« I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain », wrote Giovanni Maria Farina to his brother in 1708, recalling the unmistakable scent of his childhood in Italian Piedmont, embodied in an alcoholic decoction of citrus peels whose exact origins is lost in legend. Smell, undoubtedly the most difficult yet the most evocative of our senses, has long held an almost mystical place in humanity and long before it became a consumer product, perfume (from the latin per fumum) was a means to reach out to the gods. Two centuries after its official birth and just over a decade after its return to grace, the cologne has become once more a hot topic. But is there any kinship to Eau de Narcisse Bleu (Hermes), Dior Homme Cologne (Dior) or Eau du Soir (Francis Kurkdjian), and the alcoholic citrus macerates of old?

To understand the history of the « Cologne » genre, it is important to glance back at its history from its legendary inception lost in the mists of time to today’s marketing frenzy that sees around a thousand perfume releases every year. The ancestor of colognes around the world is an alcohol-based perfume called Hungary Water or Queen of Hungary’s Water. Legend has it that the recipe of this water was given to Elizabeth of Poland (1305–1380) by either a recluse monk or an angel. The tale goes further. So potent was this that the queen, then in her seventies, was cured of all her ailments, rejuvenated enough to receive another marriage proposal. While the particulars of this proto-cologne have been lost in time, ancient recipes called for rosemary and thyme distilled in strong brandy. Later variations saw the addition of other herbs such as lavender, mint, marjoram, orange blossom or lemon. This formulation of aromatics and alcohol was considered a luxury item, and as it spread across Europe over the next centuries, it was linked to royalty and the upper echelons of society. It had mostly medicinal and hygienic uses, and posology indicated that it should be used to wash as well as ingested to achieve maximum efficiency at a time where bathing was an occasional event. When plagues broke out, there were « plague waters » with similar compositions used in cleansing frictions, or stuffed in breathing cones to prevent contamination.

Read the full feature in the AQUA issue