Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 07, 2014

To Bay Rum Or Not To Bay Rum


When I was writing my first NaNoWriMo project, I sought a detail to attach to a character, something that would be recognizable as his throughout the rest of the story, and what I ended up with was the scent of bay rum aftershave. It seemed evocative enough, a distinctive masculine touch with a bit of name cachet. Everyone's heard of bay rum, right? Not everyone, as it turned out -- my dad, giving me a few notes on the finished product, said it made him think that the character had been drinking.

There was one hitch in my use of bay rum as a stand-in for a manly sort of man thing: I actually had no idea how it smelled. I'd never encountered it myself. I just knew the name. It sounded nice, so I went with it.

On a lark, Darwin recently acquired some bay rum aftershave, and we all gathered around to sniff at it. And then, taken aback, sniff again. It's... it's sweet. It smells like cloves and allspice, like pumpkin pie minus the good warm pumpkin part. I don't know much about top notes and hearts and bases, but no matter how the scent changed, it was still weirdly sweet. The cloves were too clove-y.

I turn out to be one of those people who don't know much about scent, but I know what I like. I wish I knew what Chanel No. 5 smelled like, or the original Eau de Cologne. The names sound so elegant and delicious, but then, so did bay rum. In the wired world, fragrance is a throwback to a more physical model of commerce. No amount of description really does a scent justice. There's just no substitute for holding a bottle to your nose and taking a sniff.

When I was a teenager, there used to a be a shop in the mall that carried all sorts of essential oils that could be blended into custom fragrances. It was a bit too rich for my limited income, but it was a lovely place to browse, sampling this essence and that: lavender, sandalwood, vanilla, orange blossom, cherry blossom, and my all-time favorite, tea rose. Little slips of paper allowed you to take home sample drops of each scent, and for weeks afterwards while rummaging in your purse, you'd stir up the faint exotic blend of paper and the parfumerie.

Bay rum is not destined to be among my favorite scent memories, though. I can't like it. If I ever get around to editing my NaNo novel, I'm going to have to put something else in, but what sounds quite as classic as bay rum? Old Spice? Do I know the smell of Old Spice? I can't even rummage through Darwin's medicine cabinet; we are a remarkably fragrance-free family, not from preference but from lack of precedent. His father never used aftershave; my mother rarely wore perfume. For a time in college I had one of those Bath and Body Works sprays that smelled like apple, but once it ran out I never replaced it; ever after it smelled too freshman. Having a signature scent seems like such a wonderfully literary character choice, but I'm fresh out of opportunities to browse the counters at the mall, and it's not exactly something one wants to chance without sampling, or one ends up with a blue glass bottle full of rejected bay rum.

18 comments:

ladyhobbit said...

I really like Old Spice--my dad used to use it. He was born in 1923. I would say it's a classic scent! It's not very expensive, so you could easily pick some up at a supermarket and just take a sniff.

Brandon said...

I suppose Pinaud-Clubman is supposed to be a classic sense -- it goes back to the nineteenth century -- but I've never smelled it myself.

Lauren said...

Sandalwood is an essential oil and very manly. Think warm tweed coat. It's an ingredient in many men's colognes. I love perfumes, but I don't wear them much as they tend to bother a lot of people. Paul gave me a bottle of Estee Lauder Pure White Linen years ago, and I love it. If you have a scent you like you can google its ingredients to get an idea of what appeals to you.

Anonymous said...

I will comment because my husband is a die hard bay rum lover! First of all, any bay rum by Pinaud is the "bonded leather" version of the true scent (to use Darwin's excellent example). The true bay rum is hard to find now. I pick it up at the Oxford Shop here for a yearly gift because even the online versions are often watered down. It is spicy and strong without that cloying sweetness.

Meredith

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Old Spice always seems manly to me because my dad used it as a kid. So it always makes me think of him and, by extension, the Navy. But I don't know who to describe its scent.

Jenny said...

In high school and college, I used the vanilla Bath and Body Works lotion as my signature scent, but they changed the formula to Vanilla Sugar which is way too sweet smelling. I never picked up another and we, too, are remarkably fragrance-free here.

I don't know what Bay Rum smells like either, but I can put in a good word for Sandalwood. Sorry all you Old Spice fans, it always reminds me of wet dog.

mrsdarwin said...

I love sandalwood. It smells warm but not heavy, and (most importantly) not clove-y. I think sandalwood will have to be the NaNo substitution,though I miss the old school connotations of bay rum even though I can't stand the scent. The brand Darwin picked up was Ogallala, which claimed a cowboy heritage, but I can't imagine a bunch of cowpokes hitting up the saloons smelling like that. I suppose anything is better than eau de vache.

When we stayed at a schmancy hotel in Austin, the little complimentary bottle of lotion was scented with white tea brightened with grapefruit. It is the most wonderful smell, and I love it so much that I've eked out the 1 oz. of lotion for almost two years now, applying just a bit when I feel like a treat. If I could find perfume that smelled like tea and grapefruit, I'd wear it all the time.

Foxfier said...

Here's a couple of cheat-sheets:
http://theshavedenshop.com/index.php?_a=document&doc_id=6

http://www.basenotes.net/ID26121214.html

Bunch of scent profiles.

I suspect you'd be looking for something with sandalwood and oak moss, probably with citrus? (My favorite perfume has both of those and floral on top of it)

Maybe sandalwood and frankincense? Or sharp, like cedar?

BettyDuffy said...

Frankincense has a wonderful smell, and I like to say "vetiver" even though it smells a little like dirt.

When I think of a signature men's scent, I think of Burberry.

Emily J. said...

I'm surprised Betty didn't mention that our grandpa used to wear Royall Bay Rum -- or maybe it was Royall Lyme. Royall makes those bottles out of heavy glass with a metal crown for a cap. I remember loving the bottle and the fragrance. I thought it was bay rum he used, but when I googled it to remember the brand name I think it may have been the Lyme because I think he had the green bottle. Brooks Brothers carries it. One ad describes it as "an authentic island formula favored by colonial Victorian gentlemen, delightfully crisp..."
We have the "Refill Shoppe" here that blends essential oils into all kinds of stuff for bodies and cleaning house. For Christmas I bought my husband a shaving oil with cedar, eucalyptus, bergamot, wild orange, and clove. The lady went a little heavy with the eucalyptus so she added the clove to balance it out. Smells woodsy. Fun shop. This was the second time I've bought him something with fragrance; the first time I gave him an Abercrombie and Fitch cologne when we were dating. "Woods." Bold. Vetiver reminds me of New Orleans from one of the shops there, so that might tie in with your southern setting.

These Boys' Mom said...

I wonder if you might like Origins Ginger scent lotion? When you commented about the fresh white tea and grapefruit scented lotion, my mind immediately went to the Origins Ginger. If you happen upon an Origins counter at a department store--get a squirt and see!

Arkanabar said...

English Leather is another scent that's been around a while -- since 1949, as far as I can tell. As for Old Spice, it was introduced in 1937, and like Marlboro, it was originally marketed towards women. The men's variants came out the next year.

Arkanabar said...

Aqua Velva, OTOH, came out around 1929, and it would seem that the first product in the line was mouthwash.

Bernadette said...

When I was in high school, one of the guys in our tiny Latin class wore Aspen all the time. He smelled so good. I used to borrow his dictionary just because it smelled like him. It must have been partly just him - when I've smelled that scent since then it doesn't smell at all the same or as nice.

A few years ago a friend got very, very into scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. They're an alternative online parfumerie that makes gorgeous and unusual scents. I tried a couple, but I fell madly in love with one of the first scents I tried (London - all warm roses - I wear it every day now) so I never got into trying all the tiny little samples you can get. They have some very cool tea scents - I bet you could find something like your cherished lotion.

BettyDuffy said...

I remember the Royall Lyme, Emily J, but I remember it as a dusty bottle that smelled like alcohol. It seemed to have a sentimental hold on the counter space, much like that bottle of Laura Ashley I saw in your medicine cabinet last week. hehe

Foxfier said...

It must have been partly just him - when I've smelled that scent since then it doesn't smell at all the same or as nice.

Oh! Bernadette, THANK YOU-- I was driving and remembered something I wanted to add, and totally spaced it. (...because that's unusual....)

Just smelling perfume doesn't really work to tell you what it smells like on a person. I love White Shoulders-- my grandmother wore it, my mom and aunt wear it, and until I started dating my husband I wore it.

On me, it makes him sneeze. Horribly.

No result on others in my family, but if I'm even near my mom when she puts hers on, he'll sneeze when he hugs me. (Huggy family, so it's not just a matter of exposure-- there's a real difference.)

Old Spice smells different on different guys, and is a lot more pleasant on someone who is... um...
no nice way to say it, who is really sweaty and would probably have BO if they didn't have on aftershave.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

My dad used to wear Old Spice so that's what I'd vote for. While I think sandalwood smells nice, if I read about a character wearing it, I'm going to think shaggy hippie in birkenstocks.

Once my dad brought me a little sample box of real French perfumes-- probably from the duty free shop at the airport. I used them for years and years and I loved their scent. But I can't wear any perfume any more or stand scents on anyone near me. My asthma, which I didn't develop until I moved to Massachusetts, can't handle even scented soaps.

I hate it when someone wearing perfume or even scented lotion handles one of my babies and I get them back and they smell. It feels like such an intrusion. Especially on a newborn. I always have to remind my mom after the birth of each baby to stop using her favorite hand lotions.

Jenny said...

Foreign smells on a newborn makes me feel anxious. Being able to smell other people on my baby is one of the oddest things about motherhood that I never expected or ever heard about before it happened.