Black Phantom (“Memento Mori”), the latest fragrance from By Kilian, is a fragrance that is a far cry from the terms and imagery surrounding it. The phrase “Memento Mori” means “remember you must die” in Latin, and was given to objects which were meant to make you ponder or remember your mortality, like skulls. And, indeed, a glittering black skull is placed right on top of Black Phantom’s perfume box.
Yet, this is not a “black” or noir fragrance for me at all, let alone something that gives one intimations of one’s mortality. Instead, Black Phantom is an adult version of childhood treats, like ice-cream sundaes or milk shakes. They’ve been drenched in caramel or butterscotch, dusted with cocoa, vanilla, toasted nuts, and even bear an occasional whiff of Nutella. Instead of skulls as decorative adornment, there are marshmallows, an endless series of marshmallows, both vanillic and chocolatey, like something out of a child’s Count Chocula breakfast cereal. There is even the olfactory equivalent of a cherry on top of the sundae, thanks to the cherry undertones of an almond accord.
The “adult” aspect of this gourmand tale comes in the form of boozy liqueurs, namely Bailey’s Irish Cream, that’s been mixed with coffee Kahlua, milk, and rum to make a White Cuban, a variation on the more typical vodka-based White Russian cocktail that was such a big hit in the 1980s. Some parts of the end result are delicious, even for someone like myself who isn’t keen on gourmands and who shies away from excess sweetness, but Black Phantom’s biggest problem at the end of the day is that it isn’t particularly distinctive from other things out there on the market and it feels like a rather mainstream scent with a luxury price tag. Unless you’re a hardcore gourmand lover with cash to spare, I suspect that Black Phantom will end up being a rather forgettable scent.Black Phantom is an eau de parfum that was created by Sidonie Lancesseur and was released in March of this year. It may be part of a new collection called the Memento Mori, or the fragrance itself may simply be called “Black Phantom /Memento Mori,” the way it seems to be written on his website. I think it’s the former, but I’m honestly not certain. Either way, on his website, Kilian describes the fragrance, its skull box, and its notes as follows:
Inspired by the moto [sic] of the pirates: “Memento Mori”, the scent Black Phantom is a sensual and suprising [sic] twist on an Irish coffee created for those who live for pleasure.
The jet black flacon reposes in a black lacquered coffret from which a smiling skull rises.
Opening: rum from Martinique and a cyanide accord
Heart: a woody accord – vetiver from Java, patchouli from Indonesia and sandalwood – balanced with the dark coffee absolute from Ethiopia.
Drydown: a sugar cane accord adds a gourmand facet to the fragrance.
Rum, sugar cane, dark chocolate, coffee, caramel, almond, heliotrope, sandalwood.
Black Phantom opens on my skin with wave after wave of lovely Bailey’s Irish Cream laced with coffee Kahlua. Every single time I’ve tested Black Phantom, my immediate first thought is that I smell like a White Russian (or, to be precise, the rum-based version called the White Cuban), and I’m instantly transported back to my high school years in Paris in the 1980s when my friends and I had discovered the joys of Bailey’s and Kahlua cocktails. The Kilian version goes beyond coffee, cream, and liqueur to also include hefty amounts of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream doused in thick caramel sauce, then dusted with caramelized sugar cane, vanilla and cocoa powders, marshmallows, and a smidgen of almond cream, before being served on a thin sandalwood platter.
The scent of coffee is simultaneously a significant part of the opening and something layered within everything else. A number of people who have tried Black Phantom have compared its scent to walking into a Starbucks store and smelling the aroma of roasted coffee beans in the air before ordering a caramel frappacino. I can see that, but the coffee is not that hardcore or separate on my skin. Rather than pure black coffee or roasted coffee beans on their own, this “coffee” is so inexorably transfused with booze and cream that “Bailey’s” is really the best analogy. The Bailey’s accord is one reason why Black Phantom doesn’t resemble L’Artisan‘s coffee, caramel, and patisserie scent, Noir Exquis, but another is because the Kilian has more chocolate than coffee on my skin when you consider the fragrance as a whole from start to finish. On me, Black Phantom is primarily either a caramel or a chocolate-caramel fragrance, not a coffee one. I know a lot of gourmand lovers who become twitchy over cocoa notes in fragrance, so be warned that there is quite a bit of it here.
By the same token, be warned that Black Phantom also has a significant amount of heliotrope which I know is not the easiest of notes for quite a few male readers. Here, it smells predominantly of marshmallows and vanillic meringues without any of its floral facets or the more challenging “Play-doh,” and there is thankfully none of the scented baby powder/talcum powder tonalities that can sometimes appear. But there is definitely a powdered marshmallow quality to Black Phantom, and the heliotrope becomes both more noticeable and more powdery as time goes on.
Black Phantom’s basic character doesn’t change in any significant, major way during the first three hours, only its nuances, the relative emphasis of its individual notes, and its level of sweetness. About 30 minutes in, an almond note appears that typically smells of a layer of nutty cream within the Bailey’s, but it’s sometimes a separate note that resembles toasted hazelnuts or the cherry nuances of an almond pit. What’s nice is the way Black Phantom’s toasted nuttiness combines with the dark cocoa powder and the milk chocolate to give off subtle whiffs of something resembling Nutella, which is rather a guilty pleasure of mine.
I’m significantly less enthused by other changes that occur at the same time. The steadily rising levels of sugariness give Black Phantom an increasingly saccharine quality that I find quite difficult. I’m even less keen by the nature of the sandalwood which slowly begins to seep up from the base about 30-40 minutes into the fragrance’s development. Both the sugar and the sandalwood smell excessively synthetic and both irritate the back of my throat with their raspiness.
By the end of the first hour, the sugar not only turns into a mix of crystallized caramel and saccharine, but it becomes so prominent that it kicks the lovely Bailey’s coffee cream aside, pushing it into the background where it fluctuates in strength and visibility. By the middle of the second hour, the white sugar dances a vigorous mariachi on center stage with the caramel, chocolate, milky cream, and heliotrope marshmallows. The raspy sandalwood hovers in the wings, sending out occasional wisps of smokiness and dry woodiness. The Bailey’s coffee and almond creams wax and wane in the background, sometimes individually noticeable, sometimes swallowed up by Black Phantom’s increasing focus on caramel, chocolate, and sugar.
I have very mixed feelings about the result. On the one hand, I’m not crazy about the fact that I frequently feel as though I’m wearing Count Chocula breakfast cereal, decorated with chocolate marshmallows, then dunked in a geyser of caramel syrup. I’m also not thrilled with the really intense levels of sweetness emanating from my arm from the start of the second hour onwards. Black Phantom is far, far too sweet for me when smelt up close, not to mention far too overtly synthetic for such an expensive fragrance.
On the other hand, I am clearly not the target audience for this scent which is aimed squarely at hardcore gourmand lovers. Plenty of people adore Kilian’s orange-caramel cotton candy fragrance, Love (Don’t Be Shy), and this is basically the caramel, chocolate, ice-cream, marshmallow and cotton candy equivalent except Sidonie Lancesseur has also added a hefty slug of creamy liqueurs and sandalwood. (Her other fragrance for Kilian, Straight to Heaven, was supposed to be a boozy, tropical rum scent, but it didn’t quite turn out that way on my skin.) Even more people love the bombastic caramel intensity of Profumum‘s gourmands (the creme brulee Vanitas in particular), and the Kilian is far less singular, narrow, and limited in its focus. Moreover, to be perfectly fair, there are some rather delectable aspects to Black Phantom when it’s smelt from a distance, and a certain cozy, childhood comfort quality to it at times as well.
I confess, my attempts to be fair and see both sides pretty much went out the window during Black Phantom’s second phase which begins roughly 1.75 hours in, or towards the end of the second hour. The balance of notes shifts to make the sweetness go into hyper-drive, but Black Phantom also became drier and significantly woodier at the same time. The sandalwood joined the main gourmand players on center stage, its smoky and rasping tentacles wrapping around the chocolate-heliotrope marshmallow, the increasingly gooey ethyl maltol caramel, and the now completely shrill cotton candy sugar. A heavy dusting of vanillic powder lies on top of everything, smelling like confectioner’s icing sugar infused with tonka and heliotrope. The beautiful Bailey’s that was my favourite part of Black Phantom basically lies flattened and strangled under all this. The almond cream suffers the same fate, although its cherry-almond facets remain visible.
The cumulative effect feels a lot like one of Guerlain‘s hyper-sweet fragrances in its department store line, a flanker to one of the La Petite Robe Noires (“LPRN”), if you will. In fact, I think Black Phantom copies quite a few of modern, LVMH-era Guerlain’s signature elements, starting with its unabashed use of intense amounts of inexpensive ethyl maltol to give that caramel-praline note that is in so many of its fragrances. There is also Guerlain’s widespread, frequent use of intensely sugary (and equally cheap) types of vanillin, cherry-almond notes, heliotrope, tonka, and raspy, synthetic sandalwood, often combined together. I suspect that Black Phantom will be a huge hit with those looking for a supposedly “luxury” upgrade from the LPRN collection and with more distinctive, luxury boxes, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Black Phantom is derivative as hell and that this mainstream quality comes at a significant price hike, almost $300 for the refill bottle.
Black Phantom continues to shift in small ways as time goes by. About 4.25 hours in, it is largely a generalized, very hazy caramel bouquet, a soft orb of sweetness and warmth in which one can see glimmers of sandalwood-ish woodiness, heliotrope meringue, brown sugar, vanilla and coumarin-ish Guerlainade, and a sliver of cherry-almond. To my relief, the sandalwood’s scratchiness and smoke have dissipated, and the tooth-aching, cloying sweetness is gradually beginning to mellow. By the end of the 5th hour, the end result is actually quite decent. Plus, its moderately pretty, now low-throttle creme brulee and the accompanying whiffs of cherry almond are nicer here than in Guerlain’s LPRN or L’Homme Ideal gourmands. In fact, this stage of Black Phantom is — at long last — noticeably better quality and more enjoyable to me than Guerlain’s stridently synthetic, sometimes bulldozerish department store line.
But then, that’s what Kilian is all about, isn’t it? He takes largely conventional mainstream compositions, quietens them down with materials that have a modicum of better quality to them, sticks the final result in glossy, luxury bottles, slaps on a catchy name and/or uses a sexualized marketing campaign, and then asks almost $300 for them. Black Phantom follow the same pattern even if he’s skipped the half-naked woman or python this time in favour of the super trendy goth theme. And, boy, does Kilian know his audience and how to attract people’s attention with his packaging! Before, he had women yearning for his one of his clutch bags, now he has men and women alike salivating over the skull. I’ve seen a number of comments where people say they’d love to buy the perfume solely to have the box.
There isn’t much more to Black Phantom’s development. By the end of the 6th hour and start of the 7th, there is nothing but ethyl maltol caramel-praline laced with caramelized sugar and bearing a tiny, subtle undertone of dry-sweet-vaguely creamy woodiness underneath. Black Phantom remained that way until it finally died away, just a little over 10.25 hours from its start.
The sillage and longevity numbers were average, but tended to the lower side on my skin. With the smeared, dabbed equivalent of two good, solid sprays from an actual bottle, Black Phantom opened with about 3-4 inches of projection and about 4-5 inches of sillage. The latter grew to about 6 or 7 inches after 40-50 minutes once the caramel and sugar really kicked in. At the 1.75 hour mark, the projection dropped to somewhere between 1 and 1.5 inches, while the sillage went back down to roughly 4 inches. Black Phantom became a skin scent 4.5 hours in, but soft vapors would occasionally waft up from my arm from time to time. At the start of the 7th hour, I had to stick my nose right into my arm to detect anything but the caramel. In the middle of the 9th hour, the scent seemed almost gone except for a light glazing on one part of the long patch where I’d applied my sample. Black Phantom remained on that part until the 10.25 hour mark.
It’s important to note, though, that Black Phantom didn’t seem to fare very well in the immense humidity and heat that is currently blasting my city, and I think that may have affected some of my numbers. The humidity seemed to squash down both the scent and its sillage, because Black Phantom felt stronger and more noticeable whenever I was in a cold air-conditioned environment, bouncing back up in its scent trail, at least during the first 4 hours. You may want to keep that in mind if you try the fragrance for yourself.
Reviews for Black Phantom are generally positive, although there are some exceptions. While a number of people love the booziness, coffee, caramel and chocolate, several people on Fragrantica and in a Basenotes discussion thread find the Kilian fragrance strongly resembles other scents. Two Basenoters point to Zadig & Voltaire This is Her, also made by Sidonie Lancesseur, which they prefer, finding it to be “better,” stronger, and more interesting. On Fragrantica, two people (and 5 votes) find Black Phantom to strongly resemble Zara’s Tone Indeterminee which apparently costs around $15-25 for 100 ml. I haven’t tried either fragrance, so I can’t comment on how much overlap there may be or how the quality may compare. All I can tell you is that, on Fragrantica, some people think Black Phantom is absolutely “gorgeous,” while some people shrug, calling it “simple and pleasant” but “highly forgettable,” or writing, “Meh. To me this smells like your average of ‘black/dark/night’ sequel to XYZ hit mainstream perfume.”
While I enjoyed parts of Black Phantom during its opening moments quite a lot, I’m not particularly blown away or impressed when it is taken as a whole from start to finish. On the other hand, I’m not a gourmand lover and, therefore, not the target audience. For that group, I think Black Phantom would be an instant hit — were it not for its similarity to other scents, many of which are significantly lower in price. Then again, let’s face it, you’re really just paying for that glittering skull box.
What should be quite obvious by now is that Black Phantom is best suited to hardcore gourmand lovers, preferably those who enjoy chocolate just as much as vanilla or caramel. My advice is not to expect a predominantly coffee fragrance, at least not all the way through or in a truly concrete, intense, dark, and solid way.
If you’re not a gourmand addict but are nonetheless tempted by some aspects of the scent, my advice would be to give Black Phantom a test try. I thought the Bailey’s/White Russian opening in the first 20-30 minutes was absolutely fantastic and delectable, and the drydown isn’t bad. It’s simply the middle stage that is rough going, so you may want to be patient. That said, for me, personally, Black Phantom is a pass.