The Caribbean’s leading apothecary led to the Caribbean’s finest rum
A.H. Riise became an influential brand when the entrepreneur A.H. Riise combined his pharmaceutical background with a passionate desire to travel and harvest the various medicinal herbs of the Caribbean
It is the combination of A.H. Riise’s solid pharmaceutical background, an ambition to find just the right medicinal herbs and his ability to establish an authentic production that are the ingredients behind the brand A.H. Riise, which, since our founder’s time, has brought forth one of the world’s finest rums.
Albert Heinrich Riise did not get his entrepreneurial flair from strangers. As a captain on Danish merchant ships – with privateer privileges – his father, Jens Christian Riise, got as far as Ramsgate in the English Channel when he ran aground on his way to Malaga in Spain in 1801 with 1710 packages of canvas. While he escaped, he was shipwrecked again 11 years later, this time off the Norwegian coast, but on this occasion he remained lost at sea. This meant that A.H. Riise grew up without a father. His mother, however, had the foresight to secure him a position as a pharmacist’s apprentice in her home town of Ærøskøbing in Denmark.
St. Thomas Apothecary Hall
St. Thomas Apothecary Hall, the pharmacy on Sankt Thomas which would ultimately make Riise an extremely wealthy and respected man, was founded by the then 28-year-old Albert in 1838. He had fought hard up until this point to get his feet under his own apothecary counter. As the son of a single mother he did not have much money, but what he did have was a considerable academic education and plenty of relevant work experience from pharmacists in the Danish towns of Ærøskøbing and Faaborg. Together with his energetic and persistent approach, these factors became crucial to his ultimate success. In Faaborg, he had been lucky enough to be able to work for the pharmacist Bøving, who had a keen interest in the natural sciences and, in addition to his pharmacy, cultivated a herb garden with medicinal plants grown for sale. Bøving’s enterprising approach was to be a huge inspiration for Riise when he established his own pharmaceutical production in 1838, which, in time, grew to include the distillation of some of the world’s best rums and bitters.
Through a pharmacist’s authorization, Riise fought single-mindedly to win his share and ultimately dominate the pharmacy trade on Sankt Thomas. Initially, Riise struggled with the fact that practising doctors on this Danish-West Indian island had been granted licences to sell medicines from so-called ‘doctor stands’. Often, untrained employees carried out these sales. Riise refused to open his pharmacy until he had obtained a promise that the doctor stands, with their products of fluctuating quality, would be stopped no later than one year after his establishment.
In order to avoid having to compete with dumping prices from various liquidation sales, Riise bought four doctor stands. There was not much money for this, but, with great maneuverability and aptitude, Riise slowly managed to finance his establishment and expansion. First, he borrowed USD 10,000 from a Dr Daniel Pretto, pledging him half of his net income for a 7-year period. When Pretto went bankrupt in 1842, his share was bought by a certain Major Kiellerup. Or, as his grandchild Henny Harald Hansen writes: “He married wisely into a family who could invest some money in his pharmacy and business.” When, according to plan, Riise terminated their contract on 31 December 1845 and became sole owner, the Major more than doubled his investment in the form of a bond for 24,206 dollars.
The increasingly successful Riise had big plans for his pharmacy. He did not just see marketing opportunities in the Danish West Indies, but also as far away as Puerto Rico and the South American mainland. Thanks to his passion for botany, he was already collecting and cataloguing plants and herbs from his first days on the islands. “In the first weeks after I arrived on St. Thomas, I continued my botanical studies with enthusiasm,” he wrote in a letter to a pharmacist colleague in 1839. This interest would lead to a rare, palatable production of bitters and rum, where his unusually extensive knowledge of the distillation of herb and plant extracts would raise him to the next level.
In order to be able to satisfy the many customers he attracted, Riise established himself across several buildings in the central port of Charlotte Amalie. The pharmacy itself – which the Danish pharmacist Jens Paulus Julius Wahlmann described as an “extremely magnificent, large and elegant building” – was established in 1843 on the corner of Dronningensgade and Vimmelskaftsgade, where it attracted considerable attention with its elevated, circular shape. At Vimmelskaftsgade 7 and 8 Riise established his “Museum”, with his collection of zoological and botanical finds, as well as his laboratory. There were tracks down to the harbour from two warehouse buildings at Dronningensgade 36, so the goods could easily be loaded and unloaded on and off the ships in dock. A foresighted move in the creation of Riise’s empire was his “backstore”, located separately at Vimmelskaftsgade 1 and, just like the warehouses, constructed from natural stone. This meant that these rock-solid buildings could not burn down, and that Charlotte Amalie was therefore guaranteed supplies, even if the pharmacy fell victim to fire, hurricane or both.
Foresighted employee policy
“A.H. Riise enjoyed being surrounded by skilled people,” observed Henny Harald Hansen, who described a large and complicated household, where the pharmacy staff lived with their employer, who was also attended by errand boys, cooks, maids and other servants. Until the repeal of slavery in 1848, a great deal of these employees were black slaves. Numerous visiting Danish pharmacists gained so much confidence apprenticing under Riise that they later established their own pharmacies in South America.
Riise’s success with rum and bitter is linked to his many voyages, which were partly business trips and partly scientific in nature. While his collections of herbs, plants and conch shells can be seen in the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen and in museums in Stockholm and Oslo, one should not underestimate the importance of these trips – the collection of rare herbs and plants, which he replanted in his own herb garden – in the development of precious spirits.
A.H. Riise Bay Rum
It was not directly foreseeable that Riise would become heavily involved in the manufacture of one of the world’s finest rums. The medicinal ingredients, however, proved to be the link between his ongoing production of pharmaceutical products and the fact that there was a shortage of retailers on St. Thomas when he arrived. It was this lack of purchasing opportunities and quality goods which Riise chose to exploit.
Riise’s first brands – Riise’s Florida Water and Riise’s Bay Rum – were not spirits you could drink, but rather cologne/hair lotions/aftershave. Riise had presumably had the idea to manufacture these products during a visit to his colleague P.E. Benzon on the neighboring Danish island of Sankt Croix. Benzon had, in order to improve his economy, already by 1819 developed his Bay Spirit or Bay Water extracted from the leaves of Pimenta Acris or Pimenta Racemosa, which is an evergreen plant of the myrtle family containing essential oils. If we are to believe the World Heritage Encyclopaedia, this distillate is a special West Indian invention, the other ingredients of which can be lemon, lime, cinnamon and clove.
According to Henny Harald Hansen, Riise’s famous A.H. Riise Bay Rum distinguished itself “by being produced on the basis of the fresh leaves of Pimenta Acris and double distilled on the basis of the West Indian rum”. A.H. Riise Bay Rum was described in the American Journal of Pharmacy in June 1882 as being “almost white, strongest in alcohol content and with a longer lasting aroma than any of the others examined, which can be attributed to the special aromatic scent of bay leaf.” It was, at any rate, a product with which Riise enjoyed great success. And, as it was double distilled on the basis of the West Indian rum, which again is a waste product from cane sugar manufacture, you could say that the rum manufacture was hiding in plain sight all along, as was the manufacture of herbal liqueurs.
A.H. Riise Florida Water and Eau de Cologne
Eau de Cologne is a kind of perfume, a solution of pleasant smelling essential oils in alcohol and diluted with water. Unlike Eau de Parfume, Eau de Cologne contains just 2-5% oil as opposed to the 15-18% in perfume. In the original recipe, oils were included with extracts of lemon, bergamot, orange, rosemary and orange blossom.
Florida Water is an American version of Eau de Cologne, which was introduced at the start of the 18th century in the city of Cologne in Germany. In contrast to the original version, it consists of more orange than lemon and also more herbs, such as lavender and clove.
Just like Eau de Cologne, Florida Water was regarded as a unisex perfume equally appealing to men and women. While women wore it in their corsage, it was used by men as an aftershave. Riise was able to supply both specialties.
A.H. Riise Brilliantine
Riise continued with his range of pharmaceutical products, including A.H. Brilliantine, which was a perfumed fat that men used for grooming their hair and beards.
Thousand years of tradition with medicinal herbs
From his five years studying under the pharmacist Bøving in Faaborg, Riise had acquired extensive knowledge of the medicinal plants and herbs which were grown on the pharmacy’s “herb farm”, again in order to produce extracts in-house at the pharmacy. With this knowledge, Riise worked as a pharmacist based on a thousand-year-old herbalist tradition to cure illness with medicinal plants which, even in ancient times, had already been discussed in important texts, such as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1550 B.C. or the Greek Historia Plantarum from the 4th century B.C. De Materia Medica, which was written by the Greek Pedanius Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D., was fundamental to the use of medicinal herbs right up until the 16th century.
The world-famous writer and professor Umberto Eco provides an excellent summary of the great importance of medicinal herbs in the medieval thriller “The Name of the Rose”, where the herbalist Severino from Saint Emmeram explains: “I use sorrel root, for example to cure catarrh, and with a decoration of marshmallow roots I can make a compress against skin disorders, treat eczema with burdock, with chopped and colored rootstock from bistort I can cure diarrhea and certain female ailments, pepper is good for indigestion, coltsfoot eases a cough, and then we have the good ginseng for the stomach, licorice and juniper to make a useful extract, elder and bark can be boiled together to treat ailments of the liver, soapwort roots crushed in cold water against purulence and then there is valerian, whose properties you surely already know.”
A.H. Riise herbal liqueur
With his great insight into medicinal plants and herbs, Riise created, on the basis of his spiced, sweet and classic X.O. rum, a bitter, into which was added a variety of herbal extracts and spices. These included coffee beans, cocoa beans, gentian root, quina, bitter orange peel, cloves, sandalwood and vanilla.
Besides the fact that the recipe smells absolutely amazing – the many herbs give it an exciting, multi-faceted taste experience, where the bitter tastes are balanced by a pleasant sweetness – the wonderful tastes also have an active content. Coffee, with its caffeine content, is known for its stimulating properties. Cocoa, with its antioxidant properties, can help normalize blood pressure. Gentian root, which has a very bitter taste, has historically been used as a medicinal herb to stimulate appetite and increase stomach acid production in patients with poor appetite. Quina, which is a dried bark from the cinchona tree, is high in the bitter quinine and alleged to work against infectious diseases, and, for many years, was the only known, effective treatment for malaria. Bitter orange peel is used in Chinese medicine for problems with digestion, including symptoms of acid reflux. Cloves are said to aid digestion, but also have expectorant properties. Sandalwood oil has been used as a herbal medicine for a wide variety of ailments, including the common cold, bronchitis, skin problems, urinary tract infections, and many more besides.
The classic herbal liqueur or bitter consists of alcohol and herbs. Remains of medicinal plants have been found in the wine vats of the Ancient Egyptians. From the Middle Ages onward, a tradition started to develop for blending medicinal herbs with distilled spirits. Many of the best-known bitters that exist on the market today originate from bitters which have roots in the pharmacopoeia of the Renaissance and traditions developed to stimulate people, including as an aid to digestion. Research has been performed in these areas, for example, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have experimented with almost 300-year-old recipes for Swedish bitter in order to understand the medical rationale that was behind them.
A.H. Riise Guava Rum
Rum which is distilled from the juice of sugarcane originally appeared as a by-product of the sugar production that was established by the Europeans who arrived in the Caribbean in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Guava rum is an exciting variety which takes advantage of the West Indies’ ample stock of guavaberry fruit trees, or rumberries, as they are also called. Guavaberries grow wild around the West Indies, and the fruit, which is half as large as a cherry, is yellowy orange or dark red. In the West Indies, guava rum is a specialty that was developed especially by Danish and Dutch colonists, not least Riise himself.
Riise Old St. Croix Brand
In June 1882, the American Journal of Pharmacy published an article in page 278 entitled “On Bay Rum and Bay Spirits” on Riise, which included the following statement:
“The rum which is used for distillation must be carefully chosen. It must of the best quality, completely pure and without any foreign aroma. Rum of various origins cannot be used interchangeably. A good St. Croix rum is best for this purpose, the aroma, but it must be considerably stronger than what is normally traded from this island.”
For rum lovers of the 19th century, the case was clear with Riise’s Old St. Croix Brand, Riise Guava Rum and A.H. Riise Rum. Characteristic of the immensely passionate, but also scientifically skilled, A.H. Riise’s approach to rum production is the use of double distillation in the manufacture.
Honour and Glory
Marketed as rum from the West Indies, Riise had great success in exporting his fine products to Denmark, but also to the Spanish-speaking mainland and the USA. As proof that his rum was some of the very best produced in the Caribbean, Riise received a number of international prizes. The labels on the A.H. Riise products from this period were almost over-decorated with all the medals and awards which the brand regularly received. The brand received its first award in 1888 at ‘Den nordiske Industri-, Landbrugs- og Kunstudstilling i Kjøbenhavn 1888’, a huge fair held in Copenhagen and where the best art, industry and agriculture from the five major Scandinavian countries was exhibited. Riise received yet another prestigious award in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which was held to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
After A.H Riise’s death in 1882, his sons Valdemar and Karl took over running the company. In 1913, the pharmacist Oluf Poulsen took over St. Thomas Apothecary Hall. With Denmark’s sale of the Danish West Indies in 1917, the apothecary licence was handed over to Vejle St. Thomas Apotek. Oluf Poulsen opened a corresponding branch in Copenhagen under the name A.H. Riise’s Central Depot.