In my fragrance journeys I´ve had a chance to consider and reconsider my relationship with all sorts of individual notes in perfume. My carefully constructed belief system regarding vanilla as a dominant note in vanilla perfume is: no thanks. Vanilla people are different from you and me (well, me, anyway). Vanilla people swoon over the lower circles of gourmand hell in Sephora, spraying each other with those Maison de la Vanille and/or Lavanila scents and moaning with pleasure. I disapprove. If you´re going to be into fragrance, man up already. Get yourself a decant of some fragrance that, if you spilled it on your floor, you´d have to tear the house down.
My idiotic view of vanilla perfume is triggered by two things:
1) I love desserts. I bake, and there are few dessert recipes that are not improved by some good-quality vanilla. Unless you have a pie-baking granny or aunt Ethel, I bake the best sweet potato pie you will ever taste. But I want to eat my dessert vanilla, not wear it.
2) Most vanilla-driven scents seem not only too sweeeeet but sort of plasticky – it´s one of those notes that can carry a whiff of overheated hair dryer on my skin.
In general, then, if a fragrance has vanilla as part of its title in any language, and/or it´s supposed to be all about the vanilla, I avoid it. Well, except for…
Guerlain Spiritueuse Double Vanille, which was the start of the transformation. Yeah, there´s that V-word in the title, and Guerlain has a lot of vanilla in their scents anyway, often buried under something else (preferably something nasty). I´m a Guerlain lover but I´ve been mad at the house for awhile, none of L’art et la Matiere having done a thing for me until I was seduced by Iris Ganache, and I knew I´d try Double Vanille eventually.
As everyone has already blogged, Spiritueuse Double Vanille is stunning. One of the most frequent comments I read about it goes something like, I don´t really like vanilla, but… which prompts my question: how do you avowed vanilla-lovers feel about this? Is this a vanilla perfume only for vanilla-haters? Spiritueuse is vanilla, benzoin, frankincense, spices, cedar, pink pepper, bergamot, Bulgarian rose and ylang-ylang. The key to its success is its wisp of smoke – like you wore vanilla to the bonfire – and a hit of something boozy, not in a nasty mulled-wine way, more like a seriously spiked whisky eggnog. The result is a very sophisticated, adult vanilla, not remotely foody. It´s heaven. My only complaint is the smokiness fades sooner than I´d like, so I´m doing what a bunch of you are already doing and layering it with CB I Hate Perfume Burning Leaves.
Bois 1920 Sushi Imperiale is another key to my conversion. For reasons I´m still not clear on, the first three or four tries I got a nice vanilla perfume. I kept trying, and eventually I got the delicious spicefest (notes are citrus, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla) that the rest of you are getting. It´s more linear, less expensive-smelling, stronger and more gourmand than the Guerlain, but it´s spicy enough to retain interest and not especially foody. It too layers nicely with Burning Leaves.
Having fallen in love with the vanilla/smoke combo, I rooted around in the sample drawers to see what else I might play with. Unsurprisingly, I don´t own a lot of vanilla perfume, even in samples. But I can attest that layering Burning Leaves with Lolita Lempicka L (that´s the immortelle/vanilla one in the little mermaid bottle, not the anise one) is a great combo. I like L a lot, but the immortelle fades away too quickly and then that vanilla base sticks around like a drunk at a party. I can´t keep reapplying because eventually L would kill me. Throwing Burning Leaves on top gives me something interesting to sniff.
I also dug up Indult Tihota, which I think a lot of you vanilla freaks really like. The notes are vanilla and musk, and I know it´s done by Francis Kurkdjian, and the musk helps, but apparently I wouldn´t wear it if you gave it to me, which Patty did months ago for a review, and I haven´t touched it since. It´s a really nicely done, rich vanilla scent that for me undergoes a vast improvement with some smoke on top.
After playing these smoky vanilla games with CB Burning Leaves, I ordered up a Humongous Mini of Demeter Bonfire. Bonfire´s nice – it really suffers only in direct arm-to-arm comparison with CB, so if you want to play the smoky vanilla game, you can buy a ½ oz mini for five bucks (or 1 oz. for $20, am I doing that math right? That seems …. wrong) vs. the CB Burning Leaves for $55 (although I note CB himself also has a 15ml of something called Bonfire absolute for $25, which I really should try….) … um, where was I? Demeter´s Bonfire starts off with a brief, sweet note I don´t like (must be the “maple” part of the maple-leaf bonfire) and its scent is a little more generic – vaguely Liquid Smoke, if you will, whereas Burning Leaves is more complex, with that heartbreaking drydown I´ve blogged on before, a drydown that is just a big ol´ leafpile, one of those signature smells of childhood for those of us lucky enough to have grown up with leaf piles (and I´m ancient enough to be able to remember when you could still burn your leaves.) In conclusion: if you´ve been looking for a way to liven up a vanilla scent and/or make it less sweet, vanilla and smoke is a pretty unbeatable combo.
What didn’t work out: using my vintage Kolnisch Juchten as the smoky part of the scent. I love KJ and its wacky smoked-sausage/leather cologne smell, but layered with vanilla perfume I got a bratwurst and kraut served a la mode with Breyer’s Old Fashioned Vanilla, and please feel free to learn from my mistake and don’t try this.
Two more complex vanilla perfume I tried recently which I really like:
First, Annick Goutal Vanille Exquise, which I am pretty sure is not universally loved (or maybe some love?), with words like “bitter” and “sour” popping up like mushrooms in negative reviews. Notes are: vanilla, angelica, almond, benzoin, gaiac, and musk. I like Vanille Exquise for two reasons. First, I like the AG line in general, and Vanille Exquise is very Annick – it has that signature aridity and a touch of vermouth-like bitterness. Second, for a vanilla, this is about as non-edible as you can get. Vanille Exquise elevates vanilla to a decorative quasi-floral, its job being to brighten the funky angelica note; the bezoin and gaiac give the fragrance a gloriously smoky, woody facet. If vanilla could be a dry cocktail, this is it.
Another excellent vanilla perfume that turned up in my weird bottle swap was Lostmarc´h Lann-Ael, and Gail, I totally understand why you kept bringing this magical thing up and finally gave up and sent me some. Holy moley! Notes are cereals, milky notes, apple and vanilla. I admit to the fragrance sin of spending exactly zero time with this line, which is from Brittany, the names allegedly being Breton for various things, but they (sorry again!) strike me as a bit twee. Well, I´m a fool. They can call this fragrance Vanilla Spam and I´d still wear it. It´s not listed in the notes but – alert! alert! – this scent opens with a note that is very immortelle-ish. Not the Log Cabin in Hell immortelle note, mind you, but that intoxicating solar-pollen-pepper-hay-seaside-musk smell that makes me weak at the knees. There are no spice notes listed but I smell some in there; perhaps the “immortelle” is a trick combo of, say, fenugreek and the apple? BTW all you people who read “apple” and think ruh roh – I´m smelling sweet farina, sort of; there´s a spiced vanilla sweetness but no obvious fruit note at all that I can detect. My favorite part of this fragrance is the first 45 minutes with the spiced hot cereals, after which I either reapply to send myself skyward again, or give up and add some smoke. Either way, lovers of cereals, immortelle and/or vanilla might want to give this a sniff.
So, there you have it. While I haven´t exactly come around to the whole vanilla-cupcake fragrance concept, I´ve figured out how to add vanilla perfume to my comfort-scent lineup.
Your turn. Given what I like, are there other nonfoody vanillas I should try? Other than PdN Vanille Tonka, which I would rather stab my hand with a fork than ever smell again? Don´t be shy, I´m not judgmental. Also, are there other related vanille aperfume two-note combos I should consider? Vanilla-leather I didn´t really love. Also, how else can I play with the smoke? Smoke and jasmine was okay but not as fabulous as I thought it might be, but then again I like my jasmine in the summer. Have any of you parsed the finer points of the various smoke options CB has? (Demeter´s Holy Smoke is an excellent scent, but it´s more the inside of a stone church with incense). Finally, Elle – if I´ve embraced even this small corner of the world of vanilla perfume, will you ever speak to me again?