When Gilbert Henry was first launched in 2011, sourcing oil of the Bay Rum (Pimenta Racemosa) tree was relatively easy. There were several wholesalers from which to choose, and selection was more a matter of deciding which oil we liked the most. Fast forward to February 2016, we encountered our first challenge in purchasing the oil. The supplier from which we had sourced the raw material for the previous 5 years was out of stock. We first assumed that they were simply sold out due to the number of new artisans entering the market. When we requested an ETA, they explained that they could not provide one because of a shortage of the oil. Of course we needed to understand the cause of the shortage so we could determine its impact on our business, but unfortunately they had no information regarding the cause of scarcity.
We spent many hours over the next two and a half years scouring the Internet to find new suppliers and doing our best to get answers. We had heard rumors of a workers' strike, which left the trees unharvested and the producers with nothing to distill. The work of harvesting is arduous, requiring the laborers to carry heavy loads over rough terrain in tropical heat and humidity. Add to that the fact that the product yield is low, requiring 100 lbs of leaves to produce just one gallon of oil. This explanation made sense, but we couldn't corroborate it.
In May of this year, we came across the website of Nature Island Importers, owned and operated by Sas Nemeth. Sas is based on the island of St. John, and regularly travels to Dominica to source Volcanic Sulphur skincare Cream and bay oil. We ordered a small sample from her, and were pleased with the product. We tried to order a wholesale quantity, but we were too late! Sas was sold out too. We reached out to her for info regarding future availability, and fortunately she had a sourcing trip to Dominica planned. We hoped that we had found someone who could tell us what the heck was going on, and she didn't disappoint.
Sas returned from Dominica to St. John on a Thursday, and we spoke the following Saturday. It turned out that while finding laborers is somewhat of a challenge, the real problem was the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 and Hurricane Maria in 2017. Sas pointed me to a report by Bevin Etienne (Assistant Professor, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia), who provides some details. Dominica produces around 70% of the world supply of bay oil, with the majority of that distilled in the towns of Petite Savanne and Delices. Etienne states that Erika wiped out a major facility in Petite Savanne, and later Maria destroyed many of the artisan distilleries there and in Delices. Sas told me that to make matters worse, flooding had made the roads to these towns impassible. So, even if the distilleries were left in tact, there was no route to deliver the harvested leaves. As a result, no oil had been produced since 2015! There were some reserves on the island, but they were owned by the Dominican Essential Oil Cooperative and most of it was being sold to buyers in England.
Distillery after Hurricane Maria
Image courtesy of Sas Nemeth, Nature Island Importers
However, there was good news! The farms were all in great shape, with no scarcity of healthy Bay Rum trees. Furthermore, Sas had visited several distilleries during her three-week stay in Dominica, and the rebuilds were nearing completion. She had even met one industrious individual who was working on a mobile still to take production directly to the farms! It appears that with restoration of the island's infrastructure and production facilities on track, the global Bay Rum shortage will be coming to an end, and we will once again be able to consider expanding our product line.