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How To Pick A Cologne For Any Situation

Learning how to pick a cologne can often be a frustrating and pricy process of trial and error — unless, of course, you have an expert to guide you.

We’ve been wearing, considering, examining, and reviewing colognes for years, and are always happy to share what we’ve learned along the way. In this guide, we’ll be teaching you everything you need to know about how to pick a cologne, from the absolute basics of fragrances to choosing colognes by season and situation, as well as how to choose a cologne to give as a gift.

Let’s jump right in.

Table of Contents

Fragrance Notes 101: Top, Middle, Bottom Notes

No matter which cologne you’re looking at, it will serve you well to get familiar with some basic fragrance industry terms. Chief amongst these is the concept of aromatic notes, the identifiable smells that come from the fragrance maker’s range of ingredients.

Aromatic notes are generally broken into three categories:

  1. Top (or head) notes, which are the first things you’ll smell — and also the first to fade away.
  2. Middle (or heart) notes, which often define the changing experience of the cologne as you wear it.
  3. Bottom (or base) notes, the deepest layers of the fragrance that give it staying power and push it more firmly towards a masculine or feminine expression.

Fragrances will be discussed by their designers and enthusiasts in terms of their top, middle, and base notes, which in turn will define the fragrance in one or more proscribed categories; more on that in the sections to follow.

The Fragrance Wheel: Explained

Also known as an aroma wheel, fragrance circle, or smell wheel, the fragrance wheel is a diagram that maps out the relationships of different aromatics to one another. It’s an invaluable aid not only to the professional fragrance maker who has internalized its lessons, but also to the cologne novice looking to have a top-down view of the fragrances they’re smelling.

Introduced in 1983, the fragrance wheel has been modified twice to more accurately reflect how different categories of scents relate to each other. The most recent version, released in 2010, divides all fragrances into four categories, each with subcategories as follows:

  • Floral
    • Floral
    • Soft Floral
    • Floral Oriental
  • Oriental
    • Soft Oriental
    • Oriental
    • Woody Oriental
  • Woody
    • Woods
    • Mossy Woods
    • Dry Woods
    • Aromatic
  • Fresh
    • Citrus
    • Fruity
    • Green
    • Water

Of these, only the Aromatic subcategory is sometimes considered to be its own distinct category, owing to its long history of use in specific cologne formulations.

Keeping the fragrance wheel close at hand while you’re deciding on a scent to wear will help you conceptualize and organize your sensory impressions, and make it easier to find categories of scents that most appeal to you. It’s the most complicated part of learning how to pick a cologne, but if you familiarize yourself with it, you’ll have a much easier time.

How Do I Find The Right Fragrance?

The first thing to keep in mind when looking for a fragrance for yourself is that there is no “right” fragrance except the one you enjoy most. As with any other fine art, appreciating fragrances is a matter of personal taste, and finding the best fragrance for you may shift and change as you learn and experience more colognes.

That said, there are a few basic questions that can guide you in the right direction when learning how to pick a cologne:

  • Of the four fragrance wheel categories (listed above), which one appeals to you most?
  • Do you want a classic scent, or a more modern one?
  • What are the sort of situations where you plan to be wearing a scent?
  • Do you want a cologne for daily wear, or one that matches with a season?

If you don’t have the context or knowledge base to answer those questions right now, don’t worry; we’ll be covering more about each of them in the sections to follow, and you’ll go away with a complete picture of how to find a great fragrance for yourself.

How Do I Know Which Cologne Is Right For Me?

Finding the right cologne for you will largely come down to a matter of experience — hard-won experience that’s gained through trial and error, and a whole lot of smelling colognes. If you’re serious about finding the scent that’s perfect for you, you may want to take a close look at our guide on how to get free cologne samples; it’ll save you a lot of money as you develop a repertoire of scent experiences.

To get the most out of your time, money, and efforts, it’s helpful to let the questions in the above section guide your cologne explorations. Once you’ve clarified what sorts of scent categories, situations, and seasons you’re looking to experience, it’s much easier to narrow down to certain colognes to test.

Thankfully, we’ve already gone through much of the final stage of judging and differentiating colognes in each category. Read on for our best advice in each category, including links to our favorite colognes for each place and time.

The Best Cologne For Every Season

Each of the four seasons carries with it a certain aesthetic, and a feeling of what’s appropriate and what’s out of place. Case in point: Not many people look to eat hot soup in summer, or have a cold bowl of ice cream in the dead of winter.

Colognes are made with this same sort of seasonality in mind, making it easy to narrow down your choices to the season you’re currently in (or about to enter into). Let’s take a closer look at each season:

  • Fresh, aromatic, and floral fragrances dominate every list of the best spring colognes for men, and aquatic scents help bridge the gap as the season closes and temperatures rise.
  • In the heat of summer, you’ll want to look towards light, bright, and citrus-heavy compositions. Our review of the best summer colognes will guide your way.
  • The best fall colognes begin to show more of the woody and spicy aromatic styles, and autumn is one of the richest seasons for choosing masculine scents from.
  • Winter is the time to break out the most densely scented and long lasting fragrances, with many of the best winter colognes being rich and spicy with exotic resinous base notes.

The Best Cologne For Everyday Situations

Fragrances are a powerful way to add a finishing touch to an already well-presented outfit, making them ideal for presenting your best self in everyday situations. Here’s how to choose a cologne for four situations that you might run into:

  • Wearing a cologne to work can help you stand out from the crowd — but you need to be careful to choose a restrained cologne that won’t offend anyone. The best office colognes are simultaneously subtle and intriguing.
  • If you’re looking to take a girl home with you, you’d better be damn sure that you smell absolutely fantastic. A woman’s sense of smell can be a powerful erotic trigger, but only if you know how to choose the best colognes to get laid.
  • What if you’re new to this whole cologne thing, and just need a great scent to introduce you to the world of fragrances? You’ll want to check out our guide to the best colognes for college guys, which doubles as a great guide for any beginner to wearing cologne.
  • It’s no secret that wearing a great cologne is an easy way to get compliments from the ladies. But not every cologne is created equal in this regard, which is why we’ve written extensively about the best colognes to attract females.

The Best Cologne For Popular Scents

In the fragrance maker’s art, there are certain ingredients that are especially prized for their rich, complex, and fascinating aromas. These have become the base of entire categories of colognes, each with legions of devoted fans. Here are four of our favorite popular scent categories:

  • Among precious woods, sandalwood is renowned for its ability to provide depth and clarity to any fragrance. The best sandalwood colognes put this to use in creating rich, complex scents that transform and develop over long wear times.
  • Agarwood, also known as oud, is one of the most sought after ingredients in fragrance making — and also one of its most expensive. A thick and rich base note that has the greatest longevity of any aromatic, it lends its signature essence to the best oud colognes for men.
  • What’s more classically masculine than leather? A favorite of cowboys, motorcyclists, and tough guys, leather always makes a strong impression. In the best leather colognes, you’ll find it paired with everything from woods to spices to floral tones, making it a versatile ingredient with many unique scent expressions.
  • If the allure of the exotic has always been a draw for you, then the best oriental colognes will be right up your alley. Redolent of intoxicating flowers, rich vanilla, precious woods, and uncommon spices, oriental colognes are an unconventional choice that’s well suited to men who like making a unique impression.

What Scents Arouse A Woman?

What’s the number one reason that men wear cologne — or, if we’re being honest, do just about anything? Women, and their affections. And if you can arouse a woman’s passions with your scent, you’re well on your way to finding yourself in closer contact with the woman of your dreams. So learning how to pick a cologne to arouse a woman is a priority.

Here’s our take on three types of scents that arouse women:

  • The best colognes to attract females run a wide range, and almost definitely aren’t what you’re thinking. Attracting a woman’s attention can take a lot of different forms, and the right colognes for it have an intriguing combination of subtlety and invitation.
  • When you’re ready to hit the sheets but she’s not quite there yet, splashing on some of one of the best colognes to get laid might help you seal the deal. They’re big, bold, and intoxicating, and a little bit goes a long way.
  • Want to make the ladies come to you? You’ll need to start wearing one of the best panty dropper colognes right away. They’re a quick and easy way to start getting attention from women you’re around.

How To Pick A Cologne For Your Boyfriend

If you’re trying to pick out a cologne as a gift for your boyfriend — or give him a subtle hint that you’d love for him to smell even better — then it’s best to stick with the basics. Here’s a few ideas that are surefire hits when picking a cologne for your boyfriend:

Still Don’t Know Which Cologne To Pick? 

Still not seeing something that suits your tastes to a T? Maybe it’s time to dive into specific brands, and get a feel for how each designer imprints their signature style in classic categories of cologne. Here are five cologne brands to start exploring:

  • Hermes has been the face of French luxury goods for decades, so it should come as no surprise that the best Hermes colognes are perennial fan favorites.
  • While many colognes are the product of fashion designers, niche fragrance producers create some of the most unique and intriguing scents available today. Our guide to the best Amouage colognes for men takes a deep look at the Arabian producer’s commitment to traditional quality.
  • Not every man needs a powerful, complex, and long lasting cologne — and if you’re more inclined towards time at the beach than going out clubbing, then the best Tommy Bahama colognes have your name written all over them.
  • The best Curve colognes for men are great examples of how traditional fragrance styles have been updated and reformulated for modern men. Many of their colognes feature strong fruity top notes, making them a favorite of younger men.
  • Looking for something to splash on after your workouts? You’ll want to check out the best Adidas colognes from the sportswear giant.

Brian has been fascinated with fragrances since his 8th birthday, when his Dad gifted him a bottle of Acqua di Gio. Since then, he has become a men's grooming & style aficionado who teaches men how to look sharp. Backed by personal experience, Brian's articles are known for his no-holds-barred style where he holds nothing back. You will get his real opinions on the latest men's grooming products and best practices where he reveals the best (and worst) style advice every man should know.