With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in January 2012.
Every time I stroll down the men’s grooming aisle at my local drugstore to pick up some deodorant or Brylcreem, I can’t help but notice the shelves of colognes and aftershaves. Gillette’s green and blue goo aftershaves seem to sell well, as do the notorious and infamous Axe body sprays.
However, as my eyes drift down to the lowest shelf, I’ll usually spy a selection of hardly touched colognes and aftershaves. Among them you’ll find fragrances that once sat in Grandpa’s bathroom — English Leather, Old Spice, Aqua Velva — but are now overlooked or snickered at by the younger generation.
I’ll be honest, I used to turn up my nose at these colognes and aftershaves too. I figured if they were being sold in a drugstore in plastic bottles for $5 and not at a department store in fancy glass bottles for $50, they probably smelled awful. Without a celebrity endorsement, how good could they be? Oh, the power of branding on my feeble mind!
But one day, I decided that instead of relying on my fallacious reasoning to judge the quality of these forgotten drugstore colognes and aftershaves, I would bust out some good old-fashioned empiricism. I headed over to my nearest drugstore and filled up my handbasket with every single cologne and fragrance they offered. The lady at the checkout lane gave me a funny look and noted that she’s never seen a guy my age buying the stuff in my basket. I just smiled.
The total on my receipt for the six different products was $41. The most expensive bottle was $12.
After a week of testing these colognes and aftershaves, I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by my findings. I actually thought all of the drugstore colognes and aftershaves smelled great. If you’re looking to invigorate your freshly shaved face or want to dab on a bit of scent every day without breaking the bank, they make for agreeable alternatives to expensive fragrances.
Below are my thoughts and a bit of history on the six drugstore colognes and aftershaves I tested. Enjoy.
Pinaud Clubman is the oldest bargain aftershave on our list. Since 1810, Pinaud Clubman has been making the world smell manlier with their wide range of grooming products. Walk into any traditional barbershop and you’ll likely find Pinaud Clubman aftershave sitting on the shelves; it’s part of what gives classic barbershops their distinctive scent.
What it smells like: Pinaud Clubman is pretty potent stuff. You’ll find hints of orange, lemon, jasmine, and lavender with a warm musk background in this manly concoction. It also has a nice antiseptic alcohol smell to it. You’d think smelling like rubbing alcohol would be a bad thing, but somehow Pinaud Clubman makes it work.
Average Price: $7 for 6 oz.
Aqua Velva Ice Blue
Aqua Velva got its start in 1929, not as an aftershave, but as a mouthwash for men. Crazy, huh? It wasn’t until 1935 that Aqua Velva started getting pitched exclusively as an aftershave. Aqua Velva’s biggest selling point has always been the cooling menthol that soothes away razor burn.
Throughout the years, Aqua Velva produced several TV commercials to cast itself as the scent of choice of manly men. In this spot, 1950s cartoon guy learns what happens to guys who don’t wear Aqua Velva:
Aqua Velva was responsible for Pete Rose’s all-time MLB record for hits. If only Aqua Velva could have imbued Rose with the wisdom needed to understand that betting on your own team isn’t a good idea.
Even the Lone Ranger and Tonto wore Aqua Velva. Hi-yo, Silver!
What it smells like: Aqua Velva leaves a nice, clean, masculine smell that’s heavy on the menthol, but also includes hints of vanilla, lavender, and oakmoss. The smell is initially potent, but fades to a pleasant manly oakmoss smell very quickly. This was my second favorite scent out of all that I tried.
Average Price: $5 for 3.5 oz
Before they got into the body wash business, Old Spice made cologne and aftershave. Chances are your grandpa probably wore the stuff. If I were a bettin’ man, I’d even wager that the manly, charming scent of Old Spice played some kind of role in your eventual birth. Old Spice has been sold in its iconic buoy-shaped bottle since 1938.
What it smells like: Old Spice has a nice, spicy smell to it, hence the name. You’ll find overpowering notes of sage and cinnamon when you apply it. As it fades, it leave a pleasant musk and cedarwood scent.
Many believe that today’s Old Spice cologne isn’t the same as the original. Aficionados swear there was a subtle change made to the formula after Procter & Gamble acquired the brand. Even with the tweaking, this is still a solid, timeless, and manly fragrance. Good to have in your collection.
Average Price: $10 for 6.37 oz.
The aftershave of choice of my grandfather, William Hurst, and my own favorite drugstore classic. English Leather got its start in 1949, and it hasn’t changed much since then. Same formula; same rectangular bottle; same big ol’ wooden lid. English Leather gift boxes were a popular holiday gift for years. Maybe you got your dad a box for Christmas 1987. Most of the marketing for English Leather featured an attractive woman telling male viewers or readers that, “All her men wear English Leather.” Translation: If you want hot babes, slap on some English Leather, by golly. Example:
What it smells like: It’s a pretty simple fragrance. Starts off with a citrusy smell that slowly fades to a woodsy, leathery scent. As the day wore on, it started to smell more like baby powder. Nice and fresh.
Average Price: $12 for 3.4 oz.
Ah, Brut. My first cologne. I got some in my stocking for Christmas when I was in 6th grade. The ladies of Sequoyah Middle School loved it. At least, that’s what I told my 12-year-old self.
The original Brut was marketed as a luxury scent in 1963, but in 1968, Fabergé (the company that owns Brut) created a budget version called “Brut 33” (the 33 was a reference to the fact that it was 33% less fragrant than the original). A few years later, they re-branded the budget version back to just “Brut.” Thus was born one of the most iconic bargain colognes of all time. Brut’s trademark plastic green (and, let’s be honest, kind of phallic) bottle with its silver logo has graced the medicine cabinets of millions of men across the world.
Over the years, Brut has marketed itself as the go-to fragrance for men of strength and virility. Its tagline is “The Essence of Man.” Athletes have typically been the spokesmen for the brand. Football player “Broadway” Joe Namath took part in a series of TV and print ads for Brut in the 1970s. Here’s Joe telling us how men who “go all the way” wear Brut:
What it smells like: People either love or hate Brut. I’m personally a fan of it. The scent combines dashes of sandalwood, oakmoss, lavender, and jasmine. It’s kind of an aggressive scent.
Average Price: $7 for 5 oz.
After a century of making cowboy hats, the Stetson Company decided to get into the men’s fragrance business in 1981 with a cologne for men. Stetson took advantage of their cowboy heritage by pitching their cologne as the scent for men who are independent and love adventure. And as the gift idea for those who didn’t know what else to get the man in their lives (“Stetson makes it easy, for youuuu!”).
What it smells like: Stetson’s scent kinda catches you off guard. With all their rugged cowboy marketing, I expected Stetson to have a woodsy, leathery, or even musk scent. But to my surprise it was more of a light, flowery fragrance with notes of lavender, jasmine, and citrus. It’s not bad, just different from the typical male fragrances on the list.
Average Price: $10 for 3.5 oz. I got mine on sale at Walgreens for $4. What a deal!
In Memorium: Hai Karate
Hai Karate is no longer produced, but because it was perhaps one of the most famous bargain fragrances to come out of the 60s and 70s, I had to put it on the list. I’ve never smelled the stuff, but from what I’ve heard from Baby Boomers, its exotic blend of lavender, basil, geranium, bergamot, rose, and patchouli didn’t actually smell so great. So why did it sell so well?
With every bottle of Hai Karate, you got a small instruction booklet of karate moves that you were supposed to use to fend off the women who would be all over you after you applied this irresistible fragrance.
Here’s the TV commercial showing the effects of Hai Karate on a man’s unsuspecting girlfriend:
While Hai Karate faded from the fragrance scene in the 80s, its legacy lives on today in Axe body spray. Just like its 1970s predecessor, Axe assaults one’s nasal cavities (at least when over-applied by zealous middle schoolers), yet remains popular because of clever marketing that usually features women attacking some dude who’s sprayed himself with magically instant sex appeal.
If you’re really itching to try some Hai Karate, you can buy it on eBay.