IN 2009 IAN BURRELL was the UK rum ambassador. He had been working hard, progressing well, so, naturally asked for a promotion. “I gave myself the title of global rum ambassador – and a pat on the back,” says Burrell. His UK moniker had been made up too. Apparently it first came about in print – an American journalist grappling to describe a British man who bestrides the earth with the sole purpose of promoting rum, yet has no employer.
But then, rum is just one stave of the Burrell barrel. In the nineties he was a professional basketball player. In the same decade, a rapper and singer, performing to stadia of 100,000 people.
I meet the man in a hotel in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, courtesy of Diplomático rum – Burrell is an hour from hosting the final round of the brand’s global cocktail competition (see page 45), which will be streamed live over the internet. As he approaches I am looking out from a table in the shade, but it wouldn’t matter if I was blinded by sunshine – if there is a drinks industry figure recognisable by his silhouette, it is Burrell. His sizable figure is draped in an airy Caribbean shirt, head sunk into his trademark feathered Panama hat, one of 12. He is every inch the rum man and, judging by his beaten-up passport (which needs replacing… and framing) he is definitely of the global variety.
Palm tree paradise
The temptation is to open with a clichéd question about what luxury item he would take to a desert island. I resist – it occurs to me Burrell is almost permanently on a palm tree paradise and is probably very well adapted. Instead we start with a boy from Tufnell Park, north London, born to Jamaican parents who arrived from Kingston and May Pen in the 1960s. Burrell grew up with just his mum; his father moved to another part of London and mostly out of his life. His childhood had been “tough” at times. School – the one which is now attended by his son – had been a mixed affair.
Probably we all knew an Ian Burrell from our school days. “I messed around in class, caused trouble and got a few detentions – I found work easy or got bored easily. I was in school plays and I’ve always been able to work under pressure, with exams and stuff. I was told I wouldn’t get any O-levels – I got eight and two A-levels.” But this was not a boy without focus. “I’ve always watched others, learning like a sponge – I’m curious.”
Not always to wholesome effect. At the age of nine Burrell was mixing rum with sugar, water and lime – perhaps learned from his grandfather, a rum man himself – and a black market in Wray & Nephew miniatures was established at school by 15. But the drinks world would have to wait for its first self-titled rum ambassador – basketball would come first.