Ian Burrell, the Global Rum Ambassador, it’s not necessary to introduce him. He agreed to give us a long interview where he talks about everything with all the freedom of a man who has built his independence.
Rumporter : Your background is very versatile (bartender, rap singer, « restaurateur » … ), can you tell us what you did before rum ? Has rum been an évidence for you from the very beginning ?
Ian Burrell : Ian Burrell : I have ALWAYS been into rum. My family is Jamaican and rum has always been part of their lifestyle so naturally I gravitated towards the category once I started working. My first professional job was as a bartender.
R : You are of Jamaican origins and yet british, can you give us your vision of both these important rum cultures. How do they interpenetrate, what are their différences ?
IB : Having both British and Jamaican cultures is important to and my story as they are the foundation that makes me what I am and do. They have difference where the British rum culture is one of the history, aristocracy, holidays and dreams of the tropics; while the Jamaican rum culture is one of family, work, rest and play.
R : You are a certified Rum guru but who do you consider as a source of inspiration in the rum community (this includes bartenders of course)?
IB : Thank you for the compliment, although I have never been officially certified, but I have been known to inspire other people around the world. My inspirations? I’m inspired by anyone that is positive as I feed off them. This includes other spirit aficionados and many bartenders that I have had to the pleasure to work with.
R : Rum Fest UK, the mother of all rum festivals, has been on for more than 10 years now, what motivated the very first one ? How have you managed to keep on surfing the wave?
IB : The motivation to organise the UK rum festival was the fact that there wasn’t any event in the world that provided rum education to a discerning and growing audience. I had travelled to the Caribbean and America to rum events but they weren’t quite what I was looking for. I needed an event that I would want to spend money to attend to further my knowledge of rum. So I used all my savings and invested in creating a new style of spirit event, which is constantly evolving to the categories needs.
R : You are the self proclaimed Global Rum Ambassador a kind of self elected pope and yet no one has ever challenged this idea. How does it feel to be so popular and legitimate ?
IB : There are some people who have been/are jealous of what I have accomplished within the industry thus challenge the idea, but it doesn’t bother me at all. NONE of them have ever come to me in person to say anything to the contrary. There isn’t a successful person on the planet that doesn’t have their haters. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m popular, but I am legitimate, and passionate in what I do and achieve. Just ask the many rum companies, bartenders, consumers, rum lovers, media and friends who want to listen to what I have to say about rum.
R : Can you let us know our reader in what consist exactly your job ?
IB : As a rum ambassador I travel the world promoting the category of rum by way of trade & consumer rum tastings ; Cocktail demonstrations for bartenders and the public ; TV presenting ; MCing and hosting rum events ; Judging cocktail competitions; Consulting for rum companies and brands; writing articles and most importantly drinking rums.
R : Rum has led you to dozens of countries, which are the most unexpected ones, can you share with us a few stories.
IB : The most unexpected has to Antarctica. I was asked by a journalist about being a global ambassador for rum and where have I not been to yet. I realised that I had only worked in 6 of the 7 continents, so I took a mobile Tiki Bar and some rums to the coldest and driest continent in the world and made drinks as well as holding rum tastings to fellow travellers at a research station in Antarctica. I also got to make cocktails on board the ships deck while travelling across the roughest stretches of water in the world, The Drakes Passage.
Rum and Mixology
R : This interview will be published in an édition dedicated at bartenders and cokctail lovers, could you give us your vision of the rum and cocktail connexion ?
IB : Some the most famous classic cocktails use rum as part of its ingredients, and it is because of this fact why rums are as popular as ever as today’s bartenders seek to master the classics to help create today’s new drinks. Cocktails such as the Planter’s Punch, Daiquiri, Mojito, Mai Tai, Zombie, El Presidente, Pina Colada and The Grog are the foundation of many of today’s rum cocktails.
R : What would be your favorite rum cocktails as of today ?
IB : The Rum Manhattan or a Daiquiri.
R : You have been the witness of the London cocktail Golden age, what rôle rum has played in this ? What evolution have you seen in th past 5 years ?
IB : Rum is the most versatile spirit in a bar, and some the most famous bars in London have embraced rums because they are so popular with consumers. Famous bars such as The Artesian, when they first opened, hired me to train their staff about the rum category because they wanted to be the best rum bar in London and they went on to become the best bar in the world. Tiki Bars such as Trailer Happiness and Mahiki have not only inspired Tiki bartenders in the UK, but all over the world.
Both bars focusing on Rum cocktails and an extensive rum backbar. Some of the most popular bars in London now carry at least 40 rums. 5 yrs ago they may have only carried about 20. With more new rums being introduced to the UK market, we will see more new bars open that have a great rum portfolio.
R : During the past 10 years Paris has become an emerging cocktail capital. You who travel around the world, can give us the feedback you get from the international cocktail community of the French cocktail Scene ?
IB : The Paris cocktail scene has exploded over past 10 years and it has also influenced other cities such as Lyon to embrace cocktail cultures from outside the French borders. There are now French cocktail bars that sit side by side with some of the best bars from London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It’s also no coincidence that also over the past few years that French bartenders have done very in world cocktail competitions too as they now have great bars to perfect their craft in.
R : What would be the most dynamic cities in the world when it comes to rhum and cocktails ?
IB : I’d probably say London, only because they have a wider selection of rums to choose from, as well as some great bars that use them. BUT , this change very quickly as other countries start to embrace the versatility of the rum category.
R : Agricole for a mojito or a Negroni, Maurician for a daiquiri, Latin Rum for a Old Fashioned or a Negroni, does these ideas seem heretic to you ?
IB : The rum category is vast. There are so many different interpretations of what rum is because it’s made in so many different countries. So using a French Agricole for a Mojito or Daiquiri can work as well as a light Cuban rum. Or using a heavy Venezuelan rum in a Planter’s punch can work as well as a Jamaican rum. It’s about how the bartender uses the ingredients and what the customer wants. Rum Manhattans, Rum Negroni’s ….no problem.
Vision of the market
R : How has evolved the rum market globally in the past 15 years ? What major évolutions do you see ?
IB : Globally rum, especially premium rum, has grown tremendously as new brands are being developed by blenders from all over the world. We are now seeing new territories like Asia importing foreign rums in large quantities, The American craft distillery retuning to rum heritage, Independent bottlers releasing old rum stock from their warehouses in Europe and the big brands focusing on the higher end rums to be sold as premium to a discerning audience.
R : Is there a global trend to quality or is it only a european vision ?
IB : This is a global trend. As long as there is the internet, then a “Rum trend” can be started in any area around the world.
R : Just 4 or 5 years ago, Asia seemed to be totally disinterested in rum but this seems to have changed. Is it a new frontier for rum producers ?
IB : Yes. They love spirits and rum is a taste that is easily acquired. Also there are many great cocktail bars in the ‘cosmopolitan’ Asian cities such as Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Many import or source rums that are new to the market, thus introduce new rums to a new audience. Whisky is also big in this market, so natural an aged spirit like rum has potential fans awaiting.
R : How do you see the global rum market in let’s say 5, 10 and 20 years ?
IB : The market WILL see tremendous growth as more people discover the world of rum through marketing, Rum festivals, tasting, cocktails and even through travelling to rum producing countries where they will enjoy rum locally.
R : What is your position versus the need for more régulations in the rum industry and especially on the sugar issues.
IB : This is a misconception by ill-informed people that rum has no or little regulations. The biggest rum producing countries in the world such as Puerto Rico, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Cuba, Australia, Trinidad, Martinique and many more HAVE rules and regulations on how their rums are made and sold. BUT it is up to the importing regions such as the TTB in USA, LCBO in Canada and the EU to enforce the definitions of what rum is and ‘darken’ the ‘grey’ areas that allow certain brands to flout the laws. Like wine, I drink good sweetened rums and good unsweetened rums. There should be clarity when producers, ambassadors and rum makers are talking about their products to the trade but when I read or hear people asking for sugar levels to be put on bottles I ask them “how many other alcoholic categories disclose sugar on their label” ?
R : The working conditions of cane workers are a délicate subject nowadays. What would be for instance your position when it comes to central american rums. Do you think that appealing to boycott some brands could do any good ?
IB : The working conditions of cane workers has been a delicate subject for hundreds of years. Didn’t Europeans enslave millions of Africans to work in sugarcane fields in the Caribbean subjecting them to even worst conditions than today? It’s funny how it’s only now that the ‘Johnny Come lately Crew’ have only started to talk about this online, but some people need to do their research. Especially as they write about their disgust over exploitation in the cane fields, from their smart phones, tablets & computers made in countries that have an even worst human rights laws. There are many other areas besides Central America where the working conditions in the ‘fields’ are less than adequate. AND more important, many rums brands are buying molasses from these areas so if you are going to boycott ‘Brand A, you may have to boycott brand B & C too.
Connexion to France
R : Until recently you were not at all in contact with the French agricole Rums who hardly came to your festival. How do you explain that ?
IB : You are wrong. We have ALWAYS had French Agricole rums at the UK RumFest, but they failed to get noticed by the UK public as the British rum drinking scene is dominated by English or Spanish style rums. Rhums like Trois Riviers, Clement and St Aubin from Mauritius have supported the show from day 1, but it is now that organisations like Rums of Martinique are using new strategies to get people to taste their rhums through premium aged products and through the use in cocktails.
R : It seems that this has changed. You were in Martinique last summer and we now see you in Paris very often, what has changed and what vision do you now have of French rums and what potential do you think they have on the global market ?
IB : s you know, I travel all over the world to learn about rum as oppose to those who just sit in front of their computers criticizing any and everything about the industry. Travelling to Martinique and Paris are part of my learning process as I try to be the best ambassador for rum I can be. In answer to your question, nothing has changed with me, it’s just that I get noticed a little bit more as spread the gospel of rum to anyone that wants to listen. As I mentioned before, the French rum market is exploding and cocktails culture has been and important part of that. The vision I have for French rhums is the same that I have for non cane juice rums ; They will slowly but surely be appreciated for the quality spirit they are, and not a poor substitute for whisky or Brandy or one that you can only mix with coke.
R : A very difficult one for someone who has only friends in the rum industry, what would be the 5 rums you would bring to a désert Island ?
IB : The one in my glass, the next one,a free one, My last one and… Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum !