Pity this orchid the Aztecs called tlilxochitl. Once upon a time ca. 1840, its fruit was a byword for all that was exotic, prohibitively expensive, New World and marvelously, epically fragrant like few other plants on Earth. Five hundred years after Hernan Cortés introduced it to Europe, it’s been reduced to a synonym for conventional, boring, safe, mainstream, middle-of-the-road and/or mundane. An awful letdown for one of the world’s two most labor-intensive and expensive spices, for tlilxochitl we know today as one of the world’s most well-beloved aromas – vanilla.
For a perfume lover, vanilla is its own kind of thrill. Vanilla has been used as a base note in perfumes since 1889 when Aimé Guerlain had the bright idea to add it (as the newly available vanillin) to Jicky in 1889, and ever since, vanilla has elevated untold thousands of perfumes, whether to add a touch of its own sultry heat and sweetness, to enhance or soften other, louder notes, or – this happens too – to amp up perfumery candy-floss basenotes to eleven. The aroma of vanilla – whether vanillin or vanilla bean – also has a remarkable effect on the human brain – it enhances all other sensory experiences. Those Aztecs were on to more than they perhaps knew, when they added those fermented and dried orchid pods to xocolatl, which was served as an aphrodisiac.
My own angle on vanilla came with a bang ten years ago, when I worked as a pastry chef apprentice in the town’s most prestigious bakery. There, I learned about the different vanillas and their uses; the deep, leathery incense tones of Madagascan Bourbon vanilla, the woody, spicy, almost dark-chocolatey tones of Mexican vanilla, and the floral-fruity perfume of Tahitian vanilla.
But I was a vanilla fan way before, as witnessed by my (then) appalled husband in an Albuquerque supermarket when I had a dedicated Euro-cook’s total meltdown over the barbaric and ubiquitous – to my purist mind – custom of selling vanilla extract, proudly proclaiming ‘with real vanilla’. In Denmark, vanilla existed for a large part of my life in one of only two available forms – as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, sold in glass lab tubes two at a time and as a proprietary brand of vanilla sugar in distinctive packaging, the same brand that sold the vanilla beans in tubes, and made with the same vanilla. The ‘real vanilla’ in that Albuquerque supermarket was vanillin made from lignin or wood pulp, not vanilla beans. Most so-called ‘vanilla’ aroma is vanillin of the wood-pulp or the castoreum variety, which also provides the natural aromas of strawberry, raspberry and, umm … castoreum. I wanted real vanilla beans, darn it, not what I considered ‘that McCormick travesty of vanilla’, since I knew well before I ever became a writer, whether love or vanilla, there’s no substitute for the Real Deal.
Vanilla has thrilled me no end as both flavoring and fragrance, in that gold standard vanilla, Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille, the limited edition Shalimar Ode à la Vanille Sur La Route de Madagascar that you may know by the name Shalemur, Mona di Orio’s Vanille or Téo Cabanel’s famous Alahine, to name but four stellar vanillas.
Now, I have two more vanilla thrills to add to the list, two very different vanilla-centric perfumes that are as far removed from anything dessert as you can imagine – aroma M’s new release, Vanilla Hinoki, and Aedes de Venustas’ new Cierge de Lune.
The Queen of the Night
My grandmother, like green-thumbed grandmothers everywhere, had a spidery, spiky and not at all prepossessing plant in a very fancy ceramic pot in her bedroom window. This plant, a vaguely cactus-looking creature, was tended and coddled like a particularly fractious baby – watered with special plant food, repotted with succulent-friendly soil into another fancy ceramic pot once a year, and kept warm in cold weather. I believe she once told me she even chatted to it. What I know for a definite fact is this: she called it the Queen of the Night, not after Mozart’s famous ditto from his opera The Magic Flute, but after that magical event that happened on one single night of the year, when that frankly fugly plant bloomed into a drop-dead beautiful and drop-dead scented white flower that paid for all her dedicated care with its perfume. For years, she would watch for signs of its impending bloom, take pictures, and call to edify me with her description of ‘the best vanilla-y perfume in the world’. One year, I happened by complete coincidence to be there at the perfect time, and finally saw what all her fuss was about. The flower as well as its perfume really was all that, we both agreed, and I would never again complain about the time I had to spend dusting the volutes and crannies of that Art Nouveau flowerpot.
With its 2016 release Cierge de Lune, the New York perfume house of Aedes de Venustas brought me back to that night with my grandmother in an instant, and straight to that incredible, indelible bloom.
Cierge de Lune – which is the French name of Selenicereus Grandiflorus – translates as ‘Moon altar candle’, and if there’s any more mellifluous name for that flower in French or Latin, I’m not aware of it. Created with perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin, it sings beautifully both on its own terms and within the overall evolving arc of Aedes de Venustas’ perfume releases, all of which hold a special place in my personal olfactory dreamscape, and two of which I have literally loved beyond all hope of reviewing, because they’re now …gone, loved, worn, inhaled, thoroughly enjoyed and disappeared. I hope to curb my enthusiasm some day, but I might have to buy at least four bottles first.
A common theme of all the Aedes de Venustas perfumes is a singular sleight-of-hand effect: somehow, they all manage to be highly complex perfumes of a kind you’d expect in dense, plush sillage bombs and yet, their texture – and their sillage – is as sheer as silk chiffon. In other words, they’re all complex enough to satisfy any sophisticate’s perfume itch, but never so loud or obvious as to overwhelm your surroundings.
If you like your vanilla thrill to be a chewy, gourmand, wearable pastry cream, this is emphatically not that vanilla. On the other hand, if you too have a memory of that indelible flower – once seen and sniffed, never forgot – then Cierge de Lune will surely make your vanilla-loving synapses sing. It comes incredibly close to my own fond memory of cereus, from the subtle but immediately apparent vanilla – a special dense, woody, leathery and incense-y Madagascan variety – to the bright kick of pink pepper. Black pepper is in there too from the outset to the finish line, and adds its own earthy, slightly ashy, mineral chiaroscuro to the vanilla. If that were all, I’d be perfectly content.
It isn’t. For in minutes, just like the flower itself, it unfurls, opens and …blooms. There’s no other way to state it. A buttery, warm ylang ylang and the expansive feel of hedione underscore the vanilla and give it a distinct floral aura, if not any flower I’ve had the pleasure to meet before. A very sultry flower, I might add, fully able to carry that name, Queen of the Night, with all its associations of a magic flute, two star-crossed lovers and a fabled, fiendishly difficult coloratura F6 over high C. When the show is nearly over and the curtain comes down on this one night of glory, what we’re left with is a sultry, intelligent, superbly unisex whisper of amber, leather, black pepper and that breath-taking, woody vanilla, wrapped up in a flower you can never quite forget. It lasted the better part of eight hours with just two sprays, and elicited scores of compliments wherever it went.
The Geiko’s Thrill
You may have heard of the vanillas of Madagascar, Réunion, Mexico or Polynesia, each with their own olfactory profiles. But did you know that Morocco – for centuries a prized source location of many things grand and aromatic – grows it, too?
Neither did I, until Maria McElroy of Aroma M chose a very rare (and most unusual) Moroccan vanilla for her latest Aroma M release, Vanilla Hinoki. Five years in the making, here is another vanilla nothing at all like the vanillas you think you might know.
Maria’s inspiration was that unique Japanese institution of the onsen, the hot springs baths often – as in the image above – associated with inns in the mountains, and also hinoki wood, used to build everything from palaces, Noh theaters, shrines, temples and bathtubs. Hinoki has a very particular fragrant profile; at once lemony and pine-y with incense undertones, and its remarkable pairing with the Moroccan vanilla she used is nothing short of inspired.
Inspired, because of that vanilla to start. This vanilla is thick, woody, smoky and not at all sweet – indeed, it’s arguably one of the woodiest vanillas I’ve encountered in a perfume. Another rabbit from Maria MacElroy’s mischievous hat was the fact it took me a few minutes to even register the vanilla at all, since Vanilla Hinoki starts with something of an olfactory shock. A sunshine-bright bergamot and spice kick to the senses – maybe the olfactory equivalent of that shock of heat you get when lowering yourself into one of those very hot onsen tubs? – kicks me awake and aware, but in no time at all, the green-herbal-woody-piney heart takes over and leaves me incapable of coherent thought beyond several deep breaths and a far less articulate if no less heartfelt ‘Aahhh!’
Ah as in … this is truly stellar stuff. That vanilla may be woody and smoky, but it’s been polished to a sparkling, effervescent fare-thee-well and behaves itself beautifully with the other star of the show, the hinoki, which makes those herbs do everything they’re supposed to; wind you down, relax you, and make you contemplate the brocaded Zen intricacies of existence. In a leisurely fashion to be sure, because who can be rushed when surrounded by such twilight beauty?
But wait! Once the drydown arrives – and all aroma M Geisha perfumes take time to develop and appreciate – it’s yet another, sultrier story, with sexy, smexy (yes!) leather, cedar and patchouli notes, in the event someone else should come close enough to appreciate it.
All of Aroma M’s Geisha perfumes exist in some highly evocative, creative space between the subtle Japanese olfactory aesthetic and Western perfumery traditions, but Vanilla Hinoki especially strikes me as more Japanese than Western. It owns a certain restraint, a very subtle delicacy and light polish rarely found in new perfumes today, yet it never seems alien or foreign to this Western nose, just evocative, contemplative and perfectly all its own creation.
I can imagine a geiko – a fully-fledged, mature geisha – taking it with her on her next sanity-restoring trip to an onsen, for her own private pleasure. Somewhere between the clean, fragrant mountain air, the heat of the onsen, the quietude of the Japanese countryside, she too will discover … there’s nothing at all ‘vanilla’ about Vanilla Hinoki.
The day I received Vanilla Hinoki, I presented my wrist to the Dude after a few hours to ask his opinion. ‘Do I need this?” I asked.
“It smells Japanese. In a good way. Oh. And yes. Yes, you do.”
One of my own favorite things about the aroma M Geisha line is the fact they come in both a roll-on perfume oil and as a spray eau de parfum. Both have amazing longevity on their own, but if all that Zen restraint is a bit much to ask, I can only recommend you get them both in your choice of perfume. Apply the eau de parfum, and then add perfume oil on your pulse points. You may not slay your surroundings with your sillage, yet you will be magically, wondrously, deliciously fragrant for the better part of 24 hours. Which is a thrill I have no problems at all announcing in public!
Notes for Cierge de Lune: Madagascan vanilla, pink pepper, black pepper, ylang ylang, Ambroxan.
Notes for Vanilla Hinoki: Bergamot, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, Moroccan vanilla, hinoki, cedar leaf, lavender, leather, patchouli, amyris, cedar wood.
Disclosure: Samples of Cierge de Lune and Vanilla Hinoki were provided for review by Olivier Le Didroux of Beauty Entreprise and Maria McElroy of Aroma M. With thanks to them both for their faith – and their patience. I am never compensated or paid for reviews, and the opinions of the Alembicated Genie are entirely and always my own.
Image of vanilla orchid and night-blooming cereus, Wikimedia Commons. Image of Tsurunoyu Onsen, Akita Prefecture, Japan.