Rum Don't Walk

As a former rapping, basketball-playing bartender and Global Rum Ambassador, Ian Burrell has more than a few stories to tell. His favourites, of course, feature rum.


As a former rapping, basketball-playing bartender and Global Rum Ambassador, Ian Burrell has more than a few stories to tell. His favourites, of course, feature rum.

“One night at my old bar, a guy asked me, what’s the best rum you’ve got? At the time we had a fantastic limited edition Appleton 21-year-old, only 12,000 bottles produced a year, selling for £20 a shot. So he said, I’ll have a double with some coke...”

Ian mimes the incredulous look he gave the customer, like he’d just been asked splash some Ribena into an Imperial Stout. “I gave him my spiel, and he said, ‘But if rum and coke is my favourite drink, and you say this is your best rum, this is going to make my rum and coke the best rum and coke!’

So I served it up, he drank it, came back for two more, and became one of my regulars. Those three drinks brought in £140, a ten pound tip and one life lesson: Who am I to tell a customer how they should drink their favourite spirit?”

Ian first acted as an ambassador for rum in 1998. “I would go around bars, telling stories about rums to bartenders, bringing those rums to life.” Next, Appleton invited him to Jamaica for a conference, where their Australian branch asked him to help launch their new product. Soon all the big brands were asking for his unique combination of knowledge, charisma and style (he is never seen without his hat – and claims no one would recognize him without it).

He’s keen not to knock the cheap, young, white rums made for mixing. “It’s the Caribbean way imported across the Atlantic. Caribbeans drink rum in vast quantities and they drink it the cheapest way they can: strong, neat or with water, sugar and lime, and un-aged. According to most Caribbean people, it’s just a waste of time and alcohol sticking the spirit in a barrel.”

The first rums introduced around the world were the most popular in the Caribbean. It’s because of this that Bacardi is the most popular rum, and Bacardi and coke is one of the biggest bar calls in the world. “They’re important; to me, they’re stepping stones to a wider range of older rums, the gold and dark rums matured in charred barrels, and then onto premium rums which are akin to, say, a cognac.”

When making rum, just like any other alcoholic drink, yeast is the engine that produces ethanol and sugar is its fuel. As barley does for beer, crushed sugar cane is for rum. It’s fermented either as raw juice (generally, in French speaking countries) or boiled down into molasses (mostly English and Spanish). “Sugar cane shaped the world,” muses Ian. “Through trade, and even wars. People died for it. Where religion spread, agriculture came too, with sugar cane a staple crop. The gods of the world had a sweet tooth.”

Evil spirits called duppies make off with a share of the rum to start a party

Fermented sugar cane and molasses makes a sticky, beer-like ‘wash’ of between 5% and 10% alcohol. Rum sold in the UK has to be 40% or above, so there’s a long way to go before this beverage is complete.

To bring the alcoholic strength up, the wash is distilled. Safety glasses on for the science bit. Distillation separates alcohol from water. First, you bring the wash to the boil, which causes vapour to rise as the liquid turns into gas.

The first vapours to emerge are alcohol, because alcohol boils faster than water. Capture these vapours by cooling them down and as sure as eating raw sugar cane will rot your teeth, you’ll have ‘spirited’ away the booze from the water. Do this at least a couple of times for purity and then you shall have your ‘new make’.

This fresh, clear, and extremely alcoholic (~70% abv) spirit is poured into barrels, which can be virgin casks, casks that have prior knowledge of rum, ex-bourbon, ex-whisky, old sherry butts... the many rum producing countries have differing regulations so a multitude of sins can occur. Speaking of: while a rum quietly sits in a warehouse, maturing away, folklore tells that evil spirits called duppies make off with a share of the rum to start a party.

(Like the tale of the angel’s share with Scotch, this is merely a superstitious explanation for why evaporation occurs. As if any of you believed in duppies.)

Ageing is nature, maturation is nurture.

Many rums are aged for less than a year, in part for economy, in part because the tropical heat almost cooks the rum, causing it to take on great deal of the tannins and lactones of the wood, resulting in a very sweet, very rich spirit.

Ian dreams of the day a bottle of vintage rum is valued at the same price as a rare old whisky. “In 2011, 12 bottles of 18th century rum were found in the basement of the historic Harewood House. They were sold at auction from a starting bid of just £800! The same

year they were unearthed, a bottle of 62-year-old Dalmore Highland whisky sold for £125,000. I wish rums would get to that stage.”

And they’re catching up fast. Although single cask rums are still rare, bars like Rum & Sugar, our hosts for the night, and events like Ian’s RumFest and Rum Week are popularising premium rums. “They’re not just aged, they’re matured. Ageing is nature, maturation is nurture.” What he’s looking for in a good rum is craft, story and richness.

Ian revels in the florid descriptions some independent bottlers give to their rums. He’s looking at the label of a 22-year-old Guyanan rum described as ‘Sweeney Todd in a Victorian kitchen’.

“I love it – like someone’s waiting to have their throat cut!” This small South American country has just one distillery – though it does boast nine stills. The most famous is the Port Mourant, with its double wood still configuration that exudes a rich, deep and oily distillate.

“They have to keep patching it up to get it going, to keep making the rum. That’s what you’re tasting – you’re tasting a piece of history.” Just don’t tell the duppies.

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