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100 Fragrances Every Frag-Head Guy Should Try, part 17: Vanilla vs. Vanilla

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In my sniffing adventures, I’ve come to think of vanillas as one of two kinds, which I affectionately call the expensive vanilla and the cheap vanilla. Of course, that has no basis in reality, but it works as a descriptive tool for me. In my brain, there are expensive vanillas, the deep, rich, boozy, realistic ones with the woody undertones. And, to me, there are also cheap vanillas, the ones that smell like cotton candy or marshmallow fluff or cupcake frosting, the kind of vanillas that make cheap teenage girl scents smell cheap.

In reality, the difference is apparently how a perfume uses a chemical called isobutavan. On its own, isobutavan is a really interesting scent, with hints of white chocolate and cocoa over a sweet root beer/crème soda smell. It also has fruity, nutty, and woody nuances, but it dries down to a base of pure cotton candy. So it’s apparently the addition of a lot of isobutavan to vanillas that render them “cheap” and candied.

For the sake of comparison, I give you the two opposite ends of the spectrum:

Vanilla vs. Vanilla

48. Spiritueuse Double Vanille by Guerlain

Representing the “expensive” and refined end of the vanilla spectrum is Spiritueuse Double Vanille, one of the most perfect expressions of vanilla in perfumery. It’s boozy and realistic, but hides deep, multifaceted undertones.

I’m also including it in this list because, for me and others I’ve talked to, Spiritueuse Double Vanille is a bit of a litmus test in perfume appreciation. When I first smelled it, I thought it smelled like extremely realistic expensive vanilla extract. I liked it but wasn’t in love. Then, years later, after sniffing more perfumes and raw ingredients, something “clicked” and I somehow “got” Spiritueuse Double Vanille on its own deep level. Suddenly, I noticed the orange and peach on top pairing with the subtle amber undertones and I smelled how that booziness was actually immortelle, while subtle spices and woods and teas sometimes shot out in vanilla-coated blasts, while other times they combined into a subtle amber-dusted pipe tobacco smell.

So do yourself a favor and track down a Spiritueuse Double Vanille sample. I promise that it’ll smell good no matter what, but, if you come back to it when you’re ready, it’ll blow your mind.

49. Pink Sugar by Aquolina

Representing the “cheap”, unrefined end of the vanilla spectrum is Pink Sugar. That rather cruel description aside, I do believe that it’s definitely required sniffing.

If Spiritueuse Double Vanille is the finest Madagascar vanilla pods seeped in rum, Pink Sugar is an unruly child running wild around a county fair, pigging out on cotton candy and pink popcorn, with bits of marshmallow goo smeared on her face and a gummi bear stuck in her hair. It may be less refined and a bit gross, but it’s still very fun.

Aside from the fact that a perfume that smells like a candy-filled trip to the amusement park is simply entertaining to smell, Pink Sugar is actually quite nuanced. Under that wall of cotton candy, there are fruit smells and a subtle burnt nutty quality that lends a real-world deepness to it.

I also want people to smell Pink Sugar because you should be able to recognize this style of vanilla. It’s extremely popular, often used to make women’s designer scents smell “youthful” or “flirtatious”, though it often turns up in unexpected places (like the base of Creed’s Royal Oud), so it’s a smell that’s very useful to have in your scent vocabulary.



  1. ts brock's Avatar
    Pink Sugar is very sweet but is it vanilla? Maybe Vanilla fields would be a good example.
  2. rogalal's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ts brock
    Pink Sugar is very sweet but is it vanilla? Maybe Vanilla fields would be a good example.
    I'm no perfumer, but I really thought vanilla (plus the isobutavan) was the secret behind Pink Sugar. I'd never heard of Vanilla Fields - thanks for the tip!


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