Ethyl maltol
29th September 2023
by Dr R. Claire Bunschoten
Created at:
29th September 2023
Dr R. Claire Bunschoten
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Ethyl maltol

Gourmands are a family or category of fragrance that conjure the edible. Historically perfume categories have been based on raw materials, yet innovations in chemistry and perfumery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created many more synthetic materials for perfumers to use, which spurred new perfume compositions and scent archetypes (Burr, 2021). Alongside these twentieth century perfumes came new efforts to systematically categorise them. Across twentieth century taxonomic systems—some developed by organisations like the Société Française des Parfumeurs or fragrance consultants like Michael Edwards—fragrances became organised into family groups based on shared odours or accords rather than the raw materials used to create them. For this reason, while Europeans are intimately familiar with the aromas of food and drink as part of their daily meals, the emergence of the gourmand fragrance family in the 1990s marked a new moment when these culinary aromas were purposefully designed to scent people.

Over the last thirty years, gourmand fragrances have been defined by their “gustatory, delectable, mouthwatering accords” that often evoke dessert (Bulliqi, 2018). Vanilla, chocolate, caramel, cotton candy, and fruits are some of the most common aromatic facets of this family and scent the body with a confectionery sweetness. Moreover, as wearers of these fragrances move across spaces, these gourmand perfumes travel with them. The sugary notes of gourmands are complex in that they may elicit a longing for the comforting sweet treats of childhood and/or a sense of craving and sexual desire. While gourmands are understood as increasingly genderless by industry critics, enduring associations between women and the domestic labour of food preparation may also affect how gourmand perfumes are worn and perceived by smellers (Bullliqi, 2018; Parkin, 2006). Moreover, gourmands have endured to become one of the most popular fragrance families in the world. In 2018, the market research firm NPD Group found that gourmand scents make up 74% and 68% of the UK and French fragrance markets (Bulliqi, 2018).


Critics generally agree that the release of Thierry Mugler’s Angel in 1992 marks the beginning of gourmand fragrances as smellers know them today. With lofty cotton candy notes of ethyl maltol and refreshing bergamot balanced by a fragrant heart of juicy red berries and a sumptuous base of vanilla, patchouli, cocoa, and caramel, Angel challenged longstanding notions of what a perfume could be in the 1990s: its composition was entirely free of floral notes. Rather, Angel evokes the culinary (Ostrom, 2015; Herman, 2013).

In interviews with the perfume historian and taxonomist Michael Edwards, the team behind Angel recalls that the fashion designer Thierry Mugler requested “something mouthwatering and tasty” that evoked childhood memories of the funfair and its accompanying sweet treats (Edwards, 1996, 282). Ultimately, the team succeeded in their effort to produce this fantasy in scent. In 1994 Seventeen magazine described Angel as “the closest thing to Cocoa Puffs in a bottle” and the fragrance inspired many other perfumers to experiment with edible notes (“Eau de cookie dough”, 1994). The sensory psychologist Joachim Mensing credits Angel with inspiring a parade of “olfactory desserts” across the fragrance market as many other perfumes began to experiment with sweet, food-inspired compositions (Edwards, 1996, 281).

Collectively, as Givaudan’s head of fine fragrances Europe Xavier Renard argues, “Gourmand notes—and especially the way they have been treated in perfumery since the birth of Angel, through sugary and praline-like effects—are a reference to taste and immediate satisfaction and pleasure” (Bulliqi, 2020). While gourmand compositions may use any array of fragrant components to achieve this effect, their goal seems to be to affect a memory of dessert. “Think: caramel, chocolate, milk, candy floss, coffee, Cognac, toffee, almonds, even bubble gum–and almost always, a generous helping of vanilla,” instructs London-based The Perfume Society in their definition of the perfume family (“Gourmand”, 2023). In addition to these confectionery notes, fruits also play a role in gourmand compositions. In a 1994 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, perfume taxonomist Michael Edwards describes the fruity accords of lychee and tangerine in Yves Saint Laurent’s Champagne as the fragrance industry’s “’gourmand’ notes” (Cosic, 1994). With this variety of fragrant material to use, however, perfumers must find the right balance in their compositions. As Angel’s perfumer Olivier Cresp cautions, “Put in too much of these flavour notes and the perfume becomes too gimmicky, too adolescent” (Edwards, 1996, 284). While Cresp condemns gourmands that interpret dessert flavours too literally as gimmicky and adolescent, other perfumers and smellers embrace generational nostalgia for adolescence precisely for its emotive potential. In this way, gourmands constantly negotiate the politics of taste.

With the balance of materials and taste in mind, it becomes clear that gourmands . For example, some gourmand fragrances may aspire to smell like candy (see Aquolina’s 2003 Pink Sugar or Prada’s 2011 Candy), others take more abstract approaches such as Dior’s 1998 Hypnotic Poison, and others still may riff upon a primary gourmand note like Coty’s blockbuster Vanilla Fields (1993) or Bath and Body Works’s Warm Vanilla Sugar (2000). Yet nearly all gourmand fragrances seem to embrace doses of sweetness.

The confectionery sweetness of gourmands might also seem to find commonality with so-called sweet odours. Yet “The smell of sweet herbs at the morning prime,” as the poet Thomas Hood recounts in 1857 do not relate to the literal taste of sweetness (Hood, 1857). Neither does Shakespeare in the late sixteenth century when the bard uses sweetness to convey the pleasantness of the rose’s aroma writing famously in Romeo & Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare, n.d.). Something smelling sweet may be related to a process known as oro-nasal referral where the overall impression of a food’s flavour—the work of the mouth and nose—is attributed primarily to taste and the mouth (Barwich, 2020, 83; Bunschoten, 2021). That is, the pleasurable experiences of eating something sweet (e.g. fruits or honey or sugar) could be transposed across the senses to characterise all aspects of life, smell included.

The place of sugar in the formulation of sweetness is especially noteworthy. As sugar became an established commodity in European markets, it began to redefine the sensation of sweetness. The literary scholar Miriam Jacobson notes that sweet as a noun emerged only in the mid- sixteenth century to refer to “sweet-tasting delicacies and beverages” (2014, 58). Yet by the end of the sixteenth century, sweet came to refer to more than just flavuor as odorous materials like flowers, herbs, and perfumes and, occasionally music, came to be described as sweets. While refined sugar in the twenty-first century carries no aroma of its own, recipes for sugar in early modern England “included sugar scented with rose petals, violet, and ambergris” (Jacobson, 2014, 58). Sugar could also be found in recipes for perfumes like a 1608 recipe for a perfume called “King Henry the eight his perfume.” The recipe instructs the preparer to “Take sixe spoonfulls of compound water, as much of rose water, a quarter of an ounce, of fine sugar, two graines of muske, two graines of amber-greece, two of Ciuet, boyle it softly together, all the house will smell of Cloues” (Kennedy, 2013). As in the sugar recipe perfumed with flowers and ambergris, this seventeenth perfume formulation also blends a small quantity of sugar with aromatic materials. While the house may have smelled of cloves, it is possible it would also have been perceived as sweet. 

With the close relationship between taste and scent in the production of flavour in mind, it is possible to argue that gourmands as a genre of fragrance emerged long after Europeans were already smelling them. Key gourmand notes like citrus, berries, and vanilla were longstanding staples of the modern perfume industry, which historians argue emerged in the last few decades of the nineteenth century (Lodi, 2018; Herman, 2013). While as modern perfume materials these fruits and spices might take on inedible forms, many Europeans would be familiar with these smells because of their prior experiences with them as food—including their experiences of eating but also activities of gathering, cultivating, and preparing food. Some Europeans might know the aroma of citrus from tending to lemon trees, for example. Herbs also productively demonstrate the complex place of aromatics in history. Rosemary, for example, has familiar culinary uses today but also was a key ingredient in one of Europe’s first alcohol-based perfumes called “Hungary water” and could be a vital tool of healthfulness in balancing one’s humors in seventeenth century medical practices (Tullett, 2023, 95-96 In this way, gourmands are only able to emerge as a fragrance category because of efforts to separate the senses into discrete sensations in the nineteenth century with the study of sense experience, or psychophysics (Fretwell, 2020, 2). With the senses imagined as normatively separate in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, gourmands may pleasurably disrupt the sensing person’s expectations of smells being smells and tastes being tastes. Rather, gourmand fragrances exploit the slippage between flavour and fragrance to create an aroma that stimulates—but does not sate—the appetite. The gourmand fragrance’s insistence upon fantasy is a critical distinction that separates it from other food smells in perfumery and daily life.


Since their emergence in the mid-1990s, gourmand fragrances can be found in many places. Sample spritzes in a retail location might perfume a place of business and the space around it. Since the early twentieth century, department stores have “intentionally 'lured' women 'to the [perfume] counters by playing on their senses of smell’” (Peiss, 2011, 51). Even today, Lush Cosmetics, founded 1995, seems to leak fragrant notes of vanilla or patchouli into the air of the high street or shopping mall to tempt customers to inside and peruse fragrant rounds of soaps presented like huge cheese wheels and cake slices. (See Figure 2.) Some sensory marketers note the power of scent in these retail environments. Coffee shops, already redolent with the smell of coffee beans and steaming milk might be intensified with a gourmand fragrance that is pumped through the air to elicit a desire for a hot cup (Classen et al, 1994, 195-196). Moreover, people who choose to wear gourmands carry these scents with them as they move through public spaces. For example, the perfumer Olivier Cresp recalls that just after Angel hit markets, strangers would approach his wife on the street to inquire about her perfume while she was wearing the recent release (Klove, 2022).

Beyond public spaces, gourmands might also scent the homes of consumers. Some magazines include fragrance strips to accompany advertisements for perfume. A gourmand perfume advertised in a magazine with one of these microencapsulated scent strips might cast its scent upon the rest of the periodical’s pages or the rest of the room (Classen et al, 1994, 188; Malcolm, 1988). Beyond the scenting capacities of fragrant strips, candles, or sprays, the wide variety of scented body products from eau de parfums to body washes and lotions might also scent the rooms where they are applied to the user’s skin.


One practice central to gourmand fragrances is humans applying and wearing them. As a fragrance family of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, gourmands are often applied directly to the body in a wide range of forms including, but not limited to, eau de parfums and eau de toilettes to body mists and creams. Although in the medieval and early modern periods people scented themselves with objects such as pomanders and handkerchiefs, modern fragrances like gourmands are often applied to the skin (Classen et al., 1994, 60; Ostrom, 2015, 262). The body’s heat and chemistry work to affect the expression of the fragrance for wearers and smellers. Accordingly, the choice of gourmand fragrance depends upon an individual’s relationship to scent and what they hope to communicate with it. Spiritizing on a gourmand fragrance may feel representative of personality for some wearers or mark a mood or special occasion for others (Herz, 2011). For example, the gourmand perfume Angel by Thierry Mugler “became the ultimate ‘party’ perfume of the 1990s” (Anbouba, 2022). Yet as gourmands became more mainstream and available at high street retailers, they also became part of everyday scenting practices and were especially attractive to younger people.

Beauty writer Tynan Sinks recalls the popularity of gourmand body splashes among American adolescents in the early 2000s. Certain fragrances were so omnipresent that Sinks describes Warm Vanilla Sugar by Bath and Body Works as smelling “like middle school” (Sinks, 2020). While youths and adults may choose to wear fragrance for a variety of reasons—e.g. fragrance may be understood as part of beauty culture, hygiene practices, or practices of self-presentation—for Sinks’ middle schoolers, gourmands not only smelled pleasingly sweet but also served as cover to the odour of their pubescent bodies. Patriarchal societies have long dictated how girls and women are supposed to smell based on their age, class, and social role. For example, American beauty writer Harriet Hubbard Ayer argue in 1899 that “hysteria is inevitably aggravated and frequently caused by the odor of musk, and the use of this perfume should be forbidden [to] delicate girls and women” (Maxwell, 2017, 30). Twenty-first century girls had similar explicit and implicit rules to adhere to and while concerns about smell-induced hysteria had waned, these girls similarly knew that their bodies were not supposed to smell bad. With changing hormones and physical education taking place during or after school, however, came new opportunity for these tweens and teenagers to be shamed for smelling of body odour, of smelling badly to normative American society (Classen et al, 1994, 182-183). To adhere to these social norms, Sinks’ middle schoolers reached for inexpensive consumer products marketed to them. While gourmand body splashes and mists did not remove their body odour, these fragrances could mask the smell of their bodies with a socially acceptable, appetizing aroma (Bergman, 2020). 

Feelings and Noses

Gourmands may elicit strong feelings from smellers. Those who do not care for this fragrance family may be affronted these smells. For others, however, the rich, sweet notes of gourmands are all about pleasure (Bulliqi, 2020). Some sensory psychologists read the relationship between gourmands and pleasure as a product of human biology. History tells us that frequent exposures to sweetness en masse, however, is relatively recent (Jacobson, 2014, 57). Attention to culture and historical context is thus critical to understanding the specific forms of pleasure that gourmands yield. To that end, there are two primary schools of thought that work to explain the relationship between gourmands and pleasure, and both foreground (albeit seemingly contradictory) forms of desire.

On one hand, some critics believe that these dessert-like fragrances might evoke feelings of comfort related to a sense of nostalgia or a longing for the past (Boym, 2011). For example, the journalist Rona Berg writing in 1993 describes gourmands as “olfactory comfort foods, ripe with the scent-memory of childhood, redolent of the sweet smells of mother's kitchen” (Berg, 1993). While this association between sweets, childhood, maternal love, and a secure, comfortable home environment would not have been the reality of everyone, sensory anthropologists believe that in Western cultures “many odors are coded with meanings that are common to a large segment of the population” (Classen et al, 1994, 194). However, for minoritized peoples, especially those grappling with the historical and ongoing violence of racism and colonisation, these romantic constructs of the Global North and West may fall flat and, worse still, obscure other relations to these scents. The cultural critic Hsuan Hsu argues that attending to the history of olfaction reveals “how smells and scented products become positioned—through colonial bioprospecting, conquest, plantation labor regimes, deodorization campaigns, and sensory marketing—as commodities to be selectively consumed rather than as aspects of culturally and ecologically specific ceremony, or as modes of environmental knowledge” that refuse to observe boundaries between human bodies and nonhuman ‘nature’ (Tullett et al., 2022, 269). While in the 1990s gourmands were interpreted by the Western media as “a kind of security blanket,” the history of perfume that made gourmands possible in the 1990s—one of deep-seated Orientalism and colonial extraction, for example—all subtend this narrative of hegemonic cosiness (Loyer, 1997). The history of domination that enables warm feelings of nostalgia for some wearers of gourmands is also shared by another prominent feeling invoked by this fragrance type.

In addition to these feelings of safety and comfort, gourmands have a sensual quality that is often interpreted in relation to romantic or sexual desire. For example, in a 2013 interview, reflecting on Angel’s twentieth anniversary, Thierry Mugler explained that he “wanted there to be such a sensual contact with this perfume, that you almost feel like devouring the person you love” (Wischhover, 2013). This relationship between sensuality, food, and the mouth is key to this form of desire. Perfumer Yves de Chiris argues that gourmands are “Like a kiss, they are both a taste and a scent” (Edwards, 1996, 285). Both Mugler and de Chiris map potentially erotic bodily gestures, a kiss or Mugler’s devouring, onto the mouth’s relationship to food both in its capacity to sense flavour (the taste and the aroma of food) and eat. With language like devouring at play, too, there is also a form of consumptive power at play in the formulation of this desire which harkens back to colonial and neo-colonial domination and resource extraction as much as it does sexuality. Furthermore, the mouth acts as a critical boundary between the individual and the world and the transgression of this boundary has erotic potential (Holland et al, 2014). Dousing oneself in gourmand fragrance—or one’s partner—might stimulate both an appetite for food and sex (Dichter, 1994). The advertising team behind Coty’s 1995 release of Vanilla Musk certainly sought to exploit these complex feelings. (See Figure 3.)

Noses are key to the production and consumption of gourmand fragrances. Master perfumers are often called noses in honour of their olfactory attunement. Discernment on the part of perfumer and smeller are where some gourmand perfumes find great success. While some psycho-biological explanations for the popularity of gourmands suggest that gourmand notes like vanilla are universally appreciated by humans because of early childhood exposure to a prominent vanilla molecule found in breastmilk, not all noses agree (Lodi, 2018). That is, not all gourmand fragrances are understood as pleasing because of cultural factors. For example, while some loved the proto-gourmand perfume Angel and immediately became “addicted to it,” others were shocked by the fragrance (Edwards, 1996, 285). The perfumer Pierre Aulas recounts that his fellow perfumers were baffled by Angel. “They said: ‘What is this thing? It’s not a perfume. It’s a flavor. It’s awful.’” He recalls, too, that some customers at the department store Bloomingdales rushed to the restroom to wash their wrists after being spritzed with Angel by salesclerks in the early years of its release (Schaefer, 2011). Despite Angel’s influence on the industry—including its induction into The Fragrance Foundation’s Hall of Fame at the 2007 FiFi awards—it is uncommon for fragrances to have universal appeal (Belim-Frolova, 2007). The negative response from Aulas’ perfume industry colleagues may stem from mismatched expectations of what a perfume is supposed to smell like; namely, perfumes should not smell like flavours. As more and more gourmand perfumes at this boundary, the expectations and attitudes of those perfumers might change, too.

This nose-based discernment is also felt in whether a gourmand perfume is deemed to be successful, pleasing, or good. These standards are highly subjective and what might please a consumer may differ for a perfumer or industry critic. The biophysicist and perfume critic Luca Turin writes of Vanilla Musk, formulated by Coty and released in 1994:

The name of this fragrance is clearly meant to reach the heart via the engine rooms, as in 'food and sex.' Curiously, this combination of two hugely popular notes manages to be at once totally unappetizing and deeply unsexy. The vanilla note is nasty, more cheap chocolate than orchid seedpod, while the musky part is tenacious and rasping, and reeks of low-budget muscle ingredients. To be avoided.” (Turin, 2006, 226)

Despite this critique, Vanilla Musk was popular with consumers (Kagan, 1995). While the noses of these critics are trusted for their training and seeming empiricism, individual experiences of smelling within the context of that person’s culture, life experiences, and preferences may lead them to a different conclusion. The average consumer may not have the training and sensory vocabulary as Turin or a professional perfumer, but their noses are still able to point them towards gourmand fragrances that they find appealing.
Dr R. Claire Bunschoten
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