Welcome to Part 3 (Gourmand) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is an American indie perfumer based in Colorado, much loved among American perfumistas for her warm, engaging personality and prodigious talent. Her perfumes have long been a point of curiosity (and even obsession) for perfume fans outside of America, but as with indie houses like Sonoma Scent Studio and Parfums DelRae, distribution outside of the States has been an issue. Thankfully, Dawn now sells her perfumes in an optional Voile de Parfum format, which is IPM (Isopropyl Myrastate)-based and can thus be safely shipped internationally.
I’m writing a series on DSH Perfumes primarily to help potential buyers outside of the United States to come armed with adequate information and reviews when choosing a sample pack or blind buying a bottle. Although there are plenty of individual reviews on DSH Perfumes scents out there on the Net, it might be useful to break the perfumes down into broad categories and review them as a group. The casual visitor to the DSH website can easily get overwhelmed and decide it’s not worth the trouble to slog through each of the 100+ entries (all of which come in 7-8 different formats), cross-referencing with Fragrantica all the while to see whether it’s something of interest to them.
The way I’ll be organizing this is to review per ‘grouping’ as listed below and fill in the links and I get the posts up. At the end of the series, I’ll publish a ‘top picks from DSH Perfumes’ with the understanding that such rankings are always subjective. My hope is that this series will help someone, somewhere, sometime when it comes to picking a sampler or perfume from the DSH Perfumes website.
DSH Perfumes Series: Orientals & Chypres (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Spicy-Warm (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Gourmand (this post)
DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Series
DSH Perfumes Series: Animalic
DSH Perfumes Series: Floral
DSH Perfumes Series: Fresh-Green-Citrus
DSH Perfumes Series: Woody-Smoky-Incensey
If Luca Turin were to give this scent his signature two-word review headline, it might be ‘chocolate smoke’. Picture a smear of molten dark chocolate buffed into a swirl of paper, incense, and centuries of dust. Dark Moon is by far my favorite DSH Perfumes gourmand because it is less straightforwardly edible and more atmospheric than most gourmand scents. Wearing it feels letting a square of dark chocolate melt slowly in your mouth while sitting in a room where papiers d’armenie are being burned.
As I write, the weather in Ireland has turned wintry, which means that I begin my annual search for a chocolate bar that’s halfway between milk and dark, i.e., that mythical no-man’s land between punishingly black (my husband’s preference for 97% dark chocolate betraying Savonarola-level levels of austerity) and flabbily milky (low-brow stuff that’s more wax than cocoa). I haven’t found my happy medium in bar form yet, but man, Dark Moon gets me there in perfume form.
The opening feeds you all the velvety bitterness associated with 98% cocoa content chocolate, but none of its unpleasantly metallic or acidic facets. I think that the way Dawn has handed the crucial ‘mouthfeel’ element of the chocolate note is very clever; the scent’s richness and ‘thickness’ coming not from vanilla or cream fillers, but from a woody benzoin note that fluffs the chocolate note out with incense and paper. This has the effect of blending the chocolate out at the edges with a foundation brush, graduating from a molten brown center to a bone-pale powder at the outer corners.
There are lots of chypre and spicy-floral notes listed for Dark Moon, but my peasant nose picks up on none. Instead, once the chocolate has faded, it reminds me a little of the way Reve d’Ossian (Oriza L. Legrand) wears on the skin in the far drydown, to wit, thickly matted with smoky musks, amber, and wood for a texture that feels both rich and dry, almost hot to the touch. To my nose, this feels dusty rather than powdery, but I can see how people might interpret it as having a vintage vibe.
I think of Reve d’Ossian as being the scent of ancient things – a priest’s vetements, old gowns, wooden pews, and so on – but not the scent of High Mass. DSH Perfumes Dark Moon has a similar approach, in that it smells of chocolate, but of an abstract chocolate diffused in a whir of smoke and paper, rather than something you’d actually eat. This abstraction elevates the chocolate note far beyond gourmandise, and lends it an aura of seductive mystery. If I ever get around to compiling a list of my favorite gourmand scents, DSH Perfumes Dark Moon would certainly be on it. And for a person who often likes the idea of gourmands more than their actuality, that’s high praise.
Piment et Chocolat
Chili pepper brings a quasi-floral heat to a perfume, but also a vegetal nuance that can read as plasticky. Piment et Chocolat is the dark chocolate counterpart to the lactic sheen of Hot Milk by Hilde Soliani, both scents placing the spice in a fulcrum and examining what it does to the other notes as it spins around. In Hot Milk, the chili gives the milk a high-shine pleather finish that nudges the chili towards fruit; in Piment et Chocolat, the chili is a firecracker popping against the matte brown velvet background of cacao, illuminating it with cinnamon-red streaks of light.
The end result is a peppery milk chocolate with an orangey undertone that eventually slides into a dark European gingerbread note bristling with black pepper and ginger. I love the way Dawn Spencer Hurwitz does chocolate, because she pitches it right at the happy spot between the bitterness of dark chocolate and the dairy-rich mouthfeel of a premium milk.
At points you’ll notice the prickling, plasticky influence of the pimento (common also to scents like Piment Brûlant by L’Artisan Parfumeur and ETRO Etra), but this is not unpleasant. Rather, it adds an interesting dimension to the perfume, transforming what could have been a simple dark chocolate smell into chocolate plus, something that comprises the aroma of spice, smeared chocolate, and the plastic wrapper it came in. If you love the cinnamon-heavy Mexican hot chocolate of Anima Dulcis (Arquiste) but prefer a stripped back, less vanilla-thick approach, then Piment et Chocolat is practically the 1.0 prototype.
The name refers to, I assume, the famous Chantilly by Dana, but the only thing it has in common with that scent is a tactile sense of something deeply powdered, like a bosom coated in white talc. In fact, Vanilla Chantilly is so powdery that it comes across as faintly smoky. Wearing it, I’m reminded keenly of passticche di mandorle, those Italian almond cookies thickly dusted with confectioner’s sugar and squidgily almondy in the center.
Delicious, sure, but also too close to Etro Heliotrope, a perfume I own and only wear very occasionally, to reel me in. Also, this might be just me, but there’s something about intense almond notes that runs more to pungent-sharp than to sweet-fluffy, and this is the case here. However, if you love those milky-powdery musks like Love’s True Blueish Light (Ava Luxe) and Fresh Cream (Philosophy) and are looking for a third MVP in your line-up, then Vanilla Chantilly is a nice rendition of the theme.
Immediately, Vanilla Bourbon is more interesting (to me) than Vanilla Chantilly, due to the fact the vanilla is tainted with faint curlicues of rubber and smoke. Think a bunch of moist vanilla beans sitting downwind of a tire factory. It’s not as dark or as smoky as Vanilla Smoke by Aftelier, but neither is it the plain, white-sugar vanilla of Pink Sugar, Lavanilla, or Candy by Prada.
There’s a clear indie flavor to Vanilla Bourbon that’s hard to define – one of those ‘you’ll know it when you smell it’ deals. This is not a negative, by the way. Sometimes you don’t want the mega-watt complexity or glossy haute couture finish of expensive niche vanillas like Vanille by Mona di Orio and Spiritueuse Double Vanille by Guerlain. Often, you want a dab of something pretty and interesting that you can throw on without thinking about too deeply. If you instinctively lean more towards the indie side of the aisle for your vanilla, and love perfumes like Smoke and Mirrors (Alkemia), Estate Vanilla and Manor (Solstice Scents), then Vanilla Bourbon will surely resonate with you.
I like Vanilla Bourbon a lot. Leaning towards wood and rubber more than straight-up ice cream, it’s more an adult indulgence than childish treat, and that’s my wheelhouse right there. It’s worth mentioning that both Vanilla Smoke by Aftelier and Vanilla Bourbon share a familial relationship with Annick Menardo’s Bvlgari Black. While Vanilla Smoke is Bvlgari Black folded over many times until its density increases four-fold, Vanilla Bourbon is Bvlgari Black put through a color-desaturation filter, washed out until only a sheer gauze of rubber, vanilla, and woods remains.
I always get mixed up between DSH Perfumes Café Noir and Ava Luxe Café Noir, and I’m going to assume that this is the case for many of you out there too! A quick way to remember the differences between them is this: the Ava Luxe Café Noir is a pure black-bitter espresso scent, while the DSH Perfumes Café Noir is a spicy, ambery oriental that happens to feature coffee as one of its notes. In other words, if you’re specifically looking for the 100% pure Arabica experience, go straight to Ava Luxe; if you’re looking for a warm oriental with a coffee-ish undertone, then read on, because DSH Perfumes Café Noir may be your bag.
DSH Perfumes Café Noir opens with a sharp herbal-spicy accord that smells like coffee grounds mixed with Old Spice and amber crystals. Running the gamut from bay rhum to lavender and an interesting note like sun-roasted thyme, the opening seems to employ the same trick as many coffee perfumes, which is to supply the nose with a host of coffee-adjacent notes like burnt wood, garrigue herbs, lavender, and resin and nudge our brains into making the kinetic leap to coffee. The difference in the DSH Perfumes case is that Café Noir tips the balance in the Old Spice direction, which gives it a masculine feel, but then also layers in a crunchy, hippy amber beneath that to counterbalance that with sweetness. This creates a complex ‘layered’ effect not usually seen in coffee-forward scents; coffee on top of shaving foam on top of amber.
Therefore, while DSH Perfumes Café Noir is not as pure or as dark as Café Noir by Ava Luxe, it ends up being a more relaxed, easier perfume to wear. The use of tolu balsam, a favorite ingredient of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, is especially clever because this is a spicy, warm-toned balsam with clear cinnamon-like facets that shades in the areas underneath the coffee topnote, leaving you with the impression of coffee sprinkled with spice.
Au Lait is considered one of, if not the best ‘pure milk’ scents on the market, a reputation that’s wholly deserved. Opening with the same fruity, plasticky chili note as in Piment et Chocolat, Au Lait comes across as sharp and peppery at first. But a few seconds in, and it relaxes into a lush accord of steamed condensed milk, a hint of coconut lotion fleshing it all out.
This accord is almost alarmingly buttery, but thankfully, it never tips into butyric territory (you know, when milk scents begin to smell less like fresh milk and more like greasy, rancid butter). The butter quotient is dialed back very efficiently by a musky cocoa or almond note that’s discernible less as a flavoring in and of itself, and more as a buffering agent against the sub-tropical steaminess of the milk.
I would call Au Lait a ‘musky milk’ rather than a ‘milky musk’ if you know what I mean – it is far wetter and thicker (and more buttery) than the sheer, fluffy musks like Love’s True Bluish Light. If you’re interested in the full-on gourmand side of milk, with its full fat, sugar, and heavy dairy aspects, then Au Lait can’t be beat. Those looking for the sheer, angelic musks with a sideline in sweet, fluffy milk, best go for a true milky musk like the Ava Luxe or Milky Musk by Parle Moi de Parfum.