In the 1970s, when it was still manageable for someone with a minuscule income to drink the world’s greatest wines, I was invited into a group of professional wine connoisseurs who met every week to drink rare and otherworldly vintages.
At the time (and presumably now) wines were often referred to as being either feminine or masculine. This is also true of perfumes, but usually in the sense of who more typically wears them, woman or man.
Kate, who’s an ardent feminist, and I, discussed this the other day.
I argued that these are relative terms and are in no way evaluative, but in the interest of taking social politics out of the equation, it seemed wise to fall back on two other terms—“hard” and “soft”—that carry the same meaning without the sexual connotations. A hard (or masculine) wine is less welcoming, more impenetrable, and less generous at the beginning; this is also a characteristic of younger wines. Softer wines, which are often more mature, are more opened, more delicate, and typically less tannic. In general, at least to the less experienced, softer wines have a more immediate appeal.
To apply these (relative) terms to perfumes, I would equate “hard” aromas that are sharper, perhaps more acidic (tangy), and, at least at the beginning, more monolithic and harder to deconstruct. An example of a hard ingredient might be violet leaf; it’s dry, acidic, and very green. “Soft” perfumes, may be balsamic (although not necessarily so), sweeter, and creamier. Ingredients that come to mind are the balsams, anything with –lactone at the end, and sweet flowers. Coumarin is also a good example.
Flowers have their own range. Immortelle absolute is soft. It is gentle, sweet, and less domineering, while narcissus, which is more reserved and less sweet, strikes me as harder.
Of course, these are debatable assertions and, whether “real” or not, offer us another paradigm for examining and remembering aromatic ingredients and perfumes.