Coumarin, Tonka Beans : Perfume Notes

Tonka

Baked cherries, almonds, sweet hay, cloves, vanilla and caramel… The aroma of tonka beans, the seeds from the fruits of the Dipteryx Odorata tree native to South America, has a fascinating complexity and richness. An important note in a perfumer’s palette, tonka bean absolute (and its main component coumarin) lends fragrances a unique facet. The oriental genre in perfumery is inconceivable without the candied almond and vanilla note of tonka. It is a common note to nearly all classical Guerlain fragrances and is an important part of the accord that gives perfumes like Shalimar and Chamade their voluptuous, baroque aura. 

On the other side of the olfactory spectrum, fresh and exhilarating fougères rely on the warm note of coumarin to offset the aromatic-citrusy sharpness of their top notes. The synthesis of coumarin, the main component that gives tonka bean its memorable scent, was a watershed invention that greatly affected the modern era of perfumery. In order to create a fantasy accord of fern (fougère in French), Paul Parquet added coumarin to the classical eau de cologne accord of citrus, lavender and geranium. The rich notes of amber, musk and oakmoss completed the composition of Fougère Royale, thus giving birth to a family of fragrances called fougère. From the legendary Houbigant Fougère Royale to Paco Rabanne One Million, tonka bean is an important element of masculine aromatic compositions.

Besides tonka beans, coumarin occurs naturally in hay, lavender, vanilla grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), mullein (Verbascum spp.), sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata), cassia cinnamon and clover. For this reason, tonka and lavender form a perfect marriage, as is exemplified by Caron Pour Un Homme. While many of my favorite oriental and chypre fragrances contain tonka bean or coumarin in one form or another, I particularly love its hay-almond effect in fragrances like Hermès Vétiver Tonka, Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, Lolita Lempicka, Ormonde Jayne Tolu, Guerlain Tonka Impériale, Chanel Coco, Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, and Cacharel Loulou.

While the USA has banned the use of coumarin as a flavor since 1953, many countries in Europe still allow it. In fact, when tonka beans or coumarin are described as tobacco-like, it has do to with the reverse association—tonka tincture has been used extensively to flavor cured tobacco leaves and pipe tobacco blends. In the course of my own experiments with tonka beans as a flavor, I find that the combination of tonka bean and chocolate is ambrosial, with the spicy almond flavor complementing the bitterness of cocoa. I also like to add a pinch of ground tonka bean to dishes containing cherries because it brings out their luscious aroma.

Photo credit: tonka beans, wikicommons.

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23 Comments

  • meg jamieson: I love the connections you make in this article, and I love Tonka beans. I have a delicious recipe for creme brulee, and another for flan, flavored with Tonka. I had to buy the beans through a shop which was selling them for “Magikal” purposes (what those might be I have no idea, though the flan was exceptional).

    It’s worth noting why coumarin is regulated. Those on the medication Coumadin could guess from the name; it’s a blood thinner. So people who are already taking any blood thinning medication, or regularly take aspirin, should not experiment with Tonka Bean. Of course the naturally occurring amounts of coumarin in Tonka are small, but you can see why it would be regulated as a flavor.

    Thanks for the great list of scents! There is a distributor in Canada of a water mist made from Sweetgrass, an otherwise impossible to find scent, and so, so hauntingly lovely. May 12, 2011 at 4:18am Reply

  • vanessa: Your Lexicon notes are most educational! I love tonka bean, but not heliotrope (or not overt heliotrope, anyway, as in Herve Leger, say), and don’t really care for coumarin either, though I have tried. It is the reason I gave my bottle of Yves Rocher Voile d’Ambre away! May 12, 2011 at 6:01am Reply

  • Suzanna: I swooned over Tonka Imperiale, whose scent can be briefly sketched by your list beginning with “baked cherries” above. In Fumerie Turque, though, it is most interesting to me, grounding the scents of caramelized meat smoke and tobacco.

    Great article as usual! Your posts on fragrance materials/notes are always the most helpful ones. May 12, 2011 at 7:20am Reply

  • Elisa: I recently bought a bottle of Paco Rabanne Pour Homme pour my homme and he has been wearing it for the past week or so. The drydown is absolutely fantastic on him! Three cheers for coumarin. Also, I need to get a decant of Tonka Imperiale … May 12, 2011 at 9:00am Reply

  • columbine: Tonka is great for both smell and taste, like you i love it to flavour chocolate cookies or brownies for example, as it seems to enhance the chocolate taste without overtaking it (i wish i’d coined the “ambrosial” touch myself). i like that it has the taste of the smell if you know what i mean and yes i think of the pipe tobacco my dad used to smoke in the 70’s…

    i will try it with cherry dishes and with “griottes” that apart from a kind of cherry are home made chocolate coated cherries (the cherries having been preserved in cherry brandy)…

    now lavender and tonka in food, i wonder how one could do that… May 12, 2011 at 12:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: I buy tonka beans from Mountain Rose Herbs, and they are excellent. Very good flavor.

    Thank you for explaining the blood thinning properties of coumarin in more detail. In Europe, there is no ban on its use. In fact, in the US, you can buy European made chocolate truffles flavored with tonka bean. They are delicious. May 12, 2011 at 1:05pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that you like these series!
    Coumarin is a large component of tonka. Tonka beans I have are coated in what looks to be white, sparkling dust. It is actually coumarin! Whenever the notes list tonka bean, what the perfume actually contains is coumarin (well, 99% of the time.) Tonka bean absolute is very expensive! May 12, 2011 at 1:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: Suzanna, thank you very much! I love writing these posts.

    Tonka Imperiale is not at the level of Guerlain’s greats, but what an enjoyable and lovely perfume! I wore it a lot this winter-spring. May 12, 2011 at 1:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: You should definitely try Tonka Imperiale then. It uses a very delicious tonka bean note, and the whole composition is very lush and decadent. May 12, 2011 at 1:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: You can flavor shortbread with lavender and tonka bean powder. I think that it would be a wonderful combination. Or you can infuse them in cream and make ice cream. May 12, 2011 at 1:09pm Reply

  • Elisa: I have sampled it in-store and like it very much. But ouch, those are pricy. May 12, 2011 at 1:54pm Reply

  • Victoria: They are! And not just pricey, overpriced!! I have a decant, and it is enough for me.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 12, 2011 at 1:58pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: Hungry for lavender, tonka bean shortbread and icecream…Thank s for the informative article. I love fumerie turque and know I will be able to smell and learn! May 13, 2011 at 2:23am Reply

  • bee: since you’re interested in recipes, now is the right time for trying out a sweet woodruff spring bowle. It is also called “Waldmeister-Bowle”, you should find good tips in the net, I don’t have any recipe handy. The freshly plucked leaves + flowers have to wilt slightly before use, during this process the coumarines are released! May 13, 2011 at 2:30am Reply

  • Victoria: Have you smelled by Killian A Taste of Heaven? It contains lavender, vanilla and tonka bean. Wonderful! May 14, 2011 at 10:46am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Bee! Sounds wonderful, and I will definitely explore this further. May 14, 2011 at 10:47am Reply

  • hongkongmom: thanks for the rec! i will be in nyc in the summer! where can i find them? May 14, 2011 at 10:59am Reply

  • Victoria: They are sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks5thAvenue, and Aedes.

    A Taste of Heaven is described as an absinthe composition, and it is based on lavender absolute, tonka and a delicious touch of oakmoss. I find it so alluring! May 14, 2011 at 9:57pm Reply

  • Robert: I just want to say thanks for this incredible series of note-based postings. As someone who’s been sniffing and collecting for the pst 5 years or so, it’s great to be able to learn a little about what makes the fragrances I like smell the way they do. Thank you for the work! May 14, 2011 at 10:22pm Reply

  • Victoria: Robert, thank you! I'm so glad to hear that these posts are helpful. Some of these notes are very common in fragrances, and it is interesting to explore what role they play.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 15, 2011 at 10:16am Reply

  • Brian Shea: I want to make my own pumpkin liquer and I’m thinking about using tonka absolute as one of the flavorings. I think it would add a confectionery touch to the flavor. I want to use essences rather than whole spices, because, for one, I have all of them, and two, they would color the liquer less, and I feel the flavor might be more “sparkling”. I’m going to use roasted fresh pumpkin, the CO2 extracts of cinnamon bark, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and Bourbon vanilla, and allspice essential oil. I was thinking of using a drop or two of tonka as well, although I’m a bit worried about the supposed toxic effects of tonka. I’m going to color it orange with annato seeds, and perhaps a pinch of turmeric. I’m going to sweeten it with grade A amber pure maple syrup(I think maple would go really good with pumpkin and spices) Wish me luck(especially trying to find cooking pumpkins!) November 8, 2011 at 3:01pm Reply

  • Victoria: Wow, sounds fantastic! Just make sure that your materials are food grade. I usually use whole spices, but the essence is definitely more potent. November 8, 2011 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Brian Shea: Will do. Thanks. November 11, 2011 at 1:51pm Reply

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