Apr 08, 2009, 05:11AM

The Magical World of Cheap Cologne

Our columnist tries plastic-bottle fragrances so you don't have to.

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I’ve done a lot of reading about colognes and perfumes and aftershaves. For my article on fancy shaving I spent a great deal of time perusing reviews of shaving products on shaving web forums. Most of these guys love aftershave, which was a little surprising because I’ve always thought of aftershave as an old-wives remedy that everyone stopped using in the 60s. My father, who has a beard, never told me a thing about it and certainly never wore any. I am an only child so I had no siblings to tell me about it or force me to drink it; so I ignored it until this year.

The idea behind aftershave is that it sterilizes all of the microscopic and non-microscopic cuts that you inflict on your face when you shave. It’s also supposed to “calm” your skin, which is important if you have skin that has emotions, like Venom from Spiderman. Most aftershaves also have a scent, and in fact there is no real difference between aftershaves and colognes—colognes generally have more alcohol and a more concentrated fragrance, but they’re essentially the same.

I started experimenting with traditional barbershop aftershaves because many of them are extremely inexpensive, as in five dollars for well over a year’s supply, so why not? I love a bargain, and some of these aftershaves qualify in that they’re cheap but actually pretty awesome. For people born in the 1980s these scents are probably unfamiliar and exciting, so they give the little frisson that we hipsters get when we discover something that we think no one knows about. It’s nice to have a cologne that no one else has; anyone can go buy Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male or a bottle of eau de toilette from Banana Republic, but it takes a special kind of weirdo to find his scents at Walgreens or on various rudimentary websites that sell clippers and Barbicide.

Here is a list of some of my favorites, most of which cost under $10 for a 16-ounce bottle, which should last a normal person until we all are dead.

Lucky Tiger Bay Rum
Bay rum is supposedly making a comeback as a fragrance. I’ve seen it at Brooks Bros. and in the J. Peterman catalog, and you can pay as much as you like for nicely packaged glass bottles of luxury bay rum cologne. Or you can pay $7.50 for this flip-top plastic bottle of totally rad aftershave. Bay rum has an immediately identifiable scent that is not easy to describe, and Lucky Tiger gets it exactly right. Is has a rich rum scent with a spicy, leathery overlay that is masculine without being metrosexual. If you want to convince a blind person that you know how to work on cars and you’re not allowed to talk, this bay rum would do the trick. Master Well Comb also makes a barbershop bay rum that is sweeter smelling and less complex, but contains glycerine if you actually want to use it as an aftershave. Note that with all of these moderation is key—even though they’re not as concentrated as cologne, you really don’t want to slop it on.

Lucky Tiger Aspen
This is bright blue and, in the bottle, smells like concentrated marijuana. I have no idea why. This brings up a truism that you hear all the time: fragrances smell very different on the skin than they do in the bottle. This is certainly the case with Aspen, which on the skin smells littoral and dry and a little sweet and oily, kind of like sea grass mixed with those little wax bottles of sugar water.

Pinaud Clubman

This one is truly ubiquitous; you’ll probably be able to find it at almost any drug store and many supermarkets. It’s also quite a delightful fragrance. It has some citrus notes that come and go over a base that smells like talcum powder and leather. The advertising mythology says that the scent originated with Edwardian dandies and it certainly has a little bit of old-fashioned foppish flair. It would be almost unisex if it weren’t for the talc, which is light but nonetheless falls on the masculine side. Master makes a very similar scent with the amazing name Lord and Master; it is slightly more orange smelling and is overall more subtle and shorter lasting.

Pinaud Lilac Vegetal
This is a bizarre surprise. The liquid is acid green and in the bottle it smells like alcohol and corruption with a hint of old salad. On the skin it undergoes a metamorphosis—at first it smells like flower stalks, or a greenhouse in the summer, and then it settles into a talcum powder base with strong tones of fresh lilac. A lot of people hate this scent but I find it utterly delightful and refreshing. Again there’s an apocryphal story connected to the formula: the myth is that this scent was developed for the queen of Hungary’s cavalry troop in the 1700s; I have no idea if this is true but we can all hope. Master makes an equivalent called Lilac Vegetol [sic] that smells like concentrated rotting fruit. Avoid this.

Pinaud Special Reserve

This is marketed as a cologne, but is not really much different from Pinaud’s plastic-bottle aftershave offerings. To me this scent evokes the 1980s of American Psycho—it’s the cologne equivalent of a power tie, overbearing, aggressive, a little tacky, a hysterical burlesque of masculinity. The scent is metamorphic, with overpowering notes of spicy scotch and leather. If any cologne can be worn in a spirit of smirky irony it’s Pinaud Special Reserve.

Aqua Velva
Pity Aqua Velva, an aftershave that actually works and that boasts a complex scent but has, through its pop-cultural omnipresence, become synonymous with dim-witted teenagers and guys who want you to do coke with them in the bathroom of a sports bar. If Aqua Velva were expensive everyone would rave about the scent, which combines mint and  menthol with a dark and exuberant musk base. Objectively, and in moderation, Aqua Velva smells great, but unfortunately it’s so widely known as a drugstore scent for the hoi polloi that people do not judge it on its merits. Master makes a knock-off called Ocean Blue that is similar but subdued, with more mint and less turbulent musk.

Burberry and Gucci have their place on the cologne shelf of a dedicated dandy; Versace’s panoply of jeans-themed colognes have shepherded me through many of my darkest hours, and over the past two years I’ve worked my way through most of a bottle of Yves Saint-Laurent Kouros Body, but for the price of less than one of these boutique fragrances I’ve collected a complete wardrobe of quirky, ironic, and slightly sleazy scents, and so can you.

  • "Anyone can go buy Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male or a bottle of eau de toilette from Banana Republic, but it takes a special kind of weirdo to find his scents at Walgreens or on various rudimentary websites that sell clippers and Barbicide." You make me lightheaded...

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