Ian Burrell has made rum his life, coupled with a successful sideline as a rapper. He explains why he recently launched a vodka, reveals his plans to create a Rum University, and discloses why he's famous in Japan.
Ian Burrell has just played his latest practical joke. It's a few days before April 1, and he is practically giggling like a schoolgirl. It's based around the launch of a rum-flavoured vodka called Gannibal. He press released it a couple of days ago, peppered with anagrammatic plays on words: its abv was 'Lial Proof' and it was filtered through charcoal from the 'Opallo Fir' tree. Some other drinks magazines carried news of the launch, earnestly announcing news of the '69 times distilled' vodka, made in 'the last remaining Siberian traditional alembic still'. "In the first couple of hours, four people emailed me, saying they'd love to import it," laughs Ian. "Others wrote that I'd finally sold out."
Gannibal was the ultimate irony, aimed at a generation of Mojito drinkers who claim not to like the taste of rum, but who would probably happy to buy a blinged-up rum-flavoured vodka with a fake back-story. The fact so many failed to get the joke was a mark of its success.
For Ian, this was the continuation of a theme of fake events designed to mock the appeal of the 'odourless, colourless and tasteless' vodka market. "Last year I created 'Vodkafest'," he explains. "I dreamt it up in a couple of hours: I'd been drinking a few rums at home. I thought let's create a Facebook group page. People were talking about it straight away: that's the power of social media."
Vodkafest and this year's Trojan horse were, in fact, thinly veiled publicity stunts for the annual Rumfest. Now in its sixth year, it is a drinks event that has managed to cross into consumer consciousness, attracting 6,500 trade and consumer guests, and that might arguably prove to be Ian's legacy. Only it might not, as actually it's just one thing in his rather large bag of tricks.
We've come to meet him at Cottons, his rum bar and Caribbean restaurant in Camden, north London, near to where he grew up. Ian, now 43, rolls the shutters up, the sun floods in, and he sticks his iPod on. Gentle reggae beats fill the room. Could we be in the Caribbean? Not quite: white van man is watching from a traffic jam on the A502 outside as we take his picture.
So Ian, was 'rum ambassador' really an option at your school careers fair? "Ha, well I always loved to perform, to be on stage, to make people laugh, and I thought that was the direction my career would take, especially when I was accepted to the Central School of Speech & Drama."
But he never went. A friend of his, Raphy, suggested they take a year off, and talked Ian, then 18, into working in a pizzeria in Soho. Suddenly Ian had taken his first steps on the road to a career in hospitality. A few weeks later, despite being the youngest and least experienced staff members, Ian and Raphy survived a headcount cull based on their enthusiasm. It was going so well until Ian dropped a hot pepperoni pizza on a customer's lap, and he was moved away from hot food and on to the bar.
"I didn't know anything about cocktails, but the bar manager told me he could teach me to make ten cocktails in five minutes. I doubted him but he started with a Screwdriver, told me how you add Galliano to make a Harvey Wallbanger, or add sloe gin and Southern Comfort to it to make a Slow Comfortable Screw - then add Galliano to make it a Slow Comfortable Screw against the Wall, and so on.
"When I saw how much money I was making in tips I thought, do I really want to go back to acting?"
After six months, he was head bartender, and had realised that even if he was not overtly acting, the bar made a decent proxy for a stage. He even did a bit of flair. But he didn't totally abandon the performer in him, and when Raphy tragically died a few months later in a car crash, it made Ian evaluate his life and he decided to pursue his first dream in tribute to his friend. "Raphy taught me to always go with your gut feeling, his death gave me a push and the urge to be the best."
Looking back, his next steps as a performer might be said to have been pragmatic at best. First, some TV producer customers at the pizzeria recruited him as a team member on 1980s game show The Crystal Maze. Next he auditioned for TV commercials, winning a series of what now seem wildly clichéd parts - as a basketball player and a rapper - though actually Ian had rapped at school and played pro basketball. Then, at his next job at a Tex-Mex theme bar in the late 1990s, he attracted the eye of the marketing manager for Kiss FM, who was looking for someone to do an old Jamaican accent. Despite growing up in Tuffnell Park, north London, Ian had enough relatives round the house to know how to speak Ja-fake-an. And, as it turned out, the client was a certain brand of rum: Appleton.
What was initially just another acting job suddenly seemed to chime with something inside. Rum was, after all, a familiar face in his childhood home. "My mum used to say that inside the house it was Jamaica. There was definitely rum culture. I think my first sip was when I was four-days-old. It was cheaper than gripe water. I remember lots of miniatures which I used to steal and top-up with water, we'd have Guinness punch with dinner, made with condensed milk, nutmeg and rum - we always had Wray & Nephew Overproof in ours - or I drank sugar, water and lime, sometimes I'd add rum, but I never realised I was making a grog.
"In fact, I knew nothing about how rum was made, what it was made from."
On the strength of his 'old man' Jamaican accent, Ian now began to formalise his relationship with rum. He would work as a bartender at Appleton functions, and then they asked him to work for three days a week in what was then ground-breakingly called an 'ambassadorial' role. Appleton trained him up on their brands, and he visited his first distillery in 2001.
"But they didn't teach me about the category, so even after I had become expert about Appleton rums I still couldn't answer the question I was most frequently asked: is this rum better than that rum? I decided to take time out and travel around the Caribbean. I was kind of pissed off I had to fund it myself but it all came good. I'd visit these old guys in their distilleries and they were really receptive because no one had asked them why they did anything for decades. From Jamaica to Trinidad, St Lucia or Barbados, they loved how there was this young guy coming in and asking them 'how?'. Joy Spence was just finding her feet back then, before she became Appleton's master blender."
Ian didn't know it, but he was on the cusp of a rum revolution. In fact, he was practically the Che Guevara of the movement. "In the UK, knowledge of rum was really small, most people didn't know Bacardi was rum, weren't aware of Havana Club, and Mojitos were only just emerging. It was frustrating as I knew there were all these great rums, from Guatemala, Belize or Guyana, but people said we don't need more rums styles." Ian thought differently. Working the bar, he used rum as a way to entertain and educate customers - in fact, on one of Ian's business cards from the mid-2000s he called himself an 'edu-tainer'.
While all this was going on, Ian was also still keen to pursue performing for its own sake, and another customer at the Tex-Mex joint was a musician called Danny Chester. He'd performed with Adamski and was laying down some new tracks. Only thing was, he couldn't rap and he needed a rapper. Step forward Mr Burrell, whose schoolyard rapping credentials now saw him promptly put on a Eurostar to Lille to rap to what Ian says was "cheesy dance music". The producers liked what he did and six weeks later was invited back. Cheese or not, this was the era of Shaggy and Ian became a similar act known as The Dude.
After a quiet start, a song called Rock Da Juice captured the imagination of the public and it all exploded. First, they received a gold disc based on plays and requests; next, the track was taken up by Pepsi in South America and Asia, earning Ian a five-figure sum. Universal Records then asked for an album of tracks, and then Hollywood called. The producers of the Scooby Doo movie used the track, and so did Inspector Gadget 2. He even made it big in Asia, touring Japan as a rapper in a manufactured outfit called Eurogroove, getting to Number 1 in Japan but "hoping none of my friends saw me". "During the late 90s/early 2000s, I reckon probably 200 million people heard my voice on a regular basis, whether it was on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon or the Ali G show." To this day, the American discount chain Target uses his music in its advertising.
Despite this success, Ian says he never saw music as a long-term thing, and in any case he'd built up such a reputation in rum by now that he was asked to set up a bar in Stoke Newington. "It was to be a rum bar. I had never heard of that in the UK. It would carry 80 rums, and charge £1-2 more than other bar for drinks. It was just me and the bar, serving stockbrokers and lawyers. It was a huge learning curve every day, with all these rums. Friends were bringing them in, going to speciality drinks suppliers, there were even rums that had been confiscated by customs and then sold on to some drinks suppliers."
Trouble was, the owner became resentful of the attention the charismatic young rum expert was getting and their relationship foudnered. Luckily, the owner of Cottons in Camden had heard all about him and invited him to become GM. "With all the rum knowledge I had I realised I could transform what was a rum shack with 30 rums into an amazing bar in its own right."
It's from his home at Cottons, where there are now several hundred rums, that Ian has built up his ambassadorial role. It's not the kind of ambassadorship that comes with a diplomatic passport, chauffeur and big car, but it's a role he has made his own. "In the end I was an ambassador for Appleton for five years, but I started calling myself an ambassador for the category in 2005. It started at a rum convention in Tampa, Florida, when I was announced as the UK rum ambassador. I liked it, so it stuck."
Now, it's all about the category. "I'm on a mission to convert everyone into rum drinkers, one person at a time. I feel independent and that's important in order to be credible. I prefer it that way and I've turned down 'ambassador' jobs for Diageo. The downside is that I have to go out and get work myself, and if I don't get hired, I don't get paid. That being said, WRSPA [the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers' Association] hired me for some months, and they are going to start up again, and I would hope they will call on me again, though I'm still sensitive to the fact I can't jeopardise my relationship with non-Caribbean rums."
Building up that collection of rums at Cottons means Ian is frequently seen with a bulging suitcase. "I remember coming back from St Lucia with 20 rums in my bags. I got stopped at customs on the way out, and the officer was taking out the rums. I was sweating, but all she did was confiscate one bottle, a very strong one from St Vincent at 84.7% abv, leaving the other 19. 'You can't carry anything over 69% abv on board,' she says. Another time, I was walking through customs at Heathrow, and I get a tap on my shoulder. There are two customs guys there. But instead of asking me to open up my bags, they simply point to a trail of rum that'd been leaking through the entire airport. I'm a bit more conservative now with the amount I bring back."
Ian's plans for further developing the rum category are by no means conservative. Rumfest is back with a vengeance in October at Excel this year, rather than Olympia. He's also planning on creating a Rum University and is even sounding vaguely more realistic in his dream to open a rum bar in the Antartic, so he can say he's made cocktails on all seven continents.
The university is being planned for September 2013 - a week-long advanced educational gathering in Spain. "It's a part of Spain called Montreau, known as the Costa del Ron. They grow sugar cane there, and there's a sugar museum and a rum distillery there. The idea is that we take up this large hotel, hold classes every day from the best speakers and train up ambassadors by showing them rum being made without having to go to the Caribbean."
He's planning demonstrations from professional speakers on how to present (the performer in him recognises how essential this is for effective communication), marketing, social media, food science, even competition winners' tips. "I'd like to start with 60 bartenders initially, and after four or five days that will equip anyone with enough information to be rum ambassadors, and we'll give them a certificate that will be recognised around the world."
From a position barely more than 10 years ago when bars and bartenders couldn't see a need for more than one brand of rum on their back-bars, Ian is delighted that rum now attracts celebrity endorsements, such as those from Ron Jeremy and Enrique Inglesias.
"Rum today is more of a marketable commodity and we are seeing rums that are really pricey. A few years ago people wouldn't pay £30 for a bottle, but now they are prepared to pay £100 for a 21-year-old, or £5,000 for a bottle of Appleton 50. The main challenge for bartenders is ignorance, but the way I see if you are alienated from rum you're missing out on a major tool in your life. For consumers, the challenge is realising how many styles of rums there are, in the same way that they know not all white wines are pinot grigios or chardonnays."
That takes us back to the way Ian played on consumers' attitudes to vodka with his April Fool's rum-flavoured vodka. In fact, says Ian, it's less of a joke than it might seem. "I am always talking about blending light with heavy rums, blending column distilled with pot distilled. There's a tiny amount of Wray & Nephew in Gannibal and that's all you can smell."
And it is an actual product. Even if the production run stopped after one bottle, it's available to buy from Cottons for £250 and has its own website. And fact is, if he had half a million quid with which to market it, it could prove to be the easiest and most lucrative way to convince a population they like the flavour of rum. "The point was to show how easy it is to create a story and a brand, but ironically, it could be my best invention yet."