Artificial Intelligence’s rum : Interview with Ian Burrell

In an interesting move for the British rum market, Virgin Holiday has begun production of their own blend – ‘the Virgin Holiday Spirit’ – once again proving that rum is the ambassador of tourism. But of course busy Richard Branson and his team didn’t just follow the crowd.  Instead, he went the more innovative route of creating a recipe using Artificial Intelligence. Will the pervasive AI, which has been covered so often in the press of late, replace the cellar masters echoing the fear of our politicians on the question ?

Here at Rumporter, we think not. One reason for this doubt because it took an actual person  to complete the project (final blending) and bring it to life. And the person who took on that task was Ian Burrell, the man himself.  So just a publicity stunt? Or a true revolution? Well, it’s definitely an event that will get the opponents of rhum 2.0 talking. Meanwhile, Ian kindly agreed to answer some questions.

Good morning, Ian. Recently you created a bit of buzz on social networks with a particular post regarding the first rum composed using AI. What was your role in this project?

My role was to oversee the project and make sure that we finished with a credible but tasty rum.  From sampling and deciding on the blends, to sourcing the bottles, labels, creating serves and key messages to drive interest in the project.

What was the method used to determine consumers’ tastes, link them to production and blend it all together?

IBM’s leading artificial intelligence platform, Watson, assessed the social media posts of over 15 million holiday makers to determine the predominant emotions felt on a holiday. Watson then analysed over 5,000 rum recipes and reviews to match the emotions to ingredients and flavours. The data deep dive delivered the following most predominant positive emotions captured in the holiday social posts, matched against flavours in the rum reviews



It seems as if the computer has overlooked the french or spanish speaking « rhumospheres » in its scanning as the finished blend is very “British” in style. How did the AI contribute to or constrain the process? Isn’t this the blend that you would have made anyway?

On the contrary. The computer may have analyse media posts from French or Spanish holiday makers and rhum bloggers, but It was my final decision as to the style of rum. As Virgin holidays are predominately in English speaking countries, and is being sold in Virgin stores in the UK,  it made sense for the rum to be  a spirit that the English palate would be used too. This why I used rums from Barbados (Foursquare Pot & column stilled rums from 3 – 5 years old) & a rum from Jamaica (Worthy Park pot still 3 years old). These rums were chosen to bring out the characteristics as specified by the computer.   When I am approached by a French or Spanish Holiday company to do a similar project I will obviously try to create a rum that suits a majority of their customers palates.

According to the first analysis made there is no sugar added to this blend, is it a choice you were keen on doing ?

The computer did actually stipulate sugarcane as one of the components. Now I could have interpreted that as sweetness, sweetened, sugar etc. But I decided that the rum should be a naturally sweet rum so I didn’t want sugar in THIS particular blend.


Surprisingly, the computer did not connect any of the words it had identified as a connection between Holiday and rum to cocktails. Can you comment this ?

It may have made those connections and dispelled them. You are talking about a computer that artificially thinks like a human, so If you ask it for rum flavours, it won’t give you a cocktail recipe. BUT if we had asked it for a connection to cocktails it would have probably said A RUM PUNCH using flavours of vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, allspice and coconut.

In your opinion, is this the beginning of the end for the cellar masters?

I hope not, but we are seeing computers being embraced in all aspects of rum making from them being used to run & control stills, to analysing distillates and even reactors being used to accelerate extraction & esterification. Technology WILL be a part of rums future but I would hope that the romance of the old cellar master will be a part of that future for as long as possible.

In Britain, the rum will go for £59, an above average price point in the UK, even for selective distribution. Does this mean we’ll be seeing some changes in the British rum market?

Yes we are seeing a small change in the premium end of the market where some consumers are looking at quality over quantity. It’s all about intrinsic value when it comes to some rums. Price is a small part of that equation when it is your own perceived value. £59 for a collectible is a fair price for some but expensive to others.

Only 800 bottles were produced, where will they be distributed? Will there be a batch 2 or 3 or a permanent production ?

Yes only 800 were produced and this will probably be a one off. Virgin Holidays are in the holiday making industry, not the rum industry and although rum is a part of that Caribbean holiday lifestyle, this project was to capture the “Holiday Spirit” in a bottle for potential tourist. Now what would that spirit be ? Vodka ? Whisk(e)y ? Gin ? Tequila ?

One last question: would you be willing to bring some bottles to the Paris Rhumfest in April?

If I’m invited to do a seminar or tasting I will. 😉

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