Barbershop Scents

Barbershop Sign, Downtown Wabasha
As you may have noticed, I've been on a bit of a roll with drugstore machos and barbershop fragrances. I've searched high and low for fragrances in this category - on the drugstore's shelves, in fancy department stores, and niche parfumeries. I've even went as far as attempting to grow a bit of chin hair and a stick-on moustache so that I could impress the neighbourhood's barber that I need some manly grooming.

Alas, the last trick did not work very well. When I stepped onto the checkered-floor I felt even more invisible than on Vancouver's chick-unfriendly streets. On the bright side, that allowed me to scour the shelves and get a good whiff of the very sparse merchandize available - mostly consisting of shaving creams and aftershave balms in minimalist packaging that bear old-world names. There were nothing worthy of sampling or reporting there, and after being completely ignored for 10 minutes I gave in and asked one of the barbers if they have any colognes or aftershaves I can smell. They said they sell none, but there is this one product they use on their client at the end of each shave, which they kindly let me photograph and sample.

Pinaud's Lime Sec is an acid-green liquid with a disgusting aroma that is what I would imagine they've blasted on the masses of refugees at the close of WWII, and would continue on as an insect repellent spray throughout the 50s. In other words - it smells terrible, and has very little to do with lime. Even rancid lime oil does not smell that terrible.
Barber's chairs
Needless to say, I stepped out of the store feeling disappointed and dismayed, and with a stark realization that you can't experience barbershops unless you're a man. So I can only imagine what it would be like to get an old-fashisoned shave with a straight razor, having your bristly whiskers  softened with a soapy cream, slapped on the face by skilled hands and then surrendering to a sharp blade sliding on your throat. The ritual, if I'm not mistaken, ends with a blindfolding act with a steaming towel, and then some more slapping - this time with a stinging alcoholic aftershave that hopefully does not reek of wartime disinfectants, but rather with one of the sexy fragrances from the list of favourites that I've complied.

While these fragrances vary greatly, they can be divided into three major categories, there is a common thread running among them, which is rather utilitarian: softening the stubble before the shave; and treating the skin to prevent post-shave rashes and infection.

The majority of the fragrances belong to the Fougère family in this way or the other. This is not surprising if you take into consideration that lavender soothes the skin and is an excellent disinfecting treatment for nicks and cuts. Unlike so many other disinfectant essential oils - this one also has a soothing smell which would create a positive association for visiting the barber. Add to this plenty of musk and baby-powder notes, geranium and chamomile, hints of warm, sweet spices - and you get the distinctive, reference barbershop fragrance.

Canoe (Dana) 
It's been a long time since I've encountered this fragrance on any of my local drugstore shelves; but if my memory serves me correctly, this is a rather sweet, ambery and floral rendition of the Fouler theme, utilizing heliotropin and eugenol in addition to a high dose of coumarin, and of course the compulsory oakmoss, lavender and linalool.

Royal Copenhagen
This one take the musk and baby powder to a new height. Like a return to the crib for the inner-baby that hides within each grown man. There is really not a better way to describe it.

Lime Sec Barbershop Fragrance

A little more aromatic than Canoe, and not nearly as musky and powdery as Royal Copenhagen, Bruth is herbaceous yet also very soft. It has a cheap bottle-green plastic packaging that makes it look like a mouthwash and off the top of my head I can think of at least 10 much better fragrances for men; but it's a classic drugstore fragrance that has initiated countless of boys into manhood. It is far better than Axe or Drakkar Noir for that matter.

If you'd like to opt for a more fancy, prestigious fragrance in this category, may I recommend Caron's Pour Un Homme. With its lavender and powdery animalic notes of civet and musk give it a very soft, diffusive, powdery and luxurious personality, that reeks of old-world refinement and gentlemanliness. The kind of scent you'd want to sprinkle your handkerchief with. Other options along these lines are Pour Monsieur (Chanel) and Mouchoir de Monsiuer (Guerlain).

DIY Bay Rum Aftershave & Cologne Recipe

The Bay Rum aftershave is a mainstay staple in men's grooming and is as old as imperialism itself. In the tropics, the disinfecting qualities of Europe's Aqua Mirabillis had to make do with the local antiseptics. We're talking about hard-core eugenol territory - West Indian Bay Leaf (Pimento remecosa), Bayberry (Myrica rub), allspice, cinnamon, cassia and of course clove buds - were steeped in a highly distilled cane sugar liquor (rum) to create a skin-burning (to say that it stings is an understatement) to help reduce the negative side effects of shaving. Bay Rum is not unlike spiced rum, so I suspect it was also consumed by sailors either before or after the shave. Because, er - why not?

There are many low-cost bay rum aftershaves in the market, and you can easily make your own if only you can get a hold of West Indian bay leaves (they are different than the Mediterranean bay laurels - Laurus nobilis).
Old Spice is a case in point, in which the bay rum theme was elevated to another level, and the romanticism of sea navigation has been well-marketed, and thankfully also well crafted. The spices are softened with geranium, vanilla, coumarin, have a distinctive carnation-like character that makes them feel more fancy and dandy-like; and the citrus add a lovely lift to the composition.

Paco Rabanne takes the medicinal qualities of spices to a whole new level by adding medicinal salicylic notes and camphor. Yet there is something very charming and manly about it nevertheless. At least as an aftershave. The balm would leave your man's cheeks glossy and smooth.

Continuing on the spice route, we have also some more sophisticated fragrances, that come in all kinds of grooming products such as Tabac Original - a delectable spicy vetiver with a heap of freshly microplanes nutmeg, woodsy-elegant allspice and clean musk dry down. And if you're after something more sophisticated (and pricy) - Equipage delivers a similar theme albeit a tad more leathery, tannin, dry and even floral with its heart of carnation.

Barber Shop Golden Hour

Disinfectant qualities are not limited to spices or herbs, but also are shared with citrus oils. In addition, they have skin-softening qualities, which make them perfect for shampooing hair and softening those stubborn whiskers. I'm quite confident they're used for that purpose in many shaving creams and soaps. And in any case, a splash of old-fashioned eau de cologne type fragrance will sure create a pick-me-up effect after sitting in the chair for a while and being pampered.

4711 is what I'd imagine a barbershop in Europe to smell like. At least in Germany, where it is one of the most iconic and most favourable smells. My grandmother (a Berlin native) remembers her own grandmother and mother wearing it. And judsing by the large sized bottles of 800 mL and even a full litre - this Aqua Mirabillis is used in a  rather utilitarian way to this day.

English Leather has a bit of a misleading name. It smells more like a soapy eau de cologne with tobacco base notes than anything else. That's due to plenty of linalyl acetate (the primary ingredient in petitgrain and also in lavender). In any case, it's affordable and rather chic although I have a suspicion they've significantly tampered with the formula.

Pino Silvestre, a pine-and-moss themed coniferous cologne that used to have a fantastic natural glow about it but was sadly reformulated without the oaks. With a price point that is still as low as ever, a bottle that look like a green pine-cone still and a box that provides enough amusing material for a bathroom read - perhaps all can be forgiven. Or maybe not...

For those wanting to spend a little more mulah and achieve a fancier citrusy, classically gentlemanly barbershop effect, consider splurging in a bottle of Azzaro - a slightly anisic lavender Fougère with a distinctive juicy-citrus and herbaceous combination of basil and tarragon. That is what I'd imagine gentlemen in Italia to splash on their face before going out on the town. And then of course there is the even juicier, refined and beloved Eau Sauvage the epitome of masculine fragrances, barbershop or otherwise.

Jasmine and Pine

Image from page 100 of "The Illustrated annual register of rural affairs and cultivator almanac for the year .." (1855)

Another gem from the stash of decants I received from Joanna is vintage Devin cologne by Bernard Chant for Aramis (1978). It was a FiFi Award winner that year, which was well deserved. I've never even heard of it, and wasn't really drawn to even trying it before I got on this roll of trying out masculine scents. But when I finally did, I was in for a most pleasurable ride, and a long-lasting at that as well.

Devin is that fabulous meeting point between resinous and green. It may seem familiar to us residents of the 21st Century; but back in the day when green icy florals and soapy Chypres reigned supreme (No. 19, Ivoire, Private Collection) this must have been an original.

Whenever I got out of the rustic village and visited my grandparents in their modern Tel Aviv apartment, I would be treated with the most luxurious bath in my grandmother's best tradition: foam bath in her blue bathtub. Into the warm running water (ours had to be boiled stove-top in a kettle!) into which my grandmother would drizzle generous amount of an acid-green fragrant liquid from an emerald-coloured plastic bottle to create rich lather the consistency of meringue. I would build mountains of this cream on top of my head and pretend to lick it off like ice cream. Naturally, it smelled of pine needles in the most heavenly way. And that fresh-yet-sweet, resinous scent is what the opening of Devin smells like to me.

Its body reveals sweet galbanum resin, which while still green smells unquestionably sweet, and more like a confection than something you would put in your salad (FYI: galbanum oil smells like parsley on steroids), and there is pine-y yet balsamic frankincense that extends the evergreen notes and melds them seamlessly into the obvious undercurrent of amber that's flowing underneath. If you pay close attention you'll also notice there is quite a bit of jasmine hidden in the heart, harmonizing these seemingly unrelated elements of evergreen forest and frankincense and sticky amber. Later on, spicy notes of cinnamon and cloves emerge as well, but they are not obvious at all - they just add warmth, and also an aldehydic lift to the composition. They are rather light in both dosage and character.

While the sweetness places Devin in a rather feminine territory of amber orientals, there are also other elements that make it also masculine, besides the lovely pine. There is a dry leathery base note, hint of dry, acrid oakmoss, dry cedarwood and phenolic herbs (thyme, artemisia). Compare that with Obsession though (armoise, tagetes), and you'll notice that the two are alarmingly similar not just in smell but also in their notes. The ending note is a smooth, natural vanilla-amber, a surprise for a masculine, and even more so surprising is how un-boring it is. Ambers can easily become flat and redundant. But when true vanilla absolute is used, and some contrasting elements such as dark patchouli (even if in the tiniest amount), this can't be farther from the truth.

Devin is one of those rare things: a masculine fragrance with absolutely nothing about it I do not like.   With so many of them there is a phase I wish I could fast-forward through or skip altogether (the top notes in Polo green, for example, are a bit much and I wish I could lower the volume a bit until the dry down begins to kick in). Each phase in its progression is delectable, yet calling it a crowd pleaser would do it injustice. It's unique and to me seems ahead of its time, a precursor for Obsession (1985) and predicting modern, unusual fragrances that choose to treat the note of galbanum as a rich, incensy or even foody manner rather than the bracing cut-grass and soap that Yohji (1996) and Incensi by Lorenzo Villoresi (1997). Serge Lutens' much later Fille en Aiguilles (2009) has a similar structure, only here galbanum resin is replaced by the jam-like, resinous-sweet fir absolute.

Top notes: Bergamot, Pine, Artemisia, Lemon
Heart notes: Jasmine, Carnation, Thyme, Cinnamon
Base notes: Galbanum Resin, Frankincense, Amber, Leather, Cedarwood, Patchouli 

Equipage (Vintage)

Leather Pleasure

Crackle of a whip, oiled saddles, shiny boots being broken-in on horse manure and cedar wood chips. Few smells bring so many other images, sounds and textures to mind as leather scents do. And Equipage got all of these plus its own refined, aristocratic touch of carnation and tobacco.

In this genre, Equipage is more tobacco than leather, with a sweet-spicy opening of nutmeg and allspice, a voluptuous carnation body that makes it equally dandy-esque and gypsy dancer. Images of a carnation tucked into a waistcoat pocket conjured simultaneously with Carmen rolling up clove cigarettes in her wide skirts. And once she sells the cigars, we're back to gentlemen territory where everything is polished, woodsy and unfloral. The carnation clears room for vetiver to shine as the heart note in this fragrance for a rather prolonged period of time.

Equipage in its vintage formulation (a generous decant I received from Joanna, one of the very few perfumista in my neighbourhood) is both silken and acrid, sweet and dry/phenolic, and brings to mind both pipe tobacco and a horse-stable tack-room. Although I've seen many other notes listed in literature on this fragrance (such as bergamot and rosewood and perhaps some other herbs) I'm not really feeling them in this particular specimen. Perhaps they have dissipated or they are so well blended that they are barely noticeable.

The dry down is that of cured tobacco leaf and only the slightest hint of carbonileum gives it a phenolic underscore. Equipage is elegantly dry, warmly sensual and musky with well-aged patchouli, and naturally sweetened with tonka bean. The latter gives it a finishing touch of rolled-leaf cigar that has been extinguished and left for later enjoyment - and forgotten. That should be long enough so that the acrid ashtray notes have dissipated completely, as you'll fortunately find non of these in Equipage... The perfumer is Guy Robert, who is also responsible for the masculine beauty of Monsieur Rochas and Gucci pour Homme.

Top notes: Nutmeg, Allspice
Heart notes: Carnation, Vetiver
Base notes: Tobacco Leaf, Isobutyl Quinoline, Patchouli, Tonka Bean 

Other reviews of Equipage - both contemporary and vintage:
Perfume Shrine
The Non Blonde
Bois de Jasmin
Now Smell This
Basenotes (members reviews)
Basenotes (discussion about vintage vs current formulation)

Old Spice

Old Spice.

My grandpa died on my 13th birthday. I was too young to understand that it was going to happen, even though he was sick for about a year prior to that. He was in his early 60s, and much too young to leave us. And even though I still feel that I know him too little, there are certain things that make me feel like I know him quite intimately. There are certain things that no matter how adults try to hide, little children notice and are able to interpret later when they grow up enough to understand what was said, or what was exchanged in glances between overprotective parents or secretive relatives. Old Spice to me is one such key to reach out to these memories and reconnect with his never-dying spirit. 

Old Spice was launched when my grandfather himself was 13 years old. Maybe he worn it for his Bar Mitzvah, though I highly doubt it: life in Israel/Palestine under British Occupation was very frugal.  My grandmother told me that back in those days, his family had only two sets of clothes - weekday work clothes, which were washed and hang to dry every night, and another white shirt of Shabbat. That's it. 

Two years later, when my grandfather was a mere 15 year old boy, World War II erupted. Assisted by his sister, the eldest in the family of boys (like myself) he forged his age to 16 so that he can join the British Army and fight the Nazis and their allies, mostly in Italy. In 1944, he joined the Jewish Brigade and continued fighting Mussolini's fascist army all the while also saving Jewish survivors and refugees who escaped the Nazis, and helped smuggle them to Israel/Palestine and other safe lands.  

Old Spice.

I doubt that there was a spare moment for dousing oneself with Old Spice in those days of war, and my grandma's recollection also does not include Old Spice until after they married. So perhaps the saying is true - and if it wasn't for Old Spice, my aunt and my mother would have never been born, and neither would me and the rest of my brothers and cousins. SmellyBlog would have never existed, along with many other things - some good ones and some not so great.  It's really hard to tell without entering a time machine, isn't it? 

But what I do know for sure is that if it wasn't for my grandfather, I would know nothing of Old Spice, or men at all. I remember his bottle of Old Spice aftershave standing in my grandparents' bathroom. I was puzzled by the ship and sails on the bottles, and what does it have to do with spice, anyway? I was just as intrigued by it as I was by my grandmother's flacon of Shalimar, whose faceted blue stopper I would look through at the now-distorted blue world... To a girl who lived in a wild village with a stepfather that looked like Blackbeard himself, and a mom who never bothered to shave her legs or armpits or anything (not that she needs to, really) - the ritual of shaving was truly an exotic thing. 

I would wonder what is that bottle made of (its opaque shiny white glass looked like porcelain to me); how to open that bottle, and years later, when I finally did - I found the scent surprisingly familiar and comforting. It reminded me of traveling to London with my grandparents and visiting ancient ships and museums. It reminded me of sharing a hotel room with them that looked just as the hotel in Charade looks like, and marvelling at how late the light is still out in the summertime. Just as it is now as I type this in another Northern city - in Canada. 

My grandpa always made a point of shaving every time before he visited us, or if we came for a visit. He was travelling a lot, and must have been deeply hurt when as a little toddler I would recoil from his face if he had as much as a day-old stubble.  For a little child this feels quite unbearably rough. He was such a considerate person that he kept this habit even though I grew up and overcame this sensitivity (to some extent...). And he continued to shave for me every time I was allowed to visit him  in the hospital, in that agonizing, tragic year in which he was fighting pancreatic cancer and I was watching my baby brother who is ten years my junior in Tel Aviv all summer. 

Years later, that very brother, who my grandmother says looks so much like my grandfather did  in his youth, inherited the Old Spice bottle from the oldest brother, who inherited it from our grandfather. My little bother was the only one who really adopted that fragrance as his own. And when he ran out, he found more in Canada when he was living with me. He was 21 years at the time, and had worn it deliberately and enthusiastically in every form available – eau de toilette, after shave, body spray, deodorant, soap, you name it. It made the whole house smell like Old Spice and when he went through the whole ritual so to speak we were both sedated by all the clove and allspice in there. 

As I write this, I occasionally sniff my wrists, which are carefully doused with Old Spice's newest packaging (which you can see in the photos). It is no longer a splash bottle, but a spray of the cheapest kind. But I still like it. The writing is all in red, and so is the boat - which is much smaller. But the bottle still manages to stay true to its opaque white design - but not it is most certainly plastic of a creamy white rather than the bluish-grey milky white of yore.  

The scent is heavy yet heavenly. Familiar yet fantastic. Comforting yet seductive. What first comes to nose is cloves and allspice. So no wonder why it's called "Old Spice", right? Mystery solved! It's also sweet and carnation-like. A true spicy-oriental of the grand type. Yet there is also something very uncomplicated about it, which makes it so wearable and delicious. For a scent so inherently associated with barbershop and masculinity, it's a bit surprising how much bouquet there is in there. Although it's hardly what I would call "floral" - there is an unmistakable rose, jasmine and carnation at the heart, which really rounds it off. It's also surprising how sweet the base is, complete with vanillin and heliotropin. Really not what we've learned to consider "masculine" in our day and age. Drugstore fragrance or not - some things are simply priceless. The smell of my grandfather is one of them.

Top notes: Orange, Lemon
Hear notes: Carnation, Geranium, Jasmine, Rose, Cinnamon, Cloves, Allspice
Base notes: Coumarin, Vanilla, Heliotropin, Musk


Mª Agustina

It's been a while since I smelled the original Azzaro and it was almost as familiar as I wished. I could swear the mosses in there have been reduced. But its original, nonchalant Mediterranean charm still remains quite intact. Like Polo, it was launched in 1978, so it is no wonder this fragrance smells so familiar to me, reminding me of freshly shaven men that occasionally crossed my path as a child, and in many ways I believe this very particular scent has become a blueprint in my young memory to what "masculine" fragrances are. It may not have such an important status in North America, but in Europe - Azzaro is still the top selling fragrance for men, so my

The initial blast of lemon and lavender creates a sense of well-being and brings to mind the scents with which men of that generation would douse themselves when they wanted to come across as well-groomed and appeal to the ladies while at it. To a little girl, such scents were not unpleasant, but very foreign and to this day create in a sense the feeling of someone unfamiliar entering a space. This, of course, can be either mean a good thing or a not so good thing. But one thing is for certain: it does draw attention. 

Petitgrain supports the notion of cleanliness with its soapy quality, a mere suggestion here but gives it the unmistakable eau de cologne character. A hint of basil in juxtaposition to these citrus notes and mossy currents underneath bounces off the soapiness. It also creates the classic Mediterranean, relaxed and care-free, summery feel. There is also a hint of anise, which adds mysterious spicy accent, but mostly supports the anethole that is naturally occurring in basil leaf. 

In the heart, there is still plenty of citrus presence - but from lemongrass or citral (the characteristic lemony molecule which sells like lemon-drop and appears also in lemon verbena and many other lemon-scented herbs). And there is geranium leaf - a must for any respectable Fougère, where it adds rounded, fruity yet green freshness and more body. 

All this goodness dissipates within about 30 minutes on my skin, and is being replaced by a strange, slightly acrid balsamic-spicy note, reminiscent of steam-distilled Peru balsam essential oil and some vague spicy notes of eugenol. And for a while, this seems to dominate and all the other aspects that make Azzaro so lovable are all but gone.* But won't you worry: the oakmoss and cedarmoss will make a comeback at the dryout phase, alongside tart, almost citrusy vetiver note and a subtle musk that is reminiscent of clean, freshly-scrubbed-with-soap skin. 


Top notes: Lemon, Lavender, Anise
Heart notes: Petitgrain, Basil, Geranium, Lemongrass 
Base notes: Oakmoss, Cedarmoos, Musk, Vetiver 

* I am quite certain this has something to do either with my own (feminine) body chemistry, or with the reformulation. I'm quite certain this will smell a lot better on a man.

P.s. Anyone know why does the bottle have such an overwhelmingly unattractive design and unappealing, mustardy colour to boot? It seems to have nothing at all to do with the fragrance itself. 
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