Ian Burrell is a man who’s tried it all — from being a hip-hop artist to a basketball player to a TV personality. But the celebrated rum expert has a few more titles up his sleeve. As the only global rum ambassador, organiser of the famed UK RumFest and owner of rum bar and Caribbean restaurant Cottons Camden in London, Burrell scours the world to train young bartenders and to lecture and promote rum and cocktails.
During the recent Singapore Cocktail Week, Quotient went behind the bar with the rum connoisseur to learn more about his favourite tipple and discuss his passion for combining alcohol with creativity.
Quotient: Hi Ian. Can you share with us your passion for cocktails and how it drove you to become the founder of the world-renowned UK Rumfest? Where did it start from, and why rum?
Burrell: Actually it wasn’t the passion for cocktails that drove me to become the founder of RumFest. It was the passion for rum that lead me to this path because for me rum is more than a spirit. It’s actually a lifestyle and the way that it’s used in the Tropics is a message that I want to pass on to the rest of the world.
You are the world’s only Global Ambassador for rum. What does your role entail?
It entails travelling around the world to all seven continents just to basically spread the gospel of the rum — how it is made, what it is, its history, the different types of rums, how it’s used in cocktails and how it’s used with food pairing. I also lead the Rum Experience, which is my company that helps to promote rum on all seven continents by way of seminars, presentations, tastings, masterclasses, mixology and PR.
What or who has been the biggest influence on your career?
I would say a lot of the young bartenders that are coming up these days are influencing me because I see their enthusiasm not only for the cocktail culture but for rum culture. I see them discovering new rums and new ways to create cocktails and making new bars. They’ve been influential because I am learning from them; they challenge you with new questions, new drinks, new ways of using them. I try to take small bits of knowledge from father-figures in the industry, put them together in me and then pass them on to the younger guys. Some amazing people I’ve worked with are bartenders such as Alex Katrena and Simone Caporale, who are ranked as some of the best mixologists in the world.
What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed over the years?
Definitely food pairings. A lot of bartenders are working with world chefs to create new flavours, using exotic ingredients that will give the cocktail a story — something that really sets your drink apart from all the others. Some other trends I’ve seen in bars around the world are fusions with exotic flavours and spices. Presently, in the UK, the hottest ingredient to pair rum with is ginger beer. Each country offers something different in terms of new flavours and spices. One of my favourite combinations right now is Ting, a carbonated beverage popular in the Caribbean. Once people taste it, they simply love it!
What are the hottest, up-and-coming cities for cocktail lovers?
London and New York are definitely the hottest cities for cocktails right now. I am very surprised to see that the rum scene here in Singapore is similar to what I saw in Paris six years ago when the cocktail scene was basically nonexistent. The French capital is now home to probably five of the best bars in the world. It all started with Paris Cocktail Week, which started around five years ago when a wave of bartenders came into the city influencing the local bars and the local scene so I am seeing this now here. Singapore will definitely be hot for the cocktail industry in the next few years. In Europe you have Berlin, Paris, London. In America, you have New York, San Francisco.
What is your favourite place in the world to enjoy a good cocktail?
It definitely has to be Antarctica, where I had a grog. The setting was amazing with blocks of ice all around, a surreal-looking landscapes and colonies of penguins right in front of your eyes. It’s also very hard not to enjoy sitting at a beach bar, where you can enjoy the sea, the sun and the breeze while sipping on a nice, cool cocktail. It’s very hard to beat that.
What is your favourite cocktail? What else do you like to drink other than rum?
My favourite rum drinks are Daiquiry, Mai Tai, Piña Colada, but of course I also like to drink champagne!
What is your favourite destination in the world for leisure? Which destination are you planning to visit next?
The Caribbean is such a fun place. As soon as you step off the plane, you’ve got warm sun and humidity and you hear crickets. When you’re there, the vibe is so different. My family is from Jamaica and I grew up there but it’s still an attraction to me. I recently worked in Bahamas for a rum festival and it’s just amazing thanks to the Caribbean setting in an old fort that pirates wanted to invade centuries ago. Other places on my list are Mauritius and Seychelles as I am definitely an island person. But I’d also want to visit the base camp in Tibet!