Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part I

Editor’s Note: This series of posts is written by my friend Neil, an Englishman living in Japan, who is an extremely knowledgeable perfume enthusiast with what I suspect must be an amazing vintage collection. A warm welcome to Neil!

Hello, this is Neil Chapman, aka The Black Narcissus, and I am delighted to have been given the chance to do a guest spot on Olfactoria’s Travels, where I will be writing a short series on one of my favourite perfume ingredients, vanilla.

A small parcel arrived in the post yesterday from a friend who has just been to the island of Réunion. In it was a bottle of freshly distilled ylang ylang oil called ‘Ylang Ylang Compte Goutte’, a heady, extravagant liquid coloured a light apricot-orange that was deliciously, pungently exotic. Just as excitingly, in there as well were vanilla beans from Madagascar, lying there enticingly as though they had just been bought from the market in Antananarivo in their paper bag and somehow found themselves in Japan.

The combination of these smells, plus the knowledge of where they came from, filled me with an instant high on a rainy afternoon in November as I have always loved the voluptuousness of the tropical – ylang, frangipani, coconut milk, pikake – but in particular the scent, taste, and emotion of vanilla. I am almost obsessed with the note, and in fact am planning a trip, at some point in the near future, to Madagascar. To be near, if possible, to the vanilla orchids, to see the workers pollinating them by hand; watch the vanillin-specked, dark glistening pods fermenting their sweet odour in the sun: those tiny flecks of vanilla you see suspended in custards and yoghurts that so entice, miniscule dots of aphrodisiacal pungency, flowing out into the cool, lactic, surrounding deliciousness.

In perfume terms, to many people, the thought of stepping out sweet and vanilla-coated into the night will be horrendous. For others, like myself, it’s a wonderful indulgence– especially in winter. One ploy against the incipient cold of the Japanese winter, psychologically at least, is perfume, and there is nothing better for my spiritual insulation than a warm, true vanilla. While in recent times the occasionally infantile trend towards ‘comfort’ fragrances has produced many a goo-ga kiddy scent, vanilla, in the right perfumer’s hands, can be delectable – and the perfect aphrodisiac – gracing the body with sweet, edible warmth. It is a halo of security.

In this series, we will be looking at a selection of vanillas, from the classically animalic dessert-rich odalisques such as Guerlain’s Shalimar, to the newer breed of green-tinted vanillas such as Diptyque’s Eau Duelle and Mark Buxton’s new Sleeping With Ghosts. We would love to hear your vanilla stories as well, so please regale us with your own sugary bean-drenched tales.


My current vanilla love and favourite perfume all round is this unusual scent ( which comes in 100ml parfum only).

In its first stages, Vaniglia Del Madagascar strangely reminds me very much of the bathing rituals at a Japanese sento, or public baths, where families, individuals and couples go to soap down, switch off and relax in cleansing pools of contemplation. The smells of steam, active ions, citrus soaps, and saunas made of hinoki wood are somehow encapsulated in the top notes of lemon, florals (almost imperceptible) and minerals. There is a fresh, misty saltiness to this stage that is quite an acquired taste but which I have come to really appreciate.

The vanilla isn’t obviously there at first, and it takes some time to appear, as compressed atoms of natural vanilla molecules seem to dilate outwards, slowly, at their own prehistorically ambered pace. When it finally does emerge, though, this vanilla is glorious; perfection, and it lasts on the skin all through the night to the next morning when you have succumbed to its heat-charged fullness, draped in its caresses like a cream-silk blanket.


A product that pushes to dangerous breaking point the limits of sweetness: many, even the most committed vanillista, will find this scent intolerable.

Vanille Extrême smells of Play-Doh and My Little Ponies – that chewy, scented plastic rubber; of the cheap vanilla candles in ‘angels and healing’ stores; of the frilly infantilia of the American childhood bedroom, with the volume on the pink music speakers turned up to a deafening 10

A couple of sprays on your skin….

Good Lord.

You are puking, sweetly, alone, in a vat of mallows. But just when you think you have made a very grave mistake in allowing it on your skin and are deliriously trying to locate the washbasin, a few minutes in the perfume suddenly becomes so edible : a spiced Tahitian warmth – rich, cute, lickable; a warm and tenacious vanilla that you leave on, tentatively and begin to savour.

Still, that opening…

Look out for Part II next week!


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40 Responses to Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part I

  1. Civava says:

    Hi there, vanilla is one of my favorite notes. It almost always makes me hungry for some sweet treat and it somehow make me feel so cosy. I guess this is the smelly memory to the days in my childhood, when my mother baked cookies. I like to explore the differnent ways the perfumers present the vanilla note, from very light incense-vanilla from Dyptique and very heavy and sweet like Casmir from Chopard. I like vanilla-tobacco-rum combo like Traversee du Bosphore (although there is no vanilla stated in the notes). Bitter-sweet with some woods and spices suits me best. Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille comes very close.

    • ginzaintherain says:

      Hi Civava.

      Funnily enough I thought of Traversee du Bosphore as primarily a vanilla when I tried it for a whole day recently, and despite that slightly harsh ‘tulip/apple’ thing happening on top I rather enjoyed it. To me it didn’t smell especially loukhoum-like, more like a jazzed up modern cherry vanilla. I might even buy a bottle (though it would be quite brave step for me as I don’t really like Duchaufour…always so…..tight and lab-smelling to me..)

      I also have Casmir, which I think was very original in its time, with that ripe, fruity coconut soufflé shine….

      In Japan the Art et Matiere line as well as the Spiritueuse cost around 33, 000 yen, which is about 260 pounds I think, and much as I like it I can’t quite commit to it yet. Do you have a bottle? Is it pure vanilla in the base or is there ( as I fear), a sandalwoody aspect as it closes (I don’t like sandalwood, especially synthetic, in a base….)

      • Civava says:

        Traversee doesn’t smell like loukhum like to me either. What is actually good ;-). I like the twist between opening and base. It gets so totally different. I love tobacco-vanilla combo…somehow dirty vanilla. I actually have 100 ml of this and it is a buy I’m happy with it is also one of rare perfumes in this days that I found worth buying full bottle.
        Casmir works with me really like cashmir shawl. Not that I have one. The perfume I can afford ;-).
        I tried Spirituese in Paris Botique and I loved it but is way to expensive for me, so I guess I’ll have to go for a decant, but I want to keep the bottle. I couldn’t evaluate it very well because I had tried a few other perfumes there. I loved also Cuir Beluga, but this is very light, at least to me. I’m used to some very heavy stuff. And it is more according to my personality.

        • ginzaintherain says:

          To me, Cuir Beluga, and Tom Ford’s (so overrated) Tobacco Vanille have a somewhat nauseating aspect.
          I’m pretty sure I could wear Bosphore a lot…

  2. poodle says:

    Great review! Your comments on Vanilla Extreme made me think of the scene in the movie “This is Spinal Tap” where the guy is talking about how loud his new speakers are and he says “These go to 11”. I love vanilla so I’d be curious to try Vanilla Extreme to see just how strong it is.

    • ginzaintherain says:

      Dear Poodle

      Trust me, I am one who can wear VERY strong and VERY sweet ( I rocked Kenzo’s Elephant for a long time), but the Comptoir is UNBELIEVABLY strong, tacky, artificial, and without dignity, at least to my nose. ( I still wore it though, and there is none left, so there must have been something good about it….)

  3. GeM says:

    Hi Neil, pleased to read your posting! Vaniglia Del Madagascar sounds really interesting.
    I know Diptyque’s Eau Duelle and I found it nice, but the last one which stood out of this house, to me, was Diptyque’s L’Eau.

    In the last two years I’ve been focused on vanillas. I tend to prefer the non-foodies, as an accent but not as the single focus, my favorites are:

    .the sultry tropical ‘to swoon for’ Songes (summer island paradise!),
    .the almondy/macaroonish [strangely non-foodies though] Jour de Fête and Farnesiana (home comforting scents all year round). I’m tempted to put L’Eau d’Hiver in this category, which I find is connected with some of the Farnesiana vibe…
    .the sensually amazing tobacco dream called Havana Vanille by L’Artisan (I hope it’s not being discontinued! I think it’s just renamed -again- Vanille Absolument, I personally love the ‘Havana’ word in),
    .the creamy-heavenly Sublime Vanille by Creed (to me definitely unaffordable, though :(),
    .the cute ‘fairy tales’ shown in Vanille Insensée (Atelier) and Un Bois Vanille (SL)

    My latest discovery is the stunning vanilla drydown in Alien Essece Absolue (absolute happiness: I finally found a Thierry Mugler that I can wear like floating on a cloud), which in addition to its undeniable quality, is the only one that I really can wear for more than just a while -approx 24 hours!- without reapplying. It’s wonderful and to me the best 2012’s fragrance to date within the mainstream sector (and probably even niche since I haven’t found so much interesting things in a while so I must get out there, I feel the need to expand my horizons).

    • ginzaintherain says:


      This is fascinating to read as I share a great passion for several of the perfumes you mention, especially Songes, which I also think is a work of absolute genius (I did a review of it on The Black Narcissus and went a bit overboard, but) it is stunning; alive; so luscious and beautiful and natural, and, as you say, the ending is just sublime.

      Speaking of which, the Creed Vanille I couldn’t even entertain the idea of, financially, and in any case when I smelled it I thought that it seemed very nice but not essential…..did I dismiss it too soon?

      Farnesiana, in its original vintage parfum incarnation, is VERY special, in my view. So tender, and that holy triad of vanilla, mimosa and almond is somehow heartrending. And I totally see how it could bleed into an Eau d’Hiver theme (the same, only with the warmth and colour leached out, in colder climes…..)

      As for the Diptyque, I would have to agree. In fact I was in Tokyo on Monday, and though there was the new Volutes, and I was supposed to be resampling Duelle, I couldn’t resist those cloves and cinnamon sticks. Ultimately it is superior.

      The Vaniglia del Madagascar is an essential part of my collection now, but I was quite disappointed when I first tried it for the mineralic, understated, orange facet that seems to hide the vanilla for too long. Eventually though it really blooms on me and I totally adore it. Perhaps a small sample from Lucky Scent?

      Thanks for the comment. I would love to hear more about the Vanille Insensee, which I don’t know.

      • GeM says:

        oh, Vanille Insensée is in the same vein like Eau Duelle, but better in my opinion.
        As for the Creed`’s, I’m sure you didn’t dismiss anything, I agree 90% with your impression, I see it as a traditional take on vanilla (‘creamy’) very safe and pleasant (‘heavenly’), not as interesting or challenging as others and it does not have particularly long lasting power, but although not essential, I think it’s a ‘basic’ in delights – without being sugary -. Perhaps is more connected to the traditional feminine vanilla’s viewpoint, maybe?

        I definitely should try Vaniglia del Madagascar, and check out your review of Songes (I love the ‘too much’ enthusiastic reviews the most) and I’m a Songes JUNKIE specially in summer. 😉

  4. ringthing says:

    Looking forward to reading this series! I like the dry warmth of Mono di Orio’s Vanille.

    • ginzaintherain says:


      Not sure I know the Orio..what is it like? Opaque and difficult, or did she manage to find a facet that no one else had (as was usually the case….)

      My samples of that Nombres d’Or collection are locked inside a cabinet drawer which has broken… even more frustrating now that I realize this perfume might be inside!

  5. Alexandra says:

    Hello – it is very nice to meet you and what a great place to begin – vanilla! At the beginning of my perfume journey vanilla scared me, and it was a note I avoided (I blame the burnt sugar accord of SL Un Bois Vanille – it was supposed to be love.) But over the last year I have fallen deeper and deeper in love with dark, grown up, vanillas: it started with Mona di Orio and has been fanned to a hot flame by Guerlain’s Metallica. I haven’t found THE ONE yet, but I am certainly enjoying the search.

    • ginzaintherain says:

      Ooh, Metallica…….I almost put up a review of that indecipherable scent today. I would love to hear more about that vanillic, dusty carnation with that amazing dry down…

  6. anatu13 says:

    Neil, I just checked out your blog–it looks great! I am adding it to my daily “to read” list. 🙂

  7. Sandra says:

    Neil, I truly enjoyed your piece today and look forward to the next installment. I second anatu13’s statement and your blog will be regularly visited. I adore vanilla in perfume, tea and food. People always ask if I need another vanilla and yes I do! Give Mona di Orio vanilla a try – it is lovely and has tenacity. Vanilla Insensee is great for spring and fall.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Dear Neil, this was a wonderful read — I loved your enthusiasm, and even your description of the tacky Vanille Extreme makes me think, gosh, gotta smell it! (Although in truth I won’t be seeking it out, but the words you used to describe it make it seem compelling in an American amusement-park kind of way. Which is probably another reason I wont’ seek it out … I never really like amusement parks, though I do like the idea of them!) 😀

    My favorite vanilla is the not-much-loved Montale Boise Vanille, a very resinous, off-center and masculine-leaning vanilla.

  9. ginzaintherain says:

    Montale always have the strength to make the bottles worth buying in my opinion. They have that…..oomph.

  10. ginzaintherain says:

    (and thanks for not rejecting my OTT vomiting in the bucket story)

  11. Dubaiscents says:

    What a beautiful post, Neil! I love your style and obvious passion for vanilla (and perfumes in general). I have to put another vote up for Mona’s Vanille, I would suggest getting a locksmith to open your drawer and get that sample out! It truly is a different vanilla scent than most others I have smelled. Songes is also another favorite of mine although I don’t think I ever really thought of it as a vanilla scent (must try it again now). Alien Essence Absolute is also very nice, much better than the original IMHO. I can’t wait to read your next post in the series!

    • ginzaintherain says:

      Thank you very much. I am something of a maniac when it comes to these things….!

    • GeM says:

      I think talking about vanilla means talking about vanillaS.
      Today we can enjoy as many vanillic creations out there as fish in the sea.
      I think in Songes as a true vanilla scent in the sense of the ‘voluptuousness of the tropical’ that Neil points above. I started to understand vanilla under that point of view some time ago (blended with that exotic ‘flower’ smells) but you’re right, Songes it does not seem to be the standard vanillic scent in perfumery, which often lies behind the idea of ​​adding vanilla to make something easier to wear and immediately appealing… that’s boring isn’t it?! 😉

      • ginzaintherain says:

        They way that vanilla hides gently behind the luscious petals in Songes is spellbinding in my view. To me it is even more of a ylang vanille than Ylang Vanille (which I also love…)

  12. Tara says:

    Welcome Neil! I really like your writing style and hearing about your perspective from Japan is great.

    This topic has come at just the right time for me because I’ve been trying to find my perfect vanilla this autumn. I’m not there yet. CB I Hate Perfume’s 7 Billion Hearts comes closest (despite the rocky first 30 minutues) but it is super expensive. After that it’s SDV, but I’d like to find something that’s just perfect. To get my vanilla fix for now I turn to Shalimar’s dry-down which is pretty hard to beat.

    Can’t wait for Part II!

    • ginzaintherain says:

      Thanks very much for the compliment, Tara.

      I have a sample bottle of 7 Billion Hearts, but I TRULY have difficulties with that plasticky wood note at the beginning. And I tried and tried, and then did something outrageous. I poured my third-left bottle of Ambre Sultan into it, which is reckless I know, but I feel that the Lutens has definitely been reformulated and doesn’t have what it used to, that it is flimsier, and more musky……. I added a couple of notes of eucalyptus oil on a whim in the top notes and it is gorgeous….the vanilla from the Brosius adds heft to the amber, while the more natural sensations in the Serge overcome my woodier objections in the Hearts. A bit naughty, I know, but I do tend to ‘remix’ things occasionally. Borneo 1834 is in my top 5 scents, but I have to add extra patchouli to get it just right….

  13. Marishka says:

    I thought I did not like vanilla but it turns out I don’t like sugar. I enjoy vanilla intense by parfum de nicolai very much. This vanilla is not sweet at all.

  14. ginzaintherain says:

    Marishka, I like anything by De Nicolai as well. She always tempers her scents with something restrained and dry that stops them from getting, as you say, too sugary.

  15. Eva S says:

    Your post inspired me to chose Shalimar Ode a la Vanille as my SOTD, I think that one is my favorite vanilla along with Mona d’Orio (which makes me think of “Treasure Island” and pirates drinking to much rum!)

  16. Rebecca says:

    My favorite scent right now that includes vanilla must be Seven Veils by Byredo. In my opinion, one of the best of the Byredo scents. Seven veils is spicy, mysterious and oriental without being too heavy and sweet (always a risk, to me at least, with vanilla scents).

    • ginzaintherain says:

      I will have have to get back up to the Byredo counter I think…I am not sure if I have smelled this one. What is it like?

  17. Quote of the Month: ‘You are puking, sweetly, alone, in a vat of mallows.’

    Love it – you are truly fabulous!

    Nic x

    • ginzaintherain says:

      I had to leave it in…..almost didn’t….but stuck with my guns and so am DELIGHTED that you feel this way! Thank you so much..x

  18. Undina says:

    Hi Neil! Great start!

    I do not like vanilla-centered perfumes much so I wear those couple that I have… when I’m not feeling well. The thought train is: vanilla is supposed to comfort so maybe it’ll help but if I end up hating it I won’t be too upset since I do not love them to start with.

    Today I’m fighting cold while wearing Mona di Orio Vanilla 😉

  19. ginzaintherain says:

    Aaaagh…everyone is torturing me with this Orio vanilla that I cannot smell! (definitely not available in Japan….this is the vanilla that is getting the most attention on this thread. I will have to get my hands on it)

  20. Pingback: Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part II | Olfactoria's Travels

  21. Pingback: Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part III | Olfactoria's Travels

  22. Pingback: Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part IV | Olfactoria's Travels

  23. Pingback: Sweet Little Thing – The World Of Vanilla Part V | Olfactoria's Travels

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