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To suss out the best spring perfumes, we asked writers Rachel Syme and Helena Fitzgerald — the founders of the fragrance newsletter The Dry Down — for their most beloved seasonal opinions. Here, six of their favorite scents, and the feelings, memories, and specific spring days each of them brings to mind. You can subscribe to their newsletter here.
Want to try them out? You can purchase a sample pack of their recommendations from the Brooklyn-based fragrance store Twisted Lily for $20 (and get a bonus $20 gift card that can be used toward a future full bottle, should you find one you fall in love with, too).
If you live in New York City long enough, you’ll begin to mark the seasons not by the calendar but by a set of very specific urban solstices, ceremonial days in the city when time begins to shift.
Sometime around September comes Hot Liquids Day, the first day of the fall when cold brew feels crass, or at least the idea of drinking scalding coffee outdoors doesn’t make your sweaty summer stomach do flips. In the summer, there’s Rooftop Vodka Soda Day, Bikini Tops With Jean Shorts Day, and Bodega Popsicle Day. In winter, we get Ugly Puffer Acceptance Day and Buying Fancy Cheese You Can’t Afford for a Blizzard Day.
But my favorite unofficial New York holiday comes in the early spring, and I’ve started longing for it every year. This is Forced Al Fresco Day — the first weekend morning that everyone in the city seems to agree that dining outside is a viable option and all of the sidewalk cafés put out cheery bistro tables, even though it’s far too cold for anyone to really enjoy the experience of slurping down oysters while the wind whips at your face.
Forced Al Fresco Day never gets above 50 degrees; sometimes it’s even technically freezing outside. It’s just that at some point, around the end of March, everyone seems to decide en masse that they’ve had quite enough of hibernating, and they’re willing to participate in a collective delusion that the spring thaw has arrived.
I love walking around on Forced Al Fresco Day and seeing groups of friends huddled together, teeth chattering over a bottle of rosé, trying to warm their icicle fingers over a single votive candle placed on the table. There’s a hopefulness to this activity — willing the next season to get here already — but there’s also a wash of melancholy over the whole day; no one is having that much fun, and no one wants to admit that they miscalculated. It’s a day of prideful shivering, of wearing the wrong coat and saying “No, I’m fine, really” if anyone offers you their scarf.
William Eadon’s No. 12 EDP is Forced Al Fresco Day turned into a scent. It’s a spring perfume that isn’t quite ripe yet; a cozy, dank, syrupy winter affair with lemons shoved into the bottle in a desperate effort to strong-arm brightness into the world. I love it precisely because it feels like two seasons smashed together into one slightly awkward but eternally optimistic elixir. It’s both sunny and swaddled, mixing mulling spices with fresh lavender, delicate neroli with muscular, gooey benzoin. It starts out with fresh cracked pepper and becomes a brunch mimosa, then dies down to an almost feral ending, all salt and amber. In its final moments, No. 12 smells like the secret angles of someone you love: the buttery scalp, the cumin scent that lingers on a sweaty T-shirt, that powdered scoop between the shoulder blades.
It smells exactly like leaving the house without a sweater when you really should take a sweater, and then drinking enough champagne to temporarily forget that your hands are numb. It smells like sitting down at a sidewalk café and faking your way through a good time, because you know that the golden days are coming. They’re so close.
William Eadon, it should be noted, is not really a traditional perfumer. He is sometimes a fashion designer and sometimes a photographer, and sometimes, he films crystal cleansing videos in his apartment. In an interview about how perfume came into the equation, he said: “I’m not sure where I discovered fragrance… maybe for want of coloring myself in a hue that I am not, so for a moment, I might play a role of someone better than who I thought I was.” And I love that idea. It resonates with me and with how I first stumbled into fragrance. I was intrigued by stepping into roles — much like how New Yorkers trudge out into the brisk to try on their spring personalities.
CB I Hate Perfume’s To See A Flower smells like dirt. A technical perfume categorization would call it a green, and it is perhaps the greenest green I’ve ever smelled. It smells like the green shoots buried in wet, brown soil that appear sudden and neon against the landscape. It smells like kneeling over a garden, working with your hands, the patience of turning dirt again and again, believing in the promises of care, repetition, and waiting — believing that the earth will yield abundance if treated with proper kindness.
As it dries down, florals emerge from the wet earth, but there’s nothing indolent about these florals — they’re fresh and brand new, something guided out of the earth by two hands. The bright green note persists as it moves from dirt to flowers, a scent about living and dying expressed by how the earth comes visibly back to life in the spring. Spring is the hope of return, of redemption, another try, a better world beyond this one, and it calls us back to hope even after hope is painful, even after we’ve been disappointed too many times.
Christopher Brosius made his name working with Demeter, a brand of single-note perfumes that were wildly cult-popular in the 1990s and are now sold in Duane Reade. Each is extremely specific and most are pointedly strange — pizza, earl grey tea, sugar cane, kitten fur. Few of them smell beautiful, and more than one is repulsive, but each smell exactly, almost bizarrely, like their name. CB is Brosius’ passion project, the further evolution of this idea. In a manifesto explaining the line’s name, he says perfume is “too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same inelegant shape, a lazy and inelegant concession to fashionable ego.”
Each of the CB I Hate Perfume fragrances is achingly simple and exact, intended to evoke a specific memory. To See a Flower smells like the springtime of hands in the dirt, of earth-buried blooms, of stubborn, bright-green hope. It’s that one unexpected heraldic flower pushing up through the dirt with a promise that something better is coming, that this is where it begins, that once again hope will drag us up into the sunlight, into another new year, another round of belief. Its green smell is the scent of the world filling in like a coloring book, like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the black and white picture turns Technicolor — all of it is irresistible even when we should know better. It is green springing up again and again through the wet dirt, stupid and unconquerable, refusing to learn from its mistakes, still able to hope even after we should know better.
My favorite shopping day of the entire year, if I can be honest and also 8 years old, is the Monday after Easter, when drugstores put candy on sale in bulk. I don’t even have to buy anything to enjoy it (but who am I kidding; I walked out this year with an armful of Snickers eggs and three boxes of coconut Peeps). I just love knowing that one day of the year, candy actually costs the 25 cents that your grandparents say it used to, and that all around the country people are filling up shopping bags full of ovoid pastel malt balls because the getting will never be this good, not for a whole year, anyway.
This is the one day of the year when everyone briefly becomes a child, reverts to a primal state in which the pursuit of new ways to consume sugar was an all-consuming project; when chocolate was the end goal in itself. Things become so tediously complex in adulthood, but not in the Easter sale aisle. Choices are simple: Which puffy mallow bunny do I purchase for one dollar and proceed to shove into my mouth on the sidewalk? Which of the many seasonal shapes of Reese’s cups should be the ideal vehicle for delivering granular peanut butter flavoring to my body? Milk or dark?
Gourmand perfumes are often referred to in sneering tones by fragrance snobs (we’ve written a bit about this in The Dry Down in the past), as if wanting to smell like salted caramel and crème brûlée is an adolescent preoccupation; that real adults opt for indolic death jasmine and metallic whale secretions and basenotes of mud and tannery leather. That smelling borderline off-putting is what grown-ass perfumery is all about, and that vanilla is for rubes. And sure, I love a funky, weirdzo juice as much as anyone (I have a perfume in my current rotation that mimics the exact smell of a bat’s habitat, rotting fruit and stalagmites and all), but I think that being anti-gourmand, uncomplicated and crowd-pleasing though they are, is a very silly hill to die on.
Just as there’s something deeply soothing about standing in a fluorescent Rite Aid picking out waxy rabbits, there’s a sheer delight to putting on a scent that has to be nothing else but sweet and lactic, that peaks quickly like meringue and then fizzles out into burnt sugar.
What I love about Vanilla Hinoki, which comes from a New York-based line called Aroma M (in which every single scent is good — seriously, not a bad egg in the batch!) is that it gives you everything you love about candy (easy comfort, instant gratification) without the cloying stomachache that some vanilla perfumes can induce. Perfumer Maria McElroy found a charred, almost meaty vanilla available only in Morocco and then cut it with the Japanese wood hinoki, which to me always smells like the inside of a sauna right after someone pours a ladle of water over the rocks. It hits your nose as less of a bonbon and more of a barrel, maybe an oak one that some sweet liqueur was aged in years ago. It takes the idea of a silky gourmand and puts a few decades of life into it. It has depth and space and ambition. This perfume is the part of you that knows that life doesn’t get better than half-price sweets, and that when you get older, you don’t stop buying them. You simply stop asking for permission.
A couple weeks ago, it was that day in New York: the single perfect day that happens every year. It’s not the first one of such days; there’s only ever one of them. Every spring, I stop hoping for it, convince myself it won’t happen this year. And then it arrives, all clanging choruses and church angel harmonies, fresh as linen and open windows: the first true day of spring.
D.S. & Durga’s White Peacock Lily is the smell of this day. It’s full of huge, indolent white flowers and hints of candy at its edges, playful and welcoming and seductive without ever being dirty. It’s the first day you can go outside in a T-shirt and not feel even a little cold, the sunshine and the temperature suspended in impossible grace. Every year around this time, I buy a white dress and walk around in it feeling like a new flower licking up the sunlight out of the air. White Peacock Lily smells like wearing a sundress on the first day of spring.
White florals are often intimidating. I always worry that they are only meant for a rich Upper East Side mom who has a different Birkin for every occasion and has never broken a nail. But White Peacock Lily is a white floral that’s about skin and sunlight. The jasmine and violet and lily notes in it crowd together loud and adolescent, gloriously impolite, like taking off your shoes in public to have a picnic in the grass. A vanilla note near the base of the scent hints just slightly at 1990s Bath & Body Works shower gels, but in an endearing way, making the fragrance teenage and human rather than cloying.
Under its thick blanket of candy florals, there’s a base note just listed as “fog.” The cool relief of its contrast against the springtime exclamations of the rest of the scent is part of what makes me think of the perfect spring day. One reason this day is so perfect and so singular is that, just when you need it, there’s always a breeze. It makes the air feels almost bizarrely kind; it truly feels as though the weather likes you and wants the best for you. That fog note rising against slow-fading white flowers is the end of the day when the light lasts long and blue into nighttime, when even after dark the air is still safe for bare shoulders. It smells like leaving the park a little buzzed after a picnic with friends and walking home past a city full of people out on their stoops in the chatter of the soft twilight, refusing to go inside, refusing to let the one perfect day end.
I cannot resist an impulse purchase, and my favorite one lately has been Choward’s Violet Mints, these small blocks of chalky lilac-colored candies that taste exactly like flower petals, meaning that they’re acerbic and not quite sweet, like botanical children’s aspirin. I may be addicted to them. When I first started buying them from bodegas and pharmacies and pretty much anywhere with a whimsical checkout set-up, I thought they must be European. They just seem like something shipped over from London or France, similar to those rock-hard pastilles they sell at the Met Museum gift shop that are never, ever satisfying, but you’re in it for the ornate tin.
But no! I’ve since discovered that these are a native New York invention, the flagship product of Charles Howard’s confectionary, run out of a Soho loft in the 1930s. Further research reveals that Raymond Chandler named a noir detective after the candy, and also that Peggy Olsen always kept a pack of them in her desk on Mad Men. They have a permanent vintage quality, like you always just found them while rummaging around in the bottom of a bag that you forgot about for a decade.
Up until this year, I’d been on an endless hunt for a perfume that smells like Choward’s. I tried about 50 violet scents while looking, but none of them had that chemical zing, that milky, bitter floral aftertaste. And then came Heeley’s Iris de Nuit when I was on the prowl for something else entirely. I sprayed it on a blotter and there it was, the holy grail of perfumes that smells exactly like this one very specific thing. It’s funny how quiet the end of a quest can be.
There are other notes here: angelica, carrot, amber, white cedar, and iris, the latter of which gives the perfume its name and which tends to smell in fragrance like flowers dipped in fat (if you smell this one really closely, you almost smell brown butter — that’s iris giving up its last sigh). But really powdery violets are the main event here; they smell like the candy, but also like a makeup compact that has just turned, or lipstick gone slightly stale. I once heard a perfumer call violets the “grandma’s vanity note” in fragrance, because they really do smell like sitting at an old dressing table, like watching someone older than you put her face on before you were allowed to do it.
That is exactly what Iris de Nuit is to me, though other people have told me it smells like earl grey tea, or like being depressed in springtime when it won’t stop raining. It’s the scent of carving out personal space, of being a little bit bitter in the back of the throat. It’s what you may want to wear when you know summer’s coming, and with it, your life will become sweaty and public and overripe.
Sometimes perfumes are seductive not because they summon up memories, but because they summon up absences: They don’t smell like our own life, but rather someone else’s. Sometimes the sudden tug of a scent is the same longing I feel when I pass by the lit-up yellow windows of a stranger’s beautiful home late at night and imagine who I would be if I lived there. Sometimes we long sharply for certain experiences precisely because they have not happened to us.
Monsillage’s Pays Dogon is another green fragrance, but a woodier, meatier green — a green that hasn’t showered in a few days and has been sleeping in a car. It’s like wearing someone else’s shirt that you refuse to wash because then it would lose the scent of him. It’s an Atlantic forest green, the green of a house in a town in Cape Cod or Maine where I have never actually been, the green of a house I’ve seen but not visited, a weekend I’ve imagined and never had, all woods and campfire, pine needles and sand.
Every spring, I scroll through endless Airbnb listings for cabins on beaches in New England locations that I’ve never been. I spin vivid fantasies of a house in New Hampshire or Vermont or Cape Cod, the kind of house where everything is made of wood, a place that feels like maybe it was built by a sea captain before the Revolutionary War and passed down to people who loved boats and fixed things with their hands and had big grudging holidays with family members in heavy flannel shirts — New England people who settled into the tough seasons of the year and knew how to do the outdoors correctly.
Each spring, I build a made-up life around rented New England homes. In my made-up life, I have a group of friends who all want to pile into a car like labradors and drive up the coast of the Atlantic, stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts to get foaming coffee drinks. We spend a weekend together in a charmingly dilapidated wooden house in front of an austere Protestant beach that emerges out of the woods in grudging but soaring beauty. It’s a springtime about mosquito spray and slamming doors and raw, gritty seafood, about collecting driftwood and building a bonfire on the beach.
Pays Dogon smells like that imaginary weekend. All woods and vetiver, smoke and green and sand. It’s a musty wooden-walled beach house that’s just been opened for the season. It’s a family vacation in a home built by a dead sea captain. It’s a bonfire on the beach with people you love and whom you trust can build a bonfire correctly. It’s couch naps and motor oil and sap, a rusty family boat coming back into a small, anonymous beach in the late afternoon. It smells like somebody else’s springtime, and the light that spreads out from the windows of a home where somebody else’s family is making dinner.