In June, Ian Burrell introduced Equiano Rum, a premium blend of African and Caribbean liquids, to the United states. It’s the first of its kind in the category, bringing together two distinct rum cultures, distilleries, and island nations of the East and West. Burrell’s journey from rum enthusiast to brand ownership has hardly been a straight line: Like the product he now champions, it charted a path across distant points of the planet.
In his former life, the energetic entrepreneur played professional basketball in the U.K. before becoming an international recording artist. But his passion for cane spirit ultimately proved too profound to address through mere hobby. So he committed to make a full-time career out of it.
In 2007, Burrell launched U.K. RumFest, the world’s first international rum festival. It inspired a panoply of similar celebrations in its wake, from Miami to Mauritius, the East African island nation from where part of Equiano Rum is born. By 2014, Burrell broke the Guinness World Record for largest organized rum tasting in history.
Burrell shares rum around the world. It’s fair to say he’s one of the rum industry’s most traveled figures: Whereas most brand ambassadors focus on a certain market or even continent, Burrell has sipped Daiquiris and Coladas on all seven — yes, even Antarctica.
But he says that even with the excitement of travels and live television spots, showcasing elaborate cocktail preparation in grand fashion, it’s the conversations around rum culture — the spirit’s rich history, origins, provenance, and methods of production — that provide endless inspiration.
After receiving the highest recognition attainable in his position, International Brand Ambassador of the Year at the 2018 Tales of the Cocktail, Burrell looked for a way to carry the conversation further. A year later, he teamed up with Equiano Rum co-founders/co-owners Oli Bartlam, Aaisha Dadral, and Amanda Kakembo with the shared vision of bringing a new concept to market.
Equiano Rum honors the legacy of abolitionist and author Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-century African slave who eventually bought his way to freedom by selling rum in the Caribbean. After arriving in London in the 1760s, Equiano became a prominent voice in a growing choir of freedom fighters, demanding an end to the abhorrent chapter in human history.
As a Black business owner, Burrell is doing his part to chip away at the systemic injustices that still remain 250 years later. His uplifting spirit is a bright and boisterous blend of ex-Cognac-barrel-aged rum from Mauritius, and Barbadian spirit matured in ex-bourbon casks. Burrell and his team are working with award-winning master blender Richard Seale, whose hand has helped propel Equiano to a four-time international award- winning rum.
With these successes in mind, the brand plans to allocate $2 from every bottle sold to benefit freedom and equality projects, which have yet to be announced. Despite the impressive terrain already traversed, Burrell is not resting on laurels. He is equally driven to slake a thirst for knowledge, and concerned with the long journey ahead.
What was your first job in rum and what did you learn from it that helps you now?
My first job in rum, besides being a bartender, was the U.K.’s first rum brand ambassador. I quickly realized that to be a successful brand ambassador it wasn’t about what I knew or said, but how I made others feel. This helps around the world, as I continue to work with amazing people within the drinks industry.
What do you actually do as global rum ambassador?
As I am self-employed, my day to day varies and will depend on who, what, or which [brand] I am working with. I could be hired to privately taste new rums and line extensions as an independent professional. Or, I could be judging rums in an international tasting competition. Other projects would see me creating and designing cocktails for my clients, which would range from large corporate brands to small independent start- ups. I also have several media commitments, including TV appearances here in the U.K., where I’ll introduce cocktails and rum to celebrity guests.
Can you give us a sense of the scale of the RumFest?
When I launched the world’s first international rum festival, I had 20 different brands exhibiting. Some of the brands were Appleton Estate, El Dorado, Angostura, Bundaberg, Doorly’s, and Diplomatico. Over the two days, we had 1,000 people sip, savor, and learn about the rum category.
Over the years, the event grew, until we [restructured] the show as a “premium” rum festival. I did this [by moving] to a smaller venue, increasing the ticket prices, [and] exhibiting to 3,000 people over a weekend compared to 8,000, which the show had risen to during 2012 and 2013.
When was the first time you felt successful or like you’d “made it?”
Success means so many different things to different people. I have never felt that “I’ve made it,” but there have been times — for example, when I created the world’s first international rum festival back in London [in 2007]. An event of that magnitude had never been attempted, and the rum industry was skeptical. But after the second day of the inaugural two-day event, I had created a show that became a platform, a stage for past, present, and future rum brands across the world.
How long did it take to realize that you wanted to launch your own brand?
I have always known that I wanted to launch my own brand, even during the early days of being a U.K. rum ambassador. But the timing had to be right. There are some amazing rum brands available, and as a category ambassador, I believe that rising tides float all boats. I knew that if I were to launch a rum like Equiano Rum, it would have to be a rum that would help the category as a whole grow.
What made you finally take the plunge?
It was all about timing: having the time to focus on what would be needed for a new brand, Equiano Rum, to have a chance of succeeding within the industry; having the right team around me, not only to learn from but to share some of the ideas I had acquired over the years of being a rum ambassador; having the opportunity to work with a team that had similar beliefs to my own. When all these things align, you just know.
What is Equiano’s company structure?
The company has four founders/owners that all have a particular role within the company. As the rum expert within the team, my role was naturally to create the concept for the rum blend, and ensuring that we had direct access to two distilleries and 70,000 barrels of aged rums. This is the first time that a rum like this has ever been created, and the first time these two particular distilleries, from different continents, have worked together.
The African component [of the rum blend] is from the Gray’s distillery in Mauritius, while the Caribbean rum in our blend is from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. I had the crazy idea to send rum from Africa to the Caribbean to be blended and bottled, which is also the same journey that in 1757 Olaudah Equiano [the rum’s namesake] was forced to make as he was sold [into] slavery, finally ending up in the U.K. We are very fortunate to have three-time-award-winning master blender Richard Seale overseeing the final blend and quality of rum, which has resulted in us winning four international prestigious awards.
Was there a turning point in your career that led you to where you are now?
It was while I was launching Appleton rum in New Zealand back in 2003. I had a light-bulb moment when I was asked questions by the inquisitive bartenders about the category of rum. I knew loads about Jamaican rums, but not much about other styles. As there were no global rum ambassadors or rum figureheads to learn from, I decided, why can’t that “go-to” person be me? I wanted to learn everything about rum and travelled the Caribbean tasting rums while gathering information and stories. This was the first step toward becoming the global ambassador of rum.
What was the biggest doubt you had about pursuing this career, and how did you get past it?
The biggest doubt was: Would the rum industry believe or even accept me as a person to represent them on a world stage? There is no rum council, or board of control, just rum brands trying to establish themselves in a world filled [with] hundreds of other spirits. I had to instill confidence and, more importantly, make a name for myself.
Fortunately, I knew that if I could get people to enjoy what I had to say, and learn at the same time, they would promote and authenticate my qualification. “Edu-tainment” is what I call it. That was the plan. This was how I got past it.
Do you see much opportunity for up-and-coming talent in your area of the industry?
Most definitely, if you want it. It’s a slow process, as there are many challenges for young up-and-coming bartenders who decide that they want to create their own value and work for themselves — even more so if they are from the underserved community, as they will have systematic prejudices to fight against just to have a level playing field. Part of the job of our leaders within the industry is to pass on knowledge that they have, time permitted, of course, so the up-and-coming talent can learn and be inspired. Knowledge is not power, but the use of it is.
How do you see your industry [role] changing?
My role changes all the time, for the better, I would like to think. When I started, I just wanted to learn as much as I could so I could pass that information on to be a better ambassador. I am still learning as much as I can, but not only to be a better ambassador or teacher but a better human being, as our industry affects everyone.
My role within the drinks industry has put me in a position to make real positive change in people’s lives, whether it’s working on my parents’ island of Jamaica with local rum brands, or working with government initiatives in Mauritius or Madeira. I’ve also been able to do more fundraising for charities with my work, again using the power of the “world rum family” to help the world move to a better place.