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A.H. Riise and the History of Rum

Original pharmaceutical exam certificate for AH Riise, dated 21st October 1832

Albert Heinrich Riise was born in Ærøskøbing, Denmark on September 11, 1810, the son of a skipper and merchant. His father died at sea while Albert was still young, but this did not stop him from taking an apprenticeship at the pharmacy in Ærøskøbing, followed by one of five years in Fåborg between 1825 and 1830. After this he went to university in Copenhagen, where he graduated in botany and chemistry, paying for his studies through working in a number of pharmacies in the city.

A.H. Riise, the Pharmacist

A.H. Riise oprindelig reklame

Copy of one of the original advertising posters promoting A H Riise’s pharmacy, or ‘Druggist and Apothecary’ as it is called here. These posters would not have been purely for promotion on the island of Saint Thomas, but would have been posted on islands throughout the Caribbean. Within just a few years of opening the pharmacy in 1838, it became widely known throughout the region that you could buy just about anything you needed for the household from A H Riise. You will also see if you look closely that this poster is promoting the ‘wholesale’ aspect of the business – A H Riise was responsible for supplying many businesses throughout the islands.

Through his botanical interest, Riise had long held an interest in travelling to the West Indies, and in 1838 he was successful in obtaining what was then called a ‘privilege’ or legal right to open a pharmacy in the Danish West Indies. It should be noted that in the 19th century, a ‘pharmacy’ is not as we would recognize today. In many cases, as would be that of Albert Riise, the sale of medicinal products would be in what could best be described as a hardware store, haberdashers and pharmacy.

Albert Riise arrived on the island of Saint Thomas, which today is part of the US Virgin Islands. His initial venture into business in the island’s capital, Charlotte Amalie, involved setting up a what was called a ‘doctors stall’ in conjunction with several local doctors, though the word ‘doctor’ is used loosely as seldom were they qualified. One year later and in partnership with just one of the original doctors, Albert opened his own pharmacy, St. Thomas Pharmacy, at No. 6 Queen Street in Charlotte Amalie. One year later and Riise was able to buy out his partner and operate as a sole trader.

A natural businessman, Riise travelled as far and wide as New York in the United States, and Trinidad to source products and develop other business opportunities. Within a few years, the pharmacy on the small island of St Thomas was well-known throughout the Caribbean as being the place where you could buy just about anything you could possibly need for the household. However, these business exploits did not stop Albert from utilizing his main skills, those of a pharmacist.

The early connection between rum and A.H. Riise

A.H. Riises aportek på St. Thomas

In 1895 the original Saint Thomas pharmacy burned down in a devastating fire. This is one of the first photographs taken of the newly rebuilt premises. To the left at the front you will see Valdemar Riise, Albert’s son. He and his brother, Karl, took over the running of the pharmacy upon the death of their father in 1882

So what is the connection between AH Riise and rum, and how did he become involved in the production of what today is still considered one of the finest rums available? The answer is pharmaceuticals.

Using local exotic plants and herbs, and others which he had brought back from his travels and had replanted, Riise began to manufacture pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and, of course, alcoholic products, but not, initially, alcohol for drinking as to him, alcohol was seen as also having strong medicinal and antiseptic properties.

Prior to producing rum as a standalone product, Albert produced what was called Riise’s Bay Rum, but once again this was not a drink. This was a scented water, or perfume, that would subsequently contribute considerably to Albert’s prosperity.

The early days of rum

A.H. Riise udstilling

Photograph of one of A.H. Riise’s exhibitions tands used to promote his pharmacy and wholesale supply business. This type of exhibition stand would appear at many trade events on the islands and also in the United States.

Rum will forever be associated with the West indies as it is there that the alcoholic drink was first produced, albeit by accident.

Sugar cane was introduced to the Caribbean islands during the exploratory times of Christopher Columbus and other explorers, having first been discovered in Southern Asia and Micronesia, and then grown in the Canary Islands and Madeira after their colonization by the Spanish in the latter half of the fifteenth century.

With perfect growing conditions, the sugar cane thrived in the West Indies, and with the refining of the sugar cane to make sugar, one by-product of the process was molasses, a dark, treacle-like liquid, that was presumed to be useless. However, purely by accident, one day at one of the sugar refineries it was noticed that the discarded molasses had started to bubble up and release a gas. This was rightly identified as carbon dioxide, a gas released during the process of fermentation. It was discovered that through the combination of air-borne yeast and the sugar in the molasses, alcohol was produced, which could then be distilled into what became known as rum.

70% proof rum Kill-devil!

However, this ‘rum’ was a distant cry from the drink as we know it today. It had an extremely high alcoholic content and a far-from-pleasant taste, to the point where it was given the nickname, ‘Kill-devil’, hardly surprising considering it was distilled at approximately 70% alcohol! With ships being an essential part of the sugar trade, it was no coincidence that ‘rum’ became heavily associated with sailors. For those coming from Europe, beer and wine stored on board to provide sailors with some form of respite from appalling living and working conditions soon turned sour in the tropical environment, so to avoid mutiny, beer and wine rations were replaced by rum.

Early lithograph dating back to the mid-19th century depicting the original A H Riise pharmacy on Queen Street, Charlotte Amelie, Saint Thomas.

The solving of one problem did, though, create another, as for many sailors, an early rum ration was a pint of rum a day! For the British navy, this proved to be a major headache, literally metaphorically as well as literally, and consequently the rum was heavily watered down. What is less well known is that rum was also combined with lime juice, and the two were used to combat the scourge of all sailors at that time, scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C usually obtained from fresh fruit and vegetables. Mixed with rum, the vitamin C in lime juice, a rich source, did not degrade. Even today, the British are often referred to as ‘limeys’, a slang expression which can be traced back to the use of limes by British sailors in the Caribbean.


 A.H. Riise and Rum

A.H. Riise kommercielt

The commercial aspect of A H Riise’s business is clearly demonstrated here with the inside of one of his wholesale storage facilities. Aside from the rum, which takes centre stage, closer inspection of the shelves will reveal the more pharmaceutical side of the business.

Albert’s skills as a pharmacist subsequently saw him produce some of the finest rum available, as well as bitter, or ale. At a time when water purification was not well established, ale was often drunk as a substitute for water as opposed to an alcoholic beverage as it is today. Albert successfully managed to combine rum and bitter to produce a medicine that was intended to cure stomach ailments and a number of other associated problems. He also managed to produce some of the very finest rum to be consumed as we do today, as a drink.

Marketed as West Indies rum, Albert Riise subsequently had considerable success exporting it throughout far and wide, though especially to his homeland of Denmark, under the brand names of Old St. Croix Brand, Riise’s Guava rum, and A.H. Riise rum. As testament to the fact that his rum was some of the very best produced in the Caribbean, Riise was to be the recipient of many international awards. The first was given to him in 1888 at the Nordic exhibition in Copenhagen, which featured the best of art, industry and agriculture from the five principal Scandinavian countries. One outstanding award was given to the Riise Family in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, held to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America.

A.H. Riise  Personal life

A.H. Riise litografi

Copy of original lithograph showing the interior of A H Riise’s first ‘druggist and apothecary’ premises, the pharmacy at Dronningensgade 6, Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas. As ide from the array of medicines and tinctures available, it is interesting to see from a social perspective that there was no racial or class discrimination on the island at that time.

Having moved to Saint Thomas in 1838, Albert Riise met Henriette Marie Worm, who was born at Frederiksted on Saint Croix in 1821 and whom he married in January, 1842. They had thirteen children, one of whom was the renowned photographer, Frederik Riise.

They lived together as a family until 1868, when a combination of epidemics of cholera, smallpox and yellow fever saw them decide to move back to Denmark, originally for just one year. However, rather than returning to Saint Thomas, Albert Riise placed the pharmacy there in the hands of an assistant, who would later marry one of Riise’s daughters, and he bought a villa at Frederiksberg Allé, which he named St. Thomas.

During his time on Saint Thomas, Albert Riise also became the Director of the Bank of St Thomas, while later being appointed Knight of Dannebrog, Knight of the Swedish Order of Vasa, in 1868 for Council of Justice, and in 1878 for Etatsråd.

Albert Riise died in 1882 and is buried at Solbjerg Park Cemetery in Frederiksberg, on the western outskirts of inner Copenhagen. After his death, the pharmacy and production of rum were taken over by two of Albert’s sons, Valdemar and Karl Riise, and the business continued to flourish.

Behind the warehouse

Behind the AH Riise warehouse in Charlotte Amalie. The iron tracks in the centre were part of the trolley cart system used for transporting goods both to and from the harbour.

Nordic Exhibition of Industry

AH Riise won a prestigious Gold Medal for an “Outstanding Product” at the Nordic Exhibition of Industry, Agriculture and Art, which was held in Copenhagen in 1888, and which was attended by over 1.3 million people. In celebration of AH Riise’s remarkable success, we have produced one of our most memorable and exclusive blends, the 1888 Gold Medal Edition Rum.