Outstanding Contribution winner at the Class Bar Awards, Ian Burrell, has dedicated his life to rum. Hamish Smith hears his story. 

Ian Burrell needs little introduction – in most cases and in most places around the world, he’s already done that. Repeatedly, until we got it. He’s the Global Rum Ambassador – a career so imagined, so chiselled to his interests and passions, he had to create the opening, make up a job title, and spend the rest of his life spec-ing out the role. Rum wouldn’t be the same without him.

It was on a fl ight back from New Zealand a few decades back that he had the realisation. It was his fi rst paid gig as an independent rum expert. It went something like this: “This is what I want to do, I want to be paid to talk about rum.” And not just one rum brand, all of rum. “And I want to do it globally.” So, he did.

But let’s take you back, because the hat of this global jetsetter does have a home. Burrell was a London bartender for many years, starting out in the early ’90s, knocking out TGI-spec drinks. He was gripped at his first mixed drink, but save for this intervention, other careers at this juncture had been just as likely. He was supposed to go to drama school, and there were sidelines in professional basketball and in rapping (@rappingbartender, had Instagram existed).But these stories are yarns for another day.

The path was rum, and really, it had been marked out from an early age. Burrell was weaned on the stuff . “I had my fi rst drop of rum at four days old. Growing up in a Caribbean household, the green and yellow bottle was always around.” By the mid ’90s Wray & Nephew was about to launch in the UK (before that, it was less offi cially available) and in a twist of fate it would be Burrell who did the voice overs for the first Kiss FM commercials. By 1996, he was the perfect choice to become the UK’s fi rst rum brand ambassador, taking up the role for Wray & Nephew.

Burrell had seen the rise of the brand from the start, and rum more widely. When he started, bars unthinkingly stocked a rum which didn’t even market itself as rum (Bacardi), while the idea of sugar cane spirit with provenance, was very much a concept in incubation.

But as Burrell increased his knowledge – funding his own trips to islands across the Caribbean – he found a fast-growing appetite for his education, as the bar industry quickly professionalised around him. The early 2000s wasn’t the saturated landscape of information it is now, and as that thirst for rum knowledge grew, Burrell – Panama hat, tropical shirt and someone else’s rum in hand – was there to sate it.

Indeed, Burrell developed his own education style – or, as he puts it, ‘edutainment’. Park the portmanteau, it’s a pretty accurate description. His teaching is interactive, slightly chaotic and always insightful. Anecdotes and one-liners hurtle from his mouth – often funny, sometimes inappropriate, but always entertaining. As he says: “People learn from my talks.”

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Though Burrell’s approach appears informal, there is a code. “One of the things I say to brands I work with is: If you want me to say your rum is the best in the world, or say crap about other brands, you have the wrong person.” This diplomacy, and instinct for independence has taken him far. “My job is to elevate the category and integrate your brand into the narrative.”

In 2007 Burrell created RumFest in London – which runs to this day. It’s always been well supported by brands, the trade and, over the years, tens of thousands of consumers. Indeed, it’s inspired and bared many more rum events around the world. Burrell never trademark the name, nor made his show too corporate – the profit was rum’s.

For much of this time, Burrell owned and ran Cottons in Camden – a rum bar which had one of the largest collections of rums (350 expressions) and at its height it was one of the most sought-after spots in London. Eventually, he gave it up to concentrate his global rum ambassador role – and his many other multiplying sidelines. Among them, Burrell’s TV appearances, which started on Sunday Brunch in 2013. He also created the Rum Experience University in 2014 – the drinking man’s PPE.

There’s been a Guinness World Record for the largest-ever rum tasting, and if anyone took the time to count (thousands), he probably holds the record for hosting the most rum tastings, cocktail competitions, talks and seminars too. And just as rum has become more serious, a side to Burrell has too. His new rum brand Equiano, made from rums from Africa and the Caribbean, is named after abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

He says some issues surrounding rum do not allow for neutrality and has called out brands for having outmoded, at times off ensive, names and imagery. He’s also become vocal on the under-representation of people of colour in the bar industry. Burrell’s contribution to rum is unifying and inclusive.

If there are positives to find, that’s where you’ll find him. After all, rum is his life – there has never been anything else. “It just wouldn’t be authentic,” he says. “You can’t sell something you’re not passionate about.” And as the category continues to flourish, Burrell continues to water it. “I’ll be an ambassador for rum until rum retires me,” he says.