A Scent of Sin


– a review of Guerlain’s ‘Spiritueuse Double Vanille’

Behold – the vanilla orchid, originator to one of the most beloved and abused essences in perfumery. Beloved when it’s rendered well, adding sweetness and spice and all things nice, despised when rendered as sugary cupcake overkill. Vanilla is an important part of one of the most famous bases in perfumery – the Guerlinade. Shalimar would not be Shalimar without that opulent, rich vanilla base.

You would never know that this little, unassuming flower is one of the most important in the world. You would never know that this dainty little orchid could evoke hints and intimations…of sinful, sweet and animal.

Few people realize just how animal, how nearly feral vanilla can be. Although I’ve liked and even loved vanilla as a component in many, many perfumes including Shalimar, I’ve never taken the trouble to actively seek them out, simply because…there are too many horror stories out there, and I’ve stuck my unsuspecting nose in quite a few.

Vanilla in general has a terrible reputation. Vanilla has become a byword for anything boring, bland, middle-of-the-road. It is a safe fragrance, a safe flavor, and ‘safe’ is not an adjective I like to keep in my vocabulary. When used to death in cheap scented candles, bath products, celebufumes or room sprays, I say it deserves every description of horror I can think of. The phrase ‘olfactory torture’ comes to mind. This is not vanilla, this is not what vanilla can and should be.

If any nose on Planet Earth knows vanilla, knows what it is capable of, knows its depth, its richness, its animality, surely it would be Jean Paul Guerlain. More than any other perfume house, Guerlain has elevated vanilla in many versions to superstardom. Always with that highly refined sensibility that (once upon a time at least and rather lacking lately) defines the venerable name ‘Guerlain’.

When I received a generous sample of Spiritueuse Double Vanille (SDV for short) from the equally beneficent Olfactoria, I was happy, but not excited. Happy – it’s a Guerlain. Like old loves and old friends, I’ll always give Guerlain a second, third, and twenty-fifth chance, even if they did release that trainwreck known as ‘Insolence’. Excited – well, there were other things in that Austrian package that got my motor running, so I left it at that.

Until I opened that sample of SDV. Oh. Oh, my. Oh, my gosh. Oh, baby! Oh! (Here follow a few epithets I try to keep out of a perfume blog, if not in real life!)

It is…boozy, whoozy, dizzyingly alcoholic without being potable – and that’s a good thing! I’m quite hazardous enough, thank you. I’d go so far as to say – just as was Jean Paul Guerlain’s intention, this is the moment you split open a vanilla bean and an entire alternate universe grabs you by the nose as a reminder that dessert isn’t always something you eat!

This is carnal vanilla, as sinful as that third chocolate truffle and as sexy as that silk slip that slides down the shoulder just…enough. There are pink peppercorns, bergamot, Bulgarian rose and ylang ylang in there, say the notes, but what I get is boozy, whoozy, faint-making killah vanilla, the kind of vanilla that is no relation whatsoever to anything sold as ‘vanilla’, or indeed anything defined as ‘safe’, ‘bland’ or boring.

SDV is anything but safe. Somewhere among all that overt nuclear vanilla impact floats a hint of cedar, a whisper of incense, a mere suggestion of benzoin, weaving in and out and through that vanilla vixen that murmurs…’come closer, if you dare’, and then buries her teeth in your neck. And oh, that vanilla, so sweet, so lethal, so carnal, oh…

This is horizontal Hitchcock territory. Boozy. Here I go again, and I swear, I was sober when I began this review. Sweet, animal and borderline feral, gourmand – in other words, everything yours truly should absolutely hate in a perfume, and yet…Yes! Yes! Yes! Puleeeze…Just put me out of my misery and buy me a bottle already!

Since I first began writing about perfume on this blog, the occasions I’ve been sideswiped by a perfume have not happened all that often. This is one of those. Just to commit the ultimate in sacrilege, I’ve tried layering this with Atelier’s Grand Neroli on a whim, and my, it was glorious. Gilding an already perfect lily, I tried it with Serge Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger. The jasmine gives up the ghost (who would have thought it?), and the tuberose comes all the way out to play in the sun with the vixen, and meanwhile, I can’t hold one coherent thought that won’t get me arrested should I ever attempt to act it out in public.

Spiritueuse Double Vanille is…intoxicating, in all the best senses of the word. It lasts and lasts and lasts and lasts. It is sweet but never cloying and utterly delicious. It is sinfully wicked in all the best Guerlain ways, dark, devastating.

I can’t imagine what the burgeoning perfumophile Scorpio would say to this one should I wear it on a latte date, and he usually has plenty to say about whatever I wear. But I can imagine what he might do. It’s that kind of vanilla, and that kind of perfume, and that kind of dangerous.

There are cheaper ways to get this kind of thrill. Buy four of the best vanilla beans you can afford, and chop them into smaller pieces. Throw them in a food processor with one cup of plain white sugar and blend until the sugar turns gray-brown and the vanilla beans are pulverized. Pour this concoction into a tightly sealed container and leave for at least a week. Use this instead of vanilla extract or bought vanilla sugar, and you will know everything there is to know about something that isn’t safe, bland or boring. Vanilla will never be the same again.

Not even in a perfume.

Notes: Pink peppercorn, bergamot, incense, cedar, Bulgarian rose, ylang ylang, vanilla, benzoin.

20 thoughts on “A Scent of Sin

  1. Horizontal Hitchcock! I love it… And I love SDV 🙂

    It is swoon-worthy, but I can see that you don't need any more encouragement!

  2. SDV is my very favorite vanilla, it is obviously in a class of its own. A close second is Le Labo Vanille 44, which is also pretty scarce, unfortunately. Those two rise above all other vanilla fragrances and sit atop their own little velvet pillows. 🙂 I almost hate to admit this, but it bothers me when people say that SDV is “just okay” or “meh”. I want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “Why can't you see why this is one of the finest perfumes in the world!”. I've not throttled anyone in a dramatic manner over any perfume, though. Yet.

  3. Carrie – I am so totally, totally with you. This is The Vanilla Godzilla, the vanilla to slay all others, the …quintessence of what vanilla should be – and all too often never, ever is. If ignorant souls never get past 'melted ice cream', I say it's their loss. You and I and Dee – indeed, anyone who loves SDV – know better! And it leaves more for us…

    I haven't throttled anyone over perfume yet, either, but give it time and enough provocation…;)

  4. T, we seem to share a lot of loves. 🙂 I adore SDV and it was instant love.
    I feel lucky I scored a decant of this, as the bottle really doesn't come cheap.

  5. Ines…indeed we do! Just like you, this was …love? – at first sniff, and there it stayed. I don't know what I'll do once that sample disappears. (At the rate it's going, and given the radiation level of it, it will take a quite a few more days…) If all else fails, maybe we should club together and do a bottle split!

  6. B, it's more like instant obsession. I want to drink it, I want to eat it, I want a bottle..n-o-w.

    I would never have guessed I could love a vanilla so much, but I did. And it's all your fault! 😉

  7. This is my favorite vanilla too. I *love* the boozy quality, and the supporting notes seem to change every time I wear it (sometimes it's rosier, sometimes I get licorice or tobacco, sometimes incense). I have a decant, wish I could afford a bottle.

  8. Elisa, if all else fails, we should start a SDV fanclub and do a bottle split, because I'm not sure who would help me bury the body for this!

    I wore it to bed last night, and juts like you, I got something else out of it this time – I think it was the ylang ylang. It redefined 'sweet dreams'!

  9. Ladies: I'll reply to all of you as best I can. Are we dedicated Dangerous Vanilla Gals or what? Obstacle, schmobstacle…the DK postal service can stuff it – I'll send everywhere!

    So that's four of us and a very doable sum of money – as opposed to the outrage of one whole bottle. So far as I know, Place Vendôme in Belgium (correct me if I'm wrong, B) will happily ship to DK, and that's the only place I know for certain who carries it. Not Harrods, Les Senteurs or Liberty had it listed, and as for Scandinavia – forget it.

    Give me a week or so to clear up a few bills – but ladies – you're in. Now, if I could only find soemwhere that sold 25 ml atomizers…

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