If you love fragrances, you have to go to Merz Apothecary in Chicago. The original shop is outfitted like an old-fashioned pharmacy, complete with wood paneled walls and shelving. It was a good place to go for everything from Claus Porto soaps to German herbal teas. Then a couple years ago it expanded into the space next door, supposedly for men’s products, but the real draw is the amazing perfume selection. Merz now carries lots of niche fragrance brands you’ve heard of plus lots that you haven’t, and while you might have to ask salespeople to help you try them, they’ll never pressure you for a sale, and you can also ask for a sample. After all, often you want to let a scent dry down on your skin for several hours to see how it evolves.
I saw that Merz was having a fragrance event featuring autumnal scents and signed up right away. (Plus I only live a couple miles away). A convenient opportunity to try lots of unusual and expensive smoky, woodsy, and spicy perfumes at once? Yes, please.
After milling about for a while to drink wine and eat some small bites, we split up into three groups and sniffed a half-dozen scents in three categories: Smoke, Wood, and Heat & Spice. Staff provided background on the houses and descriptions of the scents, spritzing tester strips and encouraging us to test out the ones we liked on our skin.
While I like a lot of perfumes, I’m pretty picky about the ones I will wear, so I really only found a few that I wanted to try. In the wood category, I liked Chypress by Floris, a citrus-spiked concoction by one of the oldest fragrance houses still in existence. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the dry down, which left a sort of fake grapey-chemical tang. I’ll have to find out what this ingredient is, because I’ve experienced it before with other perfumes. Oud by Maison Francis Kurkdijan had promise with its evocations of a campfire under a desert sky in the Middle East, but ultimately it didn’t have enough structure for me.
In the smoke category, I had high hopes for Palo Santo by Carner Barcelona since I love exotic woods from the Yucatan so much, but it had too much vanilla. Other scents were truly fascinating, like Chambre Noir by Olfactive Studio, which evoked a beloved leather jacket on a cold day with a nice balance of fruit (dried plum) with smoky elements. 1805 Tonnerre by BeauFort London was truly mind-blowing–lime on top of gunpowder. Someone described it was “like working in a British weapons factory.” (Appropriate, since the official description notes it “imagines moments within the Battle of Trafalgar.”)
I hit the jackpot in the Heat & Spice category. It figures I would gravitate to the most expensive fragrance of the entire night, Golden Chypre by Grossmith ($395 for 3.4 ounces). It smelled like the inside of your grandmother’s best leather clutch that was infused with tobacco, perfume, and cosmetic scents over the decades. I have a soft spot for chypres–years ago I had a thing for Bandit by Robert Piguet–and I LOVED this one. So complex and vintage-inspired, yet not heavy or old-fashioned. However, the price gave me pause, so I got a sample instead. Unfortunately it disappeared surprisingly quickly on my skin, so I don’t think I will be shelling out for it soon.
The other one I fell in love with was Velvet Haze by Byredo. I love the Byredo line for its bottles and simple labels, but had only tried a few scents. At first Velvet Haze didn’t seem like it would be up my alley. It was very tropical, with a strong note of coconut. That burned off very quickly however, and you end up with a sort of sweet milky musk. I wrote “bonfire on a tropical beach” in my notes, but that’s more of a feeling than how it smells. I would say above all that this is a very modern scent. Winner! I’m going to splurge on it this weekend.
Oh, and the other reason to go to Merz’s fragrance events is that they give the cost of the ticket ($20) back to you in the form of a gift card, plus you get tons of samples in a gift bag. That also makes me feel slightly less guilty about how spendy the Velvet Haze is–good marketing strategy!
Bonus skincare review: I also had the chance to talk to Mariko Sato of Chidoriya, an all-natural and organic Japanese skincare line available at Merz. I was in need of a new daily moisturizer for the dry days of winter, and she steered me toward Secret de Geiko, a concoction of shea butter, camellia oil, and gettou oil. It sounds heavy, but it absorbs quickly and easily. She also suggested the Peach Moon Herbal Water as prep for the moisturizer. Needless to say everything smells good, and the prices are affordable. Ask to see the hand-painted silk kimono clutch and makeup bags they offer too.