The Mystery of Brut . . . I Can't Solve

Brut is the one fragrance I've encountered on my fragrance journey that I haven't fully understood. Unlike most fragrances, there is no single pristine vintage specimen that I can reference, to shore up my olfactory memory and guide me past the imposters. There have been so many iterations of it that figuring out which one is worth the time hasn't been easy. For my entire adult life, men have said that Idelle Labs' Brut Classic (now discontinued) was the closest thing to the original sixties formula, and for a while, I believed that. I loved Brut Classic, a fresh and summery green-floral beauty that shared its brightness for far longer than the drugstore plastic-bottled version. But looking back at my 2012 review, I wrote something that now reads wrong for Brut: "The usage of ylang-ylang and jasmine is genius in Brut. Without these floral notes, the scent would smell like Mennen's Skin Bracer (which by the way isn't really made by Mennen anymore)." 

I wasn't misrepresenting or misunderstanding what I was smelling; Brut Classic did smell a few floral notes removed from Skin Bracer. But that isn't how Brut Classic should have smelled. It should have greeted me with those notes, and then dried down to a smooth and slightly animalic amber. Nothing like Skin Bracer at all, really, and even if there was a fleeting resemblance in the top or mid notes, that should have only been a mild perception. I purchased a bottle of vintage seventies Brut 33 Splash-On Lotion after using up my bottle of Classic, and it taught me that musk ambrette changes everything I thought I knew about Brut. My little Millennial pea brain had to struggle to comprehend how, from my birthday in 1981 to the present, my olfaction had missed out on what Brut used to smell like. My father never wore anything when I was growing up, so there were no real-life references, and because my parents rarely took me to drugstores or pharmacies, my opportunities to sneak a sniff from a store shelf were virtually nil. I know, hard to believe, but true. 

Last year, I bought the clear-glass (squat) Brut EDT by Parfums Prestige/Unilever, and that version is slightly better quality than Brut Classic was. However, it's also a unique spin on Brut, in that it smells woodier and a bit more vanillic than any other formula I've crossed in the wild. But these differences are piddling, and ultimately it's almost identical to Brut Classic. It's also disappointingly weak, and I've relegated it to being the Brut that I spray on clothes, just to get more than ninety minutes out of it. I'd read that Unilever had another version of the EDT in the original sixties-style green glass bottle, but assumed that it was merely the same formula in a different package. Then I rewatched a shaving video on YouTube in which a Brut fan exhaustively outlines which version of contemporary Brut compares the closest to an actual sixties vintage bottle that he'd borrowed from a friend, and he said the Unilever green glass was by far the closest. This piqued my interest, so I figured I had nothing to lose, and bought a bottle. 

There are a few things that are unclear about this version, and so far I haven't found enough information on it. First, there are several iterations of this formula out there, all from different countries, the most notable being Israel and India. The Israeli version is identical to the bottle pictured above, but has a gold cap and medallion, and is colloquially referred to as "Brut Gold." I read on Reddit and a few other places that "Gold" is the sturdiest and most reliable version of this formula, and it comes from a few European countries, but always smells immaculate (i.e., quality control is sound). Then there's "Brut Silver Medallion," which is my bottle. There are no Unilever markings on the packaging (that I noticed), and it comes in a clear plexi-plastic case, so the logo would be on a sticker, and mine came without one. My understanding from what I've read online is that my bottle might be from India, where they apparently import the fragrance compound and bottle it straight from bottling factories (i.e., the quality control is less sound). 

Another weird thing is the packaging says the bottle has a "measured spray." I'm not quite certain what "measured spray" means, because I've never heard of it before. I'm assuming it means the atomizer is designed in such a way as to release a specific amount of fragrance with every pump, and unerringly does so (no half-sprays allowed). But I'd always assumed this was the case with every atomizer bottle of every fragrance, so I'm not sure. Not super important, just strange. I tested the "measured spray" after priming it a few times, and indeed it shoots a fairly compact burst of fragrance, and the juice hits skin with a thud, which usually indicates high oil content. I expected it to smell identical to the other EDT, and frankly wasn't even anticipating enjoying it that much for that reason. As soon as the bottle freed that first spray, my nose perked up; this stuff was immediately and obviously different. I raised an eyebrow. I fumbled around for my make-believe detective monocle. I stroked my imaginary mustache. Something was afoot; I was experiencing yet another version of Brut. This one was, yet again, different. 

To put this in proper perspective, I should back up and recap my experience with my 3.5 oz. bottle of early seventies Brut 33 Splash-On Lotion, which I bought in 2013 and used up by 2015. That stuff smelled really, really good, save for a touch of plastic contamination tinging its scent in the first five seconds. Otherwise it opened beautifully, a burst of soapy aromatics, rapidly followed by a drydown I had never associated with Brut before: a touch of musk ambrette. My understanding was musk ambrette had been gradually neutered down over the years, until it was eventually removed entirely. Nobody has come forward with clear information on exactly when this happened. Nobody has described the neutering process either, save for Luca Turin obliquely mentioning this unfortunate devolution in the 2008 Guide. Everything I've read and watched about musk ambrette has said that it lasts forever on skin and fabric, and smells fantastically clean/dirty and ambery. I got the clean/dirty and ambery vibe, but it was completely gone within two minutes, which isn't what I expected. My guess was that 33 percent of the fragrance wasn't enough to allow musk ambrette to sing. But, again, this was just a guess. 

Since then, I've purchased another bottle of Brut 33, this time in the 7 oz. size. This bottle appears to be a bit newer than my other one, and I'm guessing it's mid eighties (guessing, guessing), just based on the graphic design of the bottle, which looks like a later attempt at streamlining and modernizing the look of "entry-level Brut." The fragrance in this one has also been preserved better than in the previous bottle, and there is almost no plastic contamination detectable. 

This bottle smells the way my other one did, except it's a little "cleaner" in the base, and it lasts noticeably longer on skin, at least three hours at low volume. Even though the musky element lacks the raunch of its seventies predecessor, it's still much dirtier than anything on shelves in the past twenty years. It feels like a virile amber scent, and whatever musk is in there has presence. The seventies 33 smelled like bright soap for about fifteen seconds, then like really "sooty" musk for about ninety seconds, and then vanished completely. This eighties 33 has the same trajectory, but the sooty aspect lingers and smells more dimensional and soapy, just a touch better overall. 

These two bottles of 33 tell me that either one of two things is true: Brut used to smell like them, and the glass bottle version from the sixties was the same but more concentrated, or my new bottle from Parfums Prestige is how all of these smelled before time macerated the base accord of the vintage drugstore splashes into something that smells burlier than it really was. When I sprayed on the silver medallion PP formula, it smelled very aromatic and oily-green in the first twenty minutes, before getting brighter, drier, and more powdery, smelling the most similar to everything that I'd smelled before in this phase. Then I got to work, and about ninety minutes after application (and during a meeting), I suddenly caught whiff of this divine musk, and my heart skipped a few beats. It was strange, because at first I thought I was smelling someone else, but then I gave myself an up-close sniff, and it seemed as though my fragrance was the culprit. 

The aroma was potent but suave, semisweet but not sugary or bitter, woody without smelling natural or dry, and a bit sooty in the old way, but lacking overt raunch. It was also weirdly elusive, wafting in and out of my perception. The vintage Brut 33 formulas both smell of some sort of dry-sooty musk that feels very masculine and "alpha" for the duration, but the current green-glass version adopts an ambery tone that isn't quite as sooty, yet still alluringly masculine. No specific notes stand out, other than musk and amber. Complicating the comparison even further, I happen to have a late nineties formula Brut 33, which is at least seven or eight years newer than the 7 oz. bottle pictured above, yet smells raunchier and muskier in the base! 

This bottle seems to date from when Unilever took over in 1990, probably sometime before 2000, but as usual, hard to say. I tend to think they removed the Fabergé branding by 1999, but either way, this was likely on shelves when I was in high school. The weird part is how it smells, relative to its predecessors in opaque plastic, which don't hold a candle to it in the musky department. What was going on in the nineties? A raunch revival? I wore this formula the other day at work, and by mid-morning realized there's a fairly common nineties-era designer animalic musk tucked in the base, sort of that soapy clean/dirty thing found in stuff like Balenciaga Pour Homme, but in a much lower dose. Whatever it is, it really sings, lasting twelve hours with little to no change in tonality. 

The mystery is clearest in this particular formula: was this how it smelled new? Or is it how it smells now, no less than twenty-five years after production? Am I smelling Brut the way Brut was meant to smell, or am I smelling time-altered Brut? If it's truly preserved well, why does it smell stronger and burlier than stuff twenty years older? And why do I get the feeling that the silver medallion green-glass Parfums Prestige bottle is a more faithful rendition of how the original 1964 formula smelled? There's something about the ambery depth of the base in that one that seems to align well with how it might turn out smelling in thirty years; in other words, the vintage Brut 33 from 1985 might have smelled like my new PP bottle when it was new. There's no way to go back in time and find out (yet, that is), so for now I'll just have to settle on not knowing. 

I have one other point of "vintage" reference, a splash-on bottle identical to the one above, but sans Fabergé logo, and in that one the sooty/animalic musk is gone almost entirely (stripped down to a feeble whisper), with another musk that smells closer to the current stuff in its place. I put that bottle at whenever Unilever divested from the Fabergé Brut brand in North America, circa 2003. Both the nineties bottle and the early 2000s bottle seem to struggle with the plastic they've been housed in all these years, as I sense there's some contamination that especially effects the newer bottles, oddly enough. I have four altogether, and one was so rough I dumped it. They're clear plastic (green, but light goes right through), and that may be part of the problem. 

However, when I decanted a couple of them into an empty and much newer Helen of Troy bottle and let the fragrance sit for a couple of days, the funkiness disappeared. So even going to a new plastic bottle benefitted them! The only thing left on my Brut journey is to find a vintage Fabergé green-glass bottle from the sixties, but that is daunting, and I'm not easily daunted. The problem is that vintage Brut is a crapshoot. Brut clearly changes with time, and without knowing what I'm getting, or if what I'm getting is even legitimate, the risk is all on me. I also realized that musk ambrette is not restricted in India, so the thought did occur to me that they might be sneaking small amounts of it into the silver medallion PP bottles like mine, which might account for the stunning beauty of the drydown. 

But that seems unlikely, given there's no incentive for them to bother spending money to "adjust" the formula Europe sends over. Whatever is going on there, I can't actually suggest one version of Brut over another. I can just tell you that whatever version you buy is one of many. If you want what maybe feels like the truest original formula, I would say avoid spending a hundred bucks on Special Reserve, and put that money to better use by picking up a Parfums Prestige medallion bottle, either silver or gold.