Ahoy, me hearties! Today we’ll be discussing the most pirate-y of wet shaving products: the bay rum aftershave.
Masculine, old-school, spicy, and tropical… Bay rum is a quintessential aftershave scent, and every wet shaving enthusiast should try it at least once.
But what is bay rum exactly? Why is it such an iconic aftershave fragrance? And which is the best bay rum aftershave out there right now?
In this post, we’ll cover just about everything you should know about bay rum, starting with our very favorite bay rum aftershaves available today. We’ll also discuss the swashbuckling history of the famous scent, what kind of ingredients go into it, and what you need to know to pick the best bay rum option for you.
Best Bay Rums: Summaries
There’s a lot to say about bay rum, but before we get into it, here’s a summary of our favorite bay rum aftershaves, with a quick explanation of what makes each one of them unique:
#1—Our Best Overall Pick: Barberry Coast Bay Rum No. 28. Spicy-sweet, Barberry Coast Bay Rum Aftershave offers a modern take on the fragrance and features both alcohol and glycerin for a bracing but not dehydrating feel
#2—Top Choice for Beginners: Clubman Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum Aftershave. This entry-level aftershave from Pinaud is generous with the cloves, but otherwise offers a refreshing touch of the classic scent
#3—Top Splash for Sensitive Skin: Genuine Ogallala Bay Rum Aftershave. Light on the alcohol but generous with the witch hazel, this is a gentle aftershave with a warming spice scent inspired by 19th century recipes
#4—Best Bay Rum Balm: Barberry Coast Bay Rum Balm. Barberry Coast’s balm is another one of our favorites, for those who want to enjoy the modern bay rum scent in the form of a moisturizing aftershave
#5—Best Natural Balm: Balm Gilbert Henry Natural Bay Rum Aftershave Balm. This natural balm is designed to moisturize while imparting a masculine bay rum scent with woodsy touches, and finally
#6—Our Favorite Traditional Fragrance: Authentic Grand Bay. Keep it extra-simple and as traditional as can be with this bracing aftershave splash fragranced with nothing but West Indian bay oil.
Bay Rum: An Iconic Timeless Scent
The phrase “bay rum” conjures an image of swashbuckling pirates, sandy Caribbean beaches, and pure tropical adventure.
The origin of the scent and its use as an aftershave is intrinsically tied to West Indian bay, a pungent plant that is native to the Caribbean (and is largely unrelated to Mediterranean bay laurel).
Before European sailors came on the scene, Caribbean island inhabitants had already been using bay leaves in traditional folk medicine (and they still do today). Topically, the plant was primarily used as a remedy for minor skin diseases, thanks to antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Then, at some point in the 16th or 17th centuries, anecdotes tell that sailors (and maybe also pirates) started rubbing themselves with bay leaves to hide the stench of long days on the ship.
Eventually, it became a common practice to steep the leaves in rum, which turned the rum itself into a more potent fragrance distillate. This practice birthed bay rum as we know it today!
Whether this really happened or it’s just a story fabricated by one of the early bay rum brands isn’t entirely clear… but what’s undeniably true is that nowadays, it’s part of what makes bay rum so iconically masculine.
Then we jump to the 19th century when Danish pharmacist Albert Heinrich Riise moved to St. Thomas Island (which is today part of the US Virgin Islands). There, he combined his profession with his interests in botany and alcohol distillation. He developed many different concoctions (some of which he may have learned from the locals), and he went on to distribute his creations in the United States and Europe, including his very own bay rum.
A single bottle shows us both the past and the future, much like many other aspects of shaving. So, can you see your future in a bottle of bay rum aftershave?
Soon after, the popularity of bay rum exploded as a skin tonic and aftershave, and many different producers popped up.
It’s possible that some of the popularity was thanks to prohibition in the US. It was strictly forbidden to import and sell alcohol for drinking, but perfectly fine to sell it for “external use.” As such, lovers of drink bought bay rum (as well as other alcohol-based “topical remedies”) to imbibe, even though it wasn’t always safe.
At the same time, bay rum also became a barbershop favorite (and many consider it their favorite scented aftershave. Some barbers even started creating their own bay rum mixtures in the US.
For the next two centuries, bay rum aftershave came in and out of favor, and it’s not unusual to meet men who have been using the same brand of bay rum aftershave since the 60s or 70s.
Today we have everything from simple, one-note bay rum aftershaves much like the ones used by Caribbean sailors and locals to modern fragrances that combine bay essential oil with other fragrance notes to offer more complexity and longevity.
What Does Bay Rum Aftershave Smell Like?
Every bay rum aftershave smells a little different, but in general, you can always expect a complex blend of spices, fresh notes, sweet notes, and a touch of citrus.
West Indian Bay. The main fragrance in any good quality bay rum aftershave is West Indian Bay (Latin name: Pimenta racemosa). Not to be confused with laurel bay, West Indian bay has a much spicier scent. The plant itself is related to allspice, so the essential oil from its leaves packs a similarly complex punch of clove, cinnamon, cardamom, and even vanilla, with a green, herbaceous touch.
Warm Spices. Most bay rum aftershaves are then bolstered by other spicy essential oils, like clove, allspice, and cinnamon. These help to bring out the spicy notes in the West Indian bay, so it’s sometimes hard to separate them from one another, although they contribute significantly to an aftershave’s intensity and longevity.
Citrus. Finally, a touch of citrus essential oil can add some brightness and freshness to a bay rum mix. Most brands use either orange or bergamot essential oils. You’re probably familiar with the sweet smell of orange peel oil, so bergamot is similar but with a hint of lime. We’ve yet to see a lemon essential oil in a bay rum aftershave, but we can imagine it might be an interesting addition, while lime is sometimes used in aftershaves marketed as “bay rum-lime.”
Wood or Musk. Traditionally, woodsy or musky notes aren’t part of a bay rum fragrance blend, but many brands opt to add them in anyway. The reason for this is that woods and musks are great “base notes.” They linger longer than the other essential oils on the list, so they help to improve an aftershave’s longevity. They’re also more contemporarily masculine, and they can help a bay rum blend feel a little more modern.
How to Choose a Bay Rum Aftershave
Bay rum aftershaves have been around for centuries, but they’ve undergone all sorts of modernizations. When it comes to choosing the best bay rum aftershave for you, here are some factors to consider:
You’d think that a bay rum smell is a bay rum smell, but that’s not actually the case! As you may have noticed from our explanation of what bay rum smells like, there is definitely room for formulators to get creative.
Unfortunately, most brands choose to keep their fragrance blends proprietary. This means that they don’t share exactly which essential oils or fragrance ingredients they’ve used in their aftershave. We have to depend on our noses to figure out what’s inside!
Sometimes, it’s not clear if a formula uses natural essential oils or synthetic fragrance compounds, although we generally look at the price as an indicator. The cheaper the aftershave, the more likely it is that the bay rum scent is synthetic, which is worth keeping in mind if using natural products is important to you.
To us, bay rum aftershaves can be split into three main categories based on the period by which they were inspired:
16th Century Simplicity. As we already touched on, the earliest iterations of bay rum were produced out of West Indian bay leaves steeped in rum. The closest thing we can find today is bay rum aftershaves made with perfume-grade alcohol and the essential oil of the same plant. These tend to have a more subtle, short-lasting scent, but they’re very educational since they let the OG ingredient be the real star of the show.
Barbershop. Old-school bay rum scents are what you would have encountered in any American barbershop in the 19ths and 20th centuries. Some of the bay rum aftershaves we profile in this post have actually been around for that long, without changing their scent!
The old-school formulas tend to be pretty heavy on the clove essential oil, as well as other warming spices, and they can be polarizing. If you like that Christmas-y smell, these are the aftershaves you should go for. They’re also the ones most likely to generate nostalgia, and if you wear one, you may find yourself receiving a lot of compliments from your elders.
Modern. Modern-day perfumery has come a long way, and many enterprising brands are using their creativity to modernize bay rum. Usually, they do this by adding balancing notes to downplay the heavy spices that were so popular in the last 150 years.
The addition of more subtle spices, herbs, and citrus adds brightness, while woods and musks give a masculine depth and improved longevity.
Your Nose May Vary (YNMV). Finally, it’s always worth mentioning that fragrance is NEVER one-size-fits-all. Let any two men smell the same aftershave, and not only will they disagree about whether they like it or not—they’ll also disagree about which notes they can smell!
Beyond this, your personal skin chemistry can also impact how an aftershave smells on your skin. That’s why you may want to try a few different kinds of bay rum aftershave before forming an opinion about what works for you.
If you rely on your aftershave to double as a cologne, longevity is going to be of utmost importance for you. In general, to find a bay rum aftershave that’ll have better longevity, there are two factors to consider.
Alcoholic Base. First of all, you want to look at the base. An aftershave splash with a lot of alcohol is going to stick around a lot better than a balm or a formula that has more witch hazel or water than it does alcohol.
Strong Base Notes. Another factor that influences longevity is the complexity of the fragrance blend, and whether it includes strong base notes. Base notes are those fragrance compounds or essential oils that tend to stick around, like musk, cedarwood, and sandalwood. Usually, only the more modern takes on bay rum contain these long-lasting base notes.
Consider Cologne. Finally, if you want a bay rum fragrance that will last you for an entire day, it’s better to pick up a cologne, which contains a lot more essential oil than the average aftershave. You can use it alone or layer it over an aftershave for a double punch of bay rum.
Some of the brands we’ve selected for our top picks, like Ogallala and Gilbert Henry, also produce long-lasting colognes that you can try.
If you use aftershave primarily as a post-shave skin treatment, longevity won’t matter as much as the question of skin-nourishing ingredients. Gotta calm that post-shave irritation somehow!
Typically, the ingredients you’ll want to look for in a bay rum aftershave splash are soothing or moisturizing agents:
Glycerin. Glycerin helps to attract water to the skin to prevent dehydration. It’s especially important if you’re using an alcohol-based aftershave.
Witch hazel. Witch hazel is a natural plant extract with skin-soothing abilities, thanks to a high amount of antioxidants.
While these are the two most common ingredients added to aftershave, you may also find options with aloe vera, panthenol, or vitamin E.
Splash vs. Balm
Another detail worth considering is whether you want an aftershave splash or aftershave balm. While bay rum aftershave splashes are more common, balms are usually the more skin-soothing choice.
Choosing an Aftershave Splash. An aftershave splash is a liquid that usually contains a lot of alcohol, although it can also be made up of other liquids like water, witch hazel, and glycerin.
The main benefit of choosing a bay rum aftershave splash, in our opinion, is that the fragrance tends to stick around for longer. If the splash is rich in alcohol, it may also sting a little which will let you know if you’ve cut yourself during shaving—if you haven’t, it’s just very bracing and cooling.
Men with oily skin might prefer an aftershave splash because it usually contains astringents, which are ingredients that constrict the skin to control oil and temporarily tighten the pores. It can be a poor choice for those with dry or sensitive skin since it can be drying and a little irritating.
Choosing an Aftershave Balm. An aftershave balm is a moisturizing cream with a thicker texture. Instead of splashing it on, you rub it into the skin after shaving, to help nourish and soothe the skin gently.
If your skin tends to get dry or irritated after you shave, a balm is the better choice. The oils and hydrating agents in it can help restore the skin’s moisture barrier to make it stronger. A balm won’t sting or dry out your skin the way a splash could, although unfortunately, the fragrance won’t stick around as long.
Men with oily skin sometimes find that aftershave balms are too greasy for them, especially in the summer, although they may still want to try a balm in winter.
Just keep in mind that if you have sensitive skin, a bay rum aftershave balm might still be an issue because of the fragrance ingredients. You might be better off using an unscented lotion instead.
Why Not Both? If you’d like to benefit from the long-lasting smell of a splash as well as from the soothing properties of a balm, you can use both! In fact, using both a bay rum balm and bay rum splash can be a great way of “layering” the smells, which will allow them to build up and offer slightly better longevity.
Before we move on, there’s one other thing we should share: you can actually make your own aftershave, and a lot of guys do so (and create their own signature scent). That sort of thing isn’t for everyone, but there are a lot of guys who love homemade/DIY male grooming projects, so we thought we’d mention it 🙂
Alternative Scents of Interest
One thing we know all too well here at Rough and Tumble is that fragrance is never one-size-fits-all. Bay rum aftershaves are quite diverse, so if you don’t like one you might still like another.
However, maybe you’ve tried a few bay rums and discovered that the spicy-sweet-herbal smell just isn’t for you, or maybe you just like having a collection of aftershave options… Either way, here are some other aftershave fragrance profiles we like a lot!
Woodsy. Wood fragrances like cedarwood and sandalwood are masculine and deep with just a hint of sharpness.
Herbal. Herbs like rosemary, sage, and mint are always interesting. They can be pungent, fresh, or sweet.
Citrus. Citruses like lime, lemon, orange, and bergamot are known for their brightness and cheeriness, that’s wonderful in summer.
Floral. Florals can actually work well in masculine aftershaves, especially when it comes to deeper or sharper notes like lavender or geranium.
Spices. Spices like clove, peppercorn, cinnamon, vanilla, and allspice are staples in bay rum, but you can also find them in other aftershaves.
Blends. The best aftershaves usually combine scents from different categories, to create something interesting and memorable.
Bay Rum Aftershaves: Our Complete Reviews
Now that you know a bit more about the fascinating history of bay rum, as well as how to choose a bay rum aftershave for your unique needs, we think you’re ready to read our reviews and learn exactly why these aftershaves are our favorites.
Best Overall: Barberry Coast Bay Rum Aftershave No. 28
Not only is Barberry Coast Bay Rum Aftershave No. 28 our top bay rum aftershave, but it’s also one of our all-time favorite aftershaves in general. It feels great on the skin and it has that great signature bay rum scent, but with a modern twist.
It’s definitely a premium aftershave, so we’re not surprised that it’s made with natural essential oils. The blend is composed of bay, cinnamon, clove, allspice, orange, and vanilla scents. When formulating it, Barberry Coast set out specifically to make a more modern version of the classic scent, which really works for us.
When we use it, the bay and orange hit our nose right away, but eventually give way to the sweeter notes of spice and vanilla. It’s that citrus touch that makes this a summer favorite for many (although not everyone likes that sort of thing!).
As for other ingredients, it’s a simple aftershave with water, alcohol, and glycerin. While alcohol can be drying, glycerin was added to mitigate that and offer a hint of hydration. It’s still a splash, though, so the smell comes strong while the nourishing effects are mild—if you want something more skin-protecting, scroll on down to our review of Barberry’s Bay Rum aftershave balm.
Best for Beginners: Clubman Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum Aftershave
Clubman Pinaud is a company that has been around for literal centuries, so when it comes to barbershop-style bay rum, they know what they’re doing. Their Clubman Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum Aftershave is one of the more accessible bay rum aftershaves out there, so we think it’s a great option for beginners. If you don’t want to splurge on a product like Barberry before you know if you even like the smell of bay rum, this one is a solid choice.
Unfortunately, Clubman Pinaud keeps a tight seal on the precise fragrance blend, so we can only rely on our nose to describe the smell. To us, the scent is strong on the cloves at first sniff, but then it mellows out into a more classic bay rum fragrance. Even though it’s described as refreshing and tropical, it really makes our mouth water during the holiday season.
As a post-shave treatment, this bay rum aftershave probably isn’t ideal. It’s like cologne, with a lot of alcohol but no witch hazel or glycerin to soothe the skin. It’s one of those aftershaves that’ll give you a nice alcoholic sting to let you know if your shave was too aggressive. On the flip side, this means that the scent sticks around a little longer than some of the other options on the list.
Best Gentle Splash: Genuine Ogallala Bay Rum Aftershave
If you’re into the old-timey feel of wet shaving, this might become your favorite bay rum splash. It’s made by a small shaving product company based out of Ogallala, Nebraska—hence the name—and both the scent and aesthetic make us think of the Wild West.
Ogallala Bay Rum Aftershave is made with a lot of witch hazel, some purified water, and a trace amount of alcohol. There is no glycerin here, so while it’s not overly drying, it also doesn’t hydrate the skin the way other aftershaves might.
As an aftershave, we find that it hits the skin with a light cooling touch… as long as we remember to shake it before using. The formula can settle and separate a little, which can lead to an accidental face-full of stinging essential oils. So, remember to shake!
As for the bay rum scent, this aftershave doesn’t reveal its secrets—the label just lists “bay rum fragrance oil.” However, to our noses, this is a spice-forward bay rum blend with stronger notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and clove when compared to some of the other splashes on the list.
If you’re into that sweet and spicy vibe, you may love it, but if you’d like to try a more woodsy twist on bay rum, Ogallala also offers an aftershave enhanced with masculine sandalwood.
Because of the low-alcohol amount, we find that the smell dissipates quickly, although there’s also a long-lasting cologne available.
Best Bay Rum Aftershave Balm: Barberry Coast Bay Rum Balm
If you have sensitive skin, you may want to skip the traditional aftershave splash and opt for a balm instead. Unsurprisingly, the same brand that makes our top bay rum aftershave splash also makes a wonderful bay rum balm.
Barberry Coast Bay Rum Balm features the same essential oil blend as Barberry’s splash, but with a few added cooling and herbal touches from menthol, balm mint, and sage. Since it’s a balm, the smell fades away pretty quickly, but that’s to be expected.
The actual base is nicely moisturizing, with hydrating glycerin, soothing vitamin E, and nourishing shea butter. If your skin sometimes gets irritated after you shave, you may find that these ingredients help to repair and mitigate that damage.
It’s definitely not an “all-natural” formula because it also contains isopropyl myristate (a skin conditioning ingredient that aids in product penetration) and dimethicone (a silicone that creates a moisture-binding seal over the skin and prevents the balm from feeling greasy).
While these ingredients may sound chemical-y, which we know some of our readers prefer to avoid, they make for a balm that feels very light and smooth on the skin.
Best Natural Balm: Gilbert Henry Natural Bay Rum Aftershave Balm
If you prefer a bay rum aftershave balm with a more natural formula then Gilbert Henry Natural Bay Rum Aftershave Balm might be more to your liking. It’s a little runnier than the average balm, but very moisturizing to our skin, especially in winter.
The base is made with some famously nourishing natural ingredients like aloe vera, coconut oil, and glycerin. It also features some soothing ingredients like witch hazel water, vitamin E, and white willow bark extract, which can be nice if shaving sometimes irritates your skin.
However, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you may find that coconut oil can cause issues with acne, so proceed with caution.
The actual fragrance is spicy and woodsy, with a lot of clove at first and a base of cedar and sandalwood. Since it’s a balm, it doesn’t stick around for as long as a splash, although we do find it’s a little more long-lasting than Barberry because of that woodsy base.
Best Traditional Formula: Grand Bay Rum Aftershave
Last, but not necessarily least, on our list is the Grand Bay Rum Aftershave. This product is unique in that all it contains is water, alcohol, and West Indian bay essential oil. It’s produced in small batches on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
Since West Indian bay has a complex scent all on its own, this aftershave isn’t as one-note as you’d think.
It’s also the closest a modern aftershave can come to the original bay rum recipe from the 16th century, which was just West Indian bay leaves steeped in rum. For many purists, this is the best overall bay rum aftershave on the market, since there are no other essential oils to dilute the bay scent. This means you won’t get strong whiffs of clove nor the uplifting touches of citrus.
As anyone with some knowledge of perfumery will tell you, it’s impossible to get a long-lasting scent with just one essential oil. This formula is subtle and doesn’t linger for long.
All-in-all, we think this aftershave it’s worth a try because it can give you a sense of what West Indian bay is meant to smell like. You may find that you love the simplicity, but even if you don’t, it’ll help you gain an appreciation for the more modern iterations.
If you like the idea of a more simple bay rum, but still want the refreshing zing of citrus, Grand Bay also has an aftershave with both bay and lime.
Now Bring Me That Horizon
To us, bay rum defines timelessness. This splash from the past has endured through centuries thanks to a mix of nostalgia and innovation. This old-meets-new contradiction is the exact reason why we love bay rum so much.
Michael Morris is the head writer here at Rough and Tumble Gentleman. He's got a ducktail beard and loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's married to the woman of his dreams and lives in Brooklyn, NY.