COMMENTARY: Bay oil distillation in Dominica

Vat container

As a teenager during the summer holidays, my cousin Bernard Allan and I use to work for at least two to three weeks nonstop with our grand father Burton (Papa Burton) Allan, distilling Bay oil in La Plaine.  The laborious and time- consuming process of harvesting the Bay leaves and twigs (Botanical name is Pimenta Racemosa (‘Bwa-Den’) included assembling and tying them in big bundles.

Then the bundles had to be carried on our heads from the fields to the road side. After the heaps were big enough, a few days later they would be loaded on a truck and transported to the distillery. The Bay leaf is used to season meats, potatoes, stews, sauces, fish, pickles, and vinegars. It is also used to aromatize Bay Rum and other toiletries.

At the distillery the twig leaves were tightly packed into a container Vat and then covering the vat’s top and sealing it with red dirt. But before that, you have to collect big blocks of wood from the forest because the big pot filled with water just underneath the vat container has to be heated for at least 24 hours during the steam distillation process. Also the vat has to be emptied out after 24 hours to prepare for the next batch. That was the maximum time it took to extract the oil from the bay leaf. Each batch would yield about three quarters of a gallon of oil.

This meant that all night and all day the fire has to be fed- so sleep was intermittent at best on the hard floor. Bay oil is distilled by boiling the chopped leaves under pressure. A hydrometer is used to test the specific gravity of the oil constantly and the purity is also gauged by clarity and smell.

In fact, some villagers referred to the two to three weeks you spent distilling Bay oil as going to (‘La Jole’) jail doing hard time. The oil is sold on the US or European markets, either through brokers or direct to end-users. Bay oil is primarily used as one of several “essential oils” in perfumes and cosmetics .Virtually all perfume and cosmetic fragrances in the world are made from different combinations of these oils.

In the 70s bay oil production mostly occurred on the Atlantic coast from Petite Soufriere to Bagatelle in the south and beyond. There were vibrant cooperatives in Petite Savanne and Bagatelle where oil production was most prolific. According to some reports, the co-operative produced in the order of 90 to 100 45-gallon drums per year (approximately 4,500 gallons). When bought from farmers, it is bought by weight; in 2003: the price was EC$44 (US$16) a pound.

At the height of the Bay Oil distillation in the 70s the rural Atlantic coast villages had vibrant and sustainable economies. Many families were able to send their children to high school and broke the cycle of poverty.  The dignity and respect of these rural folks were solid and their communities were much more cost knit in spite of the personal differences or skirmishes that existed.

According to Moe Rosen of the University of Lund in Sweden who completed a study of the Bay Oil industry for his Master’s degree theses in January 2020, there are only seven (7) functioning distilleries remaining in Dominica. Mr. Rosen’s position is that “It is necessary to invest in rejuvenation of Bay leaf trees to achieve the earlier production levels as trees are the main limiting factor. This puts a higher pressure on utilizing the trees and distilleries more efficiently. The price of the oil paid to the farmers need to increase to get more investments and raise the attractiveness of the profession. Another important aspect is to facilitate the labour intensity and modernization to supply the ready market worldwide.”

At university in Washington DC, I majored in Chemistry as my undergraduate studies.  I remembered one day we were doing a fractional distillation project in my Organic Chemistry II Lab class. Suddenly and without notice, I got very quiet and emotional. The professor asked why I am not participating in the class today and is everything alright with me.  I immediately took a bathroom break where I ‘broke down’.

I reminisced and remembered all that hard work and my late grandfather and Bernard and I endured distilling bay oil to make an honest living.  I reflected on the value of education and the transcendence and opportunity that occurs with that process. I reflected on the fact that I was so far away from that distillery in nautical miles and in reality as well.

Last week my American born children who are growing under far different circumstances than I grew up under sent me a video of a bay oil distillery they visited in Riviere Cyrique. I was pleased and humbled and vividly remembered the hard working days and nights nostalgically with Papa and Bernard earning a living the old fashion way.

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  1. Gabriel Joshua Christian
    March 9, 2021

    An outstanding article by my fellow DGS cadet comrade and one who has dedicated himself to the betterment of Dominica. Trust we can move forward with agro industry on Dominica. Let us teach our people to fish so they can be independent and self-sustaining to run their own lives. Let it never be that our people are resigned to being dependent on hand-outs from any politician, state or foreign power. Productivity in all things is honored among all species.

  2. Lance Bokit
    February 6, 2021

    No Vision = Silently Perishing People

  3. February 6, 2021

    I also worked in summer in LaPlaine making Bay oil. It is nice to see the advances in the stills.

  4. LeRoy Mitchell
    February 5, 2021

    There is need for assembling resources to keep this industry alive and to possibly modernize the production process. I too fondly recall the distilling process on my relative’s property at Everton Hall Estate(Tan Tan) to the North of Portsmouth.

  5. Goodwill
    February 5, 2021

    It would be great if you could use your chemistry training and your childhood experience in the distilling of Bay oil to recommend some modernization of the process. In fact Petite Savanne had a modern bay distillery before it was destroyed by Tropical Storm Erika.

    • Finn
      February 5, 2021

      @Goodwill. Well thanks for your comments but this is CREAD issue. See its website.
      Operating as a statutory government agency, the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica (CREAD) leads and coordinates strategic initiatives across sectors in the Commonwealth of Dominica with the goal of making the country the world’s first climate resilient nation. CREAD acts to bolster the ability of the business community, public services, and social sector partners to build strong and resilient communities, develop adaptive infrastructure, accelerate economic growth, strengthen institutional systems, enhance Dominicans’ capacity to respond to the local impacts of global climate change, and set an example for the rest of the world on how to respond to the challenges of a changing climate.

  6. click here
    February 5, 2021

    Agro processing is the way forward for Dominica. Forget Tourism, that can be a by product of agro processing. Go online and look up the prices of essential oils like vertivert, castor, neroli etc. An oz of Neroli oil costs over US$300. Neroli is the oil from the sour orange plant’s flowers. I can go on and on and on and on. It has been a complete and utter shame that the min of agriculture, commerce and trade CANNOT see this and make moves to impleve the agro processing industry. We are so stuck in just selling raw produce that we forget we can add value to them.

    We NEED to start producing and exporting our valuable products. We need to start producing at a standard that allows us entry in foreign markets and a capacity to sati.

    We are our own biggest enemies. Lovely article, and yes these processes have been labour intensive as you have explained, but with technology, these issues can be addresses. Instead of carrying the leaves on your head to the road, we can use a zip line

    • Zandoli
      February 5, 2021

      Instead of the government using the passport money to create industries to allow people to earn enough to build their own homes, they spent the money to provide houses to their supporters many of whom will not earn enough to support themselves.

      • click here
        February 8, 2021

        Government doesnt understand what it is they are trying to do. Theyir vision is short. They figure it out as they go along. What they do know is that in the long run, they have to be rich when they come out of office.

  7. LEJ
    February 5, 2021

    What an interesting thought -provoking commentary.
    Minister and Chief Agricultural Officer, are you listening? Beyond the obvious emotion this could be an eye opener.
    Bay leaf trees can be planted all over Dominica, without much sacrifice of land space as they do serve make perfect hedges.
    On the other hand, a page can be borrowed from the book of Christmas Tree growers in North America by establishing plots of Bay Leaf Trees which, when mature could be harvested like tea leaves in India.

  8. Beverly
    February 4, 2021

    Nostalgic indeed!

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