Alahine was meant to evoke opulent oriental palaces, and it certainly succeeded in that endeavor. I see a Moroccan palace, shimmering in the heat under a turquoise sky, and surrounded by gardens of roses and ylang-ylang, lined with large silver urns billowing out smoky amber and incense.
Alahine comes from the French perfume house, Téo Cabanel, founded in 1893 in Algeria by Théodore Cabanel. Upon moving to Paris, he developed over 150 different perfume formulae and soon came to the attention of high society. He was a favorite of the Duchess of Windsor — the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up the English throne — and she would order enormous amounts of his fragrances (Julia and Yasmina). Unfortunately, over time, the house faded away, but it was essentially reborn in 2003 under the direction of Caroline Illacqua who had a distant connection to Cabanel’s daughter. Illacqua brought in the perfumer, Jean-Francois Latty (who had created fragrances for YSL and Givenchy), and together they launched Alahine in 2007.
Latty describes Alahine as a soft amber, but it is technically a floral oriental (or floriental). Téo Cabanel’s website lists Alahine’s notes as follows:
bergamot, ylang ylang, jasmine, Bulgarian rose, orange tree, pepper plant, Morroccan rose, iris, cistus, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla, sandalwood, and musk.
Some perfume sites have suggested other ingredients as well. Basenotes adds lavender to its list of top notes, but I’m a bit skeptical and believe it may be just how bergamot smells to some people. Luckyscent includes sandalwood as one of the base notes; that one, I can well imagine.
As the NST website noticed, Téo Cabanel claims that the perfumes contain “100% pure and natural ingredients.” Technically, that’s not really possible as musk (or civet) comes from animals and, as such, is off limits in its natural form.
In an interview with Sniffapalooza magazine, Ilacqua clarified that Téo Cabanel’s fragrances contain between 85% and 95% natural ingredients, and its amber and musk are synthetic.
For those who can’t immediately place some of the natural notes or what they smell like, here’s a brief nutshell description that may be useful later in explaining the depth and layers to Alahine. The smell of bergamot falls between orange and lemon, and is most closely associated with Earl Grey tea. It can turn a little woody and some people can occasionally smell hints of lavender lurking around. Ylang-ylang comes from a bright, banana-yellow flower and has a rich, heady, sweet, floral smell that is slightly fruity and custardy. One commentator called it “the eccentric sister to jasmine” but it’s also often compared to such flowers as tuberose, frangipani, and tiaré. Personally, I think it has a richer, fruitier and, definitely, spicier scent than any of those flowers. As a side note, the smell of ylang-ylang has long been considered to be both an aphrodisiac and soothing. Moroccan roses are a type of cabbage rose and, as such, have a sweet, honey-like scent. In contrast, Bulgarian roses belong to the damask rose category which usually have a heady, richer, darker element to them. (To my nose, at least.) Benzoin is a type of resin and, as such, evokes the scent of amber. Depending on the type of resin, it can be both sweet and smoky, or just incense-y and slightly woody. “Cistus” really refers to Labdanum. The small cistus shrub is native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, and the distillation of its leaves produces a dry resinous, faintly woody smell that is called labdanum in perfume. Essentially, labdanum is another resin like amber, but it has more of a masculine toughness to amber’s sweetness. Labdanum can be dirty, animalic and almost reminiscent of sex at times, while other compositions can bring out a more leather-like smell.
The real reason that I took this detour into the notes is because the complexity of Alahine required me to take a refresher! The perfume is so expertly blended, and the scents fold so well into each other, that at times I struggled to figure out what ingredient was responsible for what! It was almost too much at times for me to distinguish what was going on. And a big part of that problem stemmed initially from a very big mistake I made: I sprayed on too much!
Do you want to know how much is “too much” for Alahine? Well, three spritzes where I just barely depressed the plunger! Three small spritzes of Alahine sent my nose into a tailspin because this is one seriously powerful perfume! I had to wait for the smell to fade on one arm before I could try again a few hours later with it on the other. This time, I gingerly and fearfully used one tiny spray, resulting in a few droplets. (And I never use one tiny spray! Ever. I always use 3 good spritzes spread out all along my arm and I do so for every perfume when testing it out, given how my body consumes perfume.) But trying Alahine in a small amount let me have a much better understanding of the notes. (Did I mention that this is powerful?!)
Alahine opens with a trumpeting blast of booziness, bergamot, orange, and what definitely smells like peach. After re-reading the definitions of some of the notes, I realise the peach (and some other lingering faintly fruity smells) have to be the ylang-ylang, though none of the ylang-ylang I’ve smelled (and loved) in the past ever evoked such a smell. In my first go round, I smelled such a sharply intense, screeching smell of smoky incense and black pepper that I was convinced there had to be frankincense in there as well. (There isn’t, but that is apparently what happens when you spray too much Alahine on your first try and sniff. It totally blows out your nose.)
In those opening minutes, the citrus and ylang-ylang fruits are joined by what smells like cloves, cinnamon and a fainty soapy muskiness. There is almost a medicinal note from the cloves, but also a heavy, (heavy!), thick viscous, gooey, treacly element that has to be the amber! It’s heavy and black enough at this stage that I wonder if perhaps I’m really smelling the patchouli? It’s hard to know at this stage, but if that is really just the amber, colour me impressed.
Ten minutes in, the heady smell of roses and iris appears, followed a bit later by the jasmine. Alahine is softer now, less shrill, gentled perhaps due to the powder notes that are also there. And yet, there is also definite black pepper behind it all, pepper that is biting, faintly woody, almost balsam-like. I suspect this is from the pepper plant they used. And I still smell peach!
As Alahine develops over time, it turns more into a predominantly amber-y scent, combined with the rose, musk and powder. But this is like few amber fragrances that I have come across. There is a distinctly boozy nature to the element that brought to mind very aged bourbon and rum, almost cognac-brown in their richness and sweet thickness. (I wonder if it’s the labdanum that is responsible?)
I’m not the only one who thought of alcohol. The blog Perfume-Smellin Things noted: “[t]he intense, almost liqueur-like center of this perfume’s universe is Bulgarian and Moroccan rose essence of high quality that gives it a rounded and almost fruity quality overall.” She attributes it to the rose notes but I have to wonder. It seems more an attribute of the various resins at play here, particularly as the boozy accord is accompanied by perpetual smoky, incense-y notes with an almost bitter-chocolate earthiness. (Now, that’s definitely the labdanum!)
I should admit that I didn’t completely understand the enormous fuss over Alahine on my first try. (I’m going to blame that on using too much – illogical as it may be.) It was absolutely lovely, yes, but the incredible raves and almost crazed gushing?? I couldn’t see it. But my second try showed its real beauty. And that is something that has happened to others, too. The chap at the Nathan Branch blog was initially unimpressed, but repeated pleas from perfumistas he respects made him give it another shot:
At first, nothing struck me as extraordinary. The pieces all functioned properly, the mix was good, the scent pleasant, but I didn’t get a particularly noteworthy vibe. I’ve learned, however, that first impressions can be deceiving, which was the case with Alahine. What seemed initially a little lazy or derivative of its betters became much more than that with repeated wearings.
But after more than one wearing, his reaction was, “Yowza! How did I miss all this?” Perfume Posse said something similar:
I was charmed by Alahine´s transformation. It starts out with a ladylike floral note, a generalized citrus/jasmine/ylang, very classic and expensive smelling. […] From there Alahine only gets better as the pepper, iris and the naughty bits start to bloom, but it’s sexy in a subtle way, the woman in the corner of the room who catches your eye, and suddenly compared to her quiet chic everyone else looks a bit overdone.
[Update 4/14 — I have to add to this review because, in the 18 months since I wrote this review, I have noticed the same pattern mentioned by Nathan Branch and others happening again and again with readers who have tried Alahine on my recommendation. It’s happened so often that I wanted to raise the issue directly, and not just in the comment section where this is frequently discussed. It consistently seems to take 4 tries for people to fall for Alahine. I’ve actually lost track at this point of the number of people who were wholly unimpressed at first, only to subsequently become utterly obsessed. That includes men, as well as those who normally can’t stand fragrances with roses.
I’ve concluded that Alahine seems to involve some form of Stockholm Syndrome. It may also help to go easy on the application at first, since the intensity of the boozy spicebomb can be quite overwhelming if you spray with reckless abandon. But what matters most of all for Alahine is a little patience. You really need to try it four times before it suddenly seems to transform before your eyes into the most intoxicating brew you’ve encountered.]
So, what really is Alahine, beyond just a changeling? NST‘s review (linked up above) described Alahine, in part, as “ylang-ylang crème brulée lightened with rose and dusted with powder.” I think that is true, but far from the whole story. For me, Alahine is far more than the scent they describe:
Alahine is an oriental treatment of ylang ylang. Alahine takes the flower’s cold cream-like scent and spins it with amber, sandalwood, and vanilla. The result is a ylang ylang crème brûlée lightened with rose and dusted with powder. It’s warm, thick, sweet, and feminine — comforting without being maternal. Its sillage is moderate, and its lasting power is excellent.
Alahine isn’t edgy or surprising, but in some ways that’s an asset. Think of it as the camel coat fashion magazines are touting as a major trend for this fall. People have been wearing camel coats for a good long time, and they’ve always been appropriate and sometimes even stylish, even if they’re only sporadically fashionable. Alahine is like that. You’re always correct (and warm) in Alahine.
One of my disagreements with that summation is that it omits the incredibly smoky, boozy, incense-y, viscous nature of the perfume. Basically, Alahine is far too intense and powerful to be a mild camel coat — no matter how chic or expensive it may be. And “comforting”? Please! I think it’s too seductive to be comforting (let alone maternal!). This is a fragrance to wear with a black dress. Not a revealing, little black dress, but a tailored one that is cut tantalisingly low, or perhaps with a very long slit up the side. Or it’s a fragrance to wear with a slinky, slightly revealing cashmere sweater over a short black skirt, with opulent jewelry and sky-high stilettos. (I have no idea what men feel is their ideal elegantly sexy attire when seeking to subtly and quietly seduce, so I will leave that up to my male readers to determine.) Alahine is not about the full-on reveal and Bada-boom, but about the most sophisticated, elegant seduction. It’s the scent of a Bond girl — but one of the quiet ones who lures James Bond into her web. Camel coats…. bah!
I also disagree with NST’s assessment of its sillage. My body consumes perfume and this one well-nigh consumed me at first! (Did I mention those first 3 sprays were small?!) Yes, Alahine does become close to the skin…. but 6 hours later! (On me!) And the longevity? I can still smell it almost 12 hours later. On someone else, I suspect this perfume could easily go 16 hours or more. In fact, depending on amount used, a full 24 hours wouldn’t shock me at all.
One area where I actually do agree with NST is the issue of edginess. This is not an edgy perfume, particularly not in that occasionally disturbing, disorienting, or intentionally different way that some niche scents can be. There are some very classique elements to Alahine’s elegance and opulence. I’ve read some comparisons to the legendary Bal à Versailles; and the minute I saw them, I thought, “Ah, yes. They have a point.” This is like Bal à Versailles, but it’s much less soapy and powdery than my memories of BaV. Alahine is more resinous, spicy, smoky, fruity (the ylang-ylang) and incense-y. Other comparisons have been to Parfum d’Empire‘s Ambre Russe, though that is supposed to be boozier and more intense. I don’t have it (yet) to be able to assess that claim.
Alahine is marketed as a perfume for women but it is absolutely unisex, in my opinion. From the opening bergamot notes to the thick, resinous amber, patchouli, incense and faintly woody base, this is a scent that I think would be very sexy on a man. (And, according to his blog, Nathan Branch’s boyfriend thought so too.) I also have quite a number of male friends who wear Alahine, and don’t think it’s “feminine” at all.
For me, this is a perfume that I would well consider buying as a full bottle. In all honesty, if I could, I would do so right now. This minute. There is just something about Alahine that makes me feel happy and sunny. I think it’s too opulent to be “cozy” and “comfy,” but it makes me feel like purring. It brings to mind visions of Morocco, turquoise and roses, smoke and mirrors, spice and life. Try it. You’ll see.
[IMPORTANT UPDATE March 2017: This fragrance has been reformulated, and very badly at that, too, in my opinion. I bought a back-up bottle which smelled completely different. The roses were clearly synthetic, and smelled like very cheap, low quality versions to my nose with a very shrill and thin character. In addition, there was now a massive amount of very synthetic cedar front and center, and it, too, was very shrill. Finally, the jasmine, spice, and amber levels were completely altered and slashed. To make certain that the changes were not limited to my new bottle, I later purchased a cheap set of 15 manufacturer samples on eBay, and they all had the exact same, new, reformulated composition, so it is clearly not an anomalous situation. The changes are so immense, in my opinion, the scent is so different from the original one talked about in this review (in Alahine’s original bottle design), and the new reformulated version is so unpleasant to my nose that I refuse to wear it and have given away my new second bottle. I don’t know when precisely and exactly the changes took place, because companies never give official statements admitting reformulation, but I would advise caution before buying the current Alahine. Test it first to see if it suits your tastes.]