There are hundreds of great men’s fragrances, but truly iconic ones are a sniff out of the ordinary. Among all the amazing eaus, there are probably fewer than 50 (in fact, there’s 39, according to this list) that have survived fads and fashions to earn their place in the olfactory hall of fame.
“Men often judge fragrances in the way they do cars,” says celebrated perfumer Azzi Glasser. “They want sophistication, but demand reliability and performance too.” In other words, while fancy flacons and big-budget marketing campaigns make an impact, ultimately, a scent survives because men keep coming back for another sniff.
So, whether you’re a fragrance fresher looking for your first signature scent, a cologne junkie wanting to complete your collection or a significant other in search of the perfect gift, you could do a lot worse than to start with one of these — yes, we’re calling it — best men’s fragrances of all time.
The History Of Men’s Fragrances
As anyone who has ever skipped a shower knows, it doesn’t take long before you need a scent to mask a manly funk. The ancient Egyptians, fathers of modern perfume, discovered this in around 3000 BC (how, we’d rather not know) and set about producing genderless concoctions made using fragrant plant materials and ingredients such as myrrh, jasmine and wine — some of which are still used today.
Skipping over the whole mummification and communicating with the gods stuff, fragrances were further refined by Roman, Persian and Arab cultures, before reaching the Western world around the 14th century, where they became a signifier of wealth and power. King Louis XIV of France is said to have had a different fragrance for every single day, while Queen Elizabeth I demanded all public places be scented since she could not tolerate bad smells (we’re with you on that one).
French perfume house Caron is credited with launching the first scent aimed exclusively at men in 1934 and the fragrance industry as we know it today took off. “By the mid-1960s men were beginning to place more importance on scent, and ground-breaking fragrances like Dior’s Eau Sauvage emerged,” says perfumer and fragrance historian Roja Dove.
Since then, each successive decade has seen new trends emerge, often in reaction to the ones that preceded them. From fougère (‘fern-like’) fragrances of the seventies, through the bombastic eighties, uber-light citrus nineties, smoky oud noughties, to the edible gourmand fragrances of today.
The big question, of course, is what to wear — no easy task given the thousands of options to choose from. To provide the answer (or at least narrow the field), FashionBeans has compiled a definitive list of the best men’s fragrances of all time: scents that stand out due to their originality, popularity or sheer, uncompromising genius. Have a nose.
The Best Men’s Fragrances Of All Time
Clean, crisp and refreshing, with a timeless, understated elegance, citrus-based scents are the daytime workhorses of the fragrance cabinet, and their freshness makes them perfect for gym bags and summer holidays alike.
Dior Eau Sauvage
Released in 1966, Dior’s citrus-heavy Eau Sauvage was the first fragrance to use hedione – an ingredient with a jasmine aroma that scientists later discovered stimulates the brain’s release of sex hormones. More than 50 years on, it’s still considered one of the best men’s fragrances. “In my opinion, it’s one of the most important creations in the second half of the last century,” says Dove.
Acqua Di Parma Colonia
Subtle and deliciously fresh, Acqua di Parma Colonia may date back to 1916, but like a crisp Oxford shirt, it’s the very definition of a timeless classic. The art deco bottle echoes the fragrance’s deceptive simplicity, characterised by top notes of citrus, a complex heart and understatedly sensual woody base. A better daytime scent you’ll be hard-pushed to find.
4711 By Mäurer & Wirtz (Formerly Mülhens)
“The most famous cologne in the world, 4711 is the quintessential summer brightener,” says fragrance blogger Stephan Matthews of the zesty 200-year-old scent. A blend of citrus notes, rosemary and wood, “it’s a must-have for any man’s work bag and, at an incredibly low price, can be spritzed with recklessness.”
Chanel Allure Homme Sport
Chanel Allure Homme Sport has the kind of trophy cabinet even Roger Federer would envy. A gym-bag favourite since 2004, it’s everything a good sports fragrance should be — superbly crisp, zingy and energetic, with just enough warmth and sensuality to take its wearer from locker room to late-night bar.
Tom Ford Neroli Portofino
The star of Tom Ford’s fragrance line, Neroli Portofino’s success lies in its ability to capture a summer’s day in the Italian Rivera and bottle it for use on a chilly day anywhere from Richmond to Reykjavík.
“It takes a lot of classic materials [like Sicilian lemon, bergamot, lavender and amber] and combines them with interesting modern synthetics to create a contemporary take on a traditional masculine cologne,” says Dove. The fact that it looks handsome on the dresser is simply a bonus.
Clean, fresh and bracing, aquatic or marine fragrances emerged in the nineties and are characterised by an ingredient called calone, which has a melon-like wateriness to it. As a result, they’re ideal for when you want your scent to fly under the radar, such as in the office.
Davidoff Cool Water
One of the most famous aquatic fragrances, this classic from 1988 heralded a new (ahem) wave of fresh scents that swapped citrus notes for pine, mint and a sense of the sea. “Cool Water was a revolution in masculine perfumery,” says Dove. “It became one of the most influential and successful masculine fragrances of all time — and the blueprint for many imitations to this day.”
Acqua di Gio Pour Homme
Like Britpop, Armani’s most famous formulation might have had its heyday in the nineties, but this light-yet-sensual best-seller from 1996 remains one of the best men’s fragrances around thanks to its freshness and sheer versatility. If you’re used to vanilla-heavy scents or oud fragrances, it’ll come as a breath of (sea spray-infused) fresh air.
Issey Miyake L’Eau D’Issey
“Designer Issey Miyake famously hated perfume and wanted to create something that smelt like water falling on clean skin,” says Lizzie Ostrom, author of Perfume: A Century Of Scents. “L’Eau D’Issey offers a thirst-quenching evocation of watery fruits and is famous for its bold use of calone.” Cool and refined, it’s the kind of fragrance you’d wear with a fine gauge roll neck.
Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue
Although citrusy with undertones of wood rather than typically aquatic, few men’s fragrances capture the spirit of summer quite like this award-winning number from 2007. Light and fresh, yet somewhat spicy, it’s perfect for holiday washbags. All you need to add is the tan, the white trunks and the David Gandy bod, and you’re basically a walking ad campaign.
Although notes like rose, jasmine and violet are mainstays of men’s perfumery, fragrances that lead with them are rare — which makes wearing one all the more impactful. Perfect for confident types and those that like to defy convention.
Challenging traditional notions of what a men’s fragrance should smell like, this daring, floral-heavy confection is the polar opposite of most mass-market offerings. “Decidedly feminine in style, smooth, powdery iris is warmed with lavender to create a delicate, yet suave scent that celebrates the softer side of being a man,” says award-winning fragrance expert Thomas Dunkley, founder of The Candy Perfume Boy blog.
Caron Pour Un Homme
Synonymous with a simpler, more gentlemanly time, Caron’s legendary lavender-based formulation from 1934 may be out of sync with the times, but it’s still widely regarded as one of the best men’s fragrances. The addition of vanilla, musky amber and cedarwood prevents it from smelling like your nan’s knicker drawer, and it’s one of Tom Ford’s favourite fragrances, so it can’t be bad.
To those that think genderless scents are something new, we raise you this forward-thinking, intentionally unisex creation from 1951. Citrusy and spicy, with a not-too-alienating floral heart, it’s the perfect example of a fragrance that swings both ways. “Someone who wears Eau d’Hermes always scores points amongst perfume connoisseurs,” says Bernard Roetzel, author of Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion.
If there’s one thing fragrances by niche perfume house Byredo never lack it’s a backstory. Unsurprisingly, the starting point for this unisex scent was the smell of the rodeo (minus the horse sweat and manure). Instead, it focuses on leather and suede while giving things a twist by throwing in a hefty dose of violet. Think metrosexual cowboy in touch with his emotions, and you’re halfway there.
Calvin Klein CK One
It’s impossible to compile a list of market-disrupting fragrances from the nineties without mentioning CK One and the androgynous young waifs who advertised it. “It offered the prospect of joining a tribe,” says Ostrom of the universally appealing citrus-but-floral-but-woody scent. “Everyone had become so accustomed to the division of ‘pour homme’ and ‘pour femme’ that a ‘pour both’ perfume seemed daring and terribly modern.”
Most scents that come across as sexy and spicy tend to be from the ‘oriental’ family of fragrances and go big on notes such as nutmeg, musk and jasmine. Punchy and sensual, they’re statement scents and perfect for evening wear.
Over 50 years old, the longevity of Aramis as a brand is matched only by its longevity on the skin. A rich and spicy ‘chypre’ — a family of perfumes comprising fresh, citrus notes with deep woody or mossy hints — its intense sensuality makes it a fragrance strictly for grown-ups.“Though it’s inspired a myriad of masculine creations over the years, no-one has created a better version of it,” says Dove.
Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb
When the stars align for a fragrance launch as they did for Spicebomb (great ‘juice’; great name; great bottle) only timing can spoil its success. Luckily, this muscular creation from acclaimed nose Oliver Polge appeared just as robust, spicy fragrances were becoming popular. When it arrived, it arrived with a bang, popularising the use of saffron, pink pepper and cinnamon in numerous fragrances to come.
Paco Rabanne 1 Million
Love it or loathe it, Paco Rabanne 1 Million is a men’s fragrance phenomenon, with a bottle sold every five seconds. Now in its tenth year as a best-seller (a herculean feat in fragrance terms), this big, ballsy evening scent features a roll call of sensual notes — from narcotic rose and seductive amber to edible cinnamon and kinky leather. Fragrance experts are divided on how good a scent it truly is, but all are in awe of its incredible success.
Yves Saint Laurent La Nuit De L’Homme
In the same way many great songs have multiple writers, three well-known noses (Anne Flipo, Pierre Wargnye and Dominique Ropion) worked on this contemporary classic from Yves Saint Laurent. Fantastically versatile, La Nuit De L’Homme opens with a big hit of bergamot and cardamom before mellowing into something altogether woodier and sweeter. As the name suggests, it’s ideal for any activity after dark.
Calvin Klein Obsession
With more than 100 new fragrances launched each year, according to market analysts at Euromonitor, holding a space on the bathroom shelf for more than 25 years is no mean feat. That’s exactly what Calvin Klein has done with Obsession, a potent, spicy powerhouse of a fragrance, famed for its longevity in every way.
‘Gourmand’ fragrances are characterised by almost edible notes of foodie favourites like vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate. Associated with the pleasure of eating, they’re ideal for romantic dates. Just don’t overindulge, three sprays at most are all you need.
Thierry Mugler A*Men
A*Men is a great example of ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ perfumery. “It’s a nineties superhero, all smooth-chested and steroid-fuelled, filled with just about every robust, manly material there is — lavender, mint, chocolate, coffee, caramel, patchouli, vanilla and tar,” says Dunkley. Thierry Mugler’s bold, alien-like smell is not for wallflowers, for sure, but then you don’t get anywhere in life by being a wallflower.
Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male
Taking a chance on young and relatively inexperienced perfumer Francis Kurkdjian — now one of the world’s most acclaimed noses — French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier came up with one of the most iconic men’s fragrances (and bottles) of all time. Heady and seductive, with notes of lavender, mint sandalwood and vanilla, it’s the perfect evening fragrance. “The scent of a generation, Le Male is the defining smell of metrosexual man and still smells as good today as it did then,” says Dunkley.
Released at a time when masculinity was in a state of flux, L’Homme Prada intentionally pits traditional masculine fougère notes like geranium and neroli against sweet, powdery iris – a note more commonly associated with female fragrances. The tension which results makes this a thoroughly modern scent that’s quirky but sexy.
It may not have the kudos of Dior Homme or Eau Sauvage, but Joop! Homme is critical in men’s fragrance history. “It was one of the first global releases to liberate boys from the diktat that they should only wear ‘manly’ aromas,” says Ostrom. A woody-yet-floral formulation, with orange blossom, honeysuckle and a sweet, musky base, it’s delightfully challenging even today. “Years on, it’s still persuading men to embrace, without embarrassment, the irresistible smell of ‘pink’ while out with the boys.”
Warm, masculine and versatile in equal parts, woody fragrances most commonly waft of sandalwood, cedarwood and agarwood (AKA oud). Tempered with lighter notes, they are surprisingly easy to wear and have become ubiquitous because of their almost universal appeal.
Launched just over a decade ago and a favourite amongst grooming experts, Terre d’Hermes, with its vegetal, woody and mineral notes of grapefruit, pink pepper, geranium, gunflint and vetiver, has become that rarest of things: a genuine contemporary classic that will continue to be talked about for years to come. Every man should give it a go.
A relative newcomer, this aromatic-woody and timelessly masculine scent is the work of Carlos Benaïm, a world-famous nose behind scents from the likes of Armani, Prada, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. “Opening with a burst of citrus and a nose-tingling grind of black pepper, Icon mellows into something fabulously nuzzleable on the skin,” says Jo Fairley, founder of online fragrance resource The Perfume Society. “It also happens to be housed in one of the coolest bottles ever.” Guaranteed to be a future classic.
Creativity and originality might be traditional benchmarks for the best men’s fragrances, but popularity can also earn you a place in the olfactory hall of fame. Case in point: Boss Bottled, a blend of apple, bergamot, clove, vetiver and a trio of woods, which has proved so popular that over 60 million units have been sold since 1998. Despite countless updates, it’s also proof that you can’t top an original.
Tom Ford Oud Wood
Tom Ford’s first foray into the world of rich, smoky oud came while the designer was working on M7 for Yves Saint Laurent – a critically-acclaimed fragrance that helped kick-start the trend for oud in the UK. Less overpowering and sexier than others in the market, this one under Ford’s own label is warm, masculine and has depth — everything you want from a woody scent.
For times when you want to leave a long-lasting impression (for all the right reasons), reach for a fragrance big on leather, musk and patchouli to put sex and sensuality at the forefront. Overt they may be, but as they say — fortune favours the bold.
The exact date Viennese tailoring firm Knize launched its famed leathery fragrance is hotly debated (for argument’s sake, let’s just settle for the early twenties), but what isn’t contested is its excellence. Rich and complex with base notes of musk, moss, vanilla and, of course, leather, it oozes hyper-masculine sensuality. One for old-school alpha males. “It’s simply sex in a bottle,” says Matthews.
A favourite of Sean Connery, the legendary Jicky by Guerlain is often thought of as the OG of modern perfumes. Launched in 1889, its overt muskiness was considered shocking at the time, as was the use of synthetic materials like vanillin. “It was the first time fragrance would become sexual. No longer would its wearer smell of lemons or a bouquet of petunias,” says Dove. Though primarily viewed as a women’s perfume, it has appealed to men since day dot.
Patchouli has long been a staple of men’s fragrances thanks to its robust, long-lasting earthiness. Few handle it as adeptly as this 40-year-old classic from Givenchy. Modern interpretations abound, but it’s the original’s fail-safe combination of patchouli, vetiver, musk and a kicking leather accord, that make it one of the sexiest scents ever devised for men.
Kiehl’s Original Musk
Great fragrances don’t have to come from huge perfume or fashion houses. Nor are they always all that well known, as is the case with this hidden unisex gem from Kiehl’s. Floral, woody and (as the name suggests) intensely musky, it regularly pops up in ‘best fragrances for men’ lists. And you don’t need to huff it for long to see why. “Sensuous, disarming and with a sexiness that defies convention, Original Musk should come with a government health warning,” says Matthews.
What constitutes a ‘green’ fragrance is oft-debated, but those that find their way into the category generally have a vegetal crispness to them. Think freshly cut leaves, shady woods or grass stains on your cricket whites.
Creed Green Irish Tweed
Creed began life in 1760 as a London tailoring firm before becoming the perfume powerhouse it is today. A more than deserving stablemate to the brand’s best-selling scent, Aventus, Green Irish Tweed is a punchy evocation of cut grass, wild flowers and aromatic herbs, with fans as diverse as Prince Charles and George Clooney. “Virile and elegant, with a decent sexiness on the skin, it’s a true gentleman’s fragrance,” says perfume archivist James Craven.
For an example of the kind of risks perfumers were taking with men’s fragrances in the eighties, look no further than Dior Fahrenheit. “It smells, pleasingly, like spilt petrol,” says Craven. “Imagine a luxury garage forecourt spiked with bitter limes, violet leaf and oranges.” Yeah, we know — shouldn’t work, but it does.
It took five years for Italian fashion behemoth Versace to come up with this punchy, in-your-face concoction of fresh, woody notes, underpinned by a combination of green apple and mint. But as the positive reviews show, it was worth the wait. “Eros is truly the DNA of the house of Versace,” said Donatella at the time of its launch. Smell it and see how true that is.
Ralph Lauren Polo
The seventies is usually regarded as the decade that taste forgot, not so with Ralph Lauren’s first male fragrance offering. Startling because of its distinctive use of pine — a tricky note to get right if you don’t want the fragrance to smell like toilet cleaner — it’s been reformulated a couple of times since launch but still smells as fresh and original today as it did back then.
Fougère scents (after the French word for ‘fern’) are usually built around notes of lavender, geranium and oakmoss, allowing them to resemble smells such as freshly mown hay. A mainstay of men’s fragrances thanks to their fresh and herbaceous ‘barbershop’ character, it’s also the most interpreted family, so expect many a variation on the theme.
Easily one of the most iconic men’s fragrances of all time, and still a steady seller around the globe, the origins of Old Spice lie in DIY Bay Rum scents invented by pirates. Spicy but floral, its safe, good-for-dads reputation is what has led to it its longevity. “It’s precisely by being Mr Average that Old Spice has kept its grip on the public imagination,” says Ostrom. “If it were ever discontinued, there would be a public outcry.”
Houbigant Fougère Royale
Patient zero of the fougère family, this lush, verdant creation from 1882 set the benchmark for all that have followed. “It was highly innovative at the time and made everyone long for the magic of the then-new chemical coumarin,” says Craven. As with many older fragrances, the original formula has been re-worked over the years, but it’s still worth a sniff.
Mouchoir De Monsieur De Guerlain
Often touted as one of the first fragrances created especially for men, Mouchoir de Monsieur from 1904 is one of a clutch of legendary fragrances. Essentially a fougère, it fuses citrus fruits, narcotic floral notes and woody, musky base to create a scent that’s deliciously dandy in nature. The name itself is French for ‘gentleman’s handkerchief’ — the preferred place to apply fragrance at the time.
To smell Tabac is like taking a spin in the olfactory equivalent of the Tardis and ending up in the era of Mad Men. Launched in 1959 by German company Mäurer & Wirtz, it’s as cheap as chips and a mainstay of backstreet chemists. Soapy and aromatic, with a touch of Old Spice DNA, it’s the epitome of a bygone era’s notion of ‘manly’.
Counter assistants can help you; friends can help you; even disapproving looks from passersby can give a steer, but ultimately a man’s relationship with fragrance is so personal that only you can choose the right one for your personality.
As with finding the perfect partner, it’s a process that involves patience, experimentation and, yes, a few regrettable flings. Helpfully, according to James Craven, a perfume archivist at London’s oldest independent perfumery, Les Senteurs, there are a few things that can help make the search easier.
Fit For Purpose
Fragrance, like clothing, is largely contextual, working best when it perfectly suits the occasion. A light, citrus fragrance is perfect for work or warmer weather, while a black tie event demands something heavier and more complex. For a hot date, you’ll want to pull out all the stops with something earthy, sexy and musky.
To narrow the field further, Craven suggests a little self-analysis. “If you don’t think about the inner you, you’ll never find the perfect signature scent.” It sounds odd to consider factors such as what textures and colours you prefer, but these are often reflected in your fragrance taste. For example, smoky ouds resemble dark colours whereas light, floral notes evoke brighter ideas.
Trust Your Instincts
As with other areas of style, the key is to follow your heart; not the crowd. “Shop on your own, when you are in the mood and don’t force things,” says Craven. “Wait for a fragrance that stirs and excites you. Scent is our last raw link with our animal origins, so search for it in an animal way. Trust your feelings and instinct.” Bottom line: follow your nose.
Fragrance Tips From The Experts
Fragrance may be an art form, but choosing the right one (and getting the most out of it when you do) is more of a science.
To save you pouring money down the eau de toilet, here are five tips from the masters of musk (and other notes) to getting it right.
Know Your Notes
In the same way it’s possible to blag your way through a wine list once you know about grapes, narrowing the field with fragrances is easier with a little prior research around notes, especially when looking for a scent with stamina.
“Good lasters include tonka bean, tuberose, vanilla, amber, civet and musk; while spices, woods, and resins like myrrh, frankincense and benzoin are tenacious too,” says Craven.
Being able to decipher which notes make up your current favourite scents can also help you seek out further ones you’re likely to love in the future.
How long a fragrance sticks around for depends on many factors, not least its strength and the notes it features, but there is one simple thing you can do to maximise its staying power no matter what.
According to Dove, scents tend to last longer on well-hydrated skin, so in addition to drinking plenty of water, lather on a fragrance-free body moisturiser after showering to prep skin and eek out your olfactory efforts.
Don’t Rush Things
You know what they say: act in haste, repent at leisure — something that’s especially true of fragrance, which can smell entirely different on a piece of card in a shop (or on someone else) than on you. So be patient.
“Always test scents on your skin and allow yourself time to discover, not only what suits you but what other people respond to,” says Tony Glenville, author of Top To Toe: The Modern Man’s Guide To Grooming.
This is because top notes reveal themselves in seconds, but base notes like sandalwood take several hours to emerge properly.
Seek Out The Story
Contrary to what some might think, perfumers don’t simply throw a cocktail of ingredients together and hope for the best (that’s a surefire way to end up with the fragrance equivalent of a dirty pint). Like songs, most scents are built around a story, and getting to know it and its creator’s aims can give your relationship with it a whole new depth.
“When a fragrance has a story behind it, it makes it more real, more alive, more true,” says British perfumer Lyn Harris, founder of boutique fragrance house Miller Harris. “It gives you something more to connect with.”
It’s a grooming mistake as old as fragrance itself: apply too much and you’ll leave everyone within a mile radius feeling like they’ve huffed glue.
“To get the best effect, fragrance should be applied over the skin as a light mist,” says Dove, who warns against spraying too close to the skin as this can result in an overly-concentrated puddle. “Alternatively, apply some to the palm of the hand before wiping it over the upper body as this will help the fragrance affix to the skin better.”
As for how much, Debrett’s Guide For The Modern Gentleman suggests applying no more than two to three squirts. None of them down your underwear.