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What Does Vanilla Smell Like?

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One of the most recognizable perfume notes of all time (and we really do mean all time, people have been using this stuff for literal ages), there’s nothing quite like vanilla. Be it in baked goods, perfume, confectionery, or you name it, there’s something uniquely universal about vanilla. 

First used in fragrance in the 20th century, the scent has enthralled sniffers ever since, with wearers enamored by its longevity, timelessness, and ability to draw people in. In this article, we’ll take a look at what vanilla smells like, how vanilla is used in perfume, and a little history surrounding vanilla and its use. Let’s get moving. 

What is Vanilla?

It is believed that vanilla (as a flavor and scent additive) was first discovered by an indigenous group of people in Mexico known as the Totonacs. They found pods from the Vanilla orchid, and used it as a sweet smelling additive in foods. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, they began adding hints of vanilla to their xocolatl, a culturally-important drink made from roasted cocoa beans, corn flour, and chilis (similar to hot chocolate). 

When the Spanish arrived in South America, they took some vanilla home with them, where it quickly spread in popularity within Spain and beyond.

It was then used, not only as a flavoring method, but also as a medicine and impotence remedy. Even today, vanilla’s powerful aphrodisiac properties are still preached the world over.

In the 1990s, perfumers began featuring vanilla as the dominant note in their fragrances, to fantastic effect. People began spraying vanilla everywhere: their homes, their cars, themselves, their bedrooms, their crazy aunt sue’s house… and it didn’t stop there. Scented candles, deodorants, cleaning supplies, and even plushies are all common items these days. So, how did we get here? Why has the scent of vanilla permeated every aspect of our lives (even aunt sue’s house)? Well, it’s because vanilla just smells so gosh-darned good.

What Does Vanilla Smell Like?

Pure vanilla smells tentative; like an unhurried embrace, or something that you’ve been waiting for, hoping for, finally showing up. Vanilla smells sweet, warm, syrupy, and a little nutty. However, it’s also very soft and creamy, with a distinctive depth. It’s the smell of baked goods and a lot of the best things in the world.

However, pure vanilla is expensive. So expensive, in fact, that you rarely find it in perfumes. Instead, perfumeries use synthetic scent molecules that aim to mimic the olfactory experience that vanilla provides. These, vanillin and ethyl-vanillin, smell close to the real thing; soft, creamy, and sweet (although slightly sweeter than real vanilla), with just the right amount of roundness. Some perfumeries, like Guerlain in rarer scents, still use vanilla tincture, but most of what you find in perfume is going to be these two scent molecules. 

The scent of vanilla is so much more than the vanilla extract you have lying around in your cupboard. Much more multifaceted than that, vanilla can take on different personalities depending on other scents it’s paired with. According to Current Biology, vanilla is the world’s favorite scent. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

How is Vanilla Used in Perfumery

Vanilla is an extremely common note in perfumery and represents the reference note for the oriental group of fragrances. Its scent differs greatly depending on how it’s blended with other fragrance notes in the composition. While this makes it a little bit harder to pin down, it also makes vanilla a more versatile scent component. 

For reference, combining vanilla with ethyl maltol produces a toffee, caramel-like aroma. Combining with labdanum creates an amber, with a hint of leather. Vanilla and ylang-ylang can be combined to imitate the scent of the lily. These are just a few of the many, many ways that vanilla can be augmented in perfumery to create new and interesting scents. 

Other notes that pair really well with vanilla include cocoa, musks, soft florals, spices… pretty much anything pairs well with vanilla! 

In short, pure vanilla is rarely used in perfumery. Instead, vanillin and ethyl-vanillin are used as substitutes, with tonka beans, synthetic amber, and decalepis also sometimes used as fill-ins. Vanilla pairs well with a huge variety of other scents to create a rash of charming compositions. 

Men’s Fragrances With Vanilla

As you’ve seen, vanilla is very popular in fragrances. Here are some of our favorite men’s fragrances with vanilla:

  • Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille is, as the name would suggest, a vanilla-heavy fragrance. Compounded by the very real smelling pipe-tobacco, this scent is classy, sophisticated, and seductive. Check out our full review here
  • Valentino Uomo Intense is class in a bottle. Dark and mysterious, it still manages to be one of the coziest fragrances around. The vanilla pairs really well with the iris in here. Read our full review for more info. 
  • Giorgio Armani Stronger With You is a beautiful cold-weather scent that features vanilla as a prominent component. Sweet, warm spicy, and refreshingly unique, give this a try if you’re looking for an all around winter scent. 
  • Maison Martin Margiela By the Fireplace is a composition featuring vanilla juxtaposed with dark smoke and woods. You can practically smell it just by reading the name; a crackling, cozy fire, smoke, and creamy vanilla. Beware: this is an acquired taste. Read more in our full review. 
  • Azzaro The Most Wanted Parfum is a men’s fragrance featuring vanilla that delights due to its simplicity. Blended extremely well, wearing The Most Wanted will have you smelling smooth. Not to mention, this scent has superb longevity. Read more here. 
  • Jean Paul Gautier Ultra Male is a sweet-vanilla scent for men. The addition of pear in this fragrance is outstanding, and plays with the vanilla perfectly, while cedar and lavender ground it and keep it masculine. This is an attention grabbing, compliment snagging scent that I can’t recommend enough. Learn more in our full review. 

Women’s Fragrances With Vanilla

Vanilla is a monumental part of many women’s fragrances. Here are a few of favorites we deem unmissable:

  • Black Opium by Yves Saint Laurent is a classic in the world of women’s perfume. For many, it’s love at first sniff. A little dark, a little edgy, and a little wild, Black Opium is a statement maker with the potential to up your whole aesthetic. At first prominently coffee and vanilla, Black Opium dries down into a gorgeous, creamy vanilla-coffee shot through with pear and white florals. It’s signature scent worthy, compliment grabbing, and just so, so good.
  • Giorgio Armani Si is a woody vanilla scent with hints of rose and freesia. It’s feminine, sweet, and great for the younger crowd. Any season, any time, Si is very versatile and conforms to the occasion while simultaneously rising above it. Read out full review for more.
  • La Belle by Jean Paul Gaultier is another scent featuring a prominent vanilla note. Here, the vanilla is mixed with florals in the middle, and musk and amber in the base. The musk really serves to accentuate the creaminess of the vanilla, leading to delectable skin scent. It’s cozy, and flirty, and smells surprisingly different on different people. Give this a try if you’re looking for something dynamic and very fun.
  • Viktor and Rolf Flowerbomb Extreme is a fragrance created with vanilla as the star of the show. It’s really lovely — a sophisticated, cozy vanilla rather than an immature, overdone sweet vanilla. It’s rich, creamy, and smells like a winner. I can’t recommend this one enough.
  • Libre Intense by Yves Saint Laurent is a women’s perfume that shines in the colder months. Everything, from the opening to the dry down, smells fantastic. The scent shifts subtly as the wear progresses. It’s incredibly long lasting, doesn’t smell generic, and smells incredibly attractive. If you’re looking for a high quality, long lasting perfume with vanilla, YSL’s Libre Intense is a fantastic choice.


Vanilla smells like warm, baking sugar cookies. It’s sweet, creamy, and a little nutty. Used as a flavor additive for centuries, its introduction into the world of perfumery is surprisingly recent. Nonetheless, it has made waves since then, and become a fan favorite the world around.

We hope you enjoyed this article, and wish you pleasant smells in your future.

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!

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