There’s nobody better suited to represent rum than the globe-trotting Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, a UK native of Jamaican descent who seems to have the fun and lively spirit running through his veins. If you live anywhere on this planet, he’s likely been at an event nearby, spreading the gospel of cane spirits. Last year, he amazingly made appearances on all seven continents.
This week, he’s back in South Florida for the annual Miami Rum Festival, where he always puts on an informative and entertaining show, whether it’s at a seminar (this year, he’s presenting “The Wonderful NEW World of Tiki Cocktails: 10 Reasons Why It’s Here to Stay”), or just hanging out and tasting rums. We caught up with Ian at last year’s rum fest directly after his spirited debate with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry over who was the true rum ambassador, and we posed the five questions you’ll find below.
2014 Miami Rum Festival recaps:
* Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players
* Cocktails reach new heights of creativity
Interview with Ian Burrell by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward – April 20, 2013
1. What’s the best thing about being rum ambassador?
“Free rum. No really, the best thing about being rum ambassador is traveling and meeting people. And learning from people around the world: Industry, rum lovers. That’s the best thing.”
2. When did you realize that rum was your life’s calling?
“I’ve always known it. I was born into the category, I suppose. I got a little tot of rum when I was 4 or 5 days old from my mum. Growing up in a Jamaican household, rum was always around, it was always something we were into. So when I took a year off of school and worked at a cocktail bar, I always loved making rum cocktails. It seemed like it was always going to happen. Rum found me, as such, instead of me finding rum. The first job I got with a spirit company was with Appleton. I was doing voice-overs for radio, and the first advert I did was for Appleton Rum. When they found out I worked at a bar, they said, “Let’s bring some rum around to your bar.” They brought some rum down, I made some cocktails for them, they loved what I did, and three of four months later they asked if I wanted to come and work with them a couple days a week. So it was like destiny. And the rest is history.”
3. What’s your favorite new rum right now?
“I knew you were going to ask that. Usually, it’s the next new rum in my glass, the next new rum, and a free new rum. Those are my three favorite rums. To be honest, there are so many great rums out there, it would be hard to pin down. But yesterday at the show we were fortunate enough to be invited down to meet Mr. Facundo Barcardi, the great-great-grandson of Barcardi’s founder. He then gave us four new rums that Bacardi is releasing. We were basically the first in the world to try these new rums. But what we didn’t know is that we actually helped create those rums a few years ago when we tasted some rums that they presented to us, then used those for the basis of these new ones. And all four were amazing, amazing rums. … Bacardi gets a lot of flack just because they’re Bacardi. But I think it’s unjust because the most popular spirit they create is a mixing spirit, it’s a spirit you mix with Coca-Cola or in a Daiquiri. It’s not a sipping rum and was never meant to be a sipping rum. So when people say, “Oh, Bacardi’s crap,” what are you comparing it to? You can’t compare it to a sipping rum. It doesn’t make sense, it’s a mixing rum. Now these new rums won’t say Bacardi in the name, it will be his first name, the Facundo Collection. Anyone who likes spirits will like these.”
4. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
“I’ve had several influences. One of my major influences is not actually in the industry, it’s my best friend and mentor, Don Smith. He was the first person who taught me about believing in yourself, and if you put your mind to something you can do it. And don’t accept second best. If you’re going to do something, be the best. Now he’s a professional speaker and lifestyle coach. I’ve applied a lot of the stuff he’s shown me to what I do promoting rums and talking about rums. He was not only a great friend but also a father figure since my dad wasn’t around when I was growing up. It’s funny because I actually met him on the basketball court, and we nearly got into a fight. He’s just big and clumsy and nearly knocked my teeth out during the game by accident. That’s how we met, but after that we really clicked and he’s probably been the biggest inspiration for me outside the industry.
“Within the industry, I get inspired by so many people. I just take little bits of what they do. … Anyone who’s out there and inspiring, Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, they’re all inspiring to everyone and they’re inspiring to me as well. I love to see what they do. And the people who say that I inspire them, they inspire me because I want to be better, I want to do things to keep them enthused. It’s a two-way street.”
5. What’s your favorite Tiki drink, and why?
“My favorite Tiki drink of all time has to be the Mai Tai. Essentially, if it’s made right, it’s one of the most balanced and refreshing drinks out there. I’m fortunate enough to own the Wray & Nephew 17-year-old (the rare Jamaican rum included in Trader Vic’s original recipe, now valued at $50,000), and I’m also fortunate enough to have made cocktails using that from bottles that they had inside the warehouse at Appleton. The rum is about 65 percent alcohol, pot-stilled in not-so-great barrels. But once you stick some ice and water inside there, it opens up and releases lots of flavors. And you do get orange and citrus notes, and some sweetness and dry nuttiness. Look at Trader Vic’s ingredients: the almond syrup for the nuttiness, and the orange curacao for the orange notes, and the lime for the zesty notes, and the rum, and of course the the rock candy syrup is going to have a caramel-vanilla flavor to balance it all out. If he had planned to do that, it was genius. If it was luck, then that’s also just preparation and the ability to execute on that. He was prepared, he was making cocktails, the rum was there, and he did it.”
Ian’s official sites
* The Rum Experience | The Rum Experience University | UK RumFest| Twitter
* Facebook: Personal page | The Rum Ambassador’s Rum Experience
Rum Experience University | UK RumFest | Boutique Rumfest
The Golden Rum Barrel Awards | The Global Rum Club group
* Ian’s London bar/restaurant: Cottons Camden Rhum Shack
More on Ian Burrell on the Web
* Seven continents: One spirit (DiffordsGuide.com)
* The exclusive Angostura Global Cocktail Competition interview with Ian Burrell | Part 2
* Ian Burrell talks rum (MUDL Magazine)
Stories on The Atomic Grog featuring Ian Burrell
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* Six reasons to look forward to the sixth annual Miami Rum Fest
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* Audio slideshow flashback: Hukilau 2011 cocktail contest was a Barrel of fun
* ‘Rum Rat Pack’ starts a revolution at Hukilau 2011
* The Hukilau crowns a Rum Barrel Master Mixologist