revelation to me. I’ve always skipped it thinking it was a descriptive ‘header’. August 21, 2020 at 7:09pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Victoria’s video reminded me that amber could smell dry. I always tend to think of it as sweet.

        No matter how many times I read through the A to Z list, there is always something I notice again that I’d forgotten. I highly recommend it. August 21, 2020 at 8:32pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! 🙂 August 23, 2020 at 7:20am Reply

          • Tourmaline: You’re welcome! 😊 August 23, 2020 at 7:23am Reply

      • Victoria: That list has been around for a while, and I think that it’s one of my most viewed articles. Hope that you find it useful. August 23, 2020 at 7:20am Reply

  • Fazal: Santal de Mysore is a great example. Someone with no interest in perfumery immediately recognized the smell of sandalwood in the perfume. I am quite a fan of Luten’s classic catalogue but not very impressed with the current direction of the house. On the positive side, this translates to little temptation to add to my Lutens collection so more or less, my Lutens library is complete.

    Lutens significantly enriched the woody perfume culture, beginning with “Bois” series though unfortunately I have not smelled all in the Bois series. I have not warmed to most perfumes usually defined as woody as though they frequently feel like fougeres or even aquatics in certain cases. I am quite skeptical that many perfumes defined as woody are actually woody… August 21, 2020 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also don’t find the recent Lutens launches to be compelling. I understand about the need to appeal to more people and to expand the collection beyond their usual styles, but somehow it all feels too rushed. I’m happy revisiting my old favorites.

      Do you have any favorites from this house? August 23, 2020 at 7:14am Reply

      • Fazal: My most favorite from Lutens is Sarrasins. I love Feminite du Bois, too but in the original Shiseido version. Other Lutens I really enjoy include Santal de Mysore, Chene (very realistic oak tree smell), La Fille de Berlin, Bois de Violette, and Daim Blonde. There are some in my collection whose scent I don’t recall very well at the moment including Borneo and Chypre Rouge. Speaking of Chene, other Lutens with realistic notes are A la Nuit (jasmine) and Rousse (cinnamon). I like A la Nuit but not Rousse though it took me a while to realize cinnamon seems to play a major role in the composition of Feminite du Bois also. I like Cuir Mauresque, too but I think I prefer Knize Ten over it. August 23, 2020 at 2:05pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Fazal, please see my response further down. It suddenly jumped down even though I clicked on reply (it does that sometimes ☺️). August 23, 2020 at 9:27am Reply

  • Brenda: Great commentary, Victoria. I appreciate your knowledge and how much care you put into what you are communicating. I purchased some samples of the Hermes you discussed because you made it sound so inviting. Thank you! August 21, 2020 at 6:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure!
      That perfume is interesting for its elegant, polished character and the way it uses dry woods. August 23, 2020 at 7:16am Reply

  • Nick: Great series, very helpful for coming up with descriptions!

    Other than thinking of cedarwood oil as dry, I tend to associate phenolic, tannic raw materials with ‘dryness’ due to it ‘mouth-puckering’ feeling. Does this make sense to you? August 22, 2020 at 10:06am Reply

    • Victoria: It makes sense. They’re usually described with a “dry” adjective. August 23, 2020 at 7:20am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hi Fazal, like you, I don’t find the more recent Luten perfumes as good as the older ones (at least that means no temptation to buy). My favourites are Feminité du Bois, Tubereuse Criminelle, La Fille Berlin, Iris Silvermist and Ambre Sultan. And I enjoy having a bottle of each (bell jars for ISM and TC bought at the wonderful and slightly intimidating shop in Paris).

    Thanks Victoria for the informative video. It made me think again about how to view Ambre Sultan. I always thought of it as sweet rather than dry, herby and resinous rather than woody. I shall pay extra attention next time I wear it. August 23, 2020 at 9:24am Reply

    • Silvermoon: I mean I don’t think of it as bitter either. And yes, it’s heavy and dense. August 23, 2020 at 9:31am Reply

    • Fazal: Hi Silvermoon, I share your love of Feminite du Bois and La Fille Berlin. I have Tubereuse Criminelle, Iris Silvermist and Ambre Sultan, too. I don’t recall the smell of Tubereuse Criminelle very well though if I remember correctly, it is one of Victoria’s mother’s favorite perfumes.

      I have Iris Silvermist, too but unfortunately it does not move me as much as it does others including you. I am very well aware of its grand status as one of the benhcmark iris perfumes and wanted to like it so much but I guess I am not much fan of the carroty aspects of iris or is that iris root? My benchmark iris perfume remains original formula of Dior Homme with its lipsticky vibe. I need to understand Ambre Sultan more but I do think it is one of the “best values” among benchmark amber perfumes.

      One Lutens perfume with a huge fan following that I just cannot get along with is Arabie though I have it in the collection. That sweet dry fruits vibe is a bit too much for me. August 23, 2020 at 2:12pm Reply

      • Silvermoon: Hi Fazal,

        Oh you do seem to like very similar ones. So, Iris Silvermist is my least favourite of the five I have. Like you, I very much wanted to love it more (I do, but not soooo much). Sometimes I am in the mood for it, but other times it seems too cold and harsh. Iris Poudre (FMalle) and Terre d’Iris (Miller Harris) are probably my favourite irises.

        Musc Kublai Khan is probably the most outrageous (in a good way) of the Lutens collection. I tested it on skin once only but remember finding it great even if not at all for me. It certainly is among the few perfumes that I thought would be better suited for a man. August 23, 2020 at 3:05pm Reply

        • Fazal: Musc Kublai Khan does live up to its reputation. There is no dearth of musc perfumes and some are priced outrageously. However, for me the best musc perfume remains Kiehl’s Original Musk. I realize it is not hardcore musc perfume but I like how it strikes a delicate balance between the dirty side of musc and the sensual elements from floral notes. If I were to imagine an abstract smell of human skin, Kiehl’s Original Musk would come pretty close to my imaginary description. August 23, 2020 at 4:13pm Reply

  • bregje: hi!

    I kind of got stuck after the first couple of sentences where you compare perfume (terminology) to wine.

    I really love dry mineral wines.Sweet wine not so much.I don’t drink alcohol often but when i do it’s usual a mineral based one.
    So i started thinking:is that also what i prefer in scents?
    And you know what?I think it is!
    Although with perfume i have different moods and several kinds of different categories.Sometimes a girl just feels sensual or sweet;)
    But over all i think i’m drawn to light effervescent and radiant scents.

    Thanks for that lightbulb moment 🙂 August 23, 2020 at 7:50pm Reply

  • Wild Gardener: Interesting video, thank you.

    Everybody with an odorat can react viscerally to a perfume, but nomenclature is probably the key tool to understanding it.

    Keep up the good work. August 30, 2020 at 7:36am Reply

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