This is a question I’ve been asked by a few people (those who know about this “hobby” of mine). My response these days is to say that I have my own method, but that there is no one “right” way. If you want to be “scientific” about it, I suggest you read the following, for example:
On the other hand, I know that my impressions on one day may not be the same on another, so I usually just try to get a general idea about the fragrance at first. If there is a “note pyramid,” I like to see it first, so I have an sense about what I should be smelling. Some argue that doing this will prejudice the sampling, but I find this quite helpful. This is not a test, after all. One is trying to understand, and I see no reason to reject any assistance one can obtain.
In any case, I like to sample first on my ankle, for the obvious reason that if the fragrance is very strong and unpleasant, it won’t make me feel ill. Yes, I have been mocked for disclosing this, but I often respond by pointing out that wine tasters do quite a bit of spitting when they sample, and I fail to see how my approach is any stranger. After allowing it to dry, I can cross my legs (in the “man way” of doing it) and use one hand to waft the fragrance towards my nose every now and then. However, if I have a dab vial, I will sometimes try a tiny amount on my arm, a couple of inches away from my wrist. I’ve learned that it’s important not to smell the area up close, though, because some fragrances can smell very different (and unpleasant) if not allowed to mix with the air.
The obvious question is, what am I looking for when I sample? First, I try to decide if the fragrance is similar to one I already know. If so, I try and figure out the similarities and differences. If not, and I don’t have a note pyramid, I think in terms of general characteristics. Are there any notes that are obvious? Is it dry or wet? Is it sweet, or even super-sweet? Is it highly blended or well articulated? What genre does it seem to represent, if any (such as fougere, gourmand, chypre, oriental, or “80s power frag”)?
The last question I ask myself is if it is pleasant, which may seem surprising. The reason is that if it is downright offensive to me, I will try to wash it off immediately. If it is not, I want to see if it is the kind of fragrance that I need to learn to appreciate over time. Since the beginning of my fragrance hobby days, I thought that some fragrances had “promise,” even though I didn’t really find them especially pleasant initially. Now, I realize that sometimes a note or accord is just strange and registers as slighly unpleasant at first, but then over time I actually find them very enjoyable. The last major time this happened was with fragrances such as Rochas Lui, Dunhhill Desire for men, and Cuba Orange, which feature a strong accord of neroli, wood, vanilla, and patchouli (Desire adds a rose note, which makes it richer but less focused).
Importantly, especially if you are a “newbie,” I suggest sampling at least three or four times, and make sure you separate your samplings by at least two weeks. This will prevent any temporary influence, such as a headache, from prejudicing your perception of the fragrance. One way to help yourself out is to ask yourself what you are seeking from that fragrance. For example, if you have an oriental fragrance that you really enjoy, why are you interested in sampling another one (assuming that is the case, of course)? Are you seeking one with a stronger wood note, less lavender, etc.? The more questions you can ask yourself, the better your understanding of the fragrance will likely be. If you have any other ideas on this subject, please post them here.