The cocktail competition that will make you think about rum’s origins

What’s in a name? A lot, according to this new cocktail competition. Aleesha Hansel takes a look at why Equiano Rum is on the hunt for a drink whose name and story honours African and Caribbean communities

Words by Aleesha Hansel

equiano rum cocktail and bottle

‘Although the best rums in the world come from the Caribbean, historically their journeys start in Africa – from the slaves taken to the Caribbean and with their knowledge of making alcohol passed down from generation to generation, to create what we call rum today.’ That’s according to Ian Burrell, Global Rum Ambassador, and creator and co-founder of Equiano Rum.

The connection between the two lands serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the bloody origins of rum, and of atrocities that should never be forgotten. But this history is one that Burrell, and the rest of the Equiano team, are now trying to reframe and use positively through the launch of the inaugural ‘Interesting Narrative Cocktail Competition’. The contest is aimed at discovering a host of unique cocktails that have African and Caribbean influences, encouraging a strong narrative behind what inspired their creation.

equiano rum cocktail with bottle

‘There aren’t enough cocktails that really acknowledge the culture, heritage and history of rum,’ says Sly Augustin, owner of London cocktail bar Trailer Happiness and one of the competition’s judges. ‘Lots of these drinks are made in the colonial countries or in the major cities – whether that be New York or London – and they speak to those cities and those bartenders, but don’t necessarily speak to the culture [of the rum inside them].’

The team at Equiano are already dedicated to exploring how their drinks can best reflect the heritage of the African diaspora, and the authenticity of the cultures that emerged from it. At its heart, the Equiano story is about triumph in the face of adversity. Indeed, the brand takes its name from Olaudah Equiano – kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, transported from Africa to the Caribbean before earning his freedom (through selling rum, among other things), Equiano ultimately settled in England as a writer and a leader of the abolitionist movement.

There aren’t enough cocktails that really acknowledge the culture, heritage and history of rum

‘This competition is about provoking thoughts,’ says Burrell, and one of the ways in which cocktails can do that, beyond ingredients, is with the name – one of the categories for which the cocktails will be evaluated within the competition. Language is important. As the first thing a consumer sees when picking up a menu, a drink’s name is one of the most direct ways to evoke a sense of place, or to reference heritage, but it’s also one of the easiest (often unconscious) forms of cultural appropriation.

‘Without naming names directly, any cocktail with a name which uses indigenous language and isn’t made by an indigenous person is a gimmick and inauthentic,’ says Sly Augustin. This misrepresentation of cultures, however, is not only restricted to names. ‘A rum might be from a certain country by name, but the structures of it, the packaging of it may not reflect those traditions,’ adds Augustin.

Ian Burrell, Equiano Rum founder and IWSC judge, says the Interesting Narrative Cocktail Competition is all about provoking thoughts

Pick up any drink, and it will be a repository of history, culture, trade. Drinks are never just a pleasant taste and a sweet smell. When it comes to rum, its troubled origins and its significance to the people of the Caribbean and African continent shouldn’t be forgotten, but this competition aims to push past that narrative and showcase a new one – how that heritage can be reclaimed and celebrated anew.

‘What a cocktail is great at, is that it takes elements that aren’t connected and connects them,’ says Augustin. ‘Ingredients are their own elements. They have cultural significance, a significance that hasn’t always been appreciated or acknowledged, so when you taste that drink, you are sampling a small cross section of culture.’

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Beyond the narrative, the competition by its very nature is sharing the voices of the Caribbean and African community, and the Equiano Foundation also gives back to it – via its partnership with Anti-Slavery International. Indeed, the competition was borne of a desire to strengthen those voices.

‘We want to raise professionals to the standard they should be, giving them a platform they might not be able to get otherwise,’ says Burrell. ‘Hopefully this will help others in the industry ascend to their rightful level.’

‘This competition makes bartenders and those that enter reflective of their own life and their own story and what better way to do that than by creating a drink that is part of your own story and your own destiny, if you will,’ continues Burrell. ‘We want people to enjoy themselves, talk about the stories that make them feel good and inspire other people.’

The Interesting Narrative Cocktail Competition is open for entries until April 30, with the final taking place in June. Find out more at equianorum.com