Fragrance Notes: The Ultimate Guide

Understanding fragrance notes is the key to unlocking a world of potential in colognes and perfumes. But how much do you know about this all-important topic in fragrance making?

Developed concurrently by European and Arabic perfumers, the structure and composition of fragrance notes gives perfumers the ability to craft everything from delicately balanced floral fragrances to bombastic spice bombs, and everything in between. 

In this guide, we’ll be giving you a complete overview of fragrance notes: What they are, how to identify, describe, and mix them, and finally a Q&A section for commonly misunderstood fragrance notes. After our years of research and experience on fragrance notes, including conversations with perfumers and fragrance makers across the country, we’re confident that we’re your best source for fragrant note information.

What Are Top, Middle, And Bottom Notes In Perfume?

Also known as head, heart, and base notes respectively, the top, middle, and bottom notes of a perfume or cologne describe the relative “position” of aromatics within the composition. 

Of course, fragrances aren’t literally stacked up on each other. With that said, these notes could also be understood as what you smell first, what you smell in the next few hours, and what smell anchors the entire scent.

Top notes are the shortest-lived of the fragrance notes — think citrus and herbs. They introduce the fragrance, creating a smooth transition into the more apparent heart notes.

Heart notes are where most colognes and perfumes derive their signature aromas. This is the area where fragrance makers can really show off, carefully balancing portions of as many aromatics as they’d like to create an unforgettable scent. 

Base notes provide depth and longevity to the formula, often without being explicitly apparent. They’re the secret ingredients that create a platform for the top and middle notes to show their best sides, all without fading away too quickly.

How To Identify Fragrance Notes

There’s only one tried and true way to identify fragrance notes in a cologne or perfume: Practice, practice, practice. Professional fragrance makers spend hundreds of hours honing their craft to bring you each fragrance you wear, so don’t be surprised if it takes some time to tease out every note.

More specifically, you’ll need to get a list of the fragrance notes for your favorite fragrance, and spend a lot of time concentrating on the smell as you wear it. Complex fragrances will be harder to identify individual aromatics from, while simple fragrances like the best Jo Malone colognes will be easier to identify.

Alternatively, you can invest in a fragrance note sampler set (like this one from Noteology). These come with an array of single-note vials, so you can begin to perfectly identify common aromatics.

How To Describe Fragrance Notes

When we’re describing a single fragrance note, we look to identify three primary characteristics:

  • Position within the fragrance. Is the aromatic used as a top, middle, or bottom note?
  • Intensity. How prevalent is the note in the position it’s in?
  • Complexity. Is there something out of the ordinary for the note that makes it particularly special?

Once you have an approximation of each of those positions for each note in the fragrance, you can use them to paint a picture of the overall scent of the fragrance. 

Start with the top notes, as they are the first you’ll smell; how do they interact with each other, and how do they move into the heart notes? Are the heart notes supported by a strong base, or do you only smell the base notes at the end of the fragrance’s life? These are just a few of the many questions you can use to describe fragrance notes.

How Do You Mix Fragrance Notes

The art of mixing fragrance notes can be as simple as finding two oils that work together — say, lavender and lemon — and suspending them in an alcohol base, or as complex as the multi-faceted fragrances that dominate the perfume and cologne market today.

For professional perfumers, mixing fragrance notes can be akin to composing a symphony. In fact, fragrance makers use what is called a perfumer’s organ to fine-tune their new colognes and perfumes, selecting from dozens or hundreds of pure aromas to create a new experience for cologne lovers.

If you’re planning on mixing fragrance notes at home, you’ll need five things:

  • A selection of fragrance oils
  • Pipettes, for dispensing your oils
  • An alcohol base
  • A glass mixing vessel
  • Paper strips

This bare-bones setup can be made to resemble the perfumer’s organ mentioned above, allowing you to choose small portions of each essential oil that you own, mixing them into an alcohol base, and then applying it to paper to sniff as you go.

Keep adjusting a few drops at a time, and you’ll get a sense of how each fragrance note works on its own, and in combination with others.

Top Note vs Base Note?

How can you tell the difference in a top note versus a base note? Easy: Top notes are light, bright, and last a short time, while base notes are deep, heavy, and last the longest of all.

For example: Citrus peels will almost always be a top note in colognes and perfumes, as they lack the longevity necessary to play any other role. Deeply textured aromatics like sandalwood and oud, however, cannot help but be base notes — they’re strong and long-lasting, but won’t be the first thing you smell when you apply the fragrance.

Top Note Or Middle Note?

Differentiating between top notes and middle notes is a tougher task than deciding between top and base notes. In fact, the exact position of a middle note is somewhat ambiguous — with aromatics used as top notes commonly appearing in the middle, and vice versa, depending on the perfumer’s tastes.

So how can you tell which is which? It really comes down to intensity and presence in the fragrance, and when you smell each note. Top notes are the first thing you’ll smell when you apply a fragrance (and the first to fade), while middle notes appear strongest an hour or two into wearing (and last nearly to the end).

How Long Do Top, Middle, And Base Notes Last In Fragrances?

The longevity of scent for each type of note is their prime characteristic. In order, this is how long the notes of a fragrance usually last:

  • Top notes: Less than an hour, though sometimes they fade almost immediately after applying
  • Middle notes: 3 to 6 hours, depending on the quality and quantity of aromatics included in the fragrance.
  • Base notes: 6 hours and more in high quality colognes and perfumes. The rarest and most expensive base aromatics can extend a fragrance for over a full day.

Is Sandalwood A Top Note?

Sandalwood is a rare and prized ingredient in fragrance making for good reason: It’s exceptionally long-lasting, with an intensity and complexity that can tie many other ingredients together.

For all that sandalwood is, however, it is not a top note. In fact, this is true of most precious woods: They’re too strong and deeply scented to show up in the first whiffs of a cologne or perfume.

Occasionally, you’ll find sandalwood as a heart note, as featured in Diptyque’s Tam Dao, which we consider as one of the best sandalwood colognes for men.

Is Tobacco A Top Note?

So here’s a tricky one: Did you know that tobacco leaves are not the only part of the plant used as an aromatic? It’s true — tobacco blossoms also occasionally make their way into the perfumer’s palette as a top note, even while tobacco leaves are most often found in the heart and base.

Technically, then, tobacco can be used as a top note (as in Thierry Mugler Pure Havane, from our guide to the best tobacco colognes for men). More commonly, though, tobacco leaves show up in fragrances as heart and base notes due to their rich and dense aromatics.

Is Cinnamon A Base Note?

Appearing most often in the best oriental colognes for men, cinnamon is a zesty and enjoyable addition to colognes that can handle a bit of spice. Thanks to its strong and bracing aromatics, though, it does not make an appearance as a base note.

More commonly, cinnamon is found in the heart and top notes of colognes and perfumes. This is where it can show its best sides, either giving a spicy introduction to a scent or binding together other exotic ingredients with its woody complexity; Victor & Rolf’s Spicebomb is a fantastic example of the latter use as a heart note.

Is Vanilla A Base Note?

In the common cultural lexicon, vanilla has a bad rap. Often taken to mean “plain” or “uninspiring” due to the widespread use of imitation vanilla, you could get the impression that it’s just not that special.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

The real fragrance of vanilla is complex and intoxicating, and able to range from exceptionally intense to admirably subtle. Just look at the wide applications of vanilla in the best vanilla colognes for men — proving that it can be paired with just about anything, and works as a fantastic base note for a wide variety of fragrance styles.