Profile: Ian Burrell

Hamish Smith hooks up with self-styled global rum ambassador Ian Burrell in Venezuela

IN 2009 IAN BURRELL was the UK rum ambassador. He had been working hard, progressing well, so, naturally asked for a promotion.  “I gave myself the title of global rum ambassador – and a pat on the back,” says Burrell. His UK moniker had been made up too. Apparently it first came about in print – an American journalist grappling to describe a British man who bestrides the earth with the sole purpose of promoting rum, yet has no employer. 

But then, rum is just one stave of the Burrell barrel. In the nineties he was a professional basketball player. In the same decade, a rapper and singer, performing to stadia of 100,000 people. 

I meet the man in a hotel in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, courtesy of Diplomático rum – Burrell is an hour from hosting the final round of the brand’s global cocktail competition (see page 45), which will be streamed live over the internet. As he approaches I am looking out from a table in the shade, but it wouldn’t matter if I was blinded by sunshine – if there is a drinks industry figure recognisable by his silhouette, it is Burrell. His sizable figure is draped in an airy Caribbean shirt, head sunk into his trademark feathered Panama hat, one of 12. He is every inch the rum man and, judging by his beaten-up passport (which needs replacing… and framing) he is definitely of the global variety.

Palm tree paradise

The temptation is to open with a clichéd question about what luxury item he would take to a desert island. I resist – it occurs to me Burrell is almost permanently on a palm tree paradise and is probably very well adapted. Instead we start with a boy from Tufnell Park, north London, born to Jamaican parents who arrived from Kingston and May Pen in the 1960s. Burrell grew up with just his mum; his father moved to another part of London and mostly out of his life. His childhood had been “tough” at times.  School – the one which is now attended by his son – had been a mixed affair. 

Probably we all knew an Ian Burrell from our school days. “I messed around in class, caused trouble and got a few detentions – I found work easy or got bored easily. I was in school plays and I’ve always been able to work under pressure, with exams and stuff. I was told I wouldn’t get any O-levels – I got eight and two A-levels.” But this was not a boy without focus. “I’ve always watched others, learning like a sponge – I’m curious.”

Not always to wholesome effect. At the age of nine Burrell was mixing rum with sugar, water and lime – perhaps learned from his grandfather, a rum man himself – and a black market in Wray & Nephew miniatures was established at school by 15. But the drinks world would have to wait for its first self-titled rum ambassador – basketball would come first. 

“I started late, I was 15. That’s one of my regrets. The gym in our school burned down the year I arrived. I feel if I had started earlier I would probably have gone to college in America and might have played professionally there. 

“There wasn’t much money in the UK professional league; you had substandard American players taking all the money.  I would pay to play sometimes, drive miles to a game. I played because I was addicted to it. I was MVP [most valuable player] in my last year, which technically meant I was the best player. But I got to a stage where I wasn’t getting paid my fair due and stopped in 2000.”

Around the same time and for a couple of years after, Burrell, or should we say MC Via B, was performing on another stage. “I was a rapper-singer and performed to 100,000 on tour in Africa. I did three cities: in Lagos, Khadona and Kanu, supporting Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul as part of a Ministry of Sound event. I did a video in 2002 – that was a highlight of my career. I had a deal with Universal Records in Paris. I also had a couple of tracks on video games, TV commercials and featured on Scooby Doo.” Zoinks! 

Bartending exploits

Burrell had been in the drinks trade in the intervals between performances and by 1998 word of his bartending exploits - and possibly his childhood miniatures racket - had convinced Wray & Nephew to employ him part-time. In 2003, by which time Burrell was running Cottons of Camden, his Wray & Nephew role had gone global -  for the first time drinks had become Burrell’s sole career focus.   

The rum company’s Jamaican heritage matched Burrell’s. “My parents are Jamaican and they brought their culture with them. As my mum said when I got smacked: ‘Out there it’s England, inside this house it’s Jamaica.’ You should have passion for where you were born and the blood inside you.”

Eventually Burrell became a lone rum-ranger, working for smaller brands on an ad hoc basis and with organisations such as the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association, which represents some 20 Caribbean rums. 

“I enjoy working with all the smaller brands. If I only worked for big groups I wouldn’t be here in Venezuela with Diplomático. That’s what I love, that family influence. I never had that when I was growing up, so I love it.”

His alternative family is more a cult of rum worshippers, Burrell being a central evangelist. In his own words, he is  merely an “edutainer” (we’ll  let that one slide, Ian), but with a PR team that publicises his every move, what he has become is a brand – he is both identifiable and marketable. Burrell gets stick for the global rum ambassador tag, so is coy about Brand Burrell. 

“It evolved, I wanted to be a go-to person for companies, the rum guru,” he says warming to his subject. “The Rum Experience [the umbrella company for his work] is a brand and that’s just me. I speak to people about brands, about how to promote myself.”

Yet in some quarters Burrell is considered less of a smooth operator, more of a chancer – a description he has heard before judging by his rebuttal. “If I was a chancer I wouldn’t have got to where I am now – the Mauritius government invited me to help set up its rum industry, organise a rum festival, promote the category – I’m off there in August. But maybe you have to be a chancer to take that opportunity.”

 If there is an element of luck to Burrell’s progression, it is understood in more scientific terms: “My friend who is a lifestyle coach says luck is just opportunity, preparation and execution.” Confidence has a lot to do with it too: “It’s my strongest asset. If I fail, it’s a lesson. But I try not to border on cockiness.” 

Most of all, Burrell understands the business of marketing products:  “The industry is 99% bullshit, 1% inspiration. It’s about selling a product. Look at my April Fool’s joke Gannibal, a rum-flavoured vodka, distilled 69 times, filtered through charcoal from the Opallo Fir tree  – an anagram of April Fools. I had pre-orders. Understand what’s bullshit, then you can play the game. The success stories all do that. 

“We’re dealing with the most dangerous and popular drug in the world. It’ll always be there. The big boys are making so much money out of it they can’t afford for it to die. They’ll hire the best bullshitters out there.”

Having achieved what he has, Burrell shouldn’t be classed in such terms. Who can say they have set up a pop-bar on Antartica, serving Pussers to penguins and Drake cocktails on Drakes Passage (and had the whole ludicrous expedition paid for by someone else)? That was one of all seven continents his mobile bar will assemble on in a seven-month period. But perhaps most notably, Burrell is the man behind RumFest, London’s  annual rum love-in and this September he’ll be at his new Rum University in Andalusia, a project aimed at educating the trade and issuing students with formal qualifications. 

If he’s in the UK on a Saturday, you might find Burrell keeping his hand in at Cottons of Camden, and if not, you could try his sister, newly installed as his PA (to those with siblings, this could be his greatest feat yet). 

No, Burrell may play the bullshit game, but he’s made of much firmer stuff.