A Global Rum Ambassador Explains The Significance Of African Rum

While whiskey gets a lot of attention from mainstream media at the moment, rum has quietly become the fastest-growing spirit category in the world. Rum was the spirit of choice, even in North America, for centuries before whiskey came along. Now it’s back, bigger and better than ever.

One of the biggest reasons rum is gaining so much popularity is due to the tireless work of the world’s only Rum Ambassador, Ian Burrell. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Burrell on the road a few times at cocktail competitions like Bacardi Legacy and big industry conventions like Bar Convent Berlin. So believe me when I personally attest: there’s no one who loves rum more than Burrell. His energy and knowledge about the spirit are second to none.

When I heard Burrell was working with legendary rum maker Richard Seale to marry African and Caribbean rums for the first time, I knew the collaboration would be something special. The fruit of their labors was Equiano Rum, which became available in the U.S. just last month ($60 per bottle). To celebrate this new endeavor and the new rum, I called up Burrell so we could chat about rum in general, Equiano, and the importance of telling stories via the spirits we drink.

How does one become the official rum ambassador of an entire spirits category?

Well, first of all, nobody actually hired me or made my job official. I actually created my own job. What it was is I looked around to see if there was a go-to person that could teach me about the rum category and there wasn’t. So I decided, “Well, why not me?” So it’s self-taught. I’m still learning about the category of rum. It’s just fortunate that over the years many rum brands I’ve worked with have actually then bought into what I do and the story and believed in what I’ve said. They’ve basically honored me by saying, “You’re helping the category grow to the status where it is now.” So they’ve acknowledged me as that ambassador that I awarded myself for the category of rum.

I’m very lucky to be in a position where a lot of companies are paying me to actually travel around the world to talk about the category itself.

It’s an interesting thing because it feels like rum is really making a big comeback right now. What do you attribute that to? Is it people getting sort of burned out on bourbon or is it just that there are so many good rums right now so it’s impossible to deny?

I would say it’s a combination. I mean, you’re right, when it comes to things like bourbon and other whiskeys, a lot of people are looking for that next new thing that they could tantalize their taste buds with or introduce to their friends to. A lot more people are becoming more discerning as well, and a lot of that’s to do with the internet. Social media is bringing the world and knowledge together. People seek to find out what it is they’re drinking. There are the social aspects of it as well. Rum has basically grown because of all of these factors. Then there’s the fact that there are more and more rum brands being creative in a category that, as we know, was one of the biggest spirit categories in the world 200 to 250-odd years ago. Now, it’s starting to gain more traction. So all of these factors have all come into place to get rum to where it is now. Where it is seen as a fast-growing category.

There are so many different styles of rums out there. I always like to say there is a rum for everybody just because of the fact that if you’re into your spirits that you want to sip neat, at cask strength, add a little bit of water, or be a connoisseur of the spirit, there are rums out there for you. If you want something easy drinking that you want to mix with your favorite mixer, or maybe a couple of cubes of ice, there are rums out there for you. If you just want a rum in a cocktail and have a smile on your face and have fun, and create that party vibe, there is a rum out there for you.

So it’s one of those categories that ticks lots of boxes and appeals to a wide breadth of people. And all of that is all coming together at the same time. It’s like all these stars are aligning, and that’s why I see real growth in the rum category.

Right on. I was looking through your Instagram and you’ve got lots of very good informational posts. For instance, you just posted about Appleton 21 and 23. And then you point out that if your rum doesn’t say, “Years old,” on the label, it’s probably bullshit. What do age statements generally mean on rum?

Because rums are made in so many different countries around the world, you’re going to have different interpretations of what rum is. And what is surprising to a lot of people, because they just look at rum as one category — the Wild Wild West — is that they fail to understand that there are lots of rum regions that have strict guidelines and rules to how they make their particular product. Now, because there are different regions, everyone’s going to have their own interpretation. A lot of them have been influenced by a colonial connection to the particular region, so their interpretation of rums are going to be self-defining. For example, Jamaica, when they make rum, their mindset is been connected to the old English colonies, the English way of thinking of spirits or how it’s made, how it’s defined.

When you put an age claim on your product, that would normally mean the minimum that particular product has spent in a barrel, which is the norm in, say, Scotland. It’s a norm that’s observed in Ireland. It’s a norm that’s in England. So naturally, if you have England colonizing parts of the Caribbean — Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana, etc. — then they’re going to have that mentality. But then you have other white countries that colonized parts of the world, like Spain. And they’re used to doing things in a slightly different way when it comes to age and product. So when we look at rums, we see things like solera age. That’s an “average” style of aging where they’re using blends of younger products with older products, and they quite happily talk about the oldest product used in that blend or how long it may have been used in that system.

That’s the part that’s that can be confusing to consumers. You will have some brands that would use 23 on their label, and it’s not an homage to Michael Jordan. It’s the fact that they have some rums inside their blend that have been aged for 23 years but are no longer 23 years old. So to put 23 on the label and say in their marketing that they have some old rums inside it at that age, but they are using younger rums. Then the consumer is confused because they don’t really understand the rules and regulations of that particular country. They might adopt or think that the benchmark is the Jamaica way of defining stuff or the Barbados way of defining stuff, where they only put the minimum age on their label.

So you see 23 on a rum from, say, Central America, and you don’t really understand about the rules and regulations of that particular country, you may think it’s 23 years old, when in reality it may be only six years old with some 23 inside it. That’s the confusing part of rum. So if it does say, “Years old,” on there, or it says, “Minimum Aged,” and then it has that number on there, then by trading standard laws, that would be the correct way of labeling that particular product from an English colonial ideology. But if you’re into your rums from, say, Guatemala, or even Nicaragua, or Panama — again, Central American countries that were ex-colonies from the Spanish empire — they use average aging. They use solera aging. So you have to understand that what you’re paying for is not a product that’s been in the barrel for a minimum amount of years. It’s a blend of rums. Now it may taste great, but you have to understand and know what you’re paying for.

I always like to say to people, “Enjoy what you like, but know what you’re paying for.”

That’s really good to know. Another technical question, you see “rums” like Tuzemsky in the Czech Republic, which is made from sugar beet and not sugar cane. Is there a standardization of rum like bourbon has to have 51 percent corn or scotch single malt has to be 100 percent barley?

Well, you have to break it down and look exactly. In fact, exactly what you just said there. You were talking about a product coming out of Czech Republic, which used to be defined as rum by their own exporting standards, but can no longer be called rum once they joined the EU, because it wasn’t by definition rum. It was a local spirit that used rum as a way to promote or market its product and has done quite well. So Tuzemsky is not rum, and we know that because they’ve taken rum off their label. So to be defined as a rum internationally, you have to be made from sugar cane or variants of.

But also of interest to me when you were making that analogy, you mentioned scotch. There is no global definition of what whisky is, but there are regional and geographical definitions of what whisky is. So a Scotch whisky will be completely different from an American whisky. And when we go to America, we look at regions in Kentucky or look at Tennessee. Although they’re very, very similar, they have certain guidelines of where they have to be made and what they are made of. Even India has different definitions of whisky. They even use a sugar cane as a distillate. It has to have a certain amount of sugar cane and then it has to have a certain amount of grain inside the barrel for some of their whiskies.

So there are regional definitions or geographical definitions of whisky, just the same as there are with rums. It’s just that with rums — because it’s widely accepted around the world — that there will be different interpretations of what rum is to those vast majority of different countries.

And then some countries don’t even call their product rum. A prime example is Brazil. Cachaça. If I made a cachaça in Jamaica, I could sell that as rum. But I couldn’t make a Jamaican rum in Brazil and call it cachaça. I’d have to call it rum or aguardiente. So it’s all about regional reputations.


Let’s talk about the launch of Equiano, which is a marrying of African rum and Caribbean rum. Can you walk us through what the bottle is and how it came to be?

Yes, so Equiano is the world’s first African and Caribbean rum. What we mean is we have rum from the African continent blended with rums from the Caribbean. It’s like going full circle. As we know, Africans were enslaved and then brought over to the Caribbean to actually build, not only the rum industry but the agriculture industry. It has all been built on their sweat and tears. So rum is always connected with that because sugar cane is one of those symbols that we will always connect with some form of enslavement. Rum has that connection. That dark history. So I wanted to be involved with something unique, especially as a person who believes in the category as a whole. And I said, if I’m going to get involved with a brand, it has to really be promoting a category. Also, it has to be telling a story.

So the opportunity came where I worked with my partners, where they said, “Where would you ideally like to work with? We’ll create a blend?” And I said, “Well, I’d love to have a rum from the African continent. The best rums I’m tasting at the moment from Africa are coming out of Mauritius.” So it has to be a blend of Mauritian rums, and I said, “it has to be a blend of either Barbados or Jamaica rum because I have a connection to Barbados and Jamaica.” So I put it to a friend of mine named Richard Seale, who is an award-winning master distiller and blender. He’s making some of the best liquid in the world at the moment, not just rum. And he loved the idea of creating a little bit of history, of blending and importing rums from the African continent into his distillery and blending it with some of his rum. So that’s how that came about.

It’s more than just the bottle too. There’s a lot of story around the name.

The name is important as well because, again, it tells part of the story. Olaudah Equiano was a freedom fighter, revolutionary, an abolitionist, an entrepreneur, and also a person that really showed how the world should be looking at each other back in the 18th century. And we’re seeing a lot of that today. He was enslaved when he was 11 years old and brought to Barbados. He was sold there and sent from Barbados to America. He was sold again there and came to England. He knew that slavery was wrong because he lived it. Peddling flesh is wrong. So he wrote a book of his memoirs, and it opened the eyes for a lot of people of what enslavement of Africans was about.

And because of his campaigning, because of his storytelling, he basically started the ball rolling for the abolition of slavery worldwide. He’s an important part of that movement. And again, that’s very topical today for where we are when we’re looking at human beings as equals. We felt that it’s important for the rum to pay homage and tell a story. It was important for the rum to make that same journey as well. Travel from Africa, going to the Caribbean and then going to the U.S. and to Europe.

Then the other thing I said we have to do is we have to give back. So a percentage of our profits will be going to ground level charities and foundations that are fighting against enslavement around the world and equality projects.

It’s just a great story. So let’s get a little more insular to the rum. What flavor profiles were you looking to highlight when you put these blends together?

Oh, great question. Well, first of all, Mauritius originally was a Dutch colony which became a French colony and then an English colony. There was a lot of changing hands. When you go there, the rum distilleries have been influenced by that French colonial ideology, which is making rums from fresh sugar cane juice. But they also retain some of the influence from England as well. So they’re making rums from molasses. Some are using pot stills, some are using column stills. So I wanted to try to get that influence there. I also wanted to take advantage of the French oak — the Cognac casks — that they have in abundance out there because of the connection to France.

So we had to have a rum that was still complex with a lot of flavor, especially for people that want to sip and savor the spirit neat. But, we also wanted a rum for bartenders to enhance in cocktails. It had to, most importantly, work with rums from Barbados, which was the second place we chose. Richard Seale, the rums that he creates, I like to call them sweet rums. And when I say sweet, in the Barbados terminology, it’s a naturally sweet, not sweetened. Another important thing, we couldn’t add any sugar to the actual rum. It had to be all-natural. No spices, no sugar. It had to be all coming from the types of barrels and casks that we’re using. So that Cognac cask has been tropically aged for a minimum of 10 years in Mauritius, and they’re now sent by boat to Barbados, where once Richard Seale gets hold of it, he then blends it with rums that are aged from a minimum eight years in Barbados. They’re vatted and sat down together for a little while and then bottled.

I’ve heard you call this a “drinking rum.” What’s the mean exactly?

Yeah, that was my ideal, a drinking rum. Some people say to me, “What do you mean by drinking rum?” I’m like, well, a lot of people categorize rums and they say, “Oh, is it a sipping rum? Is it a mixing rum?” I’m like, well, any rum could be sipped. Any rum can be mixed. It all depends on the person who’s drinking it, but more importantly, how you want to drink it. So this rum needs to be drunk. Drink it neat, on the rocks, with your favorite mixer, in a cocktail, anyway that you see fit.

It has to be versatile enough to do that. But it also has to appeal to a wide breadth of rum drinkers that are on different journeys. I want the person that’s into their single casks or their cask strength rums to be able to sip it and say, “Yeah, man, that tastes good. Good flavor, 43 percent alcohol. This is a session rum for me.” I can do the whole bottle of Equinao with friends in a session. And I want the rum novice to also come on board and say, “You know what, I can drink this with ginger ale or a ginger beer, and I still taste the flavor’s rum, but it’s not offensive to me because it’s not challenging for me.” I wanted to rum that wasn’t challenging for the new drinker but was complex and flavorsome enough for the experts. It seems quite hard to do, but in theory, when you have an artist like a Richard Seale actually doing the final blending of the product, it becomes quite easy in that respect. That’s what we were looking to create with the flavor profile of that rum.