V is for Vanilla

Van Cleef & Arpels Orchidee Vanille

Thomas Signature

“Thomas, AKA The Candy Perfume Boy, takes you on a journey around the fragrance world with ‘The Escentual A-Z of Fragrance’ a fun and fragrant ride that gives you all you need to know – the notes, the brands and the perfumers – to become a true fragrance addict/nerd”

Vanilla is perhaps the most prolific of ingredients within modern perfumery.  Nearly every new launch professes to contain the note and the style of many fragrances display the sweet tones of this most wonderful material.  Perhaps we all have or sweet tooth, or perhaps the world is running out of ideas.  In fact, I would hedge my bets on vanilla simply being a wonderfully versatile material that allows perfumes to add sweet and spicy complexity to a fragrance.  Yes, that sounds about right.

Vanilla comes from the Vanilla Planifolia, a species of vanilla orchid that stems from Mexico. Due to its high content of vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde that gives the smell and taste we all know, and love, as ‘vanilla’) the plant’s fruit, or pods, are the primary source for vanilla extract. Growing in hot, humid and tropical environments, vanilla is a truly exotic ingredient that has been adopted throughout the world and put to varying use in gastronomy and perfumery from country to country. It is anything, if not versatile.

Vanilla is definitely one of the most complex smells in the perfume kingdom. It can smell sweet, sugary, spicy, leathery, rich, creamy, powdery, rubbery, earthy, fuzzy, floral and gourmand. The real stuff is much more exotic and spicy than cupcakes and ice cream would lead one to think, and it can be used in remarkably different ways, creating a genre of textures, smells and ideas that are all absolutely ‘vanilla’.

Interestingly, vanilla was one of the notes that took me a long time to love, perhaps due to its misuse in many mainstream fragrances. When abused, the beauty of vanilla gets lost in a sea of cloying and sickly sugar that one can find difficult to wade through however, when it is treated with care and attention, vanilla can be nothing short of divine.  In this mini-guide you will find a selection of some of my favourite uses of vanilla in perfumery, ranging from the photorealistic to the abstract, and all that’s in between.


Guerlain Shalimar



Guerlain’s flagship fragrance, Shalimar may be a lot more than just a vanilla fragrance, but it wouldn’t be the classic it is today, if it weren’t for its star ingredient.  Jacques Guerlain, the nose behind Shalimar and many of Guerlain’s iconic fragrances, adapted the 1989 fragrance Jicky, and specifically its use of synthetic vanillin, to create Shalimar.  The result is a perfume that feels plush and creamy, without treading into dessert territory which, as lovely a place as it is to visit, wouldn’t quite gel with Shalimar’s mix of flapper-girl frivolity and exotic back story.

To smell Shalimar is to go on a fragrant journey.  As one embarks on the Orient Express, they are greeted with a shimmering cup of fresh bergamot, full of fuzzy, and tart goodness.  As the train makes its way across continents a variety of regal, and wonderfully fragrant passengers climb on board.  Vanilla is the star here.  It starts soft and supple, accented by iris powder, and displaying a supple sweetness that is creamy and warm.  With time, things become much smokier and more resinous.  The vanilla catches fire and burns with a soft animalic glow, with wood that speaks of ancient antiquities and resins that hint at the finest materials in the world.  Shalimar is a vanilla-based oriental fit for a queen.


7 Billion Hearts

CB I Hate Perfume’s 7 Billion Hearts is the closest to natural vanilla extract one can get in a fragrance.  It simply smells like vanilla but that in itself makes for quite a complex composition that displays a veritable spectrum of vanilla nuances.  This vanilla has everything one could hope for in a vanilla fragrance; sweet creaminess, subtle spice, warm honey and a woody smokiness.  7 Billion Hearts is a complete vanilla, and whilst it may be on the pricier side, I would say that anyone looking for a perfect rendition of vanilla in a fragrance would be hard pressed to find a scent better than this.


Orchidee Vanille

 Vanilla and booze go together like French & Saunders.  Separately they are fabulous, but together they really are something quite extraordinary.  They just fit.  Vanilla can have a naturally rum-like feel to it, so when paired with a delicious rum absolute or a cherry liqueur, for example, the result is rather decadent and delicious.

One of my favourite boozy vanillas is Orchidee Vanille from Van Cleef & Arpels’ Collection Extraordinaire – a wonderfully balanced vanilla than never feels to sweet or too dry.  Orchidee Vanille boasts a creamy, dessert sort-of vanilla that has been treated to a splash of rum and some generous chunks of marzipan.  If would all be a tad too sweet if it weren’t for the woody foundations that add a subtle smokiness, and an almost chewy dry quality that keeps the sweetness in check.  Yes, it’s as splendid as it sounds.


Hypnotic Poison

We now move to something a little more abstract, but beautiful none the less.  Hypnotic Poison plays on vanilla’s more unusual facets, specifically the more floral and almond-like nuances.  A bitter almond takes centre stage here, but it is supported by vanilla and jasmine, which give a milky and floral feel that really is unique.  Things feel a little standoffish at first, but the beauty of Hypnotic Poison is how she slowly unfurls and wraps the wearer in a delicate veil that feels soft and sleepy.  Hypnotic Poison is one of the few fragrances that actually lives up to its name and it would be safe to say that it is so startlingly different and subtle with its venom that one can only describe it as ‘hypnotic’.  It is a truly mesmerising fragrance as well as one of the very greats.


Join the Discussion

So there you have it – a snapshot of some of my favourite vanilla fragrances.  But being the nosey nose that I am, I’m not content in simply sharing my thoughts, I’d also like to hear about your favourite vanilla fragrances!  Do you like ‘em ‘straight up’ like 7 Billion Hearts, or do you prefer them with a splash of booze a la Orchidee Vanille?  Let me know in the comments box below.

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  • jazzypom

    I’m in love with Yves Rocher Vanille Noir. There’s the heart of vanilla with a base of cedarwood and rounded off with orange blossom and mimosa. It’s gorgeous – it just has no lasting power. :*(
    Shalimar and Dior Hypnose are my favourite. The others that you’ve sited (I hate perfume and the van cleef and apparels) sound yummy.