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What Does Tonka Bean Smell Like?

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From traditional South American cuisine, to French sensuality and “fièvre tonka,” this unassuming, shriveled bean plays a larger role in our world than many of us realize. Multipurpose in its aromatic profile, the tonka bean is a fantastic perfume ingredient you’ll be better off knowing about. I know what you’re thinking: “A bean? In perfume?” 

While I can understand your uncertainty, I promise you that I’m not pulling your leg. In this article, we’ll look at what tonka beans smell like, a brief history of their use, how tonka beans are used in perfumery, and some men and women’s fragrances containing tonka bean.
Let’s bean.

Fair Warning: I like using the word “bean,” so if this is a turn-off for you, or you find it in any way disturbing, you have been warned.

Tonka Bean: A Brief History

Tonka beans grown natively in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Actually a member of the pea family, the tonka bean is actually the seed of the Dipteryx Odorata tree. These trees can grow for thousands of years, producing red flowers that fruit. Each fruit contains a single tonka bean, around an inch in length. 

For centuries, the tonka bean was used in South and Central American cuisine, imparting its characteristic nutty, warming, and subtly vanillic flavor to the food. In the late 1700s, tonka was introduced to the French, who instantly dubbed it sensual suprème and paraded it around a number of concoctions. As popularity grew, the phenomenon became known as tonka fever.

In a number of cultures around the world, the tonka bean was referred to as “the love bean,” or “the wishing bean,” or sometimes a combination of those two. Thought to be an aphrodisiac, to bring wealth and good luck, and be therapeutically relaxing, it was even used medicinally for a whole range of ailments. 

In the early 1800s, chemists were able to isolate and identify the unique chemical which gives tonka its characteristic aroma — coumarin. By the early 1900s, the use of tonka bean was commonplace and surprisingly varied — besides being added to a number of perfumes, both men’s and women’s, tonka caught on in American cuisine (though it was banned for dubious reasons in 1952) and was ground up and used to soften the aroma of tobacco. 

Now, pure tonka bean is used less commonly. Instead, many perfumes, deodorants, and the like use synthetically produced coumarin as a cheaper, more widely available alternative to the real thing. 

What Does Tonka Bean Smell Like?

Tonka bean smells nutty, sweet-spicy, and warm. Tonka has hints of vanilla, praline, and almond. Traditionally cured in rum, older fragrances utilizing tonka had a boozier accord to them as well. While often compared to vanilla, there’s a more bitter, even hay-like element to tonka that makes it an, arguably, more dynamic perfume ingredient. 

While the vanilla, nutty creaminess and milky-sweetness makes tonka very seductive, equally important is its summer-pasture herbaceousness, spice, and tartness. Let’s take a closer look at these accords individually.


Often compared to vanilla, tonka bean smells definitively sweet and creamy. This helps with its overall inviting warmth, and is what led to so much French love. This sweetness also gives tonka bean a smoothing element, and, when used in perfumery, can help dull the edges of other more harsh ingredients.


This is one of the more underrated aspects of tonka; smelling somewhere between pralines and toasted almonds, the nuttiness increases the smoothness of tonka while adding depth and making it more interesting smelling. It also makes tonka more versatile, and one of the better ingredients to include in fall and winter fragrances. 


Hay — don’t look at me like that. I know, it doesn’t sound alluring or cute, but really, hay and vanilla, with nuts and spice, is a fantastic combination. The hay adds a grounding earthiness and a slightly animalic bitterness. 

Alternatively, sometimes the hay element of tonka is more like that of a drying field of the stuff in summertime. Whatever the case, it’s a really interesting element to accentuate in a perfume.


The spice, I think, is the most important part of tonka bean because it saves the aroma from becoming too smooth to the point of becoming muddled. With hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, the sweet spiciness lends some sharpness and helps tonka bean stand out.

How is Tonka Bean Used in Perfumery?

Traditionally, the tonka bean would be soaked in rum after harvesting. This allowed the coumarin to crystallize on the outside and subsequently be collected for use. These coumarin crystals represent pure tonka bean essence in perfumery — the highest possible quality you can get. 

While the essence is still used in some scents (though tonka beans are soaked in all different kinds of alcohol now, not just rum), modern perfumery makes use of synthetically produced coumarin much more commonly. Synthetic coumarin is very, very close to the real thing, though some argue that it leans too heavily into the vanilla aspect of tonka.

Coumarin (that’s the scent chemical in tonka) can be linked to two of the six major perfume families — the fougère and ambrée families, and is even credited with creating the fougère family entirely. All this goes to say that, while you might not have heard of it before, it has made waves in the perfume industry for centuries.

Men’s Fragrances With Tonka Bean

Tonka bean is a fantastic scent addition. Known for its warmth and sweet-spiciness, it shines in the colder months. Here are a few of our favorite men’s fragrances with tonka bean:

  • Valentino Uomo Intense is the fragrance epitome of class — elegant, formal iris shot through with mandarin orange and leather helps balance the sweet nuttiness of the tonka bean. This is one of the best winter scents ever created. Read our full Valentino Uomo Intense review for more. 
  • Scandal Pour Homme Le Parfum by Jean Paul Gaultier may be the best pure tonka fragrance on this list. It also might be the best fragrance on this list in general. Very unique, interesting, and near-eternal, Scandal Le Parfum is very sweet and very good at attracting compliments. 
  • Prada L’Homme Intense by Prada is the grown up, masculine version of your favorite candy store. Darkly attractive, you’ll smell like the bottle looks — regal, handsome, and somewhat otherworldly, all while remaining warm and inviting. 
  • Armani Code Parfum by Giorgio Armani is a fragrance capable of charming the pants off nearly anyone. Pairing the original Code DNA with iris and a headier dose of tonka, Code Parfum is warm, charming, and surprisingly versatile. 
  • Dior Sauvage Parfum is a compliment getter. Loud, long-lasting, with more depth and mystery than the original EDT, Sauvage Parfum is the perfect versatile fragrance for men looking for a manly man’s all-arounder.
  • Versace Eros is a men’s perfume featuring tonka bean as a pretty prominent part of the composition. Known somewhat unfairly as a youthful clubbing fragrance, Versace Eros is very sweet and relatively loud, but it also packs a sort of zest, excitement, and bashful charm that shouldn’t be ignored. However, try it before you purchase.
  • Paco Rabanne’s 1 Million Elixir is one of the most surprising scents I’ve sampled. A complete deviation from the 1 Million line, Elixir is that hidden gem you stumble upon once in a blue moon. It’s a story of contrasts: playful, yet deeply thoughtful; sweet, yet sophisticated. This is a scent made for wearing, and wear it you should.

Women’s Fragrances With Tonka Bean

Here are a few of our favorite women’s fragrances with tonka bean:

  • Dior Addict by Dior is rich and bold — it’s also a classic, due in part because of the inclusion of saccharine-sweet tonka bean. There’s an effervescence and a Dr. Pepper vibe, and you’ll smell sexy and sophisticated. Dior Addict is a great go-to scent for colder months or for a night out. 
  • Narciso Rouge by Narciso Rodriguez is floral and musky, but above all, Narciso Rouge is sweet. Florals, musk, vanilla, tonka bean, and woods combine to create a fragrance known for its beatific femininity and powdery sweetness. Spray this on, and you’ll be the inhabitant of your own personal cloud of happiness for hours and hours to come.
  • Shalimar Millésime Tonka Guerlain is a perfume highlighted by bitter almond, iris, tonka, and rose. An interesting combination of notes, this scent is dynamic, smooth, and mysterious. I’d recommend this scent for the woman who wants to smell stylishly cozy.
  • Libre Intense by Yves Saint Laurent smells like a clean, confident girl who knows what she wants and is willing to work for it. That’s not to say it’s an office scent or purely professional — but Libre Intense smells like direction. If you’re the kind of person who wanders listlessly, don’t wear this perfume. If, on the other hand, you’re a trailblazer caught up in creating something for yourself and you want an entourage of people complimenting your aroma following you around as you go, Libre Intense is perfect for you.
  • La Nuit Trésor à la Folie Lancôme is  another women’s perfume with tonka bean perfect for cold months and evenings. I particularly like the inclusion of pear and nutmeg in this composition, which really helps add a playful depth and make the overall thing work so much better. You’ll definitely get compliments with this one.

Find Yourself a Bean

So, now you know what tonka bean smells like. For the pure scientists reading, find yourself a bean to sniff. For those other readers, any of the fragrances we listed above are fantastic fragrances in their own right, as well as providing an excellent representation of what tonka smells like and the powerful addition it makes in perfumery. 

Thank you for reading, and happy sniffing!


Isaac Marks

Isaac Marks

Isaac is a fragrance expert from Chicago, Illinois, specializing in smelling good at all times. When he isn't sniffing things, Isaac likes to read, write, run, bake, and play the guitar.

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Jack Harbor

Full Time Fragranista

Jack Harbor is an expert in all things scent – from wearing, to mixing, to making perfumes, his expertise is varied and robust. He loves to smell good, and loves helping other’s smell good – for the good of us all!

Jack Harbor

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