Move over Tihota, I’ve found something else. Van-ile is almost as good, but costs much less. Imagine airy vanilla, wrapped up with ribbons of lemon, tangy orange, orchid floralcy, and clean musk in a silky cloud that soon turns into the delicious coziness of silky, cake batter-style vanilla made from expensive Tahitian beans. That’s the essence of Van-ile (officially spelt as “Van-île”), an extremely simple, unpretentious eau de parfum that bears a strong resemblance to Indult‘s famous Tihota for almost all of its life, only for a third of the price. It’s a soft, easy-to-wear scent that is so appealing, I bought a bottle for myself. It helps that Van-ile is very reasonably priced, especially for the quality in question, and I’m a sucker for a good deal. More than that, though, it’s been extremely difficult for me to find a vanilla that is neither so sweet it would trigger a diabetic coma nor too heavily imbued with the ghastly white musk that I loathe. Van-ile fits the bill.
Let’s start at the beginning, though, since Jacques Zolty is probably not a name with which you’re familiar. I certainly wasn’t. According to Fragrantica, he was a French supermodel in the 1970s and then, in 2007, founded a perfume house whose creations celebrated the smell, culture, and vibe of the island of St. Bart’s in the West Indies. In 2014, the brand was bought by Roberto Drago, the owner of Laboratorio Olfattivo. He asked Cecile Zakorian (creator of Masque’s Tango, Majda Bekkali’s Mon Nom Est Rouge, Jovoy’s Private Label, and other fragrances) to make two new scents for the line, and one of them was Van-ile.
Van-ile is an eau de parfum that was released in late 2014. According to First in Fragrance, its name is a play on “vanille (vanilla) and île (island)… in French, the native language of Saint-Barthélemy. This fragrance is a passionate homage to vanilla planifolia, the sugar orchid that grows up symbiotically with the sun in the Caribbean and makes life sweeter on the most beautiful and glamourous island in the Antilles.” The perfume’s notes are:
Top Note: Bergamot, Orange, Almond
Heart Note: Vanilla, Heliotrope, Frangipani, Jasmine, Patchouly, Powdery Notes
Base Note: Vanilla Bean, Leather, Animalic Notes, Oakmoss, Musk
Van-ile opens on my skin with lemon, orange, airy vanilla, abstract floralcy, hints of woodiness and white musk, and a touch of fresh almonds. The focus in the opening minutes skews more towards the citrus fruits than the vanilla, but nothing in the scent feels lopsided, and all of it is smoothly balanced. The sweetness is kept in check by the other notes, starting first and foremost with the orange. It never resembles an orange creamsicle, and is only slightly juicy. Actually, it skews a little green, smelling more like a tangy tangerine or a lightly sweetened neroli. The lemon is refreshing and crisp, but never too acidic or sour. The white musk probably helps to keep things on the light, fresher side, too, though it is only the smallest touch at first.
What I appreciate is the very moderate, even minimal sweetness. The vanilla is never overly sugary or akin to frosted icing on a cupcake like that found in mainstream, Pink Sugar sorts of vanilla fragrances. It’s also not boozy Bourbon vanilla like that in Guerlain‘s Spiritueuse Double Vanille or Couvent de Minimes Mission Cologne. It’s not a creme brulée type with a painfully crystallized, sugar crust like Profumum‘s loud, foghorn Vanitas, Shay & Blue‘s Salt Caramel, Farmacia SS Annunziata‘s Vaniglia del Madagascar, and so many other vanilla fragrances in the niche world. It’s not dark or overly buttered like the custardy, almost raw vanilla extract in Profumum‘s Dulcis in Fundo and Mona di Orio‘s Vanille. I’s not woody like Maria Candida Gentile‘s Noir Tropical and Parfumerie Generale‘s Felanilla, and, to my relief, it’s also not overly suffused with cheap musk like Van Cleef & Arpels‘ Vanille Orchidée or Dame Perfumery‘s Black Flower Mexican Vanilla. With Zolty’s Van-ile, to the extent that you can detect the full nuances of the vanilla behind the opening veil of bergamot lemon and the orange, it smells like cake batter vanilla with an eggy silkiness, butter, and a touch of flour. That’s the rare sort of vanilla bouquet found in Tihota, and my favorite take on the note.
That list of fragrances may seem long but it represents only some of the names I’ve tried in my search for my ideal vanilla scent because, as you may have gathered, I’m rather picky about both the nuances and balances I require. And I’m saying this now: Zolty’s Van-ile is not my perfect vanilla, either, though it comes closer than most. The problem is that Van-ile is a very light fragrance, especially in the first two hours where it feels more like an eau de toilette than an eau de parfum. Even later when it turns deeper, creamy smooth, supple, and almost rich in nature, it is still not a heavy scent, and its projection is quite soft. There is a decent scent trail if you apply a lot of Van-ile, but this is generally an (overly) airy fragrance with a discreet nature. I think it would be many people’s ideal of a summer vanilla or a work-appropriate scent, but it is not my ideal by any means.
And, to someone as finicky as I am, the first 40 minutes of Van-ile are not my favorite part of the scent. Roughly 15 minutes into the perfume’s development, the white musk grows more noticeable, the perfume turns sweeter, the lemon starts to overtake the orange, while the almond starts to fade away. For a short while, the notes lose their equal footing as Van-ile turns away from being a vanilla cake streaked with lemon and orange, and becomes a vanilla-lemon cake drizzled with lemon curds and sugary icing within a very light, airy cocoon of clean musk.
Regular readers know how much I dislike citrus scents and my intense loathing for white musk, so none of this represents my vision of perfection, but I will say that it is not extreme. Van-ile may feel cleaner and sweeter than it did at the start, but the musk is not overly loud, artificial, or anything remotely akin to laundry detergent freshness. The sweetness is too sugary for me, but it is still less than the amount in Tihota or Farmacia SS Annunziata’s Vaniglia, both of which went further in their first few hours. Tihota often flirted with the edges of being excessive before pulling back, and Van-ile plays the same back-and-forth game as well, only to a lesser extent than Tihota.
All these things are temporary and minor, however, because Van-ile consistently turns into silky cake batter vanilla 40 minutes into its development. Every time I’ve tried the scent, it’s around that point when the iced lemon curd weakens, the orange almost completely vanishes, the white musk pipes down to minor levels, and the vanilla starts to show off its beauty in a largely solo dance. As it twirls and pirouettes, it throws off nuances that are eggy, creamy, lightly floured, slightly buttered, and nebulously floral in nature. The flour ensures that Van-ile is kept slightly on the drier side, never smelling like creme anglaise or, even, a richer, more buttery custard. It’s a silky vanilla, but not a gooey, thick, or heavy one. Light, fluffy to the point of gauzy airiness, and with a petal-soft creaminess, it coats the skin with simple deliciousness.
And Van-ile really is very simple, indeed. In none of my tests did I ever detect leather, oakmoss, animalics, frangipani (plumeria) or jasmine. The scent has a wholly abstract, indeterminate floralcy that lurks occasionally in the background, but it’s so muffled as to be ghostly. If anything, it’s more of a nebulous whisper of vanilla orchid petals or the idea of them perhaps, as well as a textural issue, rather than actual flowers in a strong, clearly delineated way. No, on my skin, Van-ile is essentially 90% silky, cake batter vanilla, with the remainder being a mix of white musk, soft citrus, and a drop of ghostly flower petals. If you find Tihota to be too simple, then you’ll find Van-ile to be the same.
Van-ile doesn’t change in any significant way on my skin from the end of the first hour all the way through to its final moments. It’s a completely linear scent, though, to be fair, all true soliflores are that way. This one may just be simpler than most. All that happens is that the vanilla grows creamier, smoother and, to the extent possible for such an airy fragrance, richer. Each time I’ve worn it, I’ve found myself compulsively sniffing my arm and it always begins roughly about 2.25 hours into Van-ile’s development. It is truly a beautiful vanilla. Unctuous but not too much so; buttery but never gooey; rich but not like thick custard; sweet but more like lightly honeyed nectar than sugar frosting — it’s addictive, warm, enveloping and soft, more like a vanilla kiss blown on the wind than a deep embrace. (I would prefer a deep embrace, but I’ll settle for the air kiss, given just how wonderful it is.)
I always say that there is nothing wrong with linearity if you like the scent in question and, here, obviously I do. Yet, there are other reasons why I don’t mind the simplicity. First, I have significantly lower expectations for soliflores and their development. They’re simply not intended to be something with complex layers, or many twists and turns. Second, as I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, I actually prefer uncomplicated easiness for comfort scents. After long days analysing every nuance of a fragrance for hours on end, I prefer to put on something where I don’t have to think and can just enjoy the fragrance in a comforting cocoon.
Third, and most importantly, Van-ile isn’t claiming to be some complicated, edgy, revolutionary, or uber-luxurious scent with a hefty price to match. It was intended to be easy, wearable, and good quality — that’s it. An interview which the brand’s new owner, Roberto Drago, gave to Fragrantica makes that point explicit. There, he talked about the two new Zolty creations and said:
What we wanted from the perfume is to create a bridge brand, the brand between the usual popular perfumes and artistic niche perfumes. To create the comprehensive perfumes to introduce consumers to the niche artistic market, we want to create an easy niche brand out of Jacques Zolty. Easy niche, understandable niche, comprehensive niche—that’s how we see the Jacques Zolty brand in future.
It means very good raw materials and quality perfume ingredients but we don’t want to make conceptual perfumes that are not easy to understand.
I respect all of that enormously, because there is a lot to be said for unpretentious fragrances that are simply meant to smell good and be enjoyable. Well, so long as their price (and quality) matches. And, here, they do. I’m still irritated over Amouage‘s new Sunshine that takes a wholly generic, mainstream fruity floral (infused with synthetics), and demands $450. Or Etat Libre‘s True Lust Rayon Violet De Ses Yeux, which takes a bland mix of two of its existing scents (one of which smells like a terribly cheap designer fragrance), and wraps it up with absolutely ridiculous marketing as if it were a unique masterpiece created by God for the Garden of Eden.
Here, Mr. Drago and Jacques Zolty opt for no-fuss simplicity that never feels cheap or low quality, all for a reasonable price. The brand’s no-frills approach is evident even in the simplicity of the bottle’s label and packaging. More importantly, though, and unlike so many vanilla fragrances, Van-ile doesn’t feel as though it were drenched in synthetics, and a big 100 ml bottle of eau de parfum costs a very reasonable €89. When I bought my bottle, it came to roughly $80 at the current rate of currency conversion after deducting the roughly 19% European VAT taxes that are included in the €89.
If I may remind you, Indult’s Tihota costs $200 for a mere 50 ml. Both fragrances have the same quality and smoothness, though I’d argue that Van-ile may actually be better because it has significantly less of that infernal white musk that Francis Kurkdjian likes to use in hefty quantities, and also has a more moderate level of sweetness to boot. Van-ile may be a hair lighter or thinner than Tihota at times, but only if you apply a modest amount of the scent. With 100 ml for €89, one doesn’t have to be sparing in one’s use, and 3 sprays created quite a noticeable soft cloud that was barely distinguishable from Tihota in its silkiness and depth. Yes, it is still airier and gauzier than I’d like but, then again, I don’t think Tihota is hefty, either.
Plus, Van-ile has very good longevity with decent sillage, though I’d say the projection is merely soft. My initial tests involved using an atomizer which was quite wonky and it often seemed to spray in the air around me more than right on my arm, so my quantity assessments will be a little inexact, but I tested Van-ile with the rough equivalent of 3 small spritzes or 2 big sprays from an actual bottle. With that quantity, Van-ile opened with 3 inches of projection, and soft sillage that seemed to grow after 20 minutes to about half a foot. The projection turned to about 1 inch after 90 minutes, but it hovered there for quite a while. Vani-ile only became a skin scent on me after the 4th hour, but it was still easy to detect up close without huge effort for a while to come. Plus, Van-ile continued to emit little tendrils all around me, even when I didn’t move, though they were very tiny, soft wisps.
What surprised me if that Van-ile consistently lasted between 10.5 and 12 hours on me, depending on how much I applied. Granted, it took a small bit of effort to detect it after the 7th hour, but not a lot, and discreet slivers of vanilla creaminess continued to cling to my skin for much longer than I had ever expected. Van-ile certainly lasts longer on me than Tihota did, though, in fairness, I was dabbing the latter and aerosolisation can make a difference. So, I tested Van-ile by dabbing as well, using 3 generous smears, and the fragrance lasted almost 11 hours. The one thing I consistently noticed with Van-ile is that the fragrance gains body if you apply more. Small quantities impact not only the projection and sillage, but the richness and creamy depth of the vanilla. The note was less impressive with a modest application, which makes it all the better that Zolty has released it in a 100 ml size for €89.
Van-ile is one of those scents that somehow becomes more addictive the more one tries it. In my first test, I found the fragrance compulsively sniffable after the first 2 hours had passed, but its lightness was an issue for me. The second time around, applying more, it was much better, and I found myself pondering buying a bottle. Midway during my third test, I bought one. Van-ile is only available in Europe at this time, and I got it from First in Fragrance. Without the 19% European VAT tax and in US dollars, I paid $80.95 (€74.79) for the 100 ml bottle with $27.20 for shipping to the U.S. for a total of $108.15. I’m a sucker for a good deal, and I think that is one for the quality in question, but what really drove me is how difficult it has been for me to find a really good vanilla that isn’t overly sugared, isn’t painfully synthetic, has a balanced (to minimal) amount of white musk, and lasts on my skin. Van-ile isn’t perfect in its sheerness, but it fit many of my other criteria.
There are very few reviews for Van-ile out there. Mark Behnke of Colognoisseur wrote positively about the fragrance, its easy wearability, approachable nature, and its smell. He experienced a slightly more complex bouquet than I did:
Van-Ile is a very simple structure which opens with the figurative perfume version of “once upon a time” as citrus in the form of orange is what you encounter first. As Van-ile proceeds into the heart it uses jasmine as a safe haven but here is where Mme Zarokian offers a little something more as a nutty almond adds a toasty quality to the floral notes. It also is a great note to usher in the vanilla. The vanilla here is that of the vanilla orchid. Which means besides the immediately recognizable sweet vanilla there are also green flares throughout. Some oakmoss picks up and accentuates those green moments. It all finishes in a safe patchouli foundation. [¶] Van-Ile last 8-10 hours with average sillage.
Serguey Borisov of Fragrantica briefly analysed Van-ile as part of the interview with Mr. Drago referenced above, and thought the fragrance opened with similarities to Guerlain‘s SDV before turning more vanilla-centric and fluffier:
Van-Ile is fresh as the sunny and sweet citrus fruit at the start of Spiritueuse and it recalls the famous Cointreau, sweet but hard. But soon the energetic start becomes smoky sweet as amber powder starts to add some Baileys into the cocktail. It becomes a vanilla-centered soft and fluffy perfume very soon—a powdery almond and heliotrope notes helps to make an innocent angelic face. […] Somehow Van-Ile smells of a p-r-o-l-o-n-g-e-d version of vanilla, with more sillage, diffusion and accented basenotes. It definitely has some common features with Spiritueuese Double Vanille Guerlain, but costs about 2-3 times less and does not pretend to be The Great Gatsby. It`s just good smelling perfume that creates a good vacation mood.
On the perfume’s Fragrantica page, there is only one comment, and it is in Italian. Using Google Translate led to a rather incoherent result, but the phrase “truly a masterpiece” did pop up:
This fragrance has notes of vanilla that develop slowly is a perfume discreet chic where vanilla is mixed with other notes and persists never disappear entirely is not a vanilla sugary but remember the wild berry and leathery truly a masterpiece
If Tihota is too expensive or too sugary for you, and if Van Cleef & Arpel’s Vanille Orchidée is insufficiently vanilla-ish with too many clean or floral aspects, then I really encourage you to try Van-ile. In America, you can get a sample easily from Surrender to Chance; in Europe, First in Fragrance offers a generous mini atomiser for a low price. While Van-ile is not my perfect vanilla, I think it is truly lovely and, yes, full-bottle worthy. I’m incredibly hard to please, particularly for gourmand scents and vanillas, so I think the fact that I succumbed says something.