Whenever I ask fragrance people if they’ve heard of Hungary Water, I get blank stares and the same question: “Hungry water?” No, I correct them, Hung-gare-ee, as in Hungarian.
Wikipedia, ever the reliable resource, says that Elisabeth, the fourteenth century Hungarian queen, commissioned the world’s first alcohol-based perfume. Or it may have been Elisabeth of Poland. Or Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. No matter. Suffice it to say that Hungary Water, or Queen of Hungary Water, is a very old concoction of herbs in alcohol, usually some variation of rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, orange blossom and lemon. It was probably worn as a fragrance and drank as an herbal remedy.
Today, herbalists and natural skincare firms market versions of Hungary Water as face-cleaning astringents and toners, like complicated versions of rosewater or witch hazel.
The Internet offers a few modern recipes (here, here and here), but my experience with Hungary Water comes from Crabtree & Evelyn, which produced a version of it starting in 1975. I had it in a shower/bath gel years ago, but I’ve never smelled the cologne. When I used my bottle up, I discovered that it had been discontinued. Fortunately, I found a bottle of shower gel on eBay, overstock from a London fragrance shop. It smells amazing and fresh, citrusy and deeply herbal—like nothing else I have.
Finding a suitable replacement for Crabtree & Evelyn’s Hungary Water has been a years-long process. After realizing that classic colognes most closely resemble it, I struggled to find one that had the herbal depth of Hungary Water. Was it the rosemary? I wish I knew for sure.
Colonia Russa, a scent created by Santa Maria Novella around the turn of the 19th century, came close, as did Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Impériale from 1853. And 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser, a true cologne in the most literal sense (created in Cologne, Germany in 1792), comes close too; it’s a steal at about $20 for 2 oz.
But all three of these are citrus scents that have very little staying power. Within an hour or two, almost every trace of them is gone on the skin.
The closest I’ve come to Hungary Water yet is D.R. Harris’s Arlington Cologne, another bargain at about $45 for a 1.7 oz. spray. It’s got fresh citrus top notes with the pungent herbal edge that I was looking for. D.R. Harris calls it a citrus with fern, but more than one commenter on fragrance forums have complained of multiple reformulations (a constant problem for those of us seeking old scents).
Arlington has a strong lime-citrus top note, very clean-smelling, but the rest is hard to pin down. There may be some subtle rosemary, possibly sage, maybe basil?—I don’t know. The notes in colognes are very hard to separate. Many colognes claim to dry down to musk notes. I’ve found that most dry down to nothing. Which brings me to my next quest: the search for the lasting citrus cologne. —Harry Sheff