One Thousand Scents

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Unexpected: Montale Vanille Absolu

If you're trying out a scent with the word Vanille in its name, you probably have a few expectations, most of which Montale's Vanille Absolu manages to deftly subvert. I don't think it's a scent I need to own, but it kept me guessing, and that's an accomplishment of some sort.

The first weirdness about Vanille Absolu is that it doesn't seem to have any alcohol in it. An alcohol-based scent feels cool against your skin because your body heat evaporates the alcohol (which has a lower boiling point that water, so it evaporates more quickly), drawing a little heat from your skin and making it feel cooler. But Vanille Absolu feels like a silicone oil: it's smooth and just the tiniest bit greasy, and it's exactly the same temperature as your skin, making it feel as if you haven't put anything on at all. I don't know if this is true of all Montale scents or just this one, because I haven't tried any of the others: but it's a little jarring if you aren't expecting it.

The second weirdness is that all you get at first sniff is a huge dose of cotton candy, which is to say ethylmaltol, the modern way for a perfume to announce its yumminess. That's it. Vanilla? What vanilla? Nothing to see here, just cotton candy. If instead of Vanille Absolu they had called it Barbe a Papa, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. (And since Montale has a scent called Chocolate Greedy, I wouldn't put anything past them.)

Luckily, the cotton candy calms down after a few minutes and blossoms into a full, rich vanilla. It's still very sweet: it has some of that darkly caramelized, cooked-almost-burnt sugar smell that Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Abricot uses to such great effect. It's very tasty and very pleasant.

And then, in fairly short order, the final surprise: the vanilla takes on a slightly sharp tinge (the word "acrid" comes to mind and I tried to ignore it but it will not leave) as a woody note emerges from underneath it, as if you'd spilled a bottle of double-strength vanilla on a teak end table.

That's it, really. The whole thing. Huge tuft of cotton candy, heavily sugared vanilla, a bit of wood. It lasts a long, long time on the skin, too, that final sweet-vanilla-wood accord. Quite nice, but, to be honest, not groundbreaking, and pretty expensive (currently $95 for a 50-mL spray) for what it is. I own a lot of vanilla scents, and unless something about Vanille Absolu grabs onto your heart and will not let go, I think you could do better. Many of the CSP vanilla scents and any of the Maison de la Vanille, for starters.

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