I see this kind of question asked often over at basenotes.net, often also asking about how to identify notes. Some respond by suggesting that the person buy essential oils or smell herbs and spices from the typical kitchen “spice rack” (certainly not bad ideas). Another common suggestion is to purchase a bunch of samples from a web site that specializes in decanting samples, usually of the expensive “niche” fragrances. I don’t really like this latter idea, though, because the samples are very small and quite expensive, but mostly because a newbie is probably not going to understand much when he or she smells it.
My approach was to buy several bottles of very inexpensive fragrances that had received good reviews at basenotes and elsewhere (such as perfumeemporium.com). If you decide upon this approach, I suggest buying fragrances with published note pyramids. Also, buying a fragrance from each of the major types makes sense, unless you already know that you don’t like a particular type. However, be sure not to judge all fragrances of one type because you didn’t like one specimen. An example is A*Men. This has a tar note that irritates many, apparently, but I don’t like it more for the lavender note than the tar one. It is also too sweet for me. If you think you might like a gourmand fragrance if it were much less crude, then I would suggest Jacomo Silver for men (which I consider unisex). The notes include pineapple, plum, coffee, and amber (among others). It is nicely blended and very gentle, with good note articulation (meaning that you can detect the notes, but that the blend is the center of attention).
I find that gourmand fragrances are the most likely to offend, unless you really dislike a note or accord. For example, I really dislike the typical creamy fougere accord (lavender and coumarin/tonka). Thus, it may be very important not to just buy an cheap one. On the other hand, Jacomo Silver for men might not register as much of anything to the newbie. I know that I would have found it very weak when I was first starting out. In fact, another gourmand (I’d classify it as a gourmand/oriental), Jacomo Rouge was problematic for me in those early days. I liked the top notes but couldn’t smell much after the first half hour or so. Now, I find it to have a very strong drydown, though not nearly as strong as fragrances like Rochas Man, A*Men, or Black XS, which would nauseate me if I wore them these days.
Though the strength of the fragrance can be problematic, I just dilute strong fragrances with a strong and inexpensive vodka (160 proof minimum). All you need are some small atomizers, which are available online for reasonable prices (you can take a look on ebay, for example). My general rule fo thumb is that if you can enjoy the subtle fragrances, then you can just dilute the more powerful ones. However, this does not work the other way around, that is, you can’t easily “amp up” less powerful ones. I have tried mixing powerful and weak fragrances, for instance, but the results are quite “mixed,” and the results have not been very promising.
Here are some fragrances that are worth considering, if you decide to adopt my approach and purchase some inexpensive fragrances that are representative of different genres. I created some new categories that I think reflect the “new reality:”
Chypre: Z-14 (I suggest Pheromone for Men by Miglin if you can afford to spend a bit more).
Oriental: Carven Homme (or Signature for Men by ST Dupont if you don’t like lavender or strong wood notes in your orientals).
Herbal: Cuba Green (citrus, juniper berry, herbs, amber).
“Old School” woody oriental: Lalique Pour Homme (lion), or Baby Blue Jeans by Versace if money is an issue.
Tobacco: Mustang by Dorall (Michael for Men by Michael Kors if you can afford a bit more). Note that with tobacco, I suggest you consider whether you like a dry, leafy kind or more of a pipe tobacco one, if not both. Mustang is among the former, whereas Michael for Men is among the latter.
Gourmand: Jacomo Silver for men (possibly Polo Double Black if you can afford it).
Vanilla Woody: Brit for Men by Burberry or Victory League by Adidas (Brit is a bit powdery, whereas Victory League has a grassy note included).
Vetiver: Vetiver de Puig (I prefer Guerlain’s Vetiver because it does not have the aldehydes of Vetiver de Puig, but is otherwise quite similar).
Woody incense: Celine Fever Pour Homme (Visit by Azzaro if can’t find or afford the Celine Fever).