The Cologne Guide

In this guide, we’re going to examine cologne for the distinguished gentleman, what he should seek out, how he should apply it, and our recommended picks.



History of Cologne

Perfumes have been in existence since ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Although at the time it was a rudimentary concoction, it wasn’t until the Romans and Persians when perfume was essentially viewed as a science of alchemy.

Many historians believe that the first perfumier was a chemist named Tapputi, a woman in 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia who concocted potions made from distilled flowers, oil, and other aromatics that she filtered over and over. In India, some historians believe that perfumes were being used as far back as between 3300 BC and 1300 BC.

In fact, archeologists located what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving vial of perfume dating back more than 4000 years in Pyrgos, Cyprus. Discovered in a perfumery of gigantic proportions, the facility was a huge 43,000 square feet and housed 60 stills and equipment used to make perfume. Many herbs and spices were located which further proved that many of the same notes used today were coveted centuries ago.

By the 9th century, books were already being published, the most notable being the Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations, which contained more than a hundred recipes by Arab chemist Al-Kindi.

Based on other notations found throughout history and around the world, historians believe it was a Persian chemist named Ibn Sina who first experimented with extracting oils from roses and other flowers by distilling them. Before that, most perfumes were not liquid, but instead, a blend of crushed spices and herbs soaked in oil. They were as strong as a punch to the throat, so when rosewater was introduced, it became very popular, very quickly.

Perfumery was introduced to Europe in the medieval period by returning Crusaders who had gleaned insights from Arab perfumers. At the time, diseases were associated with smelly, unclean air, and perfumes were a highly-sought after way to “prevent” such diseases in addition to declaring your status in the world. In the 14th century, the Hungarians created the first alcohol-based perfume.

Despite recipe books being common, most perfume makers coveted their recipes to the point that some used hidden laboratories that could only be accessed by secret passageways. This was done to prevent others from stealing their recipes or being able to surveil their advancements.

Cologne Germany was the birthplace of the name

Cologne Germany was the birthplace of the name

The Birth of Cologne

In Cologne, Germany, in 1709, an Italian named Giovanni Maria Farina develops a spirit-citrus perfume he calls Eau de Cologne (French for “water of Cologne”) to pay homage to his new hometown.

“I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain.”

Little did Farina know that he had branded a product that most people would use for hundreds of years. His creation is a sensation, and soon it was in nearly every royal house across Europe. Known as aqua mirabilis (Latin for miracle water), a single vial sold for half the salary of a civil servant in Germany. It is unlike anything Europe has seen.

With such a revolutionary product, many begin to believe and spread legends that the water in Cologne had powers to ward off the bubonic plague, not to mention that many believed it to be the fountain of youth. Doctors would encourage patients to drink the cologne which was believed to repel fleas. In fact, many still believe that cologne has the power to prevent flea infestations and today, many flea shampoos for animals contain the same citrus oils found in many perfumes.

Johann Maria Farina was the inventor of cologne

Johann Maria Farina was the inventor of cologne

Nearly ninety years later, France established free trade in Cologne, Germany. Soon there are many fragrances being sold under the same, nonproprietary name, Eau de Cologne. The quality of some was greater than others, but Farina’s original Eau de Cologne continued to be the golden standard. Today, the formula remains a secret, but the name Eau de Cologne has become a global marketing tag for all perfumes designed for men. The original shop at Obenmarspforten, which Farina opened in 1709, still stands today, as the oldest and one of the most prolific fragrance manufacturers in the world.

By the early 1800s, Jean Marie Joseph Farina, a grand-grand-nephew of Farina, took reigns of the business and opened his own business in Paris where it eventually sold to Roger & Gallet which owns the rights to Eau de Cologne extra vieille.

Fragrance Concentration Guide

Fragrance Concentration Guide

What Exactly Is Cologne?

Today, cologne is a generic term that is associated with all  Most perfumes for men have adopted the term ‘Eau de Cologne’ or simply ‘Cologne’ for short.

Despite this generic term used industry-wide, traditionally, the term was representative of the extract and purity contained within the vial.

  • Perfume was typically 15-40% aromatic compounds
  • Eau de Toilette was 5–15%
  • Eau de Cologne, or cologne was a mere 3–8%.

Despite this, there are three meanings for the term “cologne”:

  1. The fresh, citrus fragrance created by Farina in Germany.
  2. The aromatic compound which indicated it was a less concentrated version of stronger perfumes.
  3. The generic term which denotes it is a perfume for men, which is used in combination with the term “Eau de Toilette.”

Common Scent Components

The recipe of most perfumes remains a closely guarded secret, although every perfume and cologne sold in stores are generally described based on their dominating scents. Similar to the way we deconstruct the flavor profiles of wine and whisky in our other guides, perfume experts and critics do the same.

When describing the scent components of a cologne, we typically break it down into three separate notes:

The Top Note which is the leading scent you get immediately upon smelling the cologne.

The Middle Note which is a slightly deeper and often more complex scent profile.

The Base Note which gradually begins to appear as the cologne wears off and the scent trails off into the distance.

When you initially smell a cologne, you first notice the top note which will dissolve quite rapidly. Like meeting someone, it is the first impression, and therefore, often considered the most important scent.

When the top note evaporates, you are left with a scent profile that begins to thrive as the head is dissipating. As the body of the cologne, it is meant to mask the harsher head of the top note that can be overwhelming to some. Then, as the middle note begins trailing off, the base note comes into focus and is used to harmonize all of the notes and create the scent we enjoy. These are the notes people will sometimes refer to as “intoxicating” as they are often very deep and sumptuous. In most colognes, it takes an average of thirty minutes for the base notes to appear after initial application, so it is often a good idea to put your cologne on about 30 minutes prior to arriving at an event.

The Cologne Guide

The Cologne Guide

The Olfactory Family

Most perfumes combine a family of scents into what is often referred to as a scent profile or pyramid. Rarely, will a cologne be a single scent, and so it’s always a good idea to test colognes before wearing them in public, so you can be certain you enjoy the entire life of the cologne.

Traditional Family

Traditional colognes are ones that are dominated by floral scents from a single flower such as a rose, a floral bouquet which is a combination of more than one flower, an oriental scent which is sweeter and often a combination of vanilla, flowers, and woods.

For men’s colognes, we also include woody scents which could be the popular sandalwood or cedar; and, we include leather which isn’t just the material, but also tars, tobaccos, and honey.

Many traditional colognes will also feature Chypre which covers moss and bergamot.

Modern Family of Scents

Like the more traditional scent family, there is also a modern, or contemporary family which was first introduced at the end of the Second World War.

For the most part, these scents are bright, and many are floral. They offer scents of fresh cut grass, rainfall and bright vegetation like cucumbers. The modern family also includes the recently popular ocean scents that remind you of the beach or open water. Finally, there is a food category consisting of fresh fruits that aren’t citruses such as pears, apples, peaches, pineapple and mango. There is also a dessert category that includes vanilla, chocolate, and hazelnut, among others.

The Fragrance Wheel

The Fragrance Wheel

The Common Scents

Most critics and perfumers use the fragrance chart which is a way of outlining the expected aromatic profiles. For the most part, it is a modern way of breaking the cologne down into easy-to-understand terms.

The chart classifies a fragrance into five families.

  • Floral
  • Oriental
  • Woody
  • Aromatic
  • Fresh

From there, each family is broken down into subcategories arranged around a wheel. For the most part, any cologne sold today should be able to fit into a category. This wheel is largely responsible for the marketing campaigns employed by the various cologne brands. They use the wheel to develop advertising copy so the prospective customer can relate the scent profile of a cologne to a memory or experience.

Scent Sources in Colognes

The ingredients used to manufacture a cologne are ideally natural, but often synthetics. The most common ingredients are:

  • Plants
  • Barks such as cinnamon and sassafras root.
  • Flowers and blossoms such as rose, jasmine, and citrus trees.
  • Fresh fruits, although this is commonly substituted by using a synthetic as many fresh fruits don’t have scents that are strong enough.
  • Leaves and twigs such as sage, lavender, rosemary and hay.
  • Resins, roots, and bulbs.
  • Seeds such as coriander, caraway, cocoa, nutmeg, and anise.
  • Wood such as sandalwood, cedar, pine, and birch.
  • Various oils and animal compounds.

One thing worth keeping in mind is that most synthetic aromas are created by the same companies. If you are purchasing a cologne that uses a synthetic base to create its scents, you may find an identical or close match in a far less expensive bottle produced by a less known brand.

Another example of a fragrance wheel

Another example of a fragrance wheel

How to Pick Your Scent

Selecting a cologne can be an arduous task. Since it can take more than 30 minutes to experience the full range of scents, it is often difficult to purchase a cologne without trying it first. Fortunately, most department stores and boutiques will offer samples so you can test the cologne on your skin and see how it reacts to your natural odor.

The best tip is to focus first on the description of the scent pyramid used by the Cologne in its marketing materials. Since everyone’s nose is different, reviews aren’t always the best way to pick your scent. When you do select a few to try, ask the shopkeeper to provide you with a sample and leave the store.

Experience the scent for about an hour as you continue your day. Take a walk, go to the movies, attend a meeting, or grab a coffee. This will allow you to see how the cologne grows in your daily life. It is also a good idea to spend some time with those closest to you. The last thing you want is to spend $100+ on a bottle of cologne only to find out your spouse hates the smell.

Once you’ve let it settle, return to the store. If you’re unhappy, try a different cologne. If you like it, then, by all means, purchase a bottle.

Here are our top three tips for selecting the right cologne:

  1. Find a scent pyramid you enjoy.
  2. Determine where you plan to wear the cologne.
  3. Figure out who you plan to wear it around.

These are important factors. If you happen to work in an office where there are regulations about the use of scented products, obviously a bold cologne is likely not your best bet. You may be better off with something far less potent.

The same goes for who you surround yourself with. Many people suffer from allergies or aversions to scent. Even though it may seem mild to you, you might find it is repulsive to those you spend your day with. This is another reason it’s a good idea to introduce them to it before you buy it and get their opinion.

In the end, the cologne you choose is really up to you. However, you need to realize and respect that others have to smell you.

Types of Cologne

Aside from the scent factor, there are other things that differentiate the quality of colognes and perfumes. It is very important to focus on acquiring colognes that have low percentages of aromatic compounds. The lower the rating, the less potent the smell. You also want to try to ensure that you purchase a cologne made from natural ingredients and one that contains little to no alcohol. Synthetic colognes and alcohol-based fragrances can do damage to your skin. If you apply cologne to your neck, you run the risk of developing skin ailments while shaving. Always check the ingredient list and determine if there is any risk of allergy for you and those who may come into contact with it.

Recommended Products

Recommended Cologne Brand Price
4711 by Muelhens for Unisex – 27.1 oz EDC Splash Muelhens $
Ermenegildo Zegna Intenso Eau De Toilette Spray Ermenegildo Zegna $
Replica Jazz Club Maison Martin Margiela $
Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet Eau de Toilette Penhaligon’s $

4711 is the oldest cologne still sold

4711 is the oldest cologne still sold

4711 Eau de Cologne

Introduced in 1772, 4711 is the world’s oldest and perhaps most treasured cologne still produced. It features citrus oils, lemon, orange, light floral rose, and sandalwood oil. The 4711 Eau de Cologne’s recommended use is for formal evening affairs.

Lorenzo Villoresi Colognes

Lorenzo Villoresi Colognes

Lorenzo Villoresi

Based in Florence, Italy master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi has a fine nose and creates sophisticated Eau de Parfums and Eau de Toilettes that are crafted of quality ingredients so they last. Take a closer look here are Lorenzo Villoresi.

Ermenegildo Zegna Intenso

A light fragrance that’s ideal for many gentlemen. This designer cologne is fresh and ideal for the office or the lounge. It has top notes of mandarin orange, lemon, and cardamom, with a profile that lasts of cedar, iris, and vetiver. Take a look at Ermenegildo Zegna Intenso here.

Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club

A traditional and masculine fragrance, it has notes of wood, tobacco, and leather. Ideal for the evening, Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club will remind you of drinking martinis at Bar Hemingway at the Ritz.

Penhaligan Blenheim Bouquet has been around for over a century

Penhaligon Blenheim Bouquet has been around for over a century

Penhaligon Blenheim Bouquet

Created in 1902 and taking its name from Blenheim Palace the seat of one of England’s most respected bloodlines, Blenheim Bouquet is a masculine blend of citrus oils, rich spices, and woods. Created more than 100 years ago, it is as appealing today as ever, and certainly worth complimenting with the matching deodorant and washes. Penhaligon Blenheim Bouquet is ideal for date night and intimate gatherings.

Xerjoff Stonelabel Collection - Homme on the far right

Xerjoff Stonelabel Collection – Homme on the far right

Homme Xerjoff

As the name implies, this scent leaves no doubt about who it was made for: men.

With a pronounced leather scent and notes of Mediterranean citrus, spices, clove, lavender, lysilang, woods and vetiver this scent is bold and unique at the same time. The flacon is elegant and impressive with a real semi-precious stone insert but at a price of $600 it doesn’t come as a surprise.

How to Apply Cologne

The first rule to applying cologne is quite simple: Less is more. In other words, don’t bathe in it. If you’re putting it on because you’re trying to disguise odor from not showering, go shower. Cologne is not intended to be your scent. It’s simply there to enhance your natural aroma. People around you will notice your scent more than you will. Odds are if you smell the cologne and find it bold, they’ll find it borderline repulsive.

The proper way to apply cologne is to focus on pulse points which are behind the ears, at the nape of the neck, inside the wrists, elbows, and your knees. The pulse points will cause the fragrance to warm up and release continuously over time, rather than in bursts. Ideally, cologne should not be your primary scent. Instead, it should be a part of a layer of scents that work in harmony. Although most gentlemen only use one or two colognes, we recommend having a selection that pair well with your soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving products, hair products, and deodorant.

Selecting a cologne that is mild is ideal in the morning, and just as you wouldn’t wear black tie before six, you shouldn’t wear strong colognes until the evening. Cologne typically releases over a short half-life of two hours. The stronger the percentage of aromatic compounds, the longer the cologne will last. The strongest colognes will last about five hours, which means it’s a good idea to apply it well before going out on the town. This way, you can be sure the top notes won’t be too overbearing for those around you.

Cologne will also change based on your daily habits. You can expect that eating spicy or fatty foods will increase the intensity of the scent. Therefore, if you know you’ll be going out for fried chicken or Thai food, it may be best to pick a more subtle fragrance. The same goes for your skin. If you have dry skin, you may want to consider a bolder scent, whereas oily skin will cause the cologne to release faster.

Do’s and Don’ts

Do’s of Wearing Cologne

  • Do test your cologne before wearing it in public.
  • Do check with your spouse before buying cologne to ensure they like it.
  • Do wear small amounts of it sparingly.
  • Do wear cologne that works with other scented products harmoniously.

Avoid wearing colognes while visiting public places with signs like this

Avoid wearing colognes while visiting public places with signs like this


  • Don’t rub cologne into your skin or pulse points. Allow the spray to settle naturally.
  • Don’t wear cologne in the presence of those with allergies or aversions.
  • Don’t wear cologne in public places where scented products are prohibited.
  • Don’t wear cologne in hospitals or medical facilities.
  • Don’t put more cologne on just because you can’t smell it anymore.
  • Don’t put cologne on open sores, in your ears, nostrils, mouth, eyes, or genitals.
  • Don’t use aftershave as a body cologne.
  • Don’t apply cologne in public.
  • Don’t spray yourself with cologne until you can smell it. One or two quick spritzes is enough.
  • Don’t buy or use cheap bargain colognes. They are reserved exclusively for teenage boys. And no, they will not cause women to chase you, fall from the sky, or follow you just because you wear Axe or Gillette.

Medical clinics are generally scent free facilities

Medical clinics are generally scent free facilities

Recommended Reading

Recommended Reading Price
Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume $
The Perfume Bible $
Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odours $

Here are some great books if you’re interested in the chemistry of cologne and how it’s made.

Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume by Mandy Aftel

Renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel explores the primal nature and fundamental importance of aroma in everyday life, teaching people about the nature of smell and the idea of “olfactory consciousness” in Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. With gorgeous illustrations, the book also serves as a practical guide to making custom scents for a variety of uses and explains the process of selecting “base notes,” “heart notes” and “head notes” to create truly personal aromas and perfumes.

The Perfume Bible by Josephine Fairley and Lorna McKay

In this lavishly illustrated, comprehensive guide to scent, beauty experts Josephine Fairley and Lorna McKay bring together everything you need to know about perfume, including guidance on which ‘scent family’ you belong to, the different strengths of perfume, the art of shopping for fragrance, 100 perfumes to try before you die plus the greatest scents ever bottled. Packed with insider info from the world’s leading experts, with interviews with some of greatest international perfumers, this is an essential companion for anyone with a passion for fragrance.

Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odours

A textbook often used in post-secondary training, this book gives the reader all of the information they need in order to understand the complexities of scent and how it affects the people around us and ourselves.


By now you should have a fairly good understanding of how to purchase cologne, apply it and what to avoid, so you’re not “that guy” who people try to avoid. What colognes do you enjoy? Any recommendations?