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Ian Burrell: The Global Ambassador of Rum on Choosing His Own Destiny

A man smelling rum in a snifter.
Ian Burrell has made a life of bringing his love of rum to the masses. Photo courtesy of Ian Burrell.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from Ian Burrell, it’s that you don’t need permission to make your dreams come true.

By his own volition, Ian Burrell is the world’s first global ambassador for the category of rum. It’s not a title he was assigned or a position he was given — it’s a job he envisioned.

Before becoming the global rum ambassador, Burrell aspired to be an actor. He enrolled in drama school in London and, while there, a friend encouraged him to try his hand at tending bar. It didn’t take long for Burrell to fall in love with life as a bartender — the same charisma and showmanship of an A-list actor enabled him to dazzle guests and thrive in front of a crowd of thirsty imbibers. It took six months for him to realize this was all he wanted to do.

Behind the bar, Burrell recognized another deep love: rum. “Of all the spirits behind the bar that we worked with, rum was one of the most exciting,” he says. “All the fun cocktails use rum: the mai tais, the mojitos, the piña coladas, so I really wanted to focus on that.”

He landed a job as the first rum ambassador in the UK, working for Jamaican rum company J. Wray and Nephew Ltd. Burrell's parents are Jamaican, and though he was born and raised in the UK, he has dual citizenship on the island. Considering his own heritage, his new position was a natural fit. “... It meant I was thinking about rums from my parents’ island; it meant I was speaking to other bartenders about rums as well, and cocktails and things like that, and I also was learning from them because I had to go to their bars,” he says.

His first job as an ambassador was ideal in many ways, but Burrell yearned to know more about the category as a whole. He wanted to become the foremost resource on rum. “There wasn’t that go-to person,” he says. "So I thought, 'why not me?'"

That question led him back to the Caribbean. “I went around to all of the distilleries as much as I could just to learn about the category of rum, learn about how it's made, learn about how people drunk it, the stories — the stories are great when you're telling a story about how it’s used. And I brought that back the UK and just started making a name for myself.”

With an even greater passion for the versatility, history and intrigue of rum, Burrell began to spread the knowledge he’d acquired. “That’s how the name really came about — no one appointed me; I appointed myself. There was no independent spirits person for other spirits categories, so there was no template. It was new — a rum person, a person who can speak for rum.”

Rather than representing one specific brand, he was contracted by various brands to speak about their products. The nature of his freelance position and the depth of his knowledge lent an authenticity to the services he offered. “The companies that approach me that want to work with me, they obviously feel that what I bring to the table is an independent person that knows about the category that is endorsing their product, as opposed to their own ambassador which has to endorse their product, because that's what they're getting paid for,” he says.

And it probably doesn’t hurt Burrell’s marketable persona to be from Jamaica. “A lot of people pigeonholed rum into being a Caribbean product, and as a Caribbean guy coming in to say, ‘Oh yeah rum, rum, rum,’ they’re like ‘Oh, it looks more authentic.’”

As his own platform for rum grew, Burrell took another major risk — he gathered all of his savings and launched an event called RumFest. Through RumFest, he brought his beloved spirit to the UK masses. It’s since grown into the largest rum festival in the world, and it's influenced rum festivals in Paris, Berlin, Mauritius and Miami. And this year, UK RumFest will celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Alongside his own sweeping efforts, the tiki craze has been good for Burrell’s business. “For the price of a cocktail you get transported to the tropics for a Piña Colada or a Mai Tai or a Zombie or an exotic Rum Rhapsody, and that's why that type of culture is growing,” he says. “90% of tiki cocktails are rum-based, it helps the rum category because if you have tiki bars, you’re gonna need rum; you’re also gonna need lots of different styles of rum as well.”

In the last 15 years, rum has seen an explosion in popularity, and it's not a likely coincidence that this spike coordinates Burrell's mission to spread his love of rum. But he doesn’t like to take credit. “I just try to give people ideas of what rum could be in their life,” he says. And he’s done so all over the world, from Europe to Asia to Australia and beyond. Three years ago, he even brought his love of rum to Antarctica. He chartered a ship, did rum tastings while aboard and, when they landed at a research station on the world’s most extreme and inhospitable terrain, he set up a bar and served his favorite spirit.

Burrell remains true to his vision, pushing boundaries and testifying to the virtues of rum all over the world. It can be difficult to manage freelance and contract work, but he wouldn’t sacrifice his autonomy for any level or structure or stability, despite tempting offers. “I’ve been offered jobs [with] really nice cushy credit cards, expense account-type jobs, but I turned them down, because I wouldn’t have that freedom.”

As Burrell presses forward, bringing rum to new markets and exploring what it means to be the world’s rum ambassador, he is also becoming an advocate for change within the rum industry. “It’s still a global problem that we haven’t got a clear cut definition of what rum is, because it is made in so many different ways. I guess that’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also a detriment to the category.” Among other industry members with a vested interest in the spirit, he’s lobbying for a global definition of what qualifies a rum, based on how it’s made and what it’s made with.

Between his speaking engagements, his rum activism efforts and his international travels, Ian Burrell can be found sipping his beloved spirit — whether it’s a Rum Old Fashioned or one of his famous Piña Coladas. Ask him and he’ll tell you, “My favorite rum is the rum in my glass, the next one or a free one.” And it's this genuine affection for the spirit that makes him more than deserving of his self-appointed title.

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