Profile: Ian Burrell

06 August, 2013

“I started late, I was 15. That’s one of my regrets. The gym in our school burned down the year I arrived. I feel if I had started earlier I would probably have gone to college in America and might have played professionally there. 

“There wasn’t much money in the UK professional league; you had substandard American players taking all the money.  I would pay to play sometimes, drive miles to a game. I played because I was addicted to it. I was MVP [most valuable player] in my last year, which technically meant I was the best player. But I got to a stage where I wasn’t getting paid my fair due and stopped in 2000.”

Around the same time and for a couple of years after, Burrell, or should we say MC Via B, was performing on another stage. “I was a rapper-singer and performed to 100,000 on tour in Africa. I did three cities: in Lagos, Khadona and Kanu, supporting Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul as part of a Ministry of Sound event. I did a video in 2002 – that was a highlight of my career. I had a deal with Universal Records in Paris. I also had a couple of tracks on video games, TV commercials and featured on Scooby Doo.” Zoinks! 

Bartending exploits

Burrell had been in the drinks trade in the intervals between performances and by 1998 word of his bartending exploits - and possibly his childhood miniatures racket - had convinced Wray & Nephew to employ him part-time. In 2003, by which time Burrell was running Cottons of Camden, his Wray & Nephew role had gone global -  for the first time drinks had become Burrell’s sole career focus.   

The rum company’s Jamaican heritage matched Burrell’s. “My parents are Jamaican and they brought their culture with them. As my mum said when I got smacked: ‘Out there it’s England, inside this house it’s Jamaica.’ You should have passion for where you were born and the blood inside you.”

Eventually Burrell became a lone rum-ranger, working for smaller brands on an ad hoc basis and with organisations such as the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association, which represents some 20 Caribbean rums. 

“I enjoy working with all the smaller brands. If I only worked for big groups I wouldn’t be here in Venezuela with Diplomático. That’s what I love, that family influence. I never had that when I was growing up, so I love it.”

His alternative family is more a cult of rum worshippers, Burrell being a central evangelist. In his own words, he is  merely an “edutainer” (we’ll  let that one slide, Ian), but with a PR team that publicises his every move, what he has become is a brand – he is both identifiable and marketable. Burrell gets stick for the global rum ambassador tag, so is coy about Brand Burrell. 

“It evolved, I wanted to be a go-to person for companies, the rum guru,” he says warming to his subject. “The Rum Experience [the umbrella company for his work] is a brand and that’s just me. I speak to people about brands, about how to promote myself.”

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