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.