On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with global rum ambassador Ian Burrell on the spirit’s legacy. Burrell discusses how his Caribbean heritage shaped his first experiences with rum, explains what makes a spirit a rum, and debunks some of the misconceptions about rum’s production.
In addition, Burrell discusses his involvement with Equiano, the world’s first African-Caribbean rum. The brand is inspired by the story of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who bought his freedom by selling spices and rum. Finally, Burrell details ways that people of color can enter the spirits industry and ultimately own brands.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. Today, we are being joined by Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador. Ian, thank you so much for joining us.
Ian Burrell: Thanks for having me.
A: Dude, I got to ask you, how does someone become the global rum ambassador? What even is that job? It sounds like the job everyone wants to have.
B: It is a great job. You get paid for drinking rum or even talking about rum. I’ve been a global ambassador for rum for about 20 years now. And in that time, I traveled to all seven continents. I’ve worked with multiple different brands and just talked about the history of rum, where rum is today, and where rum is going in the future to trade, consumers, and anyone that wants to listen on how wonderful the rum category is. It is a very great job.
A: How did you get into rum in the first place?
B: I always like to tell people I fell into a vat of rum. Like Obelix and Asterix fell into that vat of soup that made them superheroes. But no, my parents are Jamaican. In Jamaica, rum is part of the family. It’s part of the culture. It’s more than a spirit; it’s a way of life. So I’ve always been into rum. I was very happy to actually see rum as part of my career when I became a bartender because all the cocktails that you created with rum were the ones that brought the most smiles to people’s faces. That’s how I got into rum, through my heritage and through work.
A: Very cool. In terms of your role as a global rum ambassador traveling around, does that mean are you an equal opportunity rum lover? I think what’s been so interesting for me to explain to people around the world, to our readers, is that rum is made in so many places that people don’t realize. I think we had someone on earlier this year who is making rum in the Philippines. There are so many cool places where people are making rum. Are you an equal opportunity? Is Jamaica your first love? How does that work?
B: As a rum ambassador, I’m an equal opportunity rum drinker. I believe that there are so many different styles of rum made in so many different countries. They all have their own different interpretations, but then exactly the same as with whiskey. Whiskey is made in so many different countries in different ways and has their own different interpretations. Also, the same as fruit brandies. There’s different definitions of brandies, depending on where they’re made and how they’re made. As a Jamaican, we make the best rum in the world. But everyone is biased in the Caribbean about their rums being the best. In reality, there are so many great rums that I always like to say the best rum is the one in your glass, the next one, or a free one.
A: For people who may be less familiar, what makes a spirit a rum?
B: Well, a lot of people automatically assume that because a spirit is made from sugar cane that it will be defined as a rum. That’s not exactly true. All rums have to be made from sugar cane, but not all sugar cane spirits are rum. To be a rum, it depends on the country where you’re made. Of course, it has to be made from sugar cane, but it depends on the country where you made it and how you interpret it. I say this in a respectful way. When you look at countries, for example, Brazil. Brazil’s national spirit is a sugar cane distiller called cachaça. It’s one of the biggest-selling spirits in the world, but it’s not rum. Now, if that product was made in, say, Jamaica or in Barbados, would they call it rum? They probably would call it rum. But the fact that it’s made in Brazil and they were making that spirit a hundred years before the Barbadians were actually calling their sugar cane spirit “rum,” we should give them respect and call their spirit what they define it as. And this is why I always say that all rums have to be made from sugar cane, but not all sugar cane distillers are rum.
A: That’s really interesting. I never knew that, so thank you. I just learned something today. I had no clue that that was the difference between rum and cachaça. Thank you, wow.
B: Cachaça has to be made from fresh sugar cane juice, and if you go to Martinique or Guadeloupe, their rums have to be made for fresh sugar cane juice. Also in Brazil, they actually do make a lot of rum from molasses and they call it rum or they’ll actually call it aguardiente, or firewater. They do have molasses-based spirits, which for your readers out there, molasses is just the byproduct of making sugar. Once you’ve bought that fresh sugar cane juice, you let the sugar cane juice caramelize and crystalize. You take the crystals out of that sugar, and the leftovers are molasses. Fairly sweet, but that is the raw material that’s used to make a lot of rums, especially in countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Some countries like to just go straight to the fresh sugar cane juice stage and make their rums from there. The French Caribbean make their rum that way, and the Brazilians make that cachaça from that fresh sugar cane juice as well.
A: How did that happen? All the islands are pretty close together. I’m curious about how some decided to use the leftover molasses and others chose to use the fresh juice. Is fresh juice basically what some people might encounter as Rhum Agricole?
B: I’ll answer that question first. So Rhum Agricole is only limited to the French departments, so Guadalupe and Martinique. Guadalupe also incorporates Marie-Galante in the Caribbean. There’s also French Guiana as well. These are still departments of France. They actually have the registered name for their fresh sugar cane juice rum, which they call Rhum Agricole. Martinique goes even further and it has an AOC, which is similar to Cognac and certain wines where they have certain specifications of how Rhum Agricole has to be made. The level of how it is distilled has to be distilled in a creole column still anywhere between 70 and 75 percent alcohol by volume. It has to be made from sugar cane from the particular island, so you can’t bring sugar cane in and crush that and make the juice. So there are lots of different rules and regulations in making Rhum Agricole, but only from that territory. If I made a fresh sugar cane juice, rum, let’s say in Jamaica or in Barbados, I couldn’t legally call it Rhum Agricole. I’d call it cane juice rum or sugar cane juice rum. Rhum Agricole is similar to, let’s say, Kentucky bourbon. I could make bourbon in any part of America, but I couldn’t call it Kentucky bourbon unless it’s from Kentucky. The Rhum Agricoles are made in the French departments of the Caribbean. Now, in the EU, there’s one other territory that’s allowed to use the word Agricole, and that’s Portugal, and their island, Madeira. They actually have Agricole on their labels legally in Europe, but this doesn’t transcend over into America. That’s the sticking point when you have a set of rules and regulations for your particular island or your particular country, and that rule is not acknowledged by a territory selling your particular products. Because then you have lots of limitations that will come into play. That is a legal angle, but that’s a long way to answer that particular question. In regards to how these styles of rums have come about, a lot of it is just necessity. If you’re making your rum from sugar cane and you squeeze that juice and then you’re making sugar, then you’re going to make your rum from anything you can — whether it’s the byproducts, which will be molasses, wherever you’re going to make into a syrup, which some countries do. They make it just to concentrate their sugars and use that. If you don’t have a market to sell your sugar like some of the French colonies didn’t have at one stage, then you’ll say, “Why am I going to go to the molasses stage? If I can’t sell my sugar and I’m selling rum, I might as well just make my rum just from a fresh sugar cane juice.” That’s what a lot of the French countries did back in the days when they were French, when they were colonies, because they didn’t have a market to sell their sugar. They made their rum from fresh sugar cane juice, whereas the countries such as Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti at that particular time were selling so much sugar, making so much money, then they had that byproduct of molasses where they would make rum from there. If you had a sugar plantation, you were rolling in money because you could make money from your sugar and from your molasses, and you were happy. If you couldn’t sell that sugar, then you’d just make your rum from sugar cane juice. There are historically cane juice rums in Jamaica and in Barbados, and they’re not known for making those styles of rum, but they did before.
A: Obviously, you are now also involved in a rum that was recently launched called Equiano.
B: That’s right.
A: Can you talk to me about that? What is Equiano, and what caused you to want to be a part of the brand?
B: It is a tough one at first because I’ve always been independent, and I never really wanted to do my own brand. I enjoy just promoting the category of rum, but I met up with my business partners a couple of years ago, and they had a couple of ideas for some rums. I thought that might not work, but after getting to know them a little bit more, we realized we had a lot of things in common, especially our philanthropic aspirations, but also the fact that we wanted to make a difference with a particular product, a particular brand, a particular rum. We looked at different ideas, and one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to create an African-Caribbean rum. That’s because my ethnicity in the U.K. is African and Caribbean. When you look at the two regions, there is one region that makes the best rums in the world, and that’s the Caribbean region. Now Africa, as a continent, has a multitude of different types of sugar cane distillers and some great sugar cane over there, but no world-class rum brands yet. The nearest you can get to that would be from the island Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, in the east part of Africa. They’ve got some great rum there, but they haven’t been put on that pedestal yet. They haven’t been sampled and tested by enough people, so I wanted to see if I could help elevate and amplify some of what they were doing by using some of their rums in this particular blend. We went to a distillery called Grays Distillery in Mauritius. I got some samples from them, tasted some of their own, and loved them. We settled on a 10-year-old rum that has been aging in Cognac casks, and we wanted to blend that with some rums from the Caribbean. Now being a Jamaican, saying the best rum in the world is from Jamaica, naturally people said, “Well, why didn’t you go to Jamaica?” Well, Barbados — begrudgingly, I have to say this — Barbados is making some of the best liquid in the world at the moment. A lot of that is down to a guy named Richard Seale at Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. When I asked Richard if he could be part of this project, putting this together, creating this brand, he said, “Yes” straight away. It was something new, something different, and it’s a chance to create a different profile from the rum that he is used to creating. We got the rums from Mauritius, sent that to Barbados, and that was blended with rum aged in ex-bourbon casks. A minimum of eight years in Barbados and a minimum of 10 years in Mauritius is quite a long time for spirits.
A: It’s an old rum.
B: Yeah. It’s a tropical environment. If we equate that to the evaporation or the maturation of spirits in, say, Scotland, whisky is evaporating at a rate of about 2 percent every year. In Barbados, the rum is evaporating at a rate of 6 to 8 percent. It’s aging three to four times faster than whisky in Scotland. An 8-year-old rum in Barbados is quite mature, so Richard blends those two realms together. We bottle it in Barbados, and then we send some to the states and we send some to the U.K. That is the same journey that our namesake, the person that we have on the name of our bottle, Olaudah Equiano, made. He made that same journey. He was forced to make that journey. In fact, when he was kidnaped at age 11 in the 1750s, he was taken from Africa to Barbados and then taken to the states to be sold into slavery, and then was sent to the U.K. In the U.K., he learned to speak English, learned about ideals, and he was baptized. Then, he jumped back on a ship and was working on those ships and working in the Caribbean. That’s where he saw the travesty of the enslavement of Africans in a more brutal way. He vowed to fight for freedom. He vowed to fight for equality after seeing that and went back to the U.K. He bought his own freedom from selling spices and rum for about $50. He came back to the U.K. and wrote a book, “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano,” which went on to help with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. He was a powerful, inspirational abolitionist, entrepreneur, writer, author, and we just wanted to pay homage to him by donning his name on our bottle and also shedding light on modern-day slavery today. We donate $2 two and 2 pounds for every bottle we sell from our website. Once we start to make a profit, 5 percent of our profits from our company will go to our foundation. And at the moment, our foundation is contributing money to Anti-Slavery International, which is one of the oldest anti-slavery organizations in the world.
A: Wow, so talking about the brand and the namesake, it does bring up the complicated history that rum has. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you’re doing with the brand? And then also the industry as a whole — how the industry is wrestling with that history? I know a lot of bartenders and people in the trade are also wrestling with that issue, so to get your perspective will be really interesting.
B: Yeah, it’s funny. I’m very protective over the rum category as a rum ambassador. And of course, especially after last year with the pandemic and then a lot of things in the world have slowed down. A lot of things have been seen first-hand for a lot of people to understand. Some people have “woken up” to what’s really happening. Rum has come under the spotlight because of how it was founded, how it was made, and the fact that a lot of Africans that were enslaved were instrumental in making these brands and making these rums and making rum and making a fortune for their slave owners and for the countries that actually kidnapped them from the African continent and brought them to the Caribbean and into the Americas. There’s that association with sugar cane and the enslavement of Africans and rum; that’s all there. I also try to let people understand that rum is not the only industry that has benefited from the enslavement of Africa. I mean, pretty much every industry — the banking industry, cigars, tobaccos, pretty much everything of the Western world has been built on the back of the enslavement of Africans. It’s just a little bit more in your face when it’s connected with rum because everyone knows rum is connected with sugar cane and slave plantations and things like that. That’s one thing I try to put in context is the category of rum is no different from some of the other industries that are out there as well. It has been brought to a forefront in recent times, especially with certain brands, with their names. We have Plantation Rum that came out last year, and they’re going to be changing their name because they felt that it was insensitive, maybe not at the time, but they feel it’s insensitive now. Now it’s been brought to light, so we’ll see if that happens, if the name is going to change. Hopefully it’s not this lip service we’ve seen here in Europe. We’ve seen brands like Ron Esclavo Slave Rum that said they were paying homage to the slaves that made rum, but at no time did they pay any homage to any person or any organization I’ve ever known. To me, because it was in the country that maybe the country didn’t really see the injustices of all of the enslavement of Africans first hand, unless we include Haiti in that respect. They didn’t see it first hand, so it wasn’t really an issue for them. Again, because of bartenders and the spirits industry, which to me is one of the most powerful industries in the world, they brought this up online and through social media, through people talking and people sharing imagery, ideas, and stories that put pressure on these companies to change. For me, that is one of the reasons why I love this industry. The bartenders and the spirits industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world. If we put our minds to trying to change the world to become a better place, we can do it. We’ve done it before with many brands, not only with rum but across the board. And that’s one of the reasons why I love this industry. Yes, rum has been connected with enslavement in Africa, with the injustices of slavery because of that connection between how it’s made and where it was made. It also was such a big currency with sugar, molasses, and rum back in the 18th and 19th centuries. As long as we don’t forget and we use that strength to move us further going forward and to make sure we’re doing the right thing, then it’s all good.
A: Another question for you around this topic, and we’ve talked about this a lot at VinePair. Most of the major rum brands obviously are owned by multinational corporations. And there are very few rum brands with the involvement of a person of color. There’s Equiano with you. Marc Farell is a good friend of the podcast and of VinePair with Ten to One. But there are not a lot of others. What do you think the industry as a whole can do to help more people — especially people who are from the region, like yourself, like Mark, to start brands, get involved with brands, and really be in ownership positions in the world of rum?
B: Well, first of all, as people of color, we have to want to be the owners of brands. We have to want to set up and do the work. We can’t expect to just be handed that position. We have to want to create a brand, celebrate and promote the brand, market the brand. Once we do that, we then expect a fair crack of the whip. We expect to be treated at the same level, in the same respect, given the same type of airtime, and the same type of promotion or marketing. And the same conversation, whether it’s in our magazines, within our spirits industry, at bar shows, fairs, or trade shows. If we have a good brand, people should be talking about those brands in the same way as they do with certain other brands. Because the other funny thing that I do come across a lot when we talk about Caribbean-owned rum brands, there’s a lot of Caribbean-owned rum brands owned by Caribbeans. Some of them don’t look exactly like me. They don’t look Black or they don’t look Brown. They are white, but they’ve been living in the Caribbean for over 200 years. Their family has been over there for 200 years. I look at someone like Richard Seale, Crystal Harris in Jamaica, and I look at them as Caribbeans, not as a white person or a Black person. I look at them as Caribbeans. Richard is a Barbadian, and his family’s Barbadian, and they own a rum brand. Now, if you look at the staff at Foursquare, 90 percent of the staff there are Black or Brown and Barbadian and have worked for the company for many years. Will they go on or will they want to start their own rum company? Maybe. Possibly. I know for a fact, if they did, they’ll get the help from the owners that they work with at the moment. For me, I don’t always focus on the color of the owner. I focus more on the intent of the owner and how they are looking to market their products. Are they looking just to monopolize on their position? Maybe their family has to give them money to set up a company and then they try to take advantage of their situation or try to take advantage of the country and use that particular name. Are they from another country, from Europe? And have they come to the Caribbean with a colonist mentality just to take from the Caribbean and then say, “Oh, yeah, you know what this is? We’re making the Caribbean rums better.” For me, I’m a little bit biased. I think the Caribbean makes the best spirit in the world while someone from France might say Cognac is better or someone can say whiskey’s better. Any Cognac you bring out in front of me, any Scotch whisky you bring out in front of me, any bourbon you can bring in front of me, I can bring a rum that can sit side by side and taste just as good. That’s how confident I am and that’s how biased I am when it comes to Caribbean rum or rums in general, because now I’m working with rums from Asia and even Australia. Now, just going back to owners of rum brands of color. Yes, we do need more. As I said, we need to be able to do that. When I had chances to set up a rum company, I had chances to set up a rum brand, and I chose not to. When I did decide to do that, I was able to do it just because I had the people around me, I had to know-how, I had the ability, and then I wanted to try to create something good. If you go to Haiti, there are lots of small rum brand owners, and 99 percent of those are of color, are Haitian Black. But I think sometimes we get caught up not only here in the U.K., but also in America. We get caught up in looking at the world from our own lens and making comparisons to the rest of the world from our own environment. And that’s very easy to do if you’re sitting in Fifth Avenue looking at your laptop or looking at a computer and then judging the rest of the world from your perspective instead of actually going to that particular country and seeing how hard it is to set up a rum company or how hard it is to set up a distillery yourself, to get your product to market, to get people to try and taste this product. A lot of the local rum owners I know in the Caribbean are just selling rum just locally. And they’re not getting international status because no one’s given them the platform and no one’s getting them a chance. It’s funny because there’s been a situation that has happened recently online where a European person has come and given people the platform and given the chance and they were persecuted for it. And that’s what we need as Caribbeans to give us that little push. Give us a chance to show us what we can do. And when you see what we can do, when you taste what we can produce, when you see our work ethic, you will say, “Oh, sh*t, wow.” I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that.
A: It’s fine. We’re an equal opportunity podcast when it comes to word usage.
B: Yes, but once you give us the opportunity and the platform to show us what we can do, we can hold our own. We can hold our own with any spirit makers in the world. Sometimes, we just need to have that platform if we haven’t created that platform for ourselves because we do live in a system that is not equal. In the Western society, it’s not equal, so we do need a little bit of a stepping stone. Once we get a stepping stone, once we’re in the door, you can see what we can do. That’s one of the reasons why you don’t see enough of these brands. Yet, after the year we’ve had last year, with the world slowing down and people seeing certain things, I think you’re going to see a lot more Black-owned brands come to the forefront.
A: Very cool. Ian, one more question because I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you. My favorite cocktail, which I only discovered a few years ago, is, of course, the Daiquiri. What do you think is the ultimate rum cocktail? What cocktail should everyone be making this summer?
B: There are two for me. I’m with you Adam, the Daiquiri is the quintessential rum cocktail. It’s got the trinity in there: rum, lime, and sugar. That’s it. Then, you can do it in different proportions, depending on how sweet your tooth is or how bitter or citrusy you want the drink or how much booze you want inside there. It’s your call, and that’s a great thing about the Daiquiri. There’s no true recipe for Daiquiri. There’s just a guideline, and then you make it your own way. Now, if you want to stretch it out a little bit, then you have the ultimate rum cocktail and you go to any Caribbean island, go to any Caribbean person or any person that makes sugar cane distillate, and they’ll tell you that their punch is the best. I suppose some people would say it’s just a longer Daiquiri because you’ve got the trinity of rum, lime, and sugar, but then you have some water inside there, something weak, and then you add a little bit of spice inside for a total of five ingredients. The word “punch” is actually a Hindi word for the word “five.” It was five ingredients that were taken from India then brought to England and then sent over to the Caribbean to become the Planter’s Punch. Five ingredients: something strong, weak, sweet, sour, and bitter. If that sounds complicated, the best way to remember it is one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, and five of spice to make it nice.
A: That’s awesome. Well Ian, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been a fascinating conversation. Best of luck with Equiano. I’m assuming now it’s easy to find throughout the U.S.?
B: It’s right for the U.S., and it has won a couple of gold medals. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s the world’s first African and Caribbean rum. The original is out in all states at the moment. And then the new Light is just about to be released, which is a blend of molasses and fresh sugar cane juice. It’s great for a Daiquiri.
A: Oh, I gotta try that one! I’ve had the original, and it’s really delicious, but I’m going to have to try the Light.
B: The Light in a Daiquiri? Ah!
A: Ian, thank you so much. This has been awesome.
B: Thanks again.
A: All the best, and take care.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.