Gentlemen: Just Wear Bay Rum

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
Oct. 16 2013 4:13 PM

What Should a Gentleman Smell Like?

Bay rum.

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

Dear Sir:

Why don't more men wear bay rum? The scent is delicious, seductive, masculine. Please advise your readers that scent goes a long way with a woman. It distracts us from other character deficiencies—civil, ethical, moral, ecumenical. Honestly, lads: Wear the right scent, and you have us dead to rights.

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If I am stuck next to another man wearing an Axe product, I might do violence. I want the world to be the sort of place where people have manners and sense and taste and discuss books and mix decent cocktails and steal kisses in dark corners, and perhaps smell of bay rum while performing all of these vital offices to keep the wheels of civilization whirring along until the planet explodes in a ball of fire and all is forgotten.  

Is that asking for so much?

Cordially,

Lady S

Thank you for offering this chance to address your charming question—or, really, any question, as my mailbox is barren, its contents limited to a few rustling orbs of tumbleweed, as if this were a scene of the Old West and the only figures on the cactused landscape were a horse and his cowboy, freshly barbered and sweetly fragrant with the product you mention.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

The scent of bay rum has wafted through history, enchanting innumerable noses in many guises: as a tonic and a talc, as an aftershave, a hair lotion, a deodorant, and a shaving soap—and at every turn its wearers have reeled in admirers and warded off neuralgia. In the beginning, it spruced up the couth of European sailors in the West Indies. The sailors, being sailors, tended to get gamy, and they were intrigued to see the natives giving themselves refreshing rubs with the leaves of the West Indian bay tree (which in Linnaean Latin is Pimenta racemosa and which is not to be confused with the Laurus nobilis in your pasta sauce). Also, the sailors, being sailors, tended to drink like sailors. They had a lot of rum around and, introducing the oil of the leaves to the rum’s pungency, they wrought a classic potion—clever with cloves, sturdy in its cinnamon, light but complex in its honest earthiness. Over the centuries, subtle clouds of bay rum wafted east to London and west to the Oregon Trail, as scalps were smartly salved and skin restoratively smacked.

This is how they did it in the good old days. In my view, the good old days include the fortnight past, when this column dilated in the direction of unironizing a line from an Oliver Goldsmith satire of 18th-century London: “To make a fine gentleman, several trades are required, but chiefly a barber.” The Gentleman Scholar was at a barbershop trying to parse the texts of the new masculinity, which, among its defining features, checks out the old masculinity with the aim of salvaging window dressing for the soul. These texts included the glossies on the barbershop's magazine rack, where a fashion spread noted the collaboration between the au courant French retailer A.P.C. and the durable blue-collar brand Carhartt. These texts also included a marketing report that dwelled on "retrosexuals": "With gender divisions getting blurry, some men—and especially Millennials—are looking to the past for inspiration on style and skills from generations where male identity was more distinctively expressed." And there was the text of one's own face—whiskers trimmed, eyes squinting through hairy issues, into the depths of the superficial: It seemed possible that to be a man was to be a member of a market segment and desirable to start deconstructing that.

After the shave, aftershave. The marketers would suggest that bay rum appeals to the retrosexual because his grandfather wore it. The student of taste has no complaint with this recommendation. All the popular grandfatherly scents—drugstore classics, Brut and Old Spice and English Leather and the like—boast an herbal undernote of sage wisdom. As one of the authors of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide writes, “Economic pressure has kept mass-market men’s fragrances cheap and cheerful, since repeat business is their bread and butter, and the only reason a guy like my dad would buy a fragrance is that it smells good.” Not incidentally, Old Spice exploits the grandfather concept in its advertising and packaging. In related news, Old Spice exploits insecurities about manliness with a playfully over-the-top back slap, by way of campaigns including “Smell Like a Man, Man,” starring Isaiah Mustafa as the Man Your Man Could Smell Like.

Smelling like a gentleman needn’t involve any arduous effort or heavy expense. Not smelling is A-OK. Neutrality is boring, of course—cf., Harry Lime’s speech on Switzerland in The Third Man—but no more boring than any of the thousand knockoffs of Davidoff’s Cool Water that glut the market. Freshness and simplicity are virtues, but the trend in men’s fragrance is toward a freshness for simpletons. This week, when I approached the men’s fragrance counter at Bloomingdale’s, a salesman like a smooth automaton steered me toward something called Bvlgari Aqua, which resembles any number of other, cheaper brands in its marine quality. To judge by the marketplace, male smells are sailing into the future on a nondescript oceanic breeze. The most recently developed “family” of fragrances is the “aquatic,” and its unisex cleanliness, synthetic and hygienic, is the selling point. At this writing, half of the top men’s fragrances on Amazon are products of Nautica. These seas are notably more placid than those cruised by the Old Spice ship imagery or by Drakkar Noir, the herbaceous ’80s favorite named for a Viking boat.

It is popularly supposed that men bother smelling like anything for the purposes of, to use insider’s jargon, “pulling chicks.” The most interesting 20th-century poet of the phenomenon is the late French singer Serge Gainsbourg, who declared his allegiance to the lavender lift of Caron Pour Un Homme—the first modern perfume specifically marketed to men—in slightly sinister lines about a mysteriously dexterous appendage. These I’ve seen translated thus:

I come across — pour un homme — as not terribly handsome,
But nevertheless – pour un homme — quite seductive.
The key of my charm as well as my secret arm — Pour un Homme — by Caron.

Rather less poetic are the copywriters for Jovan Sex Appeal: “This provocative, stimulating brand of rare spices and herbs was created by man for the sole purpose of attracting women. At will.” As evidenced by the existence of fragrances packaged like industrial pheromone sprays, this school of thought is not changing its administration any time soon.

But a gentleman should want to wear a fragrance for the sake of his own simple sensual delight at high tide and low, with the secondary benefits of inspiring Proustian reveries in his grandkids decades later and—OK fine—perhaps for the prehensile potential suggested by Serge. Which bring us back to the letter writer and her vision of a utopia lined in leather-bound hardcovers. Reviewing these notes, I see now, dear Lady, that I haven’t quite fulfilled your request. So here goes: Scent goes a long way with a woman. But I can’t support the stolen kisses bit; any party in possession of a stolen kiss should promptly put it back where he found it, step away, consider the matter closed. However, you do point us toward a good guideline: How much fragrance should a man apply? So little that it’s not discernible to persons standing beyond his immediate kiss-stealing range. I might have pointed this out this morning to a guy whose fog of body spray accosted me as I walked down the street, but he drove away too fast.

Bay rum is delicious, seductive, masculine, and available from many retailers at quite a reasonable price. Nonetheless, I took a stab at synthesizing online formulae for making one’s own by soaking West Indian bay leaves and sundry spices in rum. My bride’s proboscis determined my first batch of Patterscent to be in the 80th percentile of male odors. Not bad! I’ll keep tinkering until it meets the rather high standard I set in contriving its cocktail analog. Yes, our test kitchen adapted bay rum into a delicious, seductive, masculine drink, and I am setting its recipe here as a thank-you note for the lady letter writer and a promise to gentleman readers: You will not go wrong smelling like this drink tastes.

The Old-Spice Fashioned
1 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
1 ounce Plymouth gin
¼ ounce or less Demerara syrup
heavy dash of allspice dram
dash of Cardamaro liqueur (or cardamom bitters)
dash Angostura bitters
dash orange bitters
garnish: orange twist
Stir well with ice. Strain over ice into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Garnish and keep the wheels of civilization whirring along.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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