The best perfumes transport you to other worlds, filling your mind with images or memories. Vanilla Smoke, the latest release from Mandy Aftel, did precisely that for me, recalling bygone times in a way that made me smile. I once lived in places where there were four seasons, where autumn’s passage into winter was marked by piles of red-gold leaves, and a frosty chill in the air. One of my favorite things was that first winter fire, building layers of logs, kindling twigs, and old newspapers in the fireplace, the aroma of burnt paper as the fire licked the outermost edges of the pile, then the scent and crackle as the red-gold-black flames crept inwards, charring the wood, and heralding a night of snuggling warmth ahead. Ms. Aftel’s Vanilla Smoke brings all of that back to me. Eschewing the typical refrains of caramelized or sugar-coated vanilla, her vanilla is built around the heart of a winter fire, with a good slug of Bourbon drizzled on top to really bring home the cozy comfort aspects.
Vanilla Smoke is a new fragrance that was released last week as a pure parfum and eau de parfum. On her website, Ms. Aftel describes its character and notes as follows:
Vanilla Smoke is a sexy sophisticated smoke-laced vanilla perfume. I have always loved the refined aroma of vanilla absolute from Madagascar for its gorgeous facets of wood, resin and spices. Fine vanilla absolute possesses none of the ubiquitous creamy sweet candy-like notes associated with commercial vanilla fragrances. The dark smokiness of lapsang souchong tea essence has been extracted from tea leaves that were smoked over pinewood. The vanilla becomes even more beautiful when accentuated with the fire and mystery of lapsang.
Precious Siam wood offers warm balsamic wood notes that merge seamlessly with the vanilla. Sumptuous saffron brings a touch of the exotic and the faraway, while yellow mandarin with its slightly floral citrus sparkle lifts the opening of the perfume. Meanwhile ambergris insinuates its shimmering presence, creating a luminescence and sheer texture.
Top: Yellow Mandarin, Siam Wood, Saffron Absolute, Vanillin.
Base: Vanilla Absolute, Lapsang Souchong, Ambergris, Coumarin.
Ms. Aftel kindly sent me samples of both concentrations of Vanilla Smoke. There are no major olfactory differences between the two on my skin, but it was the parfum that really caught my attention because of its richer depths, so that is the one whose evolution I’ll describe here.
Vanilla Smoke parfum opens on my skin as a woody fragrance that simply happens to have some vanilla, rather than the other way around. It starts with a dark, almost dry woodiness that is licked by quiet smokiness, then layered with an equally dry, dark vanilla. In the base, a spicy resin adds undertones of cinnamon, while a shot of Bourbon booziness is drizzled on top. It may stem from the Madagascar vanilla absolute but it smells primarily like the oak caskets in which liquor is aged, adding yet another layer of woodiness to Vanilla Smoke. All around, a sense of darkness lingers, but it is never a thick, dense note. Rather, it’s a gauzy, diffuse veil of wooded and resinous smokiness that ripples effortless over everything.
Regardless of whether I’m wearing the parfum or the eau de parfum, however, it is the wood note that dominates Vanilla Smoke’s first few hours, and its particular facets are lovely. There are a lot of fragrances featuring different degrees of smoky woods, from guaiac’s singed autumnal leaves to cade/birch’s full four-alarm forest fire burning to the ground in a gale of (typically aromachemical) blackness.
This feels different, and it’s one of the most authentic olfactory representations of a crackling indoor fire that I’ve encountered in a while. I can smell the aroma of paper burning at the corners to get the fire started far more than a distinct, clearly delineated tea note, but I don’t doubt that the Lapsang Souchong contributes indirectly to the sense of dark leaves going up in smoke amidst the wooden logs. What I don’t detect in either fragrance concentration is the mandarin, and there is no clear saffron either, though there is an indeterminate spiciness lurking at the furthest edges. This is a wood-centric scent above all else in the opening phase, to the point where it dominates the vanilla as well. To give you a rough idea of the proportions on me, I’d estimate the balance of notes skews 65% towards the wood and smoke, 30% to the vanilla, and 5% for all the rest (dominated primarily by the woody Bourbon).
Vanilla Smoke’s evolution seems to chart the course of a slow-burning fire during its first two hours. The fragrance turns woodier, the flames lapping at its edges, sending up stronger plumes into the nearby barrel of boozy Bourbon vanilla. With the eau de parfum concentration, it’s a small casket; with the parfum, it’s larger. In both versions, Vanilla Smoke transitions inch by inch into a purer vanilla bouquet, but it’s never the sugary, syrupy, or caramelized sort that you find in many fragrances in this genre. (Thank God.) There is nothing acrid about it, never once the suggestion of gooeyness or sugared icing.
At the end of the third hour and the start of the 4th, the vanilla takes over fully. It’s a mellow but decadent note, veined black with smoke, and mahogany with Bourbon woodiness. There is a honeyed aspect to it if you sniff hard, and a cinnamon spiciness from the ambery resins in the base that resemble Peru balsam on my skin more than the musky, salty, or caramelized qualities of ambergris. The whole thing glows softly like a reddened ember in a fire and feels infinitely cozy, conjuring up visions of warm winter cabins in snowy places.
Vanilla Smoke doesn’t change substantially from this point forth. Its spicy, smoky, woody and honeyed facets fluctuate, ebbing and flowing over time, until they slowly fade away at the start of the 7th hour. What’s left is simply a soft, dark vanilla that is laced with a quiet sweetness, a subtle creaminess, and a lingering vestige of dry woodiness. In its dying moments, all that’s left is a dark sweetness.
Vanilla Smoke had good longevity in parfum version, average longevity with the eau de parfum, but soft projection and sillage on my skin in both concentrations. Using several smears of the parfum roughly equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, the fragrance opened with 2 inches of projection and about 2 inches of sillage, maybe 3 at most. Both numbers dropped after 40 minutes. There was really no scent trail. Roughly 2.25 hours into its development, Vanilla Smoke’s projection hovered about an inch above the skin, then about 0.5 inches at the end of the 3rd hour. It became a skin scent at the 4.5 hour mark, and lasted 10.25 hours in total. To test the eau de parfum, I used several spritzes from my mini-atomiser to equal 2 sprays from an actual bottle. I had roughly the same numbers for the opening, but the projection and sillage turned intimate more quickly, and Vanilla Smoke felt sheerer in both body and weight. It became a skin scent after 2.5 hours, and I had to put my nose right on my arm to detect it from the middle of the third hour onwards. It lasted just under 8 hours in total.
Vanilla Smoke has no reviews yet on its Fragrantica entry page, but Ida Meister wrote a Scented Snippets piece for the site. She loved Vanilla Smoke in both versions, calling it “[h]auntingly wistful and full of aromatic yearning,” thanks to the many facets of the “charred no-holds-barred tarriness of Lapsang Souchong.” On her skin, there was a brief, bright opening note of yellow mandarin before the scent turned darker, smokier, and more resinous. She also detected the saffron and ambergris in a clear, individually delineated fashion. The citrus lasted longer on her skin with the parfum version, while the eau de parfum transitioned more quickly to the middle and base notes. You can read her review for the full details.
I liked Vanilla Smoke a lot. It’s a simple and largely linear fragrance on my skin, but most soliflores are in my experience. Plus, as I always say, there is nothing wrong with linearity if you love the notes in question. Most of my “cozy comfort” scents are actually rather straightforward anyway, and I wouldn’t hesitate to add Vanilla Smoke parfum to their number if it had great projection and sillage. I prefer very powerful fragrances, so $180 for a 1/4 oz of parfum is too high for me personally for something so intimate. The eau de parfum comes in a larger size, but it’s too light for my tastes. That said, I would wear either version if a bottle ever fell into my lap. What I like about Vanilla Smoke is what I stated at the outset: it opens as a woody scent that merely happens to have some vanilla in it, rather than the other way around. The oak-barrel booziness, almost like Jack Daniels mixed with a splash of cognac, is a perfect touch. Once the vanilla surges forth, the resins and base notes awaken, and the whole thing melds together into a soft, glowing ember, it’s a difference balance of notes but an equally appealing one.
If you love cozy gourmands without excess sweetness, or if you’re looking for a smoky, woody twist on vanilla, then you should really give Vanilla Smoke a sniff. I think some of you will find it to be wholly addictive.
Disclosure: My samples were courtesy of Aftelier Perfumes. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.