What It Is
Old West Indies tradition holds that bay leaves have special healing properties ranging from a muscle relaxation to fever and headache reduction. Rum, as many readers are surely aware, has similar properties (unless we’re talking about the morning after, in which case it’s the inverse). On their own they’ve got culinary and, ahem, recreational uses a plenty. Together, bay leaves and rum create a powerful and appealing fragrance and come with some serious astringent properties as well.
Where it Comes From
As for the provenance of this brilliantly simple recipe for manliness, there’s a bit of disagreement. Some say it was 16th-century European sailors who came up with the recipe. Sailors would rub bay leaves on themselves to disguise that distinguished at-sea smell. One day, after a few too many sips, a sailor dropped a couple leaves in a glass of rum and presto: Bay Rum was born. However, others say that native islanders of the West Indies had been using bay leaves soaked in rum or hot water for healing purposes centuries earlier. What we know for sure: In 1838 Albert Heinrich Riise, a Danish chemist living on St. Thomas, came up with a formula to distill rum, add bay leaf oil, and then distill it again. This formula became an aftershave that spread through the U.S. like wildfire—so much so that during prohibition, people actually started to drink the stuff. It has been a sink ledge staple ever since.
What It’s Good For
The scent may recall Granddad getting fresh in a tight ribbed tank top undershirt, but there’s been a major resurgence of bay rum use today. Any men’s grooming line worth its weight in cane sugar has been experimenting with the stuff as of late, putting a new spin on the old concoction. A few choice examples: Burt’s Bees Bay Rum Exfoliating Soap; Mr. Natty’s Bay Rum aftershave, which lends that old-school bracing cheek sting to a freshly shaved face; and New Jersey-based barber Chris Calabrese’s F. Calabrese & Son Raritan Bay Rum Co. Dusting Powder, perfect for sprinkling in your boat shoes in lieu of socks.