St. Johns Bay Rum | History of St Johns Bay Rum

St. John Bay Leaf Oil | Bay rum has been an integral part of the history of the Virgin Islands and its people for centuries. The use of bay leaf oils for beauty and health remedy has been a long standing tradition.  With its unique climatic and exceptionally rich soil, the island of St. John provided an ideal place for bay trees to thrive and St. John' bay leaf oils quickly acquired a worldwide reputation of being distinctive and superior.

The Invention of Bay RumIn 1838, Danish chemist Albert Heinrich Riise became interested in this local remedy and discovered that by mixing St John bay leaf oils with fine Virgin Island rum, it created an amazing fragrance.  His unique invention was was awarded the Centennial Medal in 1876, as well as awards in New Orleans and Chicago.

Virgin Island Bay Rum | Bay rum made with bay leaf oil from St John quickly acquired the reputation of being the best in the world and in 1903, the Danish Plantation Company purchased 237 acres at Cinnamon Bay to cultivated St Johns bay trees. Their success encouraged other plantations to do the same in Carolina Estate, Maho Bay and Lameshur Bay.  The production of bay rum became an important Virgin Island export in the early 1920's.  Local small batch distillers blended bay leaf oils and Caribbean rums to make, the now very popular, Virgin Island Bay Rums.  At its peak, historians estimate that 1,000 gallons of pure St Johns bay leaf oil were blended into over 35,000 gallons of Bay Rum.
Bay Oil Still
Prohibition and Bay Rum | In 1921, the national prohibition of alcohol meant Virgin Island bay rum could no longer be exported to the United States.  By adding aspirin to bay rum, manufactures we able to skirt the prohibition and word spread that drinking bay rum not only made you feel good, but also relieved your aches and pains. Virgin Island bay rum production reached a peak of over 100,000 gallons annually.
World War II | The onset of World War II forced the largest Virgin Island bay rum company, AH Riise Enterprises to buy their own boats to carry bay rum to Miami and brought back merchandise, including food, which helped St Thomas escape the painful shortages created by the war.  Production of Virgin Island bay rum decreased during the war and the industry faded.  
Bay Rum is Back | John Webb of Minneapolis was stationed with the U.S. Navy on St Thomas. He became intrigued Virgin Island bay rum industry and decided that when the war was over he would revive it in the Virgin Islands.   Webb settled on St Thomas and embarked on producing St Johns Bay Rum.
The idea of palm weaving the St Johns Bay Rum bottle was inspired by Webb's need to stand out in the crowded U.S. market and the island tradition of weaving palm leaves into puzzle like patterns.  The infamous 'Fishnet Weave' would go on to be a St Johns Bay Rum trademark and recognized around the world over. 
The combination of St Johns Bay Rum's great fragrance and its beautiful packaging was a recipe for success.   As the demand for bay rum increased, the corps of weavers in St Barth grew to more than 200 families, creating a huge local industry that turned out ten of thousands of woven bottles annually.  The St Barth "weaving connection" continued until 1995, when Hurricane Luis destroyed most of the Tyre palms on St Barth.

The Mad Men Years | In 1957, John Webb hired

Weaving HandsMadison Avenue in New York City, to represent St Johns Bay  in the United States. Bay rum fitted in perfectly with the fine British lines of cashmere sweaters, and accessories that Mc Intyre carried and placed in the finest men stores and department stores around the country. St Johns Bay Rum could soon be found in America's leading stores such as Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Between 1957 and 1963, a series of outstanding ads were placed in the New Yorker magazine. As a result, the distribution of St Johns Bay Rum grew considerably and in the early sixties bay rum was shipped to every major city and most college towns in the United States from distribution warehouses located in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Minneapolis.

The Warner Lambert Years

By 1963 the pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert took notice of the notable success of St Johns Bay Rum. In an effort to upgrade their fragrance division they decided to acquire the West Indies Bay Company, producer of St Johns Bay Rum. 

With a worldwide market in mind, Warner Lambert proceeded to register the various St Johns' trademarks in many countries around the world, and to expand the line. They developed skin moisturizers, talc, soaps, deodorants, and hair grooming products both in the Bay Rum and West Indian Lime fragrances, and a suntan product made with bay rum which they named Filter Tan. They also added two new fragrances to the St Johns family: Cutlass and Indian Gold. All products were presented in the distinctive and unique palm woven packaging. They offered gift sets, gift hampers, and possibly the most eye catching item in their line, a beautiful palm woven Captain's decanter filled with aged Lime Cologne. In an effort to improve their manufacturing capabilities, Warner Lambert took steps to upgrade their facilities. They installed a number of stainless steel vats, a semi-automatic filling machine, a bottle capping machine and a water purifying system.

In keeping with their expansion plans they embarked on a vast distribution program to the military and shipped to bases and ships around the globe, gaining a great number of new customers who became bay rum converts. 

By the late sixties, Warner Lambert decided to eliminate their fragrance division. They planned to close the factory in St Thomas, put Bay Rum in their pharmaceutical division, and move the production to Texas. It turned out that this plan could not be carried out. After conducting some trials they found out that the water in Texas was affecting the fragrance, and despite their efforts they could not obtain the same bay rum scent as the one produced in St Thomas. Consequently, they were forced to abandon their idea of moving the factory. By that time, the company had lost interest in the only fragrance brand they had left and bay rum became an orphan. Sales declined sharply and, by the early seventies, St Johns Bay Rum had all but disappeared in the US and was left with limited distribution in St Thomas in stores such as Sparky's and Tropicana.


The Revival Years

In 1978, Jerry Woodhouse bought the West Indies Company from Warner Lambert. As a retailer he was familiar with St Johns Bay Rum, a fragrance he had carried for many years in his men stores in the United States. He had been saddened by the disappearance of the fine fragrance and wanted to bring it back.

He concentrated his first efforts on increasing the sales locally, and opened a great number of new accounts on St Thomas, St John, and St Croix. He then directed his efforts towards the US market by hiring a sales force led by John Mendez in New York City. Mendez, who represented a number of British clothing lines, reintroduced St Johns Bay Rum to the finest men stores coast to coast. Thanks to his efforts, St Johns fragrances could again be found in some of the best known stores such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales in New York, Sakowitz and Neiman Marcus in Dallas, I. Magnin in San Francisco, and Brooks Brothers to name a few. 

In the eighties, Jerry Woodhouse moved the factory to Havensight and introduced two new scents: "Island Spice" for men and "J'ouvert" for women. These newcomers brought the number of fragrances offered by St Johns to seven. 

Woodhouse opened new markets throughout the Caribbean, Hawaii and Bermuda, where tourists embraced St Johns as the perfect gift and souvenir to bring back from the islands. Even Hollywood took notice: Palm woven bottles of bay rum have been featured on episodes of the hit TV show M*A*S*H, in the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and most recently in the film "The People I Know," with Al Pacino.
In the early nineties West Indies Bay Co. introduced a line of suntan products called "Virgin Islands," developed by a expert in the field of sun care and consultant to the biggest names in the industry. The line included lotions, oils, and aloe products, and was formulated especially for the powerful Caribbean sun.

Hurricanes Hugo in 1989, and especially Marilyn in 1995, dealt a severe blow to the Virgin Islands and to the West Indies Bay Company. In 1995, Marilyn destroyed the factory which occupied the old Vitelco building in Havensight. The dedicated employees rallied to salvage what could be recovered from the wreckage and discovered that although the heavy equipment weathered the storm, most of the supplies and inventory were destroyed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of staff, the West Indies Bay Company was able to resume shipping to its US customers within two weeks. 

Sadly, the situation elsewhere in the Caribbean was quite different. The market was devastated, and St Johns Bay Rum lost two-thirds of its accounts as many of the destroyed stores never reopened.

The recent years

In 1997, St Johns Bay Rum relocated to its present location on the West Indian Company dock. The facility comprises an office, a warehouse, a showroom, and manufacturing space.

Many cruise ship passengers wander in to investigate the source of the wonderful smell that escapes from the building. For some of them it is their first encounter with bay rum, for others it is the thrill of discovering the place where their favorite fragrance is made.

In early 2000, Jerry Woodhouse reintroduced gift baskets and soaps, and expanded the collection to include Bay Rum and West Indian Lime balms.

The explosion of a new sales medium, the Internet, resulted in a tremendous increase in new customers who discovered St Johns Bay Rum through its beautiful website: 

Fragrances ordered on the Internet site are regularly being shipped to Canada, Europe, China, Taiwan, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South America, carrying with them a little of the magic of our islands.

To celebrate St Johns Bay Rum's 60th Anniversary, a very unique bottle of Bay Rum was produced in 2006. It featured a beautiful label picturing a weaver by the sea. This limited edition bottle was offered throughout the year in stores and on the Company's website.

60th Anniversary Bottle

St Johns in the 21st century

In the factory store, St. Johns Fragrances are prominently displayed along with a new line of fragrances for men and women called "West Indies".
The striking West Indies Logo was created by a well known Italian designer who drew his inspiration from St. Johns' distinctive palm weaving. 

Thru this newly created sister brand the Company is expanding into a West Indies line of sportswear for men and women in bright tropical colours, and fabrics that reflect the islands' lifestyle. The clothes are presently being sold only in the St. Johns Bay Rum store.