Friday, November 29, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Vanilla Perfume (Vanilla Series)

In moments of mental inertia, I tried to note down every vanilla fragrance out there and then critically assess it. A task as easy as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with bare hands and feet clad in Louboutins. There are virtually thousands of perfumes (not to mention body products) with a predominant vanilla impression, all vying for the "best vanilla fragrance in the market". And it became especially difficult taking into account that vanilla -like rose- is one of those fragrance notes that tend to leave me with a "huh, is this all there is to it" face; no doubt due to saturation of the market, unidentified traumatic experiences buried into my deep unconscious and the fact that I don't like "easy" things. And vanilla, no matter how you slice it, is "easy".

Easy in the sense that it is comforting, it provides cushioning, insulation from the cruel cold world, a retreat to the womb and the primal joys of breast milk and sustenance. Breast milk is indeed lightly vanillic, sweetish in nature (don't ask how I know) and it's no accident that baby food (as well as many baby care products) are lightly flavored and/or scented with vanilla scent, nor that men are, allegedly, attracted to the scent of vanilla acting as an aphrodisiac. (It's best not to dwell too much on what Oedipal complications such an assertion would imply in Freudian terms.)
According to the Australian Orchid Society, "Old Totonac lore has it that Xanat, the young daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess, loved a Totonac youth. Unable to marry him due to her divine nature, she transformed herself into a plant that would provide pleasure and happiness – that plant was the Vanilla vine. This reputation was much enhanced in 1762 when a German study found that a medication based on vanilla extract cured impotence — all 342 smiling subjects claimed they were cured."
Of course one would have to go for organic, natural vanilla extract for that, surely (not to mention that raw beef meat was also considered an aphrodisiac for men in the early 20th century and let's see how many listeria cases there were because of it), but that never stopped the advertising machine from claiming claims they can't support. Personally I have yet to find the man who is mesmerized by pure unadulterated vanilla. It's believe it's just a component with familiarity value to them when picked in a blend; would you have expected them to recognize vetiver, saffron, Ambroxan or ylang ylang? I didn't think so...

Vanilla's appeal is actually much simpler than all that: it's a mental connection with a time when we felt nurtured. Or rather vanillin is. But let's take things at the top. 

Vanillin is not exactly vanilla, as it lacks the depth and richness of "real vanilla" (Vanilla planifolia). This simple molecule, and ethyl vanillin as well, are routinely produced not from the vanilla orchid (an exotic plant that bears dark, blackish pods that when sliced yield their aromatic essence, rich in -yes- vanillin) but from lignin (a byproduct of the wood pulp industry) or from guaiacol. The form that vanillin is routinely presented in commercially is whitish crystals available for baking at the aisles of supermarkets across Europe or diluted into a carrier liquid in the USA. Scents that highlight vanilla can be simple, foodie stuff focusing on, exactly, baking vanilla (i.e. vanillin) which brings on memories of baking with mum, or they can be much more complex affairs where boozy notes reminiscent of rum or whiskey appear and regress at times. Vanilla perfumes can even lean tropical, with floral facets that recall coconut and sweet nectarous leis to the point you can hear the tam-tams in the background. There are perverse, marine vanillas, outré and left field, and there are anisic or spicy vanillas which are not as wholesome as the butter cookies you baked with your grandmother. In short, there are as many variations on vanilla as there are in...well,  there aren't that many variations in vanilla sex, but you know what I mean. 

So here begins a guide into the Top Vanilla Fragrances, which will take the form of a Perfume Shrine series, so as to tackle each and every category, therefore making it easier to pinpoint just what you like and hopefully branch out a bit more. While there we will question received wisdom, dispel some common myths and re-ascertain truths where they may be.
It did take me a while to arrive at the selection, so you won't find everything under the sun in those posts, but if you have a suggestion that you consider particularly good to miss, please add it in the comments below. If you stumbled on this post through Google and want to read about Vanilla Perfume Recommendations, please click on the Vanilla Series tab here. 


  1. leathermountain16:38

    I am also finding vanilla scents challenging to appreciate because they are too easy. Huh. One problem is that I don't like to smell edible, least of all like candy or cake. I don't know why that is, but you said we wouldn't dwell on any Freudian interpretations, right? My exceptions, so far, all seem to employ conflagrations or industrial products thereof: Shalimar, Patchouli 24, Mona di Orio Vanille, Bulgari Black. Lately Patchouli 24 is slipping into the Canned Ham department of my mind. Oddly enough it worked better last summer.

    One more I'd love to get your take on is MCGentile's Noir Tropical. I smelled it only briefly in a shop, where it was described as a "non-sweet vanilla." That seemed true, and worth a second sniff.

    Also, would you include ambers as a subcategory of vanillas? I've been growing to love labdanum, and I'm wondering how many ambers will eventually delight me as a result.

    Finally, when, if ever, is a vanilla not an oriental?

    Thank you for starting another wonderful series!

  2. My most beloved vanilla is a blend, Parfums de Nicolai Vanille Tonka, with it's inclusion of frankincense and lime top note. Vanilla is surprisingly difficult in my opinion and so many just don't feel "right", so I look forward to this series, as I do to your blog everyday (not least because of mental imagery like mountain climbing in Louboutins :)

  3. I would love a vanilla scent like the one I used to cook with many , many years ago - its was wonderful and I certainly would "wear" it! You know, that same vanilla essance is still available and I do use it in my cooking but ..... Helg - its is not the same!! The perfume is not nice like it used to be and it does not "scent" the cakes like it did. Maybe they had to reformulate the cooking vanilla too?
    I find vanilla perfumes very hard to wear and I guess its the memory of at essance I used to cook with many years ago - I can never find a scent like it.

  4. Maria02:56

    I always react to vanilla, like chocolate and fruit based scents, in the same manner: "smells like kitchen." But I really love spices in perfume, cinnamon, clove, anise, peppers, and the rest. I thought it's because vanilla scents usually more sweet than not, and I don't like that in perfumes. The only prominent vanilla I own is in Ford's Amber Absolute... Discoveries are coming my way :)

  5. annemariec06:35

    I'm looking forward to your vanilla series! I'm cautious about vanilla nit just because I dislike foodie vanillas but because I usually find vanilla flattens other notes in the perfume so much that I hardly smell them. Vanille Insense is an example. The result is that the perfume becomes
    linear and dull

    BUT - I did try Laura Biagiotti's Roma after your recent review and like it very much indeed. I don't especially perceive the grapefruit and black currant as individual notes but together they form an astringent accord that refuses to let the vanilla have things her own way - for once! And the mint! Just delightful. A 25 ml FB of Roma will be under our Xmas tree this year.

  6. Anonymous08:02

    Another fascinating series, thank you!

    I think that vanilla and I have a love/hate relationship - I love to smell it, and love a lot of fragrances that use it judiciously, but hate the way that some vanilla-heavy perfumes give me a headache and make me feel sick; a good example is Chopard's Casmir, which I sometimes really yearn for as it is so rich, sweet and comforting, but which I can only tolerate for about 20 minutes!

    By contrast, L'AP's Vanillia, which didn't have the thickness and booziness of some vanilla-centric fragrances - was almost the opposite of Casmir.

    The majority of Pierre Guillaume's perfumes seem to feature vanilla; I particularly like Ilang Ivohibe as, although it is sweet, the zingy lime and the white flower notes seem to keep it from being tooth-rotting.

    Yves Rocher's Vanille Noir is a really good, definitely not sweet vanilla. Their sadly missed Rose Absolue had a hefty dose and was actually very sugary, but pretty.

    I think I have come to the conclusion that vanilla is a good thing, and can be a bit of a chameleon!


  7. leathermountain14:07

    I smelled MCMC Hunter yesterday, in a shop, amidst the vapors of a thousand other bottles, but.... it seemed to me that the vanilla/conifer balance was just right. And it made me wonder how many perfumes I like employ vanilla at a less identifiable concentration, as a balance to sharp or medicinal notes....

  8. A,

    thank you for so rich a comment!

    I haven't tried the newest MCG scents, but have high hopes, judging by the original line up which was revelatory.

    I don't classify ambers as vanilla scents: the combination of labdanum with vanilla (vanillin actually) yields a different beast, but one could of course say that lovers of one might lean to the other (And this also explains why I don't generally love amber as a genre, except for select cases, as I don't vanilla as a whole either; some ambers can be too sweet, too thick, too dense).

    In what has to do with fragrance classification, it's more of a technical issue, so all vanillas are grosso modo orientals (the reference being exotic oriental lands and not -say- west Cornwall), but one shouldn't really concern themselves with those parameters as much as the nuances WITHIN the vanilla trope; I therefore hope to be able to dissect that aspect with my series, rather than contemplate whether X vanilla scent is an oriental or not. ;-)

    Thanks for being a supporter! :-)

  9. Rosarita,

    thanks for the encouraging words, it's very touching you saying so!

    I also find vanilla can be "difficult" exactly for those reasons, so I appreciate it -like with rose- when bastardized, so to speak. Vanille Tonka is an excellent case in point!

  10. M,

    ah darling, you know there's something wrong in the kingdom of Denmark when they start messing with the cooking stuff as well!!! (this is a horror story, why did they change it??)

    Your reference shows how potent a mental association can be. It becomes the yard stick against which everything is measured.

  11. Maria,

    we share that!! I find most vanillas too sweet and that irks me. But there are certainly tempered or dark vanillas out there (just wait till the corresponding posts roll along!) so there's hope for you yet.
    Ambre is an amber, so tehnically not a true vanilla. You're a cheat!! :-P :-D

  12. AMC,

    how delightful that you liked Roma!! I am ever so happy to hear such successful stories of recommendations turning into genuine likes. Hope you enjoy your Xmas gift!

    As to vanillas, yes, they can overwhelm a blend, though perfumers usually use the note as a modifier and smoother; when things turn awry a tad of vanilla "fixes" the mistakes. It can become too much though sometimes!

  13. Jillie,

    there's nothing wrong with vanilla per se, I believe it's the overuse in cheap body products (and candles!! and room sprays!! and store ventilation systems!!) which has totally ruined for most of us.

    A touch of vanilla can be good and all your suggestions are lovely, though I can't stomach Casmir either; it grows tentacles and engulfs me, I feel like I need to come out and breathe some fresh air every 5 minutes (so I never keep a bottle at hand).

    Good stuff, looks like the series is turning out to be interesting to readers, so we will get lots of fascinating commentary.

  14. A,

    a ha! Haven't tried MCMC Hunter, noting it down for when the opportunity comes.

    But yes, like I said above responding to someone, vanilla is used a lot to smoothen out a blend or to "fix" mistakes, so it's not unusual to having it used to "check" other sharper or more medicinal ingredients. Accurate observation on your part!

  15. Like you, I am not particularly fond of vanilla centric perfumes. But vanilla can work perfectly in combinations.

    Two examples I love are Shalimar,vanilla as an anchor for the oriental melody, and Caron pour un homme, where vanilla is the perfect counterpoint for lively lavender (another material I am not especially fond of - but here the two balance each other).


  16. Maria04:42

    Bad me! But it does have a rather palpable sweet note that I perceived as thick vanillic side of amber impression. Because I can't really believe it's all based on ambre gris, not at this production scale. And if my nose lied, then shame on it. :-D
    I'm really interested in this series. I admit I tried to find non-sweet compositions with vanilla in my cooking, like bitter+vanilla, or "sharp fresh"+vanilla, with peppers and herbs etc., and I'm really curious to know what serious guys worked on.

  17. M,

    I suppose like attracts like! ;-) :-D
    (as you can see many of my readers have similar apprehensions)

    Agree with your choices: neither is a pure vanilla, but the vanilla in both makes a huge difference.

    (and ha! I'm not especially fond of lavender either; but then I find that when people say they're fond of lavender they're actually saying they like the "fake" lavender scent of household and fabric softener products which is mostly....vanilla -hehehe!)

  18. Maria,

    oh, perhaps I wasn't too clear and got you confused rather than helped.

    Let' see:
    What I mean is that amber (not ambergris, a very different thing, please note!) and vanilla are not interchangeable, but the amber chord does contain vanillin in it (a mass produced form of vanilla scent). So many "ambers" in the market (perfumes such as Amber Absolute) have a very sweet vanilla component as a result.

    I believe it would be more elucidating if you can spare a minute to read my article Amber or Ambergris which gives many pointers, as well as What is Amber and how is it produced in perfumes.
    These should put all confusions to a rest and if you have more questions, by all means, ask away whatever you want. :-)

    Your experiments in the kitchen sound delicious. And I know exactly what you mean. Personally I like the Mexican chicken with chocolate and a smidgen of vanilla. It's curiously savory-sweet, an odd combination.

  19. Elia16:50

    I'll just point out my favourite vanilla, because it's unlikely to be on your list, but if you care to try, Cenobite by Solstice Scents is a fabulous boozy edible vanilla.
    I probably like all types of vanilla. I'm less keen on overtly 'woody/smoky' ones though.

  20. Elia,

    now THERE is something I never had heard of before.

    Solstice Scents (sounds like an all naturals line?) and Cenobite: noting down for future exploration. Sounds delicious!

    I suppose woody-smoky are more often than not off notes which are naturally incurring in vanilla beans, but purposefully injected in that genre of perfumes. It's fun that we all recognize such nuances, though, to the average person on the street we must be sounding like we're hair splitting! LOL

  21. Maria06:51

    My fault, I should have expressed myself better. I know they are not interchangeable (and I've read all your posts on materials and notes, heh-hee). I meant 'the vanilla side of amber is all vanilla I can agree to; any more is too much for me, at least now'.

    Funny, savory food + sweet drink is my comfort food pattern! I'll think of adding chocolate to sauces for savory stuff, it sounds like a rich idea!

    I saw you posted about dark vanillas already, so off to read about them.

  22. Good experience, the quest for new fragrances is thrilling. Coqui coqui tulum in Mexico is a fantastic place with a lot of diverse perfumes in the region. It´s own story is also heavily related to the subject.


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