Woods sniffing

strange wood

In an effort to build up my vocabulary regarding woody notes, I lined up several for a sniffing session. Of course, it was as much for the entertainment of my other half, who often comments on the drydowns of perfumes I’m wearing along the lines of “I smell something woody.”

We started with amyris. “It smells woody,” he remarked.

“I hope so,” I replied. “So do all the others.”

Amyris (Amyris balsamifera)

Also known as West Indian sandalwood, but not to be confused with actual sandalwood nor with amyris elemifera, a species of flowering plant in the citrus family. I may have bought this essential oil at the very beginning of my perfume journey last year mistakenly expecting the flower.

It offers a chiaroscuro of dark, comforting rootiness contrasted with an almost citrusy brightness. Slightly reminiscent of old cupboards. Barely lasts on the scent strip overnight. I can’t quite figure it out.

Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)

Complex, creamy—dare I say a bit fruity and boozy? Intimate, but not skin-like. It conjures the color yellow (and in fact the essential oil is yellow). I can’t imagine it clashing with anything. To me, this wood has no splinters. It’s very safe and I could bask in it all day.

Virginian cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana)

Also known as red cedar, this is the wood of pencils.


As the name suggests, this aromachemical from IFF is meant to convey cedarwood and amber(gris). To me, it’s a rounder and slightly darker Virginian cedarwood. My other half called it a “generic wood.”

Leaves its astringent trace on the scent strip overnight.

Guaiacwood (Bulnesia sarmienti)

This is one whose reputation preceded its aroma for me, as I had read something that made me want to seek it out. I don’t remember what it was besides that it was smoky, but presumably it was more than that (as I already had cade, which is the epitome of smoky wood).

The essential oil is actually in solid form and smells fairly mild, reminiscent of smoked bacon without the fat. I’ve found it to be a friendly note that doesn’t steal the spotlight.

Guaiyl acetate

This is a fraction of guaiacwood that comes in liquid form, and smells like a cleaner, purified form of guaiacwood. It still has the meaty scent, but is more tea-like. It’s supposed to have a tea-rose aroma, although I have a hard time perceiving the rose.

Iso E Super

Also from IFF, I don’t really understand why this aromachemical can be so polarizing. It’s the stuff of some people’s prized single-molecule perfumes and other people’s headaches. I personally find its unobtrusive muskiness quite pleasant, and it adds volume and boost to perfume blends, as it should.


This Givaudan aromachemical is not to be underestimated, as it’s likely to outlast everything else in a blend (in my experience, needless to say if most others are “natural” materials). This is the butteriness of Mysore sandalwood encased in a glass box with straight edges. Slightly watery and hollow. There is something cold about it.

Mysore sandalwood (Santalum album)

A holy grail of sorts as far as sandalwood is concerned, this is as creamy, smooth, and buttery as promised. Rich and deep, like a true balm. Nutty, fatty, and long lasting, it is the “heart” of a wood that stays close and will never abandon you.

Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum)

I got acquainted with this variety before I ever got to know its legendary Mysore counterpart, and I have to say I had no complaints. It’s much more diffusive in its fragrance, brighter, which some may interpret as sharper. If Mysore sandalwood is like butter, I would say Australian sandalwood is like the delightful clotted cream of English afternoon teas. I cherish them both.

Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

Bright like lemon or grapefruit, and a bit sweaty to my nose. The bared wood probably has splinters. Piney (it is an evergreen conifer), loud at first, but doesn’t last the night (on a scent strip).

Hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa)

A Japanese evergreen conifer, also known as false cypress, with an aroma much more grounded and long lasting than cypress. It’s a very clean smell, and to me suggests hospitality, probably because as a child I spent time in other people’s homes that had ornate “original-wood” furniture made of polished tree stumps that smelled like this. Because of these associations, I find it mystical and practical at the same time. The aroma of hinoki is on the end of a spectrum of woods that is light. A day later, the scent strip has it matured to something a bit smoky, yet still light and fresh.

Ho wood (Cinnamomum camphora)

Linalool. Soapy, rosy, vegetal. A bit bitter if I inhale too deeply. Urgent but fleeting.

Hiba cedarwood (Thujopsis dolabrata)

Another evergreen conifer in the cypress family, and endemic to Japan. It shares the “rough” feel of the scents of cypress and hinoki, but is sanded down, less bright. It could be further back in the pantry cupboard, where nourishing, dried root vegetables are kept. Cooler and earthier, but no less reassuring, like an ornamental fixture in a long-standing family home.

Cade (Juniperus oxycedrus)

Also called cade juniper, prickly juniper, prickly cedar, or sharp cedar. It smells like a campfire, barbecue, or burned building. Very smoky but never stale, and just green enough (fruity, even, once you get to know it better) in the background to remind you that it’s of plant origin.

wooden bench

11 thoughts on “Woods sniffing

  1. That was extremely interesting! I know most of the woods you mentioned but I’m not sure I would recognize them “blind.”

    I think my nose interprets sandalwood differently than “normal”: for me, in pure form (doesn’t matter how diluted), it smells rather sour than buttery.


    1. I probably wouldn’t either, although I might do OK if it were a multiple-choice test. With the sandalwood, I think I get what you mean. Even though there is something sour coming up, it’s still smooth and round overall to me. The image that comes to my mind is a creamy dollop in the shape of a Hershey’s Kiss, with the pointy part at the top being the sourness.


    1. I also read recently that we get used to certain notes in combination with other notes in perfume, which makes it harder to recognize them when they’re by themselves.


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