Caribbean Bay Rum: and it's stinky beginnings
History of Bay Rum
Imagine a ship full of pirate sailors out at sea for months at a time. After just a few weeks, things being to smell pretty bad as the daily tasks of hoisting the sails and scrubbing the decks began to take its toll on clothes and sweating bodies. As the story goes, one ingenious sailor started rubbing the leaves of the bay trees of the west indies on his skin, passing the pleasant-smelling oils from the leaf to skin masking the awful stink that he had accumulated. The practice began to catch on, and the scent of bay leaves became the go to deodorant for early sailors.
(Now I don’t know for sure if the next part of the story is true, but most of my research indicates that there is some validity to this; and on a site where stories are told and infused, that is good enough for me.)
Tired of having to rub bay leaves on himself like a weirdo, he got the idea that rum would make a great liquid to steep the bay leaves in could as it could extract the bay leave’s oils much more efficiently than just rubbing the leaves on the skin.
The Islanders took this basic recipe and began adding their own flourishes by mixing in cloves, citrus rind, and cinnamon to make a wonderfully fragrant tonic with more medicinal properties. And with that, bay rum was born.
These days, alcohol is still used to extract the bay leaf oils but is then distilled down into an essential oil.
Popularity of Bay Rum
From the West Indies the scent spread to the rest of the world and became popular among men as an aftershave. It was first made fashionable in New York and other American cities before it was available in Europe. Barbershops in America developed their own of bay rum aftershave so that their patrons walked out smelling manly after getting their ‘cut-throat’ razor shaves. And if you check the medicine cabinets of men born before 1950, there’s a good chance you’ll find a bottle of bay rum in it. During the prohibition era in America Bay Rum increased in popularity as other legal forms of alcohol were unavailable. Rexell Bay Rum (pictured) despite being labelled as ‘for external use only’ made a toxic but legal beverage due to it’s 58% grain alcohol.
Bay rum lotions are still produced by labs in several West Indian countries, as well as American and European fragrance companies. The original bay rum from St. Thomas by A. H. Riise continues to be produced locally in the US Virgin Islands by the West Indies Bay Company.
The Benefits of Bay Rum
The West Indian Bay tree, Pimenta racemosa, is a sturdy evergreen shrub or tree of the Myrtle family. Leaves of myrtles are typically a shiny blue-green and strongly scented when crushed; the flowers, bark, and berries are also fragrant, and myrtle has been used in perfumery. The ancient Greeks considered myrtle sacred to the goddess Aphrodite and used it in festivals. More commonly in the Caribbean households, whole or ground bay leaf is used to season meats, potatoes, stews, sauces, fish, pickles, and vinegar.
As outlined above, Bay rum began its life as a medicinal tonic, but gradually became known as a men’s grooming aid, albeit a quite versatile one;
- An Old-Fashioned Aftershave or Cologne. Pat on bay rum in place of your usual aftershave after your morning ritual. The high alcohol content makes it an effective astringent, which reduces skin irritation and also cleanses any nicks and cuts. It may sting a little when you apply it.
- If you’re particularly fond of bay rum’s scent, apply it as a bay rum deodorant. It won’t prevent perspiration, but the astringent action of the alcohol will temporarily dry out your armpits and tighten your pores. The spice and citrus fragrance, meanwhile, will mask any stray body odour. Bay rum doesn’t just fight odours on your skin. Add a few drops to a room diffuser or just spray a small amount into the air of a room to disguise off-odours
- As a handy hair tonic. Bay Rum has been used for ages to aid in hair growth. The ingredients in Bay Rum stimulates the skin and scalp, producing more hair, resulting in a thicker, fuller beard. Bay Rum is also helpful in hydrating your skin, therefore preventing dandruff.
- Creates a more Vibrant Skin. Bay Rum is frequently found in bay rum after-shaves because bay leaves help to de-stress your skin, thus preventing the occurrence of wrinkles and skin outbreaks. In the past, it was used to relieve cuts and bruises and Bay leaf oil also has antifungal and anti-bacterial properties.
Make your own Bay Rum Aftershave
While bay rum sales dipped after World War II, the renewed interest in traditional wet shaving has brought it back to popularity. You can find bay rum at some high street shops and limited supermarkets; but why buy it, when you can make your own just like the 16th century sailors did?
So, if you are up for the challenge, here is a simple recipe to help you make your very own bay rum aftershave.
Lets start with the ingredients;
- 2 tbsp. of White rum
- 1/2 cup Vodka
- A funnel
- The zest of an orange, (I find that dried zest works better for consistency)
- 2 bay leaves, (I’m still trying to source this and will post a link here when i can)
- ¼ tsp. allspice
- 1 cinnamon stick
NB: For the Dried Bay Leaves, don’t use the bay leaf they sell at the grocery store. While it’s good for soups, it’s not good for bay rum. Make sure to use Pimenta racemosa.
Thoroughly mix everything together and put it in a dark, cool place for the next 2–4 weeks to allow the ingredients to blend and become your amazing homemade aftershave. This allows the alcohol to extract the essential oils from the bay leaves. The longer it sits, the stronger it will become. So, if you prefer milder scents, you can being using it sooner. Simply check on it from time to time, and you will know when it is ready for your liking.
Once you feel it is ready, put it in a clean kilner jar and you will need to strain the mixture through several layers of coffee filters or a cheese cloth (repeat until there is no residue), then place it in a clean bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid.
You now have your very own homemade bay rum aftershave! I am sure you, and your significant other, will enjoy this sweet and spicy aroma.
Please feel free to comment below as my aim is to educate and inform my readers about this wonderful and versatile liquid;
What was the most surprising fact in this blog ?
I would like to obtain and try a bay rum after shave lotion.
Absolutely love this blog post, very informative. But I especially love the recipe for the homemade aftershave, which sounds fun, easy and I think is going to smell divine. I’m also going to try the same ingredient, without the alcohol, in a good quality carrier oils like jojoba and grape seed oil for a natural skin tonic. Excellent recipe, thank you!
JamesS Nabozny —
I have used your B.R . and St John’s B.R. for years I love both of them. I really
intend on trying the recipe.
I look forward to giving it the go. Keep up the good work,don’t let the product disappear. J.S.N.