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Vetiver Review Festival "Season 2:" Bolder Vetivers

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Our first vetiver festival looked at vetivers based on the paradigmatic “Grey Vetiver” from Tom Ford, a popular less intense rendering of the smoky, grassy scent element. In part two, we will be looking at four examples of vetiver that mask the eponymous scent less. These will be: “Roots” by Tim’s Soap, “Vetyver Santal” by Barrister & Mann, “Port Au Prince” by Stirling, “Grand Valley Vetiver” by First Canadian Shave Soap, and “Bespoke No. 1” by Los Angeles Shaving Soap Company. Through no coincidence at all, three of our competitors here all blend vetiver with a strong citrus component, and the fourth one mixes vetiver with lemongrass, which is another spicy earthy grass. And the fifth one, well, the fifth one is kind of unique. More on that in due time…

Unlike all the vetiver soaps in our first set, all of these latter “bold vetivers” feature the scent prominently and noticeably. The end result differs a bit from one to the next, but none of these are merely pure vetiver, in the same way that there are many pure sandalwood scented soaps out on the market. Nor are any of these complex perfume quality vetivers in the same way that Guerlain’s “Vetiver” is; that level of complexity has so far eluded the shave soap world for numerous reasons. However, I like all of these bolder scented soaps, and if you like vetiver also, you will find much of interest here.
Tim’s Shaving Soap “Roots” ($15 for 4 oz. tub of soap)
Ingredients: (From artisan website) Stearic Acid, Water, Coconut Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, Sodium Hydroxide, Avocado Butter, Fragrance, Sodium Lactate
Intro: Tim is a new artisan on the market, hailing from Texas, and proud of his home grown scent designs. Tim’s excellent website tells us that he began to experiment with making his own shave soaps in 2012, and he took that step because of his allergies to lanolin and shea butter, moisturizers and soothers used in many of the better shave soaps.
Besides avoiding lanolin and shea butter, Tim also ended up making vegan soap, as he states he thinks tallow has no real benefit that cannot be duplicated with other non-cow based ingredients. This is a bold claim indeed, and I confess I like tallow and lanolin and shea butter quite a bit in my soaps so I was most interested in seeing what Tim could do within his self-imposed parameters.
Before we move on to specifics, I wanted to point out that it is refreshing to see an artisan who designs his own scents. The artisanal market has many vendors that make excellent soap, but many outsource their scent designs to other individuals or companies. This is fine, of course, but it adds a bit of fun to using a soap when the artisan designed all aspects of it, including the fragrance. Tim seems proud of this aspect of his lineup, and I commend him for doing a difficult task and doing it well… (More on that soon enough!)
Tim’s is available from the artisan’s site, and from a small number of online retailers. No brick and mortar presence that I know of in NYC, or elsewhere, at least there are no retailers mentioned on the artisan site. (If anyone knows where to buy Tim’s in person, please email details.)
Packaging: Nice 4 ounce sturdy plastic tub, attractive label art, label appears very waterproof. Complete ingredients listed, scent description is not given. Tub is full of product with limited head space at the top. Moreover, the soap is not leveled out in the pour, and so is lumpy. Lumpy soap in full-ish containers tends to equal mess for me as I load with my distinctly non-surgical lack of precision and refinement, and so I find myself longing for an extra ounce or two of unused capacity at the top of the jar. Still, this is not quite so much pushing maximum density as say Catie’s 8 ouncers, and so is not quite so big an issue.
But why, why cannot there not be a scent description? I think of a hypothetical buyer in a hypothetical store looking at this and thinking “what kind of roots”? Unless Tim plans to never ever sell this in a physical retail environment, I think it deserves the buyer to not even tuck in a simple descriptive phrase like “vetiver with citrus”. This omission, and the moderately cramped container lead me to award 2 of 3 points.
Scent in Tub: Tim calls this “The earthy, rooty-fresh aroma of pure Haitian vetiver oil mingles with bright citrus essential oils to create a fragrance that is both uplifting and grounding. […] This complex scent unfolds slowly, revealing layers of lemon and orange peel, grass, and earth. A whiff of smoky depth adds richness and texture.”. Sniffed in the tub, this is a dry vetiver with an equally dry citrus scent. There is a grassy, earthy note buried down deep, but citrus and vetiver dominate. I don’t get much smokiness here, at least not when compared to some of the other vetivers in the second series, but that’s fine. It is a very pleasant and appealing smell. I have only good things to say about the scent, and therefore award 2 of 2 points.
Lather Ease: Did not bloom this one (which omission will become my new testing protocol) but used both boar and badger brushes on 4 separate occasions. Loading took some work; the soap needed a lot of water, actually maybe even a bit more than Barrister and Mann, and then needed a goodly amount of added water during my face lathering to reach a useful level of glide and cushioning. I was surprised at this, as the simple ingredient list led me to think that lathering would be pretty straightforward. No additional product was needed during the initial loading, just water.
I have pretty soft tap water as well, so I would guess those of you with harder water have your work cut out for you. Good lather was very obtainable here, but it took a lengthier process and more fussing than I would have guessed; by comparison, Catie’s Bubbles and Soap Commander go from zero to tons of lather in a few moments, but Tim’s needed more effort. I am awarding 3 of 5 points.
Lather Quality: Pretty good, not excellent. Glide was excellent, “ghost lather” (remaining lubrication of lather even after a pass) was also very good. Two significant issues though: cushioning seemed sub par and my chin and jawline were always a little sore after a shave with Tim’s. After the first instance was noted, I made an effort to get the lather very thick and maximally cushiony in the next three shaves, but much the same soreness was noted on these trouble spots. To be clear, this was not awful razor burn or weeping cuts, it was just a very mild soreness that went away when I applied balm. Still though, I am generally accustomed to having no soreness at all when using top notch product, so this was a tad disappointing.
The other issue noted, which was unsurprising given the difficulty in creating the lather, was that it tended to dry out on my face and needed water added during each pass to make sure glide was smooth. This is not uncommon in shaving soaps, especially among tallow product, but vegan soaps I have used tend to have fewer issues maintaining moisture once applied.
The shave result was excellent on all four shaves (good folliclevation), with a smooth face afterwards. I am torn on how to score this, as compared to, say, Proraso Green, Roots gave a great shave technically, but when referenced with comparable artisan products, I thought Tim’s was rather mid-range technically. I am awarding 3 of 5 points, but if you regularly use a balm or soothing splash after you shave (that is, something other than alcohol and menthol) you can feel free to add a point to this, as the deficiencies seen in cushioning were not major and easily alleviated with any sort of decent post shave treatment.
Scent During Shave: This is where Tim’s gains some points. This was a complex and extremely pleasant smell, one that would easily entrance vetiver fans while also not offending those that dislike the earthy smoky side of vetiver. The vetiver is front and center, but moderated well by citrus and (to a lesser extent) grassy / green notes. There is not much smoke here, and just a tinge of dirt. Overall, the olfactory impression is one of spicy smoothness. This is a smooth, inoffensive scent, but one that persists throughout the entire shave, and one that projects amply even without blooming.
More significantly, for we vetiver cultists, this is a soap that embraces its vetiver but does not club the shaver over the head with it. This moderation is achieved not by minimal vetiver usage, as there is a lot in here, but rather due to careful scent design and balancing of the vetiver with other scent elements to ensure a harmonious, interesting totality that nonetheless is very honest to the stated intent of showcasing vetiver in its “straight up” form. I’m giving Roots 5 of 5 points in this category.
Irritation: None encountered during a lengthy shave. No stinging, redness, or other irritation during or after the shaves. No points deducted.
Post Shave Feel: When I personally think of excellent post shave conditioning, I tend to think of shea butter, tallow, and lanolin; in short, exactly what Tim does not put in his soap. What we do have in here is surprisingly effective however; avocado butter appears to be the main replenishing agent. I normally used balm with Tim’s, and with that combo, my face felt great afterwards. In the interests of science, I bravely forewent the use of balm in one shave, to see if my slightly sore face would feel better and / or dry out over time. It did not feel better, but it felt only slightly dryer. My hunch is that lanolin or shea butter would have had better effect on both the soothing and moisturizing fronts, but I respect Tim’s decision to avoid using products he personally is allergic to, or which he just does not like. I’ll award 4 of 5 points here, but if you use a decent balm or splash after you shave, add an extra point.
Value: $15 for 8 ounces of good performing soap is more or less dead average in the current artisan market. Tim says he uses all essential oils in this soap, and the scent design is exceptionally well done and original. That said, the technical performance lags a bit when compared to some of the more senior artisans out there. I would call this 3.5 points, but am rounding up to award 4 of 5 points, as this is nicely made and well executed aesthetically.  The market is full of great performing soaps with dull or inept fragrance designs, or a decent fragrance that was outsourced to another party. The success and refinement offered in Roots is certainly worth a half point.
Total Score: 23/30. Which amounts to a B-. Roots doesn’t feel like a B Minus product in terms of scent design or execution. Even in terms of technical performance, Tim’s far surpasses very commonly used products that cost the same or more. The issue Tim (and every other artisan) faces is that there are some damn fine soaps and (to a lesser extent) creams being made now, and what would have been stunningly good five years ago technically is now squarely in the middle of the pack.
As mentioned above though, good, complex scents in shaving products are more rare than excellent technical features, so for that reason, I urge everyone to give Tim’s a shot. Besides “Roots”, I’ve also tried his “Wood and Roses” which is excellent, and his site is chock full of other complex and interesting scents, like “Ghostface Nilla” and “Breakfast of Champions”. Based on what I’ve used so far, I fully expect Tim’s products to actually match his claims as to scent design, which is quite rare.
I do expect Tim to fine tune his formula eventually, to give it easier lathering, better cushion, and more effective post shave feel. Although I am no Lavoisier myself, I have a hunch this will not be that hard for him to do. And once that is accomplished, he already has a library of interesting and unique scents that can be reformulated as needed.
In the meantime, y’all (note Texas speak!) might be quite pleased with Tim’s technical aspects even as they currently exist. If you use a balm, decent splash, and / or moisturizer, I am pretty sure Tim’s used in conjunction with these will work fine for you in addressing soreness and dryness.
If you absolutely need technical performance above all else and do not much care how clever or well done the scent of the product is, Tim’s might not be for you. All others are urged to browse the offerings available and try something you think sounds interesting; I can vouch for “Roots”, and think it is a great, powerful, and cleverly made vetiver fragranced soap.
Into My Rotation? Yes

Craig K

Craig K

5 thoughts on “Vetiver Review Festival "Season 2:" Bolder Vetivers”

  1. Hi Craig,
    Nice going with this and the previous review series! It’s the First Canadian soap that is discontinued, I believe?
    More importantly, and I’m well aware that one has to make choices, I am missing the two perhaps driest, earthiest (and, by implication, more complex and hence approximating Guerlain, cf your point above) of vetiver soaps I have ever tried.
    One is Jabonman’s Haitian Vetiver, though this is admittedly hard to come by, the artisan is only accessible by email, and as such, the soap is perhaps outside of the scope of this review (as a personal tip, though, check it out).
    The other is Mike’s Natural Soaps, which, again, may be somewhat hard to acquire but is easily more accessible than the first.
    Finally, a less dry version but still one I think merits mention is the vetiver from Queen Charlotte. It may belong in the Tom Ford category though, not Guerlain. It’s been a while since I tried it, so I am not sure, but I remember liking it and it is clearly more vetiveresque than eg Vetivertal.
    Keep it up!

    1. Hello Halvor,
      thanks for your generous words!
      I have heard of all three of these soaps, but I can’t buy _every_ possible vetiver iteration to review. I have also generally moved away from buying soaps that are exclusively available from sole artisans.
      What inevitably happened to me was that I never wanted to pay a huge “artisanal shipping surcharge”, like $5 shipping for a $15 soap (few have fixed shipping prices, and the free shipping minimum is usually immense) so I would order 2 or 3 soaps from Artisan X to get better “value” from the shipping equation and then would end up not liking all / any of them enough to put them into use.
      I try to either buy products from brick & mortar (sales tax is usually far less than shipping), Amazon, and / or multi line shaving brand online retailers so I can bundle together different products from different makers. I hope that Queen Charlotte and / or Mike’s will one day expand into some alternate venues besides their personal sites. (As an aside, Chiseled Face just opened an Amazon store, giving Prime members free shipping and no sales tax in most states, which makes me more likely to try more of their soaps.)
      That said, I think fans of dry vetiver will be quite pleased with Tim’s, and I have some other interesting soaps coming up in the series. The discontinued soap I allude to is from Stirling (whose sadly vanished “Port Au Prince” is the very essence of Haitian vetiver); First Canadian’s vetiver is still available as far as I know. Stay tuned, and feel free to tell us all more about the other vetivers that you mention…

      1. Heads up: Port au Prince is back on Stirling’s website.
        (If you think you’re bad off with shipping charges, consider relocating to a small country in Northern Europe and order stuff from the US. Suffice to say, a soap will easily double in price. Add an unfavorable exchange rate and those products become the shaving equivalents to Rolls Royce…)
        I look forward to hearing your opinion of Bespoke. I love the complexity of the scent, but hadn’t thought of it as a Vetiver soap really.

        1. Hi Halvor,
          Thanks for the heads up about Port Au Prince – also of interest, I assume it is back in the new Stirling formula (used since summer of 2015). That is a good thing for reasons I shall mention in the article.
          Sorry to hear of your shave supply procurement issues! Surely there must be some local / European suppliers who are cheaper than in the US to compensate?
          Bespoke is to my nose a vetiver / incense mix. If you look at the ingredient list (always listed in order of percentage content) the vetiver EO is in first place. If you put that much vetiver in a fragrance, you are almost bound to end up with that scent as a main feature, as vetiver is no subtle shy wallflower of a scent element! Anyway, love the scent of Bespoke; if only it were in a different base! (Think of that as a sneak preview…)
          More sadly, Barrister & Mann has indicated that it’s own fine “Vetyver Santal” will not indeed survive 2014, so the chance for vetiver vans to snatch that one up is dwindling rapidly!

  2. Notes for the eagle-eyed: One of the five soaps mentioned for inclusion in this “season” has apparently been discontinued by the maker, so the season may only include 4 soaps not 5. Hence the inconsistent numeration in the first paragraph.
    Also, to clarify, the soap’s price is $15 for 4 ounces, not 8 ounces.

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