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SB meets… Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador

If there’s one man qualified to speak on the subject of rum, it’s the global ambassador for the category, Ian Burrell.

Ian Burrell
Ian Burrell is the self-appointed global rum ambassador

We sat down with the Sunday Brunch star to talk about the continued rise of the sugarcane category, including the return of the annual Rum Fest celebrations, his own blend, and what he sees for the future of the spirit.

What does it mean to be a global rum ambassador and how did this prestigious title come about?

A global rum ambassador is someone who dedicates their life to travelling around the world to promote and talk about the wonders of the rum industry – someone who talks about its history, where it is today, where it’s going in the future. It’s a title I gave myself when I realised that there wasn’t anyone championing rum in the way that it should be. Way back in 2003 I decided to dedicate my life to doing just that, and needed an apt title to express that, so that’s how it came out.

Why do you think that there isn’t a global ambassador for every spirit category?

Honestly, I’m not sure why there aren’t ambassadors for every spirits category. There are many spirits which cover many different regions – a lot we speak about today are geographically defined, so we do have people that will talk about Tequila, Scotch, or Cognac etc. But if we’re going to talk about whisky in general, for example, here are a few people who are experts in the topic, but they don’t define themselves by it or dedicate their lives to educating people about it. I think there’s definitely space for it.

Rum Fest is returning for its 16th year in October. How do you keep the festival feeling fresh every year, and what can people expect from the 2022 edition?

Yep, it’s back for its 16th year, which is so exciting. Rum Fest was the first international rum festival that inspired all the others you see around the world. It’s kept fresh because the industry and rum category evolves every year, so as the category evolves, Rum Fest evolves. We try to bring new ideas, new seminars, new rums, new ways of looking at the category to the festival every year, and that keeps it fresh.

Also, because the category evolves, there are always new people every year getting into rum, and then the long-term rum lovers who love Rum Fest love coming back to see what’s new. This year you can expect loads of rum (naturally), lots of fun, education through masterclasses and seminars. We also have a brand new trade day which takes place on the Monday where we’re looking to create new rum ambassadors. It’s all that under one roof.

Rum has been tipped to be ‘the next big thing’ for the last few years, and sales of rum have recently soared to overtake whisky’s market share and become worth more than £1 billion. What do you think has driven this and what do producers and the on-trade need to do to continue this upward trajectory?

What’s contributed to it is that a lot more people are discovering the diversity of rum – the different styles, expressions, the different countries that produce the product. People are talking about that a lot more. There’s also more opportunity to sample and taste all these types of rum as well.

Ian Burrell
Rum Fest returns to London on 15-16 October

The marketing of some of the rum companies has also become a lot better and has caught up to other spirit categories. However, I think most importantly, the rums are getting even better every year. We’re in an age where producers are producing the best rums that have ever been seen, and more people are buying into that.

The category has grown as well – we’re seeing a lot more spiced variants of rum, a lot more finished expressions using different types of wood. Rum has always been popular – it’s drunk in some of the most popular cocktails in the world.

But people are now seeing it in a different light; they’re seeing it as something that can be sipped and savoured. So we’re tapping into new markets like the whisky market, the gin market, and pretty much every other spirits category because of its incredible versatility. That’s why it has grown and will continue to grow in the future.

Producers and the on-trade just need to continue marketing and promoting their products respectfully. There also has to be transparency about their products. People are asking questions about what’s inside the bottle, where is the rum from, who is behind it, and the producers just need to continue to be open about that. Simply, they also need to continue to make great rum, and not try to do it too quickly at the expense of quality.

What is your holy grail tot – the rum you have always wanted to try but never got your hands on?

There aren’t really any rums like that – I’ve been lucky enough to try pretty much every rum that I’ve wanted to try. I suppose there are lots of different styles of rum or labels that are no longer here that I’d like to try which were around pre- and early 1900s. I wouldn’t mind trying some of the first, say, Bacardís or some of the first Appletons, or some of the first rums from Martinique. Those are some of the styles of rums I would like to have tried.

Equiano Rum
Equiano Rum’s range comprises two expressions, including its white rum unveiled in February this year

Let’s talk about your own rum brand, Equiano. Did you feel that as the global rum ambassador you had extra pressure to release something truly remarkable?

I wouldn’t say it was truly remarkable, I’ll leave it up to other people to decide. But no, there was no pressure to produce or create my own brand really. I felt that time was right to create a brand that had a lot of my ideas surrounding it, but more importantly a brand which talked about the history or rum, and the people that were behind the rum industry, and helped mold the rum industry, like enslaved Africans, who are often forgotten about when talking about the rum industry.

It was important to me to create a brand that spoke about that part of the history, as well as the future of rum, and the crafting of different distillates from different parts of the world, such as the African continent and Caribbean region. I also wanted a brand that would donate to charitable causes, such as what we’re doing with Equiano and Anti Slavery International.

What was it about the blend you have released that made you decide it was The One?

Well, I’ve always been taught by rum producers that when you make a rum, make a rum that you like. So when I was playing around with different blends in my kitchen, I came up with a blend, and said ‘yep, this is the style of rum I want to create’. I gave that to our master blender Richard Seale from Foursquare and he said: ‘I know where you’re going with this, but don’t give up your day job’.

He then perfected the blend for us to what we have in the bottle today – a beautiful rum that’s won gold medals from every competition we’ve ever entered into.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No