(Queen of) Hungary Water: an inquiry

by Diane Duane

My husband likes to smell good in lots of different ways. As a result, he collects colognes — almost none of them the big names familiar in high-street shops and department stores. What P. mostly likes are less well known fragrances like the Extract of West Indian Lime from Geo F. Trumper’s, or the terrific “Number Six” made by Caswell-Massey, a former favorite of George Washington’s (the Marquis de Lafayette sent him some: the company apparently still has the sales order).

Just about his only venture into mainstream fragrancing has been at the Crabtree & Evelyn end of things. But this has proven very frustrating over time, as he keeps finding colognes there that he likes, and almost as soon as he finds them, C&E  in turn discontinues them. Their “Gentlemen’s Cologne” was the first of his favorites to go this way (and though it was an okay fragrance, I can’t say I wept too much over this, as the stuff was so heavy on the bitter aloes and myrrh that kissing him was like getting up close and personal with a nail-biting cure).

But they also discontinued one that was way more pleasant, and had an interesting history. “Hungary Water” is short for “Queen of Hungary Water”, a modern version of what may be the oldest compounded fragrance on record (the OED citations go back to the 1500’s; the fragrance itself may be much older, dating back to the 1300’s or thereabouts depending on which Queen you think you’re dealing with). It’s really terrific, a fresh clean aromatic scent; but P. won’t use it because the one bottle is all he’s got. And in this economy, our original plan of eventually taking the stuff to Paris and hiring a parfumier to analyze and reproduce it is going to have to wait.

Now surely a fragrance this old and venerable hasn’t simply vanished. While I’ve found some homebrew-y versions out there on the web, I’m not entirely convinced of their bona fides. Some of them get confused and base their preparations on a vinegar-based re-invention of the stuff that dates back to the 1980’s or so. Others  get kind of carried away with legends about the Queen or the prospect of the stuff’s possible curative properties. …Though so did Culpeper. Check out this quote from his 1693 Pharmacopeia Londoniensis:

“The water (containing an infusion of spirits) is admirable cure-all remedy of all kinds of cold and humidity-induced head ailments, apoplexies, epilepsies, dizziness, lethargy, crippleness, nerves diseases, rheumatism, flaws, spasms, loss of memory, coma, drowsiness, deafness, ear buzzing, derangement of vision, blood coagulation, mood-induced headaches headaches. Relieves toothache, useful for stomach cramps, pleuritis, lack of appetite, indigestion, obstruction of the liver, obstruction of the spleen, intestinal obstruction and contraction of the uterus. It receives and preserves natural heat, restores body functions and capabilities even at late age (saying has it). There are not many remedies producing that many good effects. Use internally in wine or vodka, rinse temples, breath in with your nose.”

(Wow, Nick, is there anything this stuff doesn’t do?)

Anyway, while the above variants are interesting in their way, my normal response when trying to find the best version of a traditional fragrance is to try to figure out where the source is, and get some there (as, for example, what you would consider the trope namer if this was going to be TV Tropes: if you’re into cologne, you go to Köln / Cologne, where they have for centuries made 4711 and its great rival Farina, and there are huge noisy tussles in the media as to which one is most traditional or best).

So theoretically, for Hungary water, it makes a certain amount of sense to look around for it in Hungary. All I need to know now is: what is Hungary water called in Hungary? Does it have a Magyar name, or are they using French terminology for it (which was commonplace enough in previous centuries)? And if the stuff is still distilled there, is there one Hungary water that claims to be the original one / best? When we have enough data, and especially if there are more than one of these colognes extant, we can hunt them down, try them out, and see which one is nicest.

Anyway, if anyone has info about this, please let me know.

Thanks in advance!

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