According to the description, I should be getting notes of smoldering campfire, charred vanilla, and wild Texas sage. “But some people think it smells like Dr Pepper,” says Laura Icenhower, resident scent specialist at Society by Jackson Vaughn.

Jeremi Headrick and Pamela Jackson founded the candle shop as an offshoot of their interior design business nearly two decades ago. Today, they have two stores in Dallas, as well as locations in Austin and Wimberley.

The candles in the duo’s Texas Collection each have up to six main scents they call “headliners,” but there are often several less-noticeable notes layered underneath. They started with the Texas candle (the one reminiscent of Dr Pepper) in 2015 and it quickly became a best-seller, beloved by Texpats and college students attending school in faraway places. They’ve since added candles inspired by major cities—Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio—as well as five heritage scents that represent quintessential Texas moments, such as the Rodeo or Fair Day. The latter—which smells strongly of caramel corn—is the most literal of the bunch. The others represent more of a “romanticized” take, based on the designers’ memories growing up (Jackson is from Corpus Christi and Headrick hails from McKinney), as well as their travels and experiences throughout the state.

The Texas candle collection by Jackson Vaughn.
The Texas candle collection by Jackson Vaughn. Courtesy of Jackson Vaughn

I set out to find other makers trying their hand at distilling Texas down into a single, eight-ounce jar. A product search on Etsy turned up nearly three thousand results, so I narrowed my scope to candles made in Texas or by Texans. There also needed to be a clear tie when it came to the candle’s ingredients—it wasn’t enough to simply slap on a label with an outline of the state.

As I scoured shops in big cities and small towns, a roster began to form: In Amarillo, I came across Marfa Nights by Allie Falcon, an artist from Lampasas who worked with a pourer in Richardson to evoke “the wanderlust you feel stargazing out in Marfa, Texas, with a whiskey drink in hand.” Fredericksburg, as it turns out, is a hotspot for candles. On a recent trip, I picked up varieties by homegrown brands including Circle E Candles, Hill Country Herb Garden, and Fredericksburg Farms. The family behind the Burlap Bag in Austin sent two of their signature hand-poured scents: Somebody in Texas Loves Me and Texas, Y’all. A few candles eluded me. I failed to get my hands on the frequently sold-out Buc-ee’s Beaver Nuggets, which can fetch nearly $60 on resale sites, and I bent the rules for the popular Texas candle from Homesick, headquartered in New York, because I thought it would be a good outsider comparison. It got lost in the mail.

Eventually, I curated a list of 27 candles and organized them into four categories: Sense of Place (those that name-drop a specific place), On the Range (think cowboys, campfires, and leather), On the Farm (fruits and flowers), and On the Table (food smells). Then, I set out to conduct a highly scientific blind sniff test, by which I mean I put the candles in brown paper bags and invited over a group of girlfriends, plied them with wine, and asked them to give me their uncensored opinions. And let’s just say it got weird.

I was shocked by how closely my friends’ blind reactions aligned with many of the makers’ intentions. Society’s San Antonio candle is supposed to evoke mission incense. Immediately, a Catholic friend said, “it smelled like church.” The same brand’s Live in Concert candle is an ode to two-stepping the night away, and my friend described what she was sensing in such detail—“the wood at Billy Bob’s mixed with the leather of cowboy boots mixed with whiskey and funky cologne”—that I wondered if she’d sneaked a peek at the label.

They even managed to detect the most subtle differences. With Burlap Bag’s Someone in Texas Loves Me, a friend remarked that it was “sweet, but an organic sweetness.” That candle lists notes of cactus, pear nectar, and agave sugar. Even candles with a similar scent by the same company could be distinguished. Rustic Charm Candles has several varieties where leather is the star. Comparing Boots ’n Chaps with Saddle Shop, a friend said the former smelled like Cavender’s, while the latter instantly transported me to my family’s tack shed.

Surprisingly, the hardest part wasn’t picking up on the scents, but rather picking a winner. Live in Concert and Marfa Nights tied in the first category, “Sense of Place,” followed closely by Someone in Texas Loves Me and Stockyards, another contender by Rustic Charm Candles. For “On the Range,” H-E-B’s three-wick Texas Campfire narrowly beat Waterfall Scents’ Texan Cowboy, which, to quote one of my single friends, “smells like a man—I like it.” The last two categories were more straightforward: Fredericksburg Farms swept “On the Farm” with its subtle Hill Country Lavender and H-E-B fittingly took home the title for “On the Table,” winning over even non–coffee drinkers with Cafe Olé. Manready Mercantile’s Texas Campfire received an honorable mention for its clever branding and unique vessel in the form of a paint can.

As for the one candle that best embodies the Lone Star State? It’s hard to say. A better question would be: What does Texas mean to you? Through this experiment, I was reminded of how big a role our upbringing plays in our preferences. 

In the same way that a peach candle makes me think of my grandma’s cobbler while my friend conjures up gummy Lifesavers, a West Texas rancher may have a completely different idea of home than a Hill Country hippie. Even some of the most iconic symbols—like the state flower—may not resonate.

“Most Texans have never smelled bluebonnets,” says Steve McAnally, president of Fredericksburg Farms. Their Bluebonnet candle was born after he planted five thousand of the flowers for their nursery business. “When they are concentrated in a greenhouse, there is a really strong fragrance, almost like a lilac.”

But I don’t want to leave you hanging, so I’ll leave you with this: in our small study, Live in Concert topped everyone’s list, but Texan Cowboy was the most fought-over at the end of the night. Personally, I liked the San Antonio scent. Maybe because it smelled fresh and I could see myself burning it year-round. Maybe because it made me nostalgic for a city I once called home.

“Memory is a powerful thing,” Headrick says. “Sometimes a scent is tucked away in your mind until you smell it again and then it takes you right back to that place.”