When thirsty patrons enter a bar, the opportunity to bask at the array of spirits is always invigorating. However, for some, honing in on liquor labels with deep traumatic roots can be triggering.
This phenomenon notoriously occurs with one of the more popular and globally known spirits—rum. Many rum brands have the word “plantation” marketed across their label and for years, this has become mainstream in this drink world.
However, many critics call for removing the word plantation from titles because of its deep ties to enslavement. And Ian Burrell, who is most commonly known as the Global Rum Ambassador, is a part of a team leading the charge to decolonize the rum industry.
Rum Ingrained in Burrell’s Early Roots
The U.K.-born Jamaican has early memories of cultural pride being present in his upbringing. In Jamaica, rum is consumed for celebratory purposes and for healing remedies, which made venturing down a career path to become an expert on this spirit a given.
“As a Jamaican, I feel that there is no barrier that can stop us from doing what we want to do if we put our mind to it,” shares Burrell. This tenacity propelled Burrell to pursue bartending as an early career path despite having little experience. At the time, the future rum ambassador was beginning undergrad, focusing on going after a career in performing arts.
Consequently, Burrell’s bartending gig was supposed to last only six months but has continued for 25 years. Burrell shares, “I loved it so much and a lot of things I wanted to achieve in drama, I achieved working in the bar. My bar was my stage. My customers were my audience.”
Burrell’s endearing demeanor and personality landed him as J Wray & Nephew’s first rum brand ambassador in the U.K. For some, this would have marked a career height. But, for Burrell, this was just the beginning of his career and, ultimately, his learning journey.
The acclaimed rum ambassador created the U.K.’s Rumfest and won a Guinness World Record for the most extensive organized rum tasting and continued to break barriers by establishing a rum shack in Antarctica.
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Burrell’s passion for innovating out-of-the-box cocktails and spreading his love for rum to the masses is what fueled his fire. “Rum as a spirit is still underrepresented. It’s still under-appreciated by all. And for me, it’s the best spirit on the planet,” shares the rum ambassador. With rum being a top priority on the list for Burrell, it only made sense that the next step in his career would be to create one.
Honoring Legacy with Equiano
Launched in 2020, Equiano is a BIPOC led brand carrying the globe’s inaugural premium African and Caribbean rum blend. The liquid brand is named after Olaudah Equiano, who sold rum to gain his freedom in the U.K. after being enslaved.
Burrell reminisces on Equiano’s legacy, “When I look at what Equiano did, and what he overcame back then, I think to myself that is just so powerful, and there are so many lessons to be learned today.” Burrell and the other co-creators ensure that Equiano donates five percent of company profits and two euros of every bottle purchased to ground-level freedom and equity projects.
Aaisha Dadral, one of the co-founders of Equiano, shares, “Collectively, we are all committed to the philanthropic aspects of this project. We are currently donating funds to the Anti-Slavery International, which is one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world.” For the founders of Equiano, ensuring that their business would serve as a leading rum brand and a force to help ameliorate social justice issues and support anti-racism is essential.
Decolonizing the Rum Industry
Establishing the Equiano Rum brand also means decolonizing the racist narratives amplified about rum. “It’s to give back the power to the rum producers of those islands because then you’ll see more Black-owned rum companies,” shares Burrell. Lack of representation is present within the bartending industry and even more as there are few Black-owned spirit companies. “That’s why I want to normalize Black people within our industry. And why I take pride in that,” shares Burrell.
Burrell envisions a future where Black distillers from Africa and the Caribbean dominate markets, selling their rums that they produced for their own brands. The rum ambassador shares, “If Caribbean or African locals want to own a brand, I think that is the most powerful part of what the rum industry needs to be representing. Not someone coming from another country taking that value and then exploiting it for their own good in parts of Europe or in parts of the Americas or in the rest of the world, right?”