Despite "dark vanilla" sounding like an oxymoron, if there ever was one, the collective fantasy of just this trope suggests the dedicated quest for a powerful aphrodisiac; dangerous like a femme fatale, but at the same time tried & true like one of the few fragrance notes that can be universally picked with no great difficulty. Maybe "dark" is meant in the sense of sinister, a little evil, a little perverse. I can see that.
Vanilla scents by their very nature tend towards the oriental fragrance family, more specifically the gourmand fragrance sub-genre, but this category of smoky, boozy vanilla perfumes with off notes of malt, whiskey, rum and pipe tobacco are more than any other marking their territory in the Orientals like it's nobody's business. For that very reason, they're recommended to lovers of resinous, balsamic fragrances who can thus learn to appreciate the merits of vanilla. If you always eyed vanilla perfumes as the bimbos of the perfumery world and considered yourself a languorous odalisque instead, this is a useful exercise, if only to divest yourself of certain prejudices; any material is pliable enough in the hands of a skilled and imaginative artist.
Guerlain is probably a necessary stop in this adventurous road; even master perfumer Ernest Beaux (working for Chanel) complained that his vanillas turned into creme anglaise, while Guerlain's turned into...Shalimar.
The perception of darkness or booziness in vanilla versus chaste "vanilla" probably starts at the kitchen. In the United States cooking vanilla is sold as a liquid form extract that is diluting the white crystals of vanillin in carrier alcohol and other fillers such as burnt sugar (which usually color the liquid a welcoming caramelic shade). Furthermore, the naming of a certain type of vanilla as "Bourbon Vanilla" (after the Bourbon royal family of France who held a claim on the Réunion island where this is produced) further complicates the mind into believing one is smelling...bourbon whiskey!
It's here important to differentiate with amber fragrances (parfums ambrés in French) which, although traditionally built on labdanum and vanillin (a trope of the late 19th century), form a separate category, characterized by a powdery, softly enveloping and animalic quality. Both tonka beans and benzoin resin both have naturally vanillic aspects which are therefore put to the fore in that context. This confusion between "ambers" and purer "vanillas" makes no great practical difference to the wearer (one's interpretation is subjective), but it's something that needs to be mentioned from a technical point of view.
Here are some of the darkest and more suggestive vanilla perfumes you can ever dream of getting your hands on. Feel free to experiment!
Cacharel Gloria: especially the body oil is a gloriously deep, nuanced vanilla (Though discontinued it's a good alternative to the super expensive Spirituelle Double Vanille -see below- and therefore to be pounced on when you see it for sale)
Dior Hypnotic Poison: a bitter almond laced vanillic elixir which is quite powdery. Cult best-seller, a bit thinned in recent edition, more of a fully fledged oriental than a simple vanilla
Chanel Egoiste: marketed to men, snatched by discerning women who like creamy notes of vanilla in a complex blend
Givenchy Organza Indecence: a spin to the original floriental Organza, this vanillic counterpart is flashier and has a rum & cola rather than a kir royal when out at night.
Guerlain Jicky: clearly this lavender fougere it's not all about the vanilla, but especially vintage renditions full of meowing civet make the note gain a mischievous facet that reminds me of the two faces of Janus (Its contemporary spin is Gris Clair by Serge Lutens).
Guerlain Spirituelle Double Vanille: THE reference for boozy vanilla fragrances, it encompasses all the treacle aspects of the genuine vanilla pods. But it's not about darkness, it's about luminosity, about sparkle, about golden incandescence, even if most would unimaginatively call it ...."dark".
Guerlain Shalimar Ode a la Vanille: a more approachable path to the classic of classics, Guerlain Shalimar, with more of a vanilla focus (Shalimar Ode a la Vanille au route de Madagascar and Shalimar Ode a la Vanille au route de Mexique are simply limited annual editions of the same perfume). Shalimar Parfum Initial is also a credible way to get initiated in the cult, as is (with a more lemony touch), Shalimar Light/Eau de Shalimar.
Of course if you're trying the above flankers of Shalimar, it would be a great injustice not to sample (in all its different concentrations and vintages) the ORIGINAL bronze-skinned deity that is the classic Shalimar. More of an amber oriental than a pure vanilla, however its vanilla component is twisted, romantic, mysteriously creamy and animalic smelling. Just so.
Indult Tihota: an expensive vanilla that mentally conjures chestnut brown silk
L'Artisan Parfumeur Vanille Absolument (previously named Havana Vanille): a boozy and tobacco-laced vanilla that maintains a precarious equilibrium like a trapeze artist
La Maison de la Vanille Noire de Mexique: a more economical alternative to Tihota (see above), it highlights the geographical variety (as contrasted to Madagascar)
Martine Micallef Vanille: a not-for-young-girls vanilla blend, rich and nicely boozy, quite polished in the genre. In fact, and said in passing, Parfums M.Micallef have a whole line devoted to vanilla (M.Micallef Collection Vanille), so check their variations out.
Mona di Orio Les Nombres d'Or Vanille: spectacular, dark vanilla, dry and earthy with a bit of rum nuance, its spices in check, masterfully blended
Patricia de Nicolai Vanille Tonka: tonka beans have a natural vanillic facet, which is treated with a smoky note of frankincense given even citrusier facets by the addition of lime
Perlier Carribean Vanilla Coffee: coffee is a natural complement to vanilla, its roasted side keeping the sweetness in check
Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille: if you always sought a sweet, dense pipe tobacco scent but came to "close but no cigar" conclusions, this Tom Ford doesn't disappoint; just be careful with dosage, it's very sweet and potent, though curiously enough not overpowering
Yves Rocher Vanille Noire: like its name suggests, a darker vanilla, really well done on Rocher's part and among their upscale offerings
Do you like dark vanilla fragrances? Which are your favorites?