Scent In The Air: How St. Johns Bay Rum Survived Two Hurricanes To Bring Back An American Classic

I remember being a poor college student and picking up a cheap bottle of bay rum at the drugstore. No doubt many of you had the same experience. Now that we’re older, wiser and richer, we also want to smell better. St Johns Bay Rum is the original purveyor of the “scent of Madison Avenue,” and in fact you can find it right off Madison at J. Press. Recently I reached out to president and CEO Rhys Moore to learn about the brand’s new products, as well as how this heritage American brand was almost completely wiped out by hurricanes. — CC

* * *

IS: How did you come to be the president and CEO of St. Johns?

RM: Back in 2016 the Welles Brothers bought this brand from Mr. Woodhouse as he was ready to retire after having owned the business since 1978. Although revered by its customers, the brand had lost its way. The Welles Brothers remembered St Johns Bay Rum as a brand that they grew up with, that their father enjoyed and that they appreciated. They recognized it as a true American brand with a real legacy and authenticity and decided it was worth rescuing.

I knew one of the guys in the family firm, and we discussed the idea of coming on board and breathing some new life into a great American brand. I was intrigued by the history, I loved the masculine scent signatures, and although the business was a bit banged up, the brand was strong and intact. And of course I loved the idea of working in the Virgin Islands several months each year. So the first year we spent a lot of time shoring up the infrastructure in our small-batch facility in St Thomas and building out a small team. The business was founded in 1947 by US Navy Officer John Webb in St Thomas, and has always been located in the USVI. We are committed to maintaining the relationship the brand has with the islands and the elements of the brand the local culture brings to it. We also put a lot of focus on reconnecting with our old customers, both retailers and consumers. We were making progress and gaining real traction and then came the hurricanes.

IS: Tell us what happened.

RM: In 2017 we really prepared for the hurricanes. Our factory, where we had resided for over 30 years, was well built and fitted with solid mahogany storm doors. We secured the doors and laid sandbags outside each door to protect against the storm surge. Our facility is located right on the piers in Havensight, so we were concerned about rising tides during the storm. Hurricane Irma arrived as a Category 5 and ripped the roof from the building. But we escaped severe damage inside. A friend of mine from St Thomas sent me a video from the Coast Guard chopper as it flew over the harbor. It flew directly over our building, and you could see the blending vats inside and very little water. Lucky break. Irma destroyed the infrastructure of the island, including the airport and the Home Depot! No building materials were available to make temporary repairs, so people scavenged materials to secure their personal properties. The island was closed as they awaited Hurricane Maria.

Maria arrived and poured heavy rain on the island for two days. With no roof, our facility filled up like a swimming pool. The airport finally reopened two weeks later, and I was able to get back down to St Thomas. We opened those big mahogany doors and water came rushing out. It was not very pleasant inside, as you can imagine. Our company Ford Explorer lost a window during one of the storms and was filled with 100 gallons of water. We spent the next week cleaning and clearing and salvaging what we could. The entire island was out helping anywhere someone needed help. It was chaotic, but things were getting done. Most everything in our building was lost due to rain and water damage. We were able to salvage some of the finished product that had been elevated and also sealed before the storms, but that represented very little of our inventory.

What I learned from this experience, beyond the compassion and resilience of Virgin Islanders, is that the brand has strength and that our customers supported us through the post-hurricane period. I really believe many customers purchased additional product just to support our re-building efforts and we appreciated it. St Johns is now back at full complement, although we are doing some things differently, as the island is still not back to full strength. Our building, for example, is still under repair. The big hotels and airport stores are still closed, and they were important customers. But our weavers are all back and hand wrapping bottles for us. We have plenty of finished fragrance and soap to ship. 

IS: You offer not just bay rum but West Indian Lime and No. 77. Explain the differences, as well as your new Vetiver fragrance.

RM: When I arrived at St Johns we had six mens fragrances: three strong sellers and three that were fading in appeal. One of the strategic decisions the hurricanes forced on us was our product mix. We decided to focus on rebuilding the business with our best three. 

  • Bay Rum is our signature scent and what we are best known for globally. St Johns is the Original Bay Rum aftershave. It’s spicy for sure and very masculine. You can smell the cinnamon and clove in this fragrance and that’s what guys appreciate. We say ” cloves and spice make a man smell nice.”
  • West Indian Lime: lime has really accelerated in popularity for us in the last two years, although it has been an important part of line since the 1960s. It’s a great summer fragrance and a southern climate scent. It’s fresh and crisp with a sharp lime brace and softer bergamot and amber tones. 
  • We introduced No 77 about three years ago. It’s a bit more sophisticated and not at all spicy or floral. It really appeals to women, and therefore ends up in many younger guys’ kits.
  • Vetiver is just launching this month. We felt we needed to add another scent to our line that was earthy. Vetiver is a bit sweet: grassy with undertones of cedar, amber and sandalwood. It’s very masculine without being overpowering. I think this our most sophisticated fragrance and will definitely appeal to our younger guy.

IS: You’re in a range of stores from J. Press and Cable Car Clothiers to hipper stores such as The Bloke in LA. Tell us what you’re hearing about younger customers and how they’re reacting to your classic fragrance and brand heritage.

RM: We are fortunate to have a terrific cross-section of better mens retailers supporting the brand. The common theme between them is that they all have very high standards, and these guys all understand and respect their customers. What we share with them is an understanding that younger guys are looking for classic brands that have a real story, that have depth and character and that complement their lifestyles, not define it. What I mean by that is this particular younger customer appreciates craftsmanship versus a logo. This guy understands Harris Tweed, for example, and real Shetland wool sweaters, knows how to tie a bow tie, appreciates a pearl button on a shirt or a well made cocktail. This guy treats himself to a straight-razor shave and expects a hot towel and a brace of bay rum with a little sting, not spritzed perfume. This is what most attracted and interested me in this business.

IS: What else is on the horizon?

RM: Our plan for the next 18 months is to introduce a few new pre and post-shave items. We introduced a bay rum and lime candle for the holidays. The vessels are hand wrapped in the islands in the same way our fragrance bottles are wrapped, and are an instant hit. We will also continue to use digital media to build awareness of the brand, and reaffirm our commitment to the Virgin Islands. 

5 Comments on "Scent In The Air: How St. Johns Bay Rum Survived Two Hurricanes To Bring Back An American Classic"

  1. Old School Tie | October 31, 2019 at 8:30 am |

    The fragrance industry is really complex these days and consumers are always looking for products with high quality ingredients and excellent performance. Indeed, performance is what lets down so many potentially wonderful scents. If St Johns want to thrive in the modern marketplace they need performance to go with their undoubted heritage. A good range of goods also helps, so grooming products are a terrific idea. Good luck to them, I will give them a try.

  2. Charlottesville | October 31, 2019 at 11:04 am |

    Quite a story of survival in the face of back-to-back hurricanes. It has been a long time since I have been to the Virgin Islands or tried St. John’s Bay Rum or Lime, and I am probably overdue to check them out again. I’d love to give their new scents a sniff as well.

  3. Michael Brady | October 31, 2019 at 12:19 pm |

    I sold many, many bottles of the Bay Rum product in the 70s and 80s at a small men’s haberdashery in Hinsdale, Illinois. The label looked somehow richer than the one pictured. I recall it being more gold metallic, with the logo in relief; and having a red wax seal. We never let the stock run low and it was a popular gift item.

  4. I’ll be growing a beard starting tomorrow but I will have a bottle of Bay Rum ready for Dec 1. Great stuff.

    Will

  5. Our local brew around these parts is as follows. Lovely stuff with a regional flair.

    http://chesapeakebayspyce.com/

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*