With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in September 2017.
Smells can conjure up powerful memories. The smell of pine needles can take you back to childhood Christmases or the smell of a laundry detergent can remind you of home. For me, there are certain smells that I’ve come to associate with manliness. Whenever I smell them I think of my dad or grandpa or some aspect of my boyhood and my initiation into the rites of manhood.
It was back in 2009 when we first came up with the idea for creating a list of manly smells. We asked you, our readers, for your input, and we gathered together 15 especially virile scents. The list was a hit, and we of course received hundreds of comments relaying further manly smells to feature. So four years later in 2013, we did another crowdsourced list, that time of 18 aromas. We’re at it again, but this time we’ve combined those two original lists with a handful more to boot. Thus, below we present the ultimate collection of manly smells! Interspersed in this list you’ll find not only our descriptions of manly smells, but also memories from our readers themselves.
The hardware store is a smorgasbord of manly smells: paint, wood, fertilizer, metal. It’s all there. As a boy, there was a local hardware store that my dad would go to. He’d lug my brother and I along. We’d open up all the drawers for the hinges and nails and play hide-in-seek in the door displays. Like many local hardware stores, it went out of business years ago when the big box stores moved in. The building was torn down and replaced with an upscale shopping center. But whenever I drive by the corner where it once stood, I can still smell the manliness that once emanated from that place.
“My favorite scent, not just manly scent, but scent period: the smell of coffee percolating in one of those enamel coffee pots on a campfire on a cool autumn morning, right next to the river. Inhale the good, exhale the bad. Heal.” —PiperJon
“Cowboy coffee! Not that BS latte smell of hot milk, but the deep, powerful smell of cowboy coffee made by dumping grounds right into the pot, in deer camp, at 5 am, over a campfire.” —Wilson
The smell of shoe polish is a distinctively manly smell. For many men it conjures up images of brave soldiers shining their boots to a mirror polish. For me, whenever I crack open a can of Kiwi black shoe polish, I’m instantly transported to my childhood den. About once a month, my dad would pull out his wooden shoe polish kit and take all his boots to the den to polish them. He usually watched a classic detective show like In the Heat of the Night or Magnum P.I. while he did it. The warm smell of shoe polish and leather filled the entire room, and it would usually linger there after he finished.
Gasoline, Motor Oil, Grease, and Garage
“Every time I’m at a gas station, I can smell my father with his hands covered in engine oil and gasoline from splashing the red canister contents onto the funnel. Those red rags smell more like a man than most men do.” —James
“I drive an old Triumph Bonneville motorbike and I have to ‘tickle’ the carbs before starting it until a little gas comes out. The smell of it on my finger or leather gloves always makes me nostalgic for my dad’s bike on the carport.” —Matt
“My dad would smell like that after working on the family cars, my older brothers would smell like that after working on their cars, and my husband smells like that every day, as he is a mechanic. Too much is too much, but just the right amount of grease on his tan forearms, smelling manly…WOW. That is one hell of a manly smell.” —Alison
For many men, mowing the lawn is the bane of their existence. But even if you hate the actual chore of mowing the yard, you can’t deny that the smell of fresh cut grass is pretty darn manly. Combine that grass-y smell with a little body odor from the exertion, and a bit of gasoline (if you’re not using a reel mower), and you’ve got a scent you may find yourself in no rush to wash off after giving your lawn a haircut.
Old Tackle Box
“The smell of the metal on old, worn-out pocket knives mixed with the remains of earthworms on fish hooks just brings me right back to fishing with my grandpa as a young buck.” —Mark
I haven’t worked with wood as much as I would like to. But whenever I do, I always try to savor the smell of sawdust. I can remember when I first gained an appreciation for this scent. It was at that old hardware store I mentioned earlier. Out back, they had a lumber yard, and I remember getting big whiffs of sawdust as I watched the workers saw wood down to size for my dad. The smell of sawdust also brings back the memory of my dad showing me how to sand my first pinewood derby car. Good times.
“I worked B-52s, and the smell of 40 years of sweat, burnt food, tension, and hard work just can’t be beat. I’m sure it’s one of those acquired smells, but once you get it, you got it.” —Josh
There’s nothing like the warm, rich, smoky smell of an aged Scotch whisky. To the first timer, the smell of Scotch can be off putting. But once you get past its initial pungency, you’ll discover a symphony of smell. Each Scotch has its own distinct smell, but they all share some general characteristics. You’ll definitely smell the smoky peat used during the malting process. But if you get in closer, you might catch the subtle fruity smell of apples or cherries. There’s also a hint of licorice, reminiscent of kind old men. Taken together, you’re left with a scent that will put hair on your chest.
“I remember when I played in Little League there was no smell like putting your glove on your face: leather, dirt, grass, sweat. Baseball is full of great manly smells.” —Sam
I love walking into a barbershop. You know why? Because they all smell so damn manly. A barbershop smell is a mixture of Barbicide, shaving cream, musky smelling hair, and cheap (and free) coffee. If you’re going to an old barber shop, it may also smell ever so faintly of tobacco from the days when men would smoke a cigarette and put out their butts in the ashtray on the barber chair armrests.
I think every man’s affinity for the smell of gunpowder began at some fireworks stand out in the country. That’s where mine did at least. Every Fourth of July, without fail, the parents would take my brother and I to a fireworks stand on an old country road. I can remember being overwhelmed by the smell of gunpowder as we ran up to the stand. After we filled up our paper bags, I would often stick my nose in it and take a nice big whiff. I was smelling danger. And manliness.
The smell of spent gunpowder is just as appealing, like shotgun shells or the way it smells all around after you fire off a round from a pistol.
The Interior of an Old Car
“Nothing beats getting into an old car (that hasn’t been completely restored from the ground up) and taking a big ol’ whiff and just smelling the years.” —Josh
Original Old Spice Cologne
Go to any men’s section in a department store, and you’ll see a stand selling $60 bottles of cologne with foo-fooey scents. Walk into any local drugstore and you can find manliness in a bottle for less than $12. Before they made deodorant, Old Spice was known for its cologne. They still make the cologne, but it doesn’t get much play these days, which is a shame. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, women seem to love a man who wears Old Spice. It reminds them of their grandfathers. They’re not hot for their grandpas, obviously, they’re just keen on the smell of old fashioned manliness. When they get a whiff of you sporting Old Spice they’ll instantly associate you with a time when men were men. Quit dousing yourself in Calvin Klein or gassing yourself in a cloud of Axe body spray and get some Old Spice.
“Anything to do with horses . . . dried manure, saddle leather, wet saddle blankets, even the smell of hay and sweet feed.” —Kerry
It’s sunset. The last rays of light are slowly fading into the horizon. You go over to the fire pit and begin to strategically place dry leaves and small twigs into a tepee shape. You light a match, and watch the leaves smolder. And then it reaches you: the first bit of smoke from a campfire you created with your own two hands. You suddenly feel more manly. But the smells don’t stop there. Throw in some maple, pine, or pinion logs and you up the manly smell quotient a few marks.
And the campfire smell stays with you when you go home. It gets in your clothes and in your hair, though you don’t really notice it until you walk into a clean house. The contrast between your smoky smelling self and your antiseptic home gives you one last chance to revel in the manly scent of a campfire, before it gets washed down the shower drain.
“The smell of a change room after a game . . . Sweat, grass, blood, and deep heat, and after the showers, various types of stinkpretty. Just the smell of a change room almost has the power to impregnate any females passing by.” —Ben
Freshly Churned Dirt
“For me, it’s the smell of freshly turned dirt — that earthy, loamy smell reminds me of the large garden we had in the backyard when I was a youngster. We emigrated from Hong Kong when I was a kid, and my father dreamed of having a farm or acreage in Canada. We never did get that farm, but the privilege of working on his own land meant spring and fall, my kid brother and I were outside mucking around in the garden with him as he toiled away. To this day, when I turn the dirt in my own garden, the smell of turned soil reminds me of ‘real’ work and what life is all about, not the antiseptic feel of my office, pushing electrons and paper around in an endless circle.” —Ozone
Not many men smoke pipes these days, so that the sweet smell of pipe tobacco has largely evaporated from our world. Cigarette and cigar smoke can be acrid and obnoxious, but pipe smoke is, well, just pleasant. A whiff of a nice clove or cherry wood blend summons images of kindly older men in tweed jackets sitting in a chair next to a warm cozy fire with an old dog nearby.
“The smell of a rough framed house, before the exterior doors, windows, and roofing are installed.” —Kerry
“Cutting steel with a torch. Creosote timber. That deep-down earth smell when excavating. Wet concrete.” —Jim
“Having spent a lot of time at sea when I was in the US Navy, when I visit a warship museum, such as the USS Midway, the first thing I notice is the smell. Kind of a paint, hydraulic fluid, boiler exhaust, salt air mix.” —Perry
“I’m an old Navy guy and after 35 years I can still remember that smell. Red lead paint, bunker oil, steam, food from the galley, and gunpowder. Add several hundred — or several thousand — tired and often scared people. Put it all in a steel box and seal it up from the sunlight and fresh air. I visited the USS Texas about 15 years ago. She’d been cold iron since the late 1940s but when I went below decks I could still smell the ghost of that smell in the air.” —Dave
Your Grandpa’s Chair
It seems like every old man has a chair that’s just for him. After years of sitting in it, the seat conformed specifically to the contours of his body and his scent has been permanently stamped into the upholstery. At least that’s how my grandpa’s chair was. That’s him sitting in his chair with me on the left and my little brother, Larry, on the right. One of my fondest memories was going to my grandpa’s house in Bosque Farms, New Mexico for Thanksgiving. We’d sit on his lap and he’d hold us in his big strong hands. His chair smelled like the pinion wood he’d burn in his cast iron stove, the barn that he kept his horses in, and the sweat of a man who worked hard even in retirement. In a word, it smelled like pure manliness.
I miss my grandpa. And I miss that chair.
Gun Cleaning Solvent
Another ritual my father had when I was growing up was cleaning his government-issued gun for his job as a Federal Game Warden. It was usually done on weeknights after dinner. He’d bring his gun cleaning kit to the kitchen table and place a white cloth in front of him on which he’d place his revolver. I was always fascinated by all the different size brushes in his kit. He’d then slowly open up the bottle of Hoppe’s No. 9 gun cleaning solvent. It filled the entire room with a rich, warm smell.
The first time you smell gun solvent it’s pretty jarring, but then you get used to it, and then you start to like it. That smell alone may even inspire you to make cleaning your gun a regular weekly chore.
“Hand splitting of firewood. You can’t use an electric or gas-powered log splitter and get the same effect. From the metallic smell you get stuck in your nose as you use the double action file to restore the edge on your decades-old axe, to the one-of-a-kind aroma released by a length of red oak as it is cleaved in two, right on down to the combined smell of dank bark chips stuck to your sweaty flannel shirt. Much like the lawn mowing smell, I like to pause to enjoy it.” —Dave
I love tearing open a bag of Kingsford and letting that waft of charcoal goodness hit me right in the nose. It’s a smell that tells my mind and body that summer is officially here. But the smell only gets better when you throw a match on it and watch it turn from black lumps of coal to glowing red stones, ready to cook any meat you throw on it.
In their heyday in the 1950s, bowling alleys replaced the fraternal lodge as a place for men to gather and bond. Perhaps that’s why I associate the smell of a bowling alley with manliness. The combination of lane wax, piles of bowling shoes that have been worn by thousands of people, and cigarette smoke mix together to form that distinct bowling alley smell that permeates alleys across the country.
Not just any lighter carries the scent of a Zippo, which is one that will bring you back to your youthful days of Grandpa letting you play with fire while Mom and Dad weren’t looking. Zippo lighter fluid isn’t anything special on its own, but when it’s soaked up into the cotton padding, travels up the wick, and is ignited by the flint wheel to create an enduring, windproof flame, a unique and manly smell is created. For added virility, grab AoM’s very own Zippo lighter, upon which the phrase “Carry the Fire” is engraved.
Nothing beats the smell of well-worn leather. Some of the manliest pieces of clothing and accessories are made from leather — jackets, boots, briefcases, saddlebags. The smell of leather reminds me of riding horses with my grandpa. I loved walking into the barn where he stored all his tack and taking a deep breath. I remember thinking, “This is manly.”
“My dad would sit on the couch after work (whence by the way, he would come home smelling of machine grease) and read the paper, back in the days when the paper would really leave some color on your hands. I would sit next to him and that newsprint aroma would waft out when he spread the pages wide open. In the winter, he’d light an old kerosene heater just before he settled down to the paper. Talk about being engulfed in manliness.” —Hawkins
Pete Rose and the Lone Ranger are some of the manly icons who’ve worn Aqua Velva — one of the best forgotten drugstore colognes and aftershaves. Aqua Velva’s biggest selling point has always been the cooling menthol that soothes away razor burn, while bracing your face with a potent, minty smell. After the wintery menthol punches you in the mug, the scent fades to a pleasant aroma of oak and moss. You’ll find yourself walking around with a little swagger in your step and calling people “tiger” and “ace” after you start wearing it.
One of the best parts of spending Thanksgiving at my grandpa’s ranch were the breakfasts. Every morning I’d wake up to the smell of pan-fried bacon, pancakes, and black coffee. That’s what heaven smells like.
The history of bay rum is as manly as it smells. Several centuries ago, sailors in the Caribbean had the idea to mix bay leaves and rum together to create a cologne that helped cover their stench on long voyages. Islanders took this basic recipe and began adding their own olfactory flourishes by mixing in cloves, citrus rind, and cinnamon. Thus was born an incredibly unique and wonderful fragrance that spread to the rest of the world and became popular among men as an aftershave scent and as a staple at classic barbershops. You can even make your own.
Whether associated with camping or life in the Army, the distinct smell of canvas tents — a mixture of the scent of the fabric and a mildewy musk — is indelible for many men. Personally, this smell reminds me of Boy Scout camp in Colorado.
While cutting, assembling, and sanding/planing wood provides a variety of manly scents, finishing your work provides another unique aroma. On its own, wood finish is often slightly noxious. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but it’s not terribly pleasant. When applied to wood, though, and the smells are allowed to intermingle, you have a whole new scent. Mix the natural, fresh smell of lumber with the artificial, man-made stain or polyurethane, and you get the bonafide smell of man creating something new and beautiful with the gifts nature has given him.
Since 1893, Lava Soap has been the go-to soap of painters, grease monkeys, and other men who get their hands dirty for a living. Why is it called “Lava”? The soap contains ground-up pumice (a volcanic rock) that helps scour tough-to-remove gunk from your hands. Despite its volcanic inspiration and composition, rather than smelling sulfuric, it actually has a pleasantly fresh scent — one that’s associated with rolling up your sleeves and putting in a hard day’s work.
Perhaps it’s strange to be nostalgic for something I never experienced myself, but I’ve always found the idea of burning leaves in the fall quite evocative. Most cities in the US had banned the practice by the time I was born, but my parents have told me about these autumnal leaf burnings; for about a month, all you could smell in most North American neighborhoods was the scent of smoldering piles of detritus. I imagine it would have smelled like a campfire, magnified by ten. If you want to experience this smell today, just throw some leaves on your campfire the next time you build one.