[Note: this article was jointly written by Mantic59 and Joe Borrelli. Updated September, 2020.] When it comes to the most traditional scents, one can rarely have a conversation without bringing up the the term “Bay Rum.” For those of you who don’t know, Bay Rum has been a popular scent throughout shaving history but lost interest as we made the transition to cartridge and electric razors for more modern scents.
A Short History Of Bay Rum
The origins of bay rum can literally be traced back to smelly sailors of the 1500’s. You didn’t read this wrong. Traveling through the Caribbean on ships without air condition in the middle of summer can lead to some unfavorable conditions. The smell was unbearable and it led some sailors to try and mask it with products they found through their travels.
A certain bay leaf (Pimenta Racemosa) was traded frequently because of its versatility and availability in the Caribbean. This is not the leaf that grandma uses in her Sunday Sauce. It’s a different leaf that serves many medicinal purposes Today this plant is grown in many places but it’s origins can be traced to the West Indies.
It was found that by rubbing bay leaves on the skin left a pleasant scent that lasted for some time. In short, could mask the smell of well…sailors in the scorching heat (use your imagination). Eventually, these sailors found that steeping the leaves in rum would extract the oils faster and more efficiently creating a more pleasant scent that lasted longer. How did they come up with this idea? It’s unknown but I can only guess that it started with a long night of drinking rum and some deep conversations.
In addition, Bay Rum was used to relieve muscle pain, sunburn and was even used for hair care. It was a very versatile product that eventually landed on the mainland. The US. Virgin Islands began producing it and exporting their new product to the continental US as well as Europe and parts of Asia.
The Resurrection Of Bay Rum
Today there has been a resurgence of Bay Rum scented products because of the popularity of classic wet shaving and the interest of yesterday’s scents.
During these conversations you may wonder “Why is this Bay Rum in my shave stuff”?
To answer the question we’ll have to go back in time when long distance travel was by ship.
Just a warning, we are plotting a course in uncharted waters, and may end up discovering a new land (or scent for you to try). We cannot be responsible if you discover a new acquisition disorder (AD) regarding Bay Rum products!
Note From Authors: The history of rum and rum-based products are skewed to say the least. Records out of the Caribbean were mostly verbal instructions passed on from town to town and generation to generation. With the large amount of countries in the Caribbean the regulation of products even today is very limited.
Amazon, West Coast Shaving, and PAA links in this article are affiliate.
So What Is Bay Rum?
What does bay rum smell like? Bay rum is a scent that is composed of bay leaves, rum and other local Caribbean spices. Scents commonly identified with it include cinnamon, clove, allspice (think apple pie), oak, sweet vanilla, eucalyptus, musk, and other spices.
The “Baseline” Bay Rum Scent
The resurrection of classic wet shaving has brought a new light to Bay Rum. Today there are dozens of Bay Rum scented aftershaves, soaps and other cosmetic products.
But St. Johns Bay Rum is probably the most well-established and possibly best bay rum aftershave product still in production–now a classic by which others are measured (at least scent-wise). While it’s “golden age” of popularity was probably the late ‘50’s to the early ‘60’s, the St. John’s cologne is (relatively) expensive but “the real deal.”
If you ever find yourself in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands you can visit their office and warehouse.
Pinaud Clubman Bay Rum, another well-known, popular bay rum aftershave product, is surprisingly close to St. John’s in scent but its made with more synthetic, lower-cost ingredients. The scent does not last nearly as long as St. John’s…but it’s also a fraction of the price.
Variations On The Traditional Bay Rum Scent
It seems like anyone making a scented product has their own “take” on the Bay Rum scent. While some try to recreate the original, classic scent others use more cinnamon, or more clove, or add citrus, or add peppercorns. The list goes on.
Here is a brief list of some popular Bay Rum products. These items are in no particular order and are not an endorsement: there are a lot out there–a simple query from your favorite search engine will return many results.
Ogallala Bay Rum: Ogallala Nebraska is far from the Caribbean but is no stranger to scent of Bay Rum. A spot where cowboys used to drive cattle north from Texas to the main rail-head, there was a lot going on here from 1870-1885.
Many of these cowboys took a break here in Ogallala and their first stop was usually the barbershop. The local barber had his own blend of bay rum which was very popular with the cowboys passing through. They found that the scent was well liked by the ladies selling drinks at the local saloon and the rest is history.
Ogallala is based on that popular scent that the cowboys loved. A true piece of Nebraska history!
Captain’s Choice Bay Rum: This scent is what put Captain’s Choice on the map. It took his hobby to a business. One of the original artisans, Scott has been making it for several years.
After a trip to the drug store and smelling different bay rum aftershave products he decided to make his own. Several months of experimenting he joined a large wet shaving forum and sent out samples to a bunch of members for feedback. I guess you can say the rest is history.
Scott’s business has since expanded to shave soaps, balms and other shave products.
PAA Bay Rum Aftershave and Shave Soap: Few people have the passion of bay rum as Douglas Smythe. With several versions available, Doug and Fran are dedicated to producing different versions of this classic scent
Clasico Bay Rum: Made in the classic scent style. Uses high quality essential oils rather than fragrance oils.
Atomic Age Bay Rum: Barrel aged and made with West Indian Bay Hydrosol
Boomtown Bay Rum: Scent is Gun Smoke, Leather and West Indian Bay Rum
Pineapple Bay Rum: Classic bay rum with a hint of pineapple
Taconic: Taconic offers their Bay Rum scent in a number of their products, including shave creams and shave soaps. Taconic’s version of the scent is somewhat spicier and a bit heavier on the cinnamon note than some others but Mantic59 thinks it offers an excellent price-to-performance value.
Stirling: Stirling’s Bay Rum seems to have evolved over the years (or maybe they’re just variances from individual batches): the first one Mantic59 tried several years ago was closer to the “baseline” scent, while the last puck he tried had a bit more of a clove note to it. But Stirling’s lather and performance have been rock-solid through all that time.
Executive Shaving: This UK-based brand makes an excellent Bay Rum shave cream. Moderately scented and admirably close to the “base line” Bay Rum.
How To Make Bay Rum Aftershave On Your Own
Joe lives in a tropical area. Rum is a popular drink in south Florida and it’s fun to know that many producers are fairly close to where he lives. Although Bay Rum is a popular choice online it’s important to mention that if you visit south Florida the “streets aren’t lined with Bay Rum Barrels” but there are several rum distilleries that are more than happy to see you. (Grab some local rum and make your own)
He has made a few bay rum aftershave “DIY” with local products and have had mild success (and failure). There are many recipes out there but he found two of them to be really impressive and easy to make.
This recipe comes direct from a popular wet shaving forum and consists of the following:
4 oz of Vodka (or neutral spirit)
2 Tablespoons of Rum ( You can use more rum if desired, Just cut the amount of vodka)
2 or more Dried Bay Leaves (Not the leaves in the spice aisle at the grocery store. You need a specific type; Pimenta racemosa)
¼ teaspoon of allspice
1 stick of cinnamon broken up
Fresh orange zest
Combine ingredients in a mason jar and let sit for a few weeks. When it’s ready, strain it using a coffee filter and you’re read to go!
Also featured in this article is a recipe from an 1866 Barber’s Guide. The products are still relevant even though it’s been 150 years since the guide was published. Check it out here for more information.
Another recipe that does the job right is from Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements (PAA)
Douglas Smythe the owner/operator of PAA has produced several versions of Bay Rum scented products in the past few years: he has a true passion for the scent. His interpretation is a little different but is really nice. Check it out:
DIY Wet Shaver’s Bay Rum
What you will need:
- Post-it Note Paper
- Sharpie Marker
- Coffee Filter and Funnel (or what ever will work as a filter.)
- 1/2 cup Spiced Rum (Preferably Flor De Canya 4 or 7 year)
- 1/4 cup Witch Hazel (15%-30% Alcohol)
- 1/4 distilled water
- West Indian Bay Leaves [Pimenta Racemosa) 20-30 drops of essential oil may be substituted
- Vegetable Glycerin
- 1 pt Mason Jar
- chopstick or spoon
- Lime Essential Oil [Optional]
- Cinnamon Stick [Optional]
- Whole Clove [optional]
I modified this recipe around the wet shaver and what he may already have in the house.
1) Add broken and crushed West Indian Bay Leaves to Mason Jar. (Note: This is not the Bay (laurel) on your spice rack.) Leaves may be found online. Write Date on top of jar with Permanent Sharpie.
2) Add Spiced Rum and witch hazel. Seal Jar and shake for 30 seconds. Note: Never use Isopropyl Alcohol, it’s smell tends to over-power. The alcohol in witch hazel is ethanol and perfect for creating bay rum.
3) Re-Open jar and add other dry ingredients; nutmeg, cinnamon sticks (crushed), etc. Note: If the rum is already spiced and you’re in a pinch, you need not even use dried spices…but they do add some nice nuance and depth.
4) Add a Tbsp of vegetable glycerin. At this time, you may also add 10 drops of lime but this is completely optional. Reseal jar and shake for 30 seconds. Store under your bathroom sink for 2 days. On day 3, add 1/4 cup of distilled water, reseal and shake for 30 seconds. Return to under the sink.
5) On post-it note write “Shake Bay Rum!” and then stick this to your shaving mirror. Everyday before or after your shave, remember to shake the jar for 10 seconds, then return to under sink. Allow to “Age” for 4-6 weeks. You will be tempted to bust it open at the end of the 4th week and by all means you can, but consider waiting till 6 for an even more potent batch.
6) After time has elapsed, shake one last time for 30 seconds before pouring through coffee filter into measuring cup or new jar. Keep in new jar sealed or decant into a special glass bottle.
Simple as that!
If you haven’t tried bay rum scented products, give them a shot. It’s a classic scent that has became increasingly popular with both wet shavers and barber shops alike. Try to make your own version…it’s not everyday you can smell like a pirate!
Do you have a favorite Bay Rum product? Leave a comment below!