Today is National Rum Day, the perfect excuse to revisit one of the bay rum stories from our archive. Although this post ran a mere two years ago, it was actually written several before that. No idea if bay rum improves with age (nor my writing, for that matter), but I’m pretty sure rum does. — CC, 8/16/15
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Nearly three years ago I wrote a story for The Rake on bay rum — they’ve been sitting on it ever since. I was reminded of it this week when Valet posted a piece on the classic fragrance, and got the mag’s permission to post the text here. — CC, 5/3/12
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Between 1957 and 1963, fueled by growing sales, St. John’s Bay Rum was a regular advertiser in the pages of The New Yorker. Concurrently, in 1960 Brooks Brothers began carrying a line of fragrances — including bay rum — made by Royall Lyme Bermuda Limited.
If the Atomic Age Madison Avenue man had a scent — that is, besides the smoke of Lucky Strikes embedded in his grey-flannel suit and the three-martini lunch on his breath — bay rum was probably it. Of the countless concoctions man has created to mask his natural odor — from citrus to musk, lavender to leather — one in particular has thrived for 175 years. Bay rum, a combination of bay leaves, spices and caribbean rum, might just be what civilized man was destined to smell like. And the fact that it was invented by island natives is an irony almost as piquant as bay rum’s unmistakable scent.
Perhaps it’s the word rum (sometimes spelled “rhum”) in the name, with its connotations of maritime adventure, that accounts for bay rum’s longstanding popularity. Or perhaps women adore it. They must, or else bay rum would have been selected for extinction long ago. But compared to the luxury brands whose scents fill the pages of glossy magazines, bay rum seems made for the man who frankly doesn’t give a damn. He wears it because he knows he owes good hygiene both to his fellow man and himself, not for a direct payoff in the mating game. Bay rum is what men think a man should smell like. It’s not for the man who orders a bottled pheromone, discretely billed, that’s guaranteed to aid seduction.
The origins of bay rum begin in 1838, when Danish chemist Albert Heinrich Riise arrived on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He found that natives mixed rum with the leaves of the bay tree to create an emollient used to treat sunburn, sore muscles and joints, fever and headache. Riise began experimenting with distillation processes, eventually perfecting the technique, and sold his bay rum under the name A.H. Riise Apothecary.
The fragrance flourished throughout the 19th century. Later, during Prohibition, imports of bay rum were outlawed as Americans desperate for a drink took to imbibing the cologne. World War II brought a further blow to the various manufacturers as cargo space on ships was reserved for war efforts.
In 1946, American John Webb settled on St Thomas and saw the opportunity to reintroduce the fragrance. Webb founded The West Indies Bay Company and began producing St Johns Bay Rum, which he distinctively packaged in bottles hand-wrapped by natives with tyre palm fronds. Fueled by the postwar fascination with island exotica (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” hit Broadway in 1949, Hollywood in 1958), St. John’s Bay Rum was soon distributed to every major US city and most college towns.
While St. John’s and Royall Lyme Limited (which, nearly 50 years later, is still sold at Brooks Brothers) have storied connections to midcentury America, the English fragrance houses Taylor of Old Bond Street and Geo. F. Trumper have both offered bay rum for over a hundred years. Yet the most intriguing maker of bay rum today is Bonny Doon Farm, a small California upstart in Santa Cruz, 75 miles south of San Francisco, that makes, according to owner G. Edward Meehan, “the gold standard of the bay rum cologne world.”
Ingredients, Meehan says, are key. Bonny Doon Farm starts with pure, costly Virgin Islands Bay Oil directly from the source, adding fine aromatic cane spirits and Bulgarian Rose Water, “a major part of the compound dictated by the original Danish formula two centuries ago and exclusive to us,” says Meehan. The formula is then blended in small batches and cellar stored. No artificial colors are added, giving Bonny Doon’s bay rum a golden as opposed to amber hue.
Bay rums come in varying degrees of sweetness and potency. Most are considered after-shave grade and can quickly fade (Ogallala offers a “special reserve double strength” to help stay rummy all day). Experiment until you find the right rum suited to your taste, by which we mean your nose, not your palate. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD