Vanille Insensée Cologne Absolue by Atelier Cologne

Collage of Vanille Incensee and its notes: citron, lime, vanilla, oak, coriander, oakmoss, vetiver, amber, and jasmine.

Ah, the most divisive and controversial of woody vanillas.

Dusty and sweet, Vanille Insensée is a woody vanilla with a bifurcation problem. It’s heavy on the dank, musty, smoky woods, as well as the playdough-sweet vanilla, but the two halves don’t seem to quite come together.

A bumpy yellow citron fruit.

Nevertheless, this is a pleasant non-gourmand woody vanilla, and, had I not tried Diptyque’s Eau Duelle first, I’d probably have more of an unspoiled positive reaction. As it were, this is a pleasant experience, though an unbalanced one rather heavier on the vanilla than on the madness.

Yes, madness: “Vanille Insensée” is French for “madness vanilla.” Many people mistakenly assume the name means “incense vanilla,” and thus expect heavy smoky incense notes, but this is not, in fact, the case. Still, I do smell something a little smoky in Vanille Insensée, though I know there’s no actual incense note here. Something about the timbre of the woods feels dark, aromatic, and almost smoked. I think it’s largely an effect of woods that are aged rather than actually smoked, like an old set of kitchen cabinets that have absorbed years of dust and smells but have never been actually burned.

In the opening of Atelier Cologne’s Vanille Insensée there’s a burst of citrus and coriander that does not add lightness or fresh sparkle, but, rather, a subtle sourness that brings another dimension to the woods. The citron is acetic and sharp and coats the woods, while the faint sprinkling of coriander adds a bit of dimension to the woody accord.

Sure, for the first few minutes there’s a freshness to the citrus accord that makes it feel like a befuddling fresh fruity topping on a dark and dirty vanilla dessert. But what started out as a fresh, aromatic, almost herbal sort of citron meringue vanilla pie quickly falls apart into its separate sweet and sour components.

A pile of small light-tan-colored coriander seeds with ridges along their shells.

Something about the coriander in the context of the oakmoss and vetiver feels almost like patchouli. It’s sour, earthy, and yet very fresh in an aromatic, herbal sort of way. I know coriander is supposed to be warm and nutty, and I could believe there’s something like that buried with the vanilla and woods here, but in the context of the citron, something about it feels quite fresh and almost green.

I’ve heard the smell of Vanille Insensée compared to the taste of candy-coated fennel seeds. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try these, but can imagine the similarity in the combination of sweetness and mild slice here.

It feels like there’s a strange herbal note at play here that I just can’t shake, somewhere between soapy and bitter and incredibly fresh. I’m sure it’s largely the lingering freshness of citron and lime blending with something about the coriander, but the effect on me feels herbal and aromatic.

A cluster of soft white jasmine flowers with golden centers.

The old musty woods in the fragrance are like oaken cabinets with the shelves bowed, shining with faint lemony polish, with dark streaks throughout. The vetiver adds darkness to the oak. The texture of the oak suggests a hint of bourbon. I don’t sense any jasmine or anything floral at all at any point.

I regret to say that much of this review shall be dedicated to comparison with Eau Duelle. I wish I could review Vanille Insensée on its own without existing impressions and comparisons to Eau Duelle, but, considering the fact that I smelled Eau Duelle first, the comparison is inevitable. Because the two are so similar and frequently compared, I think it’s useful to discuss the similarities and differences between the two.

(I’ve also seen a few people compare Vanille Insensée with Whispers in the Library by Maison Martin Margiela. To me, Whispers in the Library feels mostly like a subtle aromatics-free spinoff of Eau Duelle, so you can largely apply my points about the latter here to the former.)

In the broad strokes, Vanille Insensée and Eau Duelle are similar, so much that it might be difficult for some to justify owning both. They differ most in their openings, but after the first hour landslide rapidly towards convergence. Yet there are notable differences in timbre and color: most notably, Eau Duelle is more aromatic and herbaceous, while Vanille Insensée is darker and woodier and more citrusy-sour.

A honey-colored oak wood barrel held together by strips of copper.

The vanilla of Eau Duelle is the vanillin of old dusty book pages, while the Vanille Insensée’s vanilla has rather uninspired borderline playdough leanings — at least on my skin — like the vanilla in something like Dior’s Hypnotic Poison.

The woods in Vanilla Insensée are not fresh; rather, they are old and polished like furniture, infused with smoke. They make me think a little of a shipwreck in their dark, dank, saturated nature.

The citrus here does not freshen or lighten the fragrance; rather, it is buried in a fine portrait of dark old wood that is neat and attractive, polished regularly with a lemon cleaner, yet full of scratches and smoke.

Vanille Insensée holds much more of the illusion of smoke in its woods; I know the name has nothing to do with incense, but I can see how easy the misunderstanding can be when the woods have such a clear smoky dimension.

It’s a smoky timbre I’ve derisively described as a smoked sausage note in compositions like Eau Duelle and Maison Martin Margiela’s By the Fireplace, brought about by what I suspect is balsam of Peru or something similar in combination with the citrus and some aromatics.

Eau Duelle has a tiny touch of this smoky sausage-y note in it as well, but it’s much more prominent in Vanille Insensée, particularly when accentuated by citrus.

A light gray-green-colored clump of oakmoss.

Vanille Insensée is the only one of the two perfumes with inky oakmoss listed, but I don’t sense any straight oakmoss notes here. This doesn’t feel at all like a chypre or anything bitter or green. Instead, Vanille Insensée is slightly dank and musty in the way of a wooden cabinet, while Eau Duelle has the paper bookishness of the cabinet’s contents.

I’m not at all opposed to Vanille Insensée’s dank old woods, but the rather uninspired, dull, doughy vanilla seems at times poorly adhered to the structure of it all. The blending feels a little messy, a little disjointed, a little cloying in the flat playdough sweetness while surrounded by a smoked musty wood accord.

Eau Duelle, on the other hand, is a single unified finely-blended fragrance, with airy lightness, subtle sweetness, less sausagey wood smoke and more old book pages and eastern European market candy aisle.

While neither is a typical gourmand vanilla, Eau Duelle seems slightly more gourmand in that it is slightly more edible, books and tea-and-candy aisles rather than musty old cabinets, while Vanille Insensée is heavier, smokier, sweeter, and more cloying.

A cross-section of a cut-open tree.

Vanille Insensée sticks around nicely all day long, perhaps with even a touch longer than Eau Duelle, but its projection is very faint, clinging closely to the skin the whole while.

I often enjoy oak notes for their soft, creamy center, but the woods in Vanille Insensée stay dark, musty, and sour for me the whole way through.

I should add that this is probably something that depends heavily on skin chemistry. I’ve read lots of reviews from people who found Vanille Insensée too savory for their tastes, but plenty of other people find it incredibly cozy and sweet.

A green and white origami paper box containing many small bundles of dried vetiver grass tied with strips of cloth and twine.

In many ways, I’d consider Vanille Insensée closest to Imaginary Authors’ Memoirs of a Trespasser for its combination of oak-y, bourbon-y vanilla and dark woods with something a bit bitter, sour, and earthy. This feels kind of to me like the exact midpoint between Eau Duelle and Memoirs of a Trespasser, topped by a spritz of sour citron and lime.

If dark, dank, smoky, sour citrusy woods appeal to you more than old paper and herbs and candy in a market, go for Vanille Insensée.

If you prefer something lighter, more finely-blended, that leans more towards dry dust than dank must, choose Eau Duelle.

And if you’re looking for a richer bourbon vanilla with a biting bitter side, go with Memoirs of a Trespasser.

Within one to two hours, I get very little in Vanille Insensée except for vanilla and bitter, sour background woods. The combination is indeed reminiscent of Memoirs of a Trespasser, but much weaker, both in performance and complexity. This is a timid, quiet skin scent that has very little dimension to me beyond the first hour. It’s sweet Hypnotic-Poison-like vanilla and some mix of muddled sour-bitter-smoke-sausage-aromatic-dark-woods-clay smells in the background, and not much else.

If you love this muddle, I can see it being incredibly comforting and cozy. To me, though, it’s just faint and dull, though not particularly unpleasant.

Top-down view of a dark green glass full of effervescent water, light green lime slices, and small air bubbles.

Although this is my least favorite of these popular niche vanillas, I still think it’s original and compelling. Citrus and vanilla is the sort of scent you imagine as a through-and-through sweet gourmand concoction, and yet this is quite the opposite. Rarely do I see citrus done in a way that is so delectably sour as it is here. That sourness, mixed with the dark, musty bitterness of the woods and the unabashed sweetness of the vanilla, makes for a perfume that’s entirely unique.

I don’t think Vanille Insensée is for me. But if you like vanilla, dark woody notes, and uniquely sour seeping lemon-y citrus, you’ll want to give it a try.

Botanical illustration of a vanilla flower, leaves, and bean.

As a final side note, what on earth is a cologne absolue? Atelier Colognes describes all of their fragrances as such, but that’s not a concentration I’ve heard anywhere else before. They’re 15% concentration, which, depending whom you ask, is either a strong Eau de Toilette or a weak Eau de Parfum.

An Eau de Cologne is typically even weaker than both of these, while an Absolu is typically a much stronger version of a scent. So I suppose it stands to reason that a Cologne Absolue is… an Absolu of a Cologne… so… an Eau de Parfum?

I’m confused. But no matter.

The projection and sillage are moderate a little on the weak side, which makes sense, considering this is a strong EdT or a weak EdP or something. It lasts well on my skin, something like eight hours, but is a very close skin scent just about all the whole time.

While not for me, Vanille Insensée is a compelling sour-citron-dark-bitter-oak-vanilla scent, with modest projection but decent longevity. It’s unique, and I’m glad to have smelled it. Nose Ralf Schweiger has created something original here, and I can see why it’s popular among so many, though I’m a little surprised more people don’t find it too bitter or sour.


Rounded rectangular clear bottle with a brown cap of light cream-colored Vanille Incensee perfume by Atelier Cologne.

Where to Find Vanille Insensée by Atelier Cologne

You can find samples and decants of Vanille Insensée at Scent Split.

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