Vetiver sniffing: an exploration

(guest post by Leko Lin, creator of noseprose.com)

Comparing vetiver essential oil from 5 different countries (and vetiveryl acetate as a bonus). All are beautiful yet distinct.

First of all, I am thrilled and honoured to write my first ever guest post here on The Black Narcissus! Thank you so much, Neil, for giving me this opportunity to share an exploration of a material that we both love: vetiver.

When I dove headlong into the world of perfumery 2 years ago, one of the first things I did was seek out a perfume-making class. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long or travel far to attend my first “art of natural perfumery” workshop, run by an aromatherapy specialist named Cher. It was a well organised, comfortable, eye- (and nose!)- opening experience and I got to take home a lovely blend of essential oils based on what I liked by scent.

I mention this anecdote not only because it’s an integral part of my so-called perfume original story, but also because that was the first time I had heard of vetiver, let alone smelled it. The word itself was pleasant, and rolled off the tongue – rather the lower lip – quite smoothly. Cher likened it to “a leather couch” and while I’m prone to influence by other’s setting of expectations, I also made a note to self that I smelled solvent and something metallic as well.

Sadly (or, that’s just the way it is), vetiver did not end up in my first “custom perfume” – a citrus-heavy rose composition to help me “focus”, as we were each asked what we wanted our perfume to help us feel. However, in my early days of experimenting with my own blends, I pegged vetiver as a leathery note, and was somewhat surprised when that wasn’t reflected in most of what I read about perfume. Rather, vetiver was often described as earthy, woody, or grassy. Sometimes, inky – which became my new association.

Eventually, I learned that vetiver oil is distilled from the roots of vetiver grass, and things started to make more sense. Perfumes that featured this ingredient, such as Le Labo Vetiver 46 and Comme Des Garḉons 2 MAN, initially reminded me of ginseng, another root. (Both of these ended up smelling “dirty” to me after the top notes had evaporated). Later, I would discover perfumes I liked in which I didn’t recognise the vetiver, although it was listed as one of the main notes – for instance, Atelier Cologne Clementine California and Rouge Bunny Rouge Incantation (discontinued).

It goes without saying that materials, especially botanical ones, vary in quality and characteristics depending on the source. The first vetiver that I bought was from Haiti, the world’s largest producer of vetiver. In fact, this grass is known to exist in at least 70 nations, although most do not produce it commercially. (1)

Like the classic computer game Minesweeper, in which clicking on one square reveals more clues in neighbouring squares, getting to know one kind of vetiver led me to others – and I say “kinds ” from an amateur, end-user perspective, but I really mean sources. They are all the same kind : the species Chrysopogon zizanioides, formerly known was Vetiver zizanioides. DNA fingerprinting has shown that almost all the vetiver cultivated outside of South Asia have been driven from a single genotype. (2) One clone to rule them all – yet vetiver plants grown side by side can be “strikingly different in colour, righty, flowering, and other features”.

Without further ado, how do vetiver essential oils from different countries smell?

(Disclaimer: I bought my samples in small quantities from reputable resellers in the United States and have not compared multiple oils sourced from the same country but sold by different companies. The list is arranged alphabetically. My impressions are limited to my own olfactory associations, so I encourage you to smell for yourself whenever you have the chance!)

One pipette drop of each material at full strength onto a glass slide. The Indonesia specimen is not a larger drop, but rather less viscous and more spread out. The India specimen is indeed a smaller drop. This also serves to illustrate how unreliable drops are when trying to proportion perfumery ingredients, and why weight should be used instead of volume. The colors are more sharply contrasted in this photo than they appear in person, despite adjusting the white balance.

Bourbon type

Bourbon vetiver refers to the type produced in the volcanic Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, which is generally considered to be of the highest quality, but difficult to source. My sample is actually a blend from France and Madagascar, “blended to maintain Bourbon specifications”.

This is so far my personal favourite. It’s steely smoky, round, richly nutty if I pay attention, and brings to my mind warm colours. It’s much less rooty, grassy and earthy than the other types. I’m inclined to use it in blends with rich, complex florals such as osmanthus, rose or ylang ylang.

Haiti

This is probably the type most easily found in perfumery, and derivatives including vetiverol and vetiveryl acetate are often obtained from Haitian vetiver. It’s more rooty and slightly inky, with more “cooling” connotations in the scent that are now remind me of liquorice root in a tea blend from Aveda that I loved many years ago. It also smells more woody and is the one I would think of to complement citrus notes, green notes, and “brighter” flowers such as jasmine.

India

As the origin of known vetivers around the world, India also produces oils from a wild type of vetiver grown in the northern parts of the country. Wild vetiver, or “ruh thus”, yields oil with an aroma very distinct from those of its sterile, “fragrant-root” type counterparts. What struck me most was the shocking green colour when I first pipetted out the liquid from its amber vial. The scent is an earthy, dull green – very vegetal, reminiscent to of the inedible parts of vegetables that have rigid stalks. It does not seem to be used in perfumery, despite the eponymous fragrance Wild Vetiver by Bentley (which cites vetiver essence “extracted from the roots of a bush that grows wild in Indonesia” on the brand website and which I have not smelled as of this writing).

10% captions of each type of vetiver essential oil. From left to right: Bourbon type, Haiti, India (“ruh kus: or wild vetiver), Indonesia, Paraguay and vetiveryl acetate ex vetiver Haiti.

Indonesia

This one smells harsh to me and reminds me of burned buildings (accidental electrical fires seemed more commonplace when I was a child) and burned coffee. After the initial blast of stale smoke has passed, I can detect a cooler, woodier scent that also hints at peanuts. Possibly even candied peanuts. I’m not sure if my sample is representative of Indonesian vetivers, which are produced mainly in Java.

Paraguay.

My Google search for “Paraguayan vetiver: in quotes yielded zero results. It remains elusive, as vetiver seems to be least known in South America. This may be the nuttiest of them all. When I first smelled it, I was reminded of something foody that I couldn’t quite place, and it took me several minutes to remember that the memory was of a canned peanut soup that can be found in Asian supermarkets, usually next to the congees. It’s very mild flavoured and can be eaten heated or chilled (in my childhood, I preferred the latter, as a refreshing snack in hot summers).

On skin, this vetiver oil dilution is earthy in a clay-like way, almost chalky. Not smoky at all.

The only other raw material I have ever thought of as “chalky” so far is mastic (also known as lentisque), and that is purely from smelling it within perfumes. I have yet to smell it on its own, but think it’s fair to hypothesise that these two ingredients might work well together. A couple of commenters on Basenotes have said that Tom Ford Grey Vetiver and L’Occitan Vetiver feature these notes in combination.

On the dry down, I’m having trouble distinguishing the dilutions of oils from Paraguay, Haiti, and Bourbon type. They have all converged into a stark woodiness with the grapefruit facet elevated.

Vetiveryl acetate

Credited with the success of many perfumes, and spotlighted in Escentric Molecules Molecule 03, vetiveryl acetate is considered a synthetic substance derived from the vetiver plant. It is fractionated from the steam-distilled vetiver oil and then acetylated, removing some harsher aspects of the essential iol. My sample was processed from Haitian vetiver.

Having high expectations, I was disappointed when I first smelled it. To my nose, it was barely a shadow or whisper of the essential oils. Very flat in comparison. Like a cardboard cutout, or at best a wax figure, in place of a live person. However, it does achieve the purpose of smelling more “refined”, conforming to the standard of woody vetiver. Being lighter, perhaps by way of relatively lacking depth, it also brings out some of the citrusy aspects of vetiver.

Those are my impressions so far, and vetiver remains one of my favorite perfumery raw materials. Ironically, I have not yet smelled very many vetiver perfumes or fallen for one, but the search continues! I would be curious about your perception either of the raw ingredients or any fragrances featuring this complex, wonderful material.

1. National research Council 1993. Vetiver Grass: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. Washington, DC: the National Academies Press. https:/doi.org/10.17226/2077.

2. Adams RP, et al. DNA fingerprinting reveals clonal nature of Vetiver zizanoides (L.) Nash, Gramineae and sources of potential new germplasm. Mol Ecol. 1998; 7:813-818,

21 Comments

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21 responses to “Vetiver sniffing: an exploration

  1. Thanks for this post, Leko. I continue to be obsessed with vetiver: my basic scent wardrobe consists of winter coats that have been slowly saturated with javan vetiver (the one I have ends up with an exquisite dry down) and vintage Chanel no 19 together. I adore the sillage and find that I can wear other perfumes as well on top as complements. Recently I bought a Sri Lankan vetiver that I put a little of on my coat but was alarmed by – it became too bitter lemony at the end and I couldn’t quite believe how different that and the Javan one were. I would love to smell the Bourbon Vetiver. If you love the nutty aspect of this note, I presume you know Hermes Vetiver Tonka. It’s a little complacent and pleased with itself, but warm and gorgeously comforting at the same time.

    • Thank you for the invitation to write it, Neil! It is gratifying to see this here after our chats in comments about our vetiver experiences. I have started to diffuse some of the “ruh khus” (wild vetiver) essential oil to scent the air and it’s such a grounding and friendly, reassuring smell. I have actually not smelled Hermes Vetiver Tonka before, but it’s on my list. My curiosity is piqued by your description.

      • Just because the nuttiness you like is there in droves. It’s a wonderful comfort scent; one to just nuzzle up to in winter, and one that is different to the darker, more austere vetiver oils and perfumes I wear.

        I really love those khus oils: I have bought them from markets and just got through them in no time – I had assumed, though, that they were dyed that colour. Are they really naturally green like that?

      • It’s the smoky sweetness that I’m drawn to rather than the nuttiness, but tonka is another raw material I love that I haven’t managed to like as much in perfumes, so it might be perfect.

        I had never thought of the possibility of ruh khus oil being dyed. A brief search hasn’t yielded any indication of that being the case, so I’m going with natural until proven otherwise.

      • I am pleased if it is that natural green, somehow, even if it is somewhat fluorescent!

  2. Robin

    Thank you for giving us this intriguing contribution to The Black Narcissus, Leko.

    I have been looking in all the local shops for vetiver oil, thanks to Neil’s obsession, but haven’t found anything at all here. I may have to break down and order something online if I run out of options, especially if I want to get that gorgeous sounding Bourbon.

    I’m not much of a vetiver expert, but I have been impressed with the vetivers from Mona di Orio (very root-y, golden) and Frédéric Male (Haitian, and lots of it). I’m with Neil on No 19 and Vetiver Tonka. I do love the original edt version of Chanel Sycomore. For an oddball vetiver, Serge Lutens Vetiver Oriental is interesting. For some reason, I haven’t been too keen on Tom Ford’s or Prada’s. Of course, vintage Guerlain is benchmark. For a cheapie, Encre Noire gets the job done for $25.

    Again, thanks for a very good read.

    • Ditto this list!

      I actually loved Grey Vetiver, and got through a bottle like you would a deodorant (I CONSUME vetiver).

      My favourite trick is all this vetivery on my clothing, but then vintage Shalimar parfum on the beard. Oh missy – how the vetiver in the base of that links naturally to the divinity surrounding me but adds a gorgeous glow. Tora beneficently sent me some vintage parfum which I decanted into an empty bottle I had and my goodness – I feel complete.

      • Robin

        I think you would smell heavenly in Grey Vetiver. I didn’t know Ric at the time I sniffed it and for me it — and the Prada — had that slightly masculine — maybe more, I dunno: manly? — thing going on that doesn’t seem to work very well on my skin (and I’m happy to wear Guerlain Vetiver and the others I mentioned). Now I wish I’d picked it up anyway, because it would be beautiful on Ric and it was at a consignment shop for $15, full bottle.

        Oh, lawdy, the sound of the vintage Shalimar parfum on the beard and the vetiver on the clothing! Swoon. Tora, you’re an angel.

      • It is such a natural, anti intuitive fit

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Robin! It sounds like vetiver enhances most things it touches. I may have to try layering the essential oil with perfumes as well.

  3. Robin

    Oh, and I do like Terre d’Hermés parfum strength. Not a straight-up vetiver, but a great scent nonetheless. From Jean-Claude Ellena.

    • Great. But I have a phobic hatred of it (the edt, in any case – how different is it?). That is one of those perfumes I respect but detest. We had a bottle, bought at Narita airport, but I eventually made Duncan give it away as its insistence became ultra-intolerable for me .The way it never WAVERS

      • Robin

        The parfum (which really is more edp) isn’t so strident, so damn . . . insistent. Exactly the word. It just hums along quietly.

    • The Lutens is one I always kind of wanted – I think it’s quite an outlier in his collection, like the forgotten great uncle. It may have ultimately been too fulsome, though.

  4. It always amazes me how climate, soil, farming practices ( what the French call terroir) affect the scent profiles of plant materials. Thank you for sharing your observations on vetiver!

  5. This was such a fascinating and informative read. I am only familiar with vetiver in fragrances, even though I smelled a vial of Haitian vetiver ages ago which I can not recall, and it always strikes me as such a grounding and comforting note. It is interesting how varied the scent profile of this can be from differntly sourced vetivers.
    I feall the one I have probably been most in contact with is the Haitian variety, but the Indian one sounds amazing. I really need to explore this ingredient more closely and become familiarized with its complexity.

    • What is lovely is to wear some pure vetiver oil somewhere on the body, and then wear a classic aldehyde – say Calandre or Caleche – on the usual perfumed skin : they bring out each other beautifully – I like a ‘bridging’ middle section to calm the interior between like L’Occitane’s classic hand cream. For me, despite its earthiness -or partly because of it – vetiver is a naturally elegant substance. I also found this very informative!

  6. A fascinating insight into the intricacies of perfume.

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