After writing some rather grim reviews, it gives me pleasure to review a soap that’s fun and generally successful at the same time. Stirling Soap is the Dr. Frankenstein of shave soaps, with occasionally mixed results coming out of the lab, but their take on vetiver is a distinctive and unique soap that will delight hard core vetiver fans, and will also impress virtually all users with its performance. There are a few caveats, but Port Au Prince (PAP) is fun to shave with and enjoyable to write about, and it’s a good point of entry to the vast and interesting Stirling product line.
The Essential Information
“Port Au Prince”, Stirling Soap Co. ($13.00 for 5.8 oz tub of soap. $9 for 4.5 oz refill puck)
Ingredients: (From mfgr website): Beef Tallow, Stearic Acid, Distilled Water, Castor Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, Vegetable Glycerin, Essential Oil, Almond Oil, Shea Butter, Coconut Milk, Lanolin, Sodium Hydroxide, Clay, Sodium Lactate
Two points need to be mentioned up front. First, the strange pricing. Stirling revamped their product line in summer of 2015, creating essentially a dual format lineup. The higher price quoted above for PAP gets you 5.8 oz of soft pour style soap, similar to what other artisans like B&M or Wholly Kaw offer. The soft pour product comes in a plastic tub with label.
The cheaper $9 price gets you a 4.5 oz puck of considerably firmer soap, with no container and no label. You can buy a small metal tin to hold the puck for $1.75 and a blank label for another $0.25 that you can write in the name of the product on with a Sharpie, MontBlanc, whatever. Or you can use your own container and labeling for the puck.
The puck and soft pour soap are said by the artisan to be exactly the same in terms of chemistry and effect. There does appear to be a consistency difference, but I do not own two examples of the same soap in the different formats, so I cannot personally attest to this. I have not read any complaints on the internet on the issue and so have no reason to doubt the artisan. Still the dual format pricing and consistencies are kind of confusing, and I feel Stirling should probably phase out the pucks altogether, but that may not happen for reasons I will discuss later on.
Company Intro: Stirling Soap was founded in 2012, after a married couple, Rod & Amanda Lovan, took a trip to Scotland and were impressed by the natural beauty of that part of the world. They returned to their home in Arkansas with a newfound interest in making natural soaps that would reflect the simple, rugged beauty of the landscapes they had enjoyed while traveling. (For a change of pace in artisan origin tales, neither one of the Lovans is a lawyer or has sensitive skin, as far as I know…)
The Lovans favor use of essential oils in their soap, but unlike LA Shaving Soap Co., they are not fanatical on the topic, but have an informal rule in effect that no more than 2% of the content of any product will be fragrance oil. This gives the company a lot of flexibility in their designs, and allows a pretty vast scope of scents.
Besides more than 40 (!) shaving soaps, Stirling also has roughly the same number of bath soaps, along with 20 balms, and lesser numbers of splashes, pre-shave oils, and body lotions. They also sell their own branded razors and highly acclaimed synthetic brushes.
The huge amount of choice can be confusing and indeed has led to a wide mix of scents in the products, some that work despite their strangeness and some of which sound like hot messes and pretty much are such.
Besides the “historical figure” series, Stirling has also created mixes based on regionally scented forest fires, Egyptian themed ice cream treats, and a mix of cocoa and woods.
Stirling is not always so creative. Lurking in the large lineup is the usual tired mix of citrus stuff, along with the de rigueur Sandalwood scent, and the requisite Barbershop, along with the “our version of …(insert popular men’s fragrance name here)”. But with 42 or so scents, not all of them will be successful in execution and / or original in concept. Nevertheless, there are some jewels in here, and for me at least, Port Au Prince is one of them.
Stirling’s claim to fame is that they offered excellent technical performance at a bargain basement price. When the average artisan soap back in 2014 was $14-$16, Stirling was $9 or so. The price increase last summer was a limited retreat away from Stirling’s value leader position in the market, and the company does not want to move away from the bargain basement entirely, hence the continued availability of the $9 pucks.
Still, at $13 for about 6 ounces of product, Stirling manages to give its fans more for less, and the repackaging effort last summer also introduced the use of higher quality and more consistent formula components (more on this later) so Stirling remains oriented towards offering high value to its customers.
So now that you know a bit more about the brand and its origins and attributes, let’s move on to discuss the specific vetiver heavy example of Stirling craftsmanship that we are considering…
The 5.8 ounce tub resembles the standard containers that many artisans are using these days, only with slightly more fill level for the product, and a very utilitarian Army green color to it. The roughly 8 oz capacity tub is 2/3rds full, allowing ample room to load product without overflow. The label art and graphics are, um, rather uninspired, but the label at least appears to be waterproof. The ingredients are on a separate label on the underside of the tub, and appear to be “generic”, i.e. specific essential oils used are not itemized, but rather are lumped under “essenrial oil” which is at least better than calling them “fragrance”.
No scent description mentioned, but as Stirling is not sold in brick and mortars, I guess this is not too much of an issue.
Anyway, current packaging gets 2 out of 3 points; in my naïve and crazy world view, every shave soap soid could use a full ingredient list, a la LASSCO, and a scent description of some sort, a la Barrister & Mann. No one does this it seems, as the guys that give scent descriptions don’t give ingredient breakdowns, and the guys that list the EOs don’t have scent descriptions. I can dream, though…
Scent in Tub
Per the Stirling website: “Earthy, grassy, and pungently sweet Haitian Vetiver combined with a small but uplifting kick of Lemongrass..” To my nose, there is little sweet in here, and the lemongrass note is about as pungent as the vetiver and equally notable. If you like vetiver, the similarly sharp and pungent lemongrass notes add to the fun, and if you are no fan of the Big Grassy V, this will strike you as a case of Bad Cop / Worse Cop. You know my stance on the subject of the aesthetic splendor of vetiver at this point, so 2 out of 2 points awarded.
Time to talk about the Weird Smell here. The first version of this soap I used (the pre-2015 reformulation) developed a weird smell in the tub over time. To me, it smelled very beefy, like a raw steak. This turned into a bit of an internet mystery with some commentators claiming the beefy smell was from the use of tallow as a superfat, while Stirling maintained the beefy smell was rather an earthy clay smell from the “spa quality” clay used in the mix.
I personally think I smelled hamburger rather than clay, but the issue is not relevant anymore for two reasons. First, the smell only existed in the old formula tub before lathering. Once water hit the soap and one started loading and lathering, the beefy smell went away and you only smelled the appropriate listed scents. Second, after the Stirling reformatting of mid-2015, the beefy smell has vanished from all the tubs I’ve bought from the company.
In a lengthy post on the subject Rod stated he had begun to use better quality suppliers and was using a more deodorized tallow and a “less sheepy smelling” lanolin. This to me is a tacit admission as to where the beefy smell came from in many pre 2015 Stirling soaps, but it was never a problem to me even when the smell existed, (as I generally avoid sniffing my soaps unless I am just about to shave with them) and as stated, the new format seems to have solved the problem altogether.
No issue at all for me here, no points deducted for the category score, and I think all of you can feel comfortable on the issue as well.
A Stirling strong point. Minimal water, soft or hard, creates a rich slick lather very quickly. Stirling does not need much water at all, and it lathered like a champ even in the very hardest of water I used it in, which would be Tampa, FL. Stirling prides itself on this category and I give them full props for it.
I am not usually a fan of slickness uber alles, as in my experience, slick soaps usually lack in cushion. Stirling is fairly unique in offering a slick soap that lathers very quickly, that is not water quality sensitive, and that also does not compromise on cushion. That they can do all this while also offering an eminently reasonable price point is one of the great selling points of the brand’s products. 5 of 5 point awarded.
As might be inferred from the above, this is another strong suit. Stirling lather stays hydrated after application and does not need any water added even in the latest minutes of an extended pass. The cushion is also exceptionally good, and Stirling is a reliable go to as I run down my stockpile of overly sharp yellow Gillettes and Feathers, as it buffers well even with an aggressive exposure and a sharp blade. Ghost lather effect is fine, probably due to the extended hydration state, and the folliclevation ™ factor is great. The fact that the brand can manage all this quality even with hard water and at a moderate price point is one of the wonders of wet shaving. Again, 5 of 5 points awarded.
Scent During Shave
I love Mahler’s Second Symphony, and one of the more unique performances of that great piece is by George Solti and the London Symphony, but a lot of critics ding that particular recording because they say that the piece is not supposed to be scary intense for the entire 80 minutes or so of its performance, but is supposed to have some mellow, contemplative moments instead of a constant mix of fear, turmoil, and high drama.
Stirling’s Port Au Prince is like that Solti performance; it never mellows out or has its moments of quiet beauty, but instead is constantly in your face with its sharp, pungent extremely recognizable odor.
Port Au Prince is always “on”, always confronting your nose, and it does not have much subtlety or complexity to it. Vetiver has a few distinct tones to it by itself, but when lemongrass is added, the subtle sweetness or smokiness of the Haitian vetiver used here is utterly eliminated, and the lemongrass just adds a really astringent, bitter citrus note that plays off of vetiver’s integral sharpness. The shaver ends up with a roller coaster ride of constant challenge from two sharp, bitter scents. If you do not really, realty like vetiver and / or lemongrass, do not consider this scent at all.
Even if you love vetiver, and don’t mind lemongrass (like me) PAP is an acquired taste. I could not picture shaving with this soap even on a weekly basis let alone a daily one. I can’t even say PAP is too much of a good thing, as if it only contained vetiver and nothing else, I think I would like it more. The lemongrass nudges the mix into a harsher, more monotonous tone.
After trying other vetivers, one can understand why so many other artisans put a lighter citrus note in their mixes with The Big V. The inclusion of the lemongrass both makes PAP utterly unique among shave soaps, but also very polarizing and, more importantly, more of a hit or miss effort even for vetiver fans.
I am torn between three and four points here. A few more scent elements and / or better balancing of the vetiver with a more mellow mix (or even usage of the vetiver on its own) would have made a better more accessible scent for most users. However, as a once in a while soap, PAP is a favorite treat for vetiverphiliac me, and considering the excellent technicals and value component, I will award 4 of 5 points.
Post Shave Feel
This is generally excellent. Stirling does a great job with post shave soothing, and moisturizes above average. In warmer weather, I can use PAP all by itself and have a calm and moisturized face thereafter, and in colder weather, use of a standard good quality inexpensive commercial balm (Nivea, PSC) in conjunction with PAP gives me a nice feeling face for the day even in coid, dry weather. 5 of 5 point awarded.
An easy one. Excellent technical characteristics, good post shave, a unique scent that stands out, and at a lower price per ounce than any soap reviewed so far. Now that the beefy scent issue has been (seemingly) completely resolved, this soap is both well priced and also one that makes no real compromises in offering its fine value. Again, the specific scent formula can be rough going for even dedicated vetiver fans, and a complete turn off if you are on the fence in regard to Haitian vetiver, but some may utterly adore the no holds barred approach taken in the scent design. At less than $14 for close to 6 ounces of high performing, distinctively scented product, it is a bit of a no-brainer to give Port Au Prince 5 of 5 points here. Again though, this is for rabid vetiver fans only, and should not be purchased with an intent for very regular use, or you will run a very real risk of olfactory fatigue.
The Bottom Line
Total Score: 29/30. Which amounts to an A. The nice new packaging and well targeted reformulation without much of a price increase (or no price increase at all if you buy the refill puck) helped to offset my aesthetic concerns about the one trick pony nature of the soap. If you like vetiver and like bargains, this one is hard to resist. The scent design could be better, but then it could also be much worse and also cost more at the same time, so this design still deserves plenty of props.
If this were my only vetiver soap and / or my only Stirling soap, I would probably like it less, but as part of a rather large rotation of shave soaps and 1 of 8 Stirling soaps in my collection, this one fits in well in my personal roster. If you really like vetiver and don’t need any quiet olfactory moments in your shave when you use PAP, I think you will like it as much as I do.
Into My Rotation? Yes, but no more than once or twice per month.