Ian Burrell: ‘There’s still work to be done for people of colour in rum’

Global rum ambassador, IWSC judge and RumFest founder Ian Burrell talks about putting the name of a former slave on a bottle, and why there’s still lots of work to be done in addressing rum’s history and heritage

Words by Ian Burrell

Sugar cane workers can reap the benefits if demand for traceability grows

At the beginning of January 2020, we launched the world’s first African-Caribbean rum. But it really took off during the pandemic when certain conversations were happening around the world and when statues were being ripped down. Looking up at bronze casts of people every day, more and more of us were wondering: ‘Why are we still celebrating someone that made their fortunes through the blood, sweat and tears of an enslaved population?’

As alternative names were suggested to replace them, Olaudah Equiano’s name was thrown into the mix – by those who knew who he was. Coincidentally, we had called our rum brand Equiano and had been thinking about these issues before everyone started to think about them en masse. Putting his name on our bottle was us trying to pay homage to a person who actually used to make rum back in the day; a person who actually bought his own freedom by selling rum – and who went on to become one of the unsung heroes of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Equiano rum bottle
Equiano rum, the world's first African-Caribbean rum, was launched by Ian Burrell at the start of 2020

Equiano is one of the few spirit brands out there that actually has a Black man’s name on the bottle, and that was a conscious decision because of the history of rum, a spirit that was made by enslaved Africans. It’s a move that’s now helping us to have conversations about new brands being named after notable Africans who played an important part in the spirits industry – people who almost seem to have been lost from the narrative.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in the spirits industry as a whole. During the pandemic, people have started to make the connection between what they’re drinking and how it’s made. We’re seeing a lot of drink brands now focusing on sustainability. But in the rum industry, it goes deeper: we’re looking at traceability. Where is the rum from and what are the practices of the distilleries or the people that make the rum? How are they treating their workers in the sugar cane regions? Because it’s arduous work to be in those fields voluntarily, let alone involuntary – as it was 400 years ago.

Burrell, left, founded RumFest, above, which returns this month after last being held in 2019

Rums, historically, were made by enslaved Africans. It would be nice to see more brands or whole distilleries owned by Africans or the sons and daughters of Africans today. There are a few, but most of them are not really given or afforded equal status, or they’re not distributed or marketed in the same way as some of the bigger companies.

Over the last year or so I’ve seen an influx of boutique brands owned by Caribbeans, Africans and people of colour

With Equiano, we merge two rums: a rum from the African continent and a rum from the Caribbean region. We’re very fortunate to have one of the best rum makers on the planet, Richard Seale from Foursquare in Barbados, overseeing the final product. It’s not easy setting up your own brand. And it’s even harder to set up your own distillery.

Over the last year or so I’ve been seeing a lot of Black-owned rum brands coming to the forefront, especially here in the UK – I’ve seen an influx of more small boutique brands that are owned by Caribbeans, Africans and people of colour. Now, although they’re not always making or distilling their own rums, what they do have is the ownership of the final product, the bottle and the brand name.

Saint Ogun, for example, has just recently been set up by two West Africans, and it’s great seeing that because, as Caribbeans and Africans, we’ve always been associated with drinking brandy when we’re partying. It’s nice to see some younger guys now looking at rum as an alternative to brandy, especially when most of the rums they are using are from the Caribbean. That means that a share of the profit is going back there.

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I love seeing that entrepreneurship where it’s like, ‘Right, we want to create our own brand, and really focus on part of our history and our heritage’.

That’s the growth we’re seeing and that’s the part where, as an industry and as consumers, we can help. We need to be actively looking out for them and doing our bit to help raise them up.

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By Ian Burrell

Ian Burrell is a global rum ambassador and founded London’s RumFest in 2007. He co-founded Equiano in 2018, and brings RumFest back to London this month.