There are times when I hear a new vanilla perfume is coming from one of my favorite brands I get a nervous feeling. What I should remember when this happens again is these perfumers and brands are my favorites because they don’t do what is expected. Even so when I received an e-mail from perfumer Mandy Aftel announcing her new release Aftelier Perfumes Vanilla Smoke that nervous feeling returned unbidden.
What it is that I worry about is that especially in the case of vanilla there is a tendency to use vanillin as the source. This ingredient is where most of the vanilla focused perfumes go over the top in overdose and leave me wanting something more, or more correctly less. Ms. Aftel gives me that extra something I am looking for as she eschews vanillin for a Madagascar vanilla absolute as one of two keynotes in Vanilla Smoke. I will admit I am also tiring of perfumes which layer on the woodsmoke and incense. As with the vanilla source Ms. Aftel shows she is not a perfumer who trods the expected path. The source of the smoke here is Lapsang Souchong tea. Together they form the titular notes for this perfume.
Vanilla Smoke opens with a wry knowing smile as Ms. Aftel brandishes many of the components of a more pedestrian construction in the early moments. A bit of sunny mandarin, a touch of light wood and some vanillin. The first couple of minutes had me worried but like a trickster Ms. Aftel rapidly shifts gears into her very clever version of vanilla and smoke. The interstitial note is saffron absolute as it imposes itself on the top notes and immediately makes them more interesting. It provides a bit of camouflage for the keynotes as they begin to rise up in prominence. Real vanilla absolute has the sweet you are familiar with but it also contains much more. There is much more complexity as gentle facets of spiciness and woods make this something more easily found in a jungle than on a baker’s sheet. I say it every time I review a fantastic independent perfume that the ingredients they use are what set them apart. Ms. Aftel’s Lapsang Souchong is an extract of the tea leaves that were further smoked over pinewood. This allows for this Lapsang Souchong extract to have the heft necessary to stand up to the vanilla absolute as an equal. This ingredient captures the strong black tea and the smokiness inherent within it without ever smelling like a campfire. It is an exotic source of smoke. The final ingredients are coumarin to help accentuate the sweet vanilla qualities and ambergris which adds its unique foundation forming an incandescent veil over the final stages.
Vanilla Smoke in the Eau de Parfum concentration had 10-12 hour longevity and moderate sillage. In the Perfume concentration it had 16-18 hour longevity and almost no sillage.
Ms. Aftel sent me both of the concentrations available: the Eau de Parfum and the Perfume versions. The Eau de Parfum is much more expansive and the notes which particularly shine in that are things like the saffron and the coumarin as they have more obvious effects. The Perfume concentration is much more contained in its development and it is the keynotes which are mostly in evidence throughout. I thoroughly enjoy both concentrations as I could say the Eau de Parfum is more smoke as it expands to fill up the space around it. The Perfume is more vanilla as the absolute has more influence over the Lapsang Souchong. I think it will all be personal preference which to choose as both are spectacularly good.
I had to laugh when I was looking on Ms. Aftel’s website to see how she categorized Vanilla Smoke. Right at the top of the page it says “gourmand”. I could not disagree more with that as I think of gourmands as something entirely different than what I experience in Vanilla Smoke. If I was categorizing this I would call it a Modern Oriental. Ms. Aftel has taken the traditional Oriental tropes and transformed them into something that feels like an update to that family. It is as satisfying as anything I own in that genre.
Disclosure: This review was based on samples provided by Aftelier Perfumes.