Look on your bookshelf, in your armoire, wherever you stash your toiletries. We’d bet a shiny buffalo nickel you’ve got one bottle of cologne there, maybe a second collecting dust. The one you’ve got smells like getting socked with a powdery diaper, but the packaging made you think of white sand, bracing saltwater and azure skies. What happened? More to the point, how did you end up with that bottle? For all the energy men expend making decisions about what to buy (we should know), we put comparatively little effort into cologne.
There are good reasons for this. For starters, it seems indulgent to put much effort into anointing ourselves with fragrance, as if we were some aging Roman statesmen with shaved armpits. Second, the actual process of testing cologne is impractical. You’ve got to put it on to know how it jives with your own personal epidermis, but you can only put on one cologne per day, which means testing colognes becomes cumbersome. And yet we still need to find the right one, because there’s nothing like your woman — hell, even a stranger in the grocery check-out line — leaning in and whispering how goddam good you smell. And making that “grrrr” sound?
One way to winnow the selection of colognes should be reviews, but the majority of what’s out there is either industry-focused or heavily skewed toward the big commercial brands. We’re taking some of the guesswork out by testing men’s cologne here at GP, starting with a look at five small-batch colognes from niche brands we like.
Juniper Ridge Wild Plum Campground Backpacker’s Cologne
Best for Lumberjacks and Pitmasters: We’ve covered Juniper Ridge on these pages before. The Berkeley-based company is unique among fragrance producers, mainly because they distill all their own essential oils from wild plants and trees harvested in High Sierra, Cascades and Big Sur, but also because they’re basically backpackers and naturalists who happen to bottle the smells of the West. Their Wild Plum Campground Backpacker’s Cologne ($100) is bizarre stuff: sweet and juicy — plums and grapes — with notes of cedar, pine and resin dripping from freshly torn bark. This one’s basically unrecognizable as a cologne, which is to say it’s radically different from what’s out there. We like it. It smells of a place (Yuba River, in this case). It goes on strong, but it has limited staying power because Juniper Ridge doesn’t use petroleum additives. The perfect cologne to cover up nasty BO.
BKLYN Dry Goods and D.S. & Durga Spent Musket Oil
Editor’s Pick: Spent Musket Oil ($150) falls roughly in the same ballpark as Wild Plum Campground, insofar as it’s a small batch product made in the U.S.A. But instead of West Coast Jeremiah Johnson types distilling their own oils, it’s more of a Wes Andersonian tale of a musician and architect duo, D.S. & Durga, teaming up with the craftsmen and proprietors of Brooklyn boutique BKLYN Dry Goods for a fragrance inspired by (brace yourself) “Barbary wars era rifle found in the hold of a packet ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yards with accords of vintage birchwood, spent rifle oil, and dried leather hilt warmed by Cavendish tabac, Merchant Marine’s bay rhum, and musk”. Esoteric, for sure, but D.S. & Durga are a well-respected start-up, and we really like this cologne. The use of ambrox, gives it a warm, alluring quality that makes you want to keep smelling it.
Portland General Store Saltwater Cologne
Best for Tweed Freaks: Portland General is a familiar name in New England and among guys who know their way around beard oil and shave soap — so, a few guys. The Maine-based mom and pop shop makes a handful of grooming products with natural, mostly organic ingredients, of which several are cologne, with names like Cardamom, Moss, Professor, Tobacco, Whiskey, Maine and Saltwater. Saltwater Cologne ($70) has the refreshing quality of being pushed off the rocks in Biddeford Pool by your brother and dragged out of the Atlantic by your freshly-shaved grandpa, circa 1950. It smells like minerals, citrus and musk. It’s a much more subtle scent to wear, which is both a positive characteristic and the source of our only complaint: it wears off quickly.
Le Labo Santal 33
Best for Connoisseurs: With home bases in Grasse, France (an important perfume industry town) and downtown New York City, Le Labo collaborates with a number of perfumers, or “noses”, on scents, then blends them to order. Santal 33 ($145) is made from 33 ingredients, the principal one being santal, or sandalwood, and some other important players including cardamom, violet, iris and ambrox. Le Labo describes it as “an open fire… the soft drift of smoke… where sensuality rises after the light is gone”. It’s a very bold cologne — one that we now immediately recognize on other people at bars, say — and we found it strangely addictive, but we also had a weird “grandmother’s house” reaction to it after a while. It could be the violet. Cologne ends up being a very personal experience, so the jury is still out; both the cologne and the brand are worth investigating further. Le Labo has an excellent sample program that gets you testers for $6 each, including shipping.
Odin 07 Tanoke
Best for Mysterious Gentlemen: The New York menswear shop owned by Paul Birardi and Eddy Chai (brother of designer Richard Chai) also has a line of unisex fragrances. 07 Tanoke ($125) is as masculine as icing a shiner with a beef shank, though. It’s spicy, woody, smoky, and still somehow refreshing. Not refreshing like a Coke. Refreshing in the sense that it’s invigorating rather than cloying. A blunt instrument of sex. We like this one a lot.