Ian Burrell is as entertaining as he is knowledgeable. He’s also one of the most-liked figures in the hospitality industry.
Known as the Rum Ambassador, Burrell is uniquely qualified to share the history, tradition, regional production methods, stories, and controversies surrounding his nicknamesake spirit.
Earlier today, Burrell hosted a 30-minute Bar Convent Brooklyn session for Global Bar Week in partnership with Imbibe Live. During his online conference session he not only dispelled rum myths he’s heard from bartenders, he provided useful information regarding rum production.
1. All rums are sweet because they’re made from sugarcane.
The Rum Ambassador dispelled this myth in short and sweet fashion: Some rums are sweet, some are sweetened. For rums in the former category, distillation processes and cask aging provide natural sweetness. The latter have sugars added to them.
Further disproving this myth is the fact that in some countries, adding sugar or additives is against the law. As such, the product couldn’t legally be labeled rum. There are also countries in which adding sugar simply isn’t done because it’s not how things are done.
Burrell explained that the European Union has enacted a law that any rum with more than 20 grams of sugar per liter won’t be permitted to be labeled a rum.
2. Rums are only white, gold or dark.
Rums are made in different places in different ways from different raw materials and different years, aged in different styles of barrels.
Depending on the laws in its country of origin, some rums are colored with caramel. Some are filtered, removing or otherwise changing the original color of the rum. Others are unaged.
3. The age of a rum can be determined by its color.
Burrell once again summed up his response to this myth succinctly: If the rum is dark, it doesn’t mean it’s old. And if a rum is light, it doesn’t mean it’s young.
A great example of how the color of a rum doesn’t dictate its age is an aged white rum. After it comes out of the cask, it’s filtered to remove its color. That rum may be colorless but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t aged for several years.
Some rums—where legal—are aged with E150, also known as “spirit caramel.” That changes the color, making a younger rum darker, which Burrell refers to as a “fake tan.” There are hundreds of factors that impact the color of a rum, including proof, atmospheric conditions, barrel type and condition, and even barrel size.
4. “Rhum” is a typo.
Addressing this myth doesn’t take long: If you see “rhum” on a bottle, Burrell says that “99.9% of the time, it’s from a country where the principle language is French.”
Simply put, “rhum” is just a French spelling of “rum.”
5. “Ron” is the owner of a rum brand.
There may be someone named Ron who owns a rum brand, but that’s now what Burrell was talking about. Just like “rhum” is a French spelling of “rum,” “ron” is the Spanish spelling.
Want to impress your friends next time you meet up? Casually drop in the many other names for rum Burrell shared during his Bar Convent Global Bar Week session: killdevil, aguadiente, rumbullion, guildive, tafia, clarin, and brebaje.
6. The number on a bottle of rum is an accurate age statement.
It’s important to understand the rules and regulations governing rum production in different countries to understand age statements. Some countries—Panama and Nicaragua, for example—allow producers to label their bottles with statements that reflect average age.
The Rum Ambassador explained how several other countries approach rum age statements. Jamaica and Barbados use minimum age, and the Solera Method is used in Guatemala and Colombia. Very, very simply explained, the Solera Method consists of multiple levels of casks called criaderas. The liquid from each criadera tops up—and therefore blends with—the one beneath it.
Then there are brands that are perhaps a touch shady about the numbers on their labels. Burrell mentioned a rum produced in Trinidad & Tobago with a “12” on their bottles. In the case of this rum, the statement means that 12 different aged rums were blended together to make the final product.
7. All white rums are tasteless and cheap, and taste the same.
This one isn’t difficult to disprove: Take a look at the price of Diplomático Planas. This white rum—aged for up to six years—costs over $30 for a 750ml bottle.
Yes, there are white rums that are cheap. There are also those that come with heftier price tags than Planas. Some don’t have much flavor, some are complex. There are batched-distilled white rums, blended white rums, and aged white rums.
Once again, region plays a significant role here. Burrell pointed to Jamaican white rums to disprove this myth. These rums are often overproof and pack not just a serious wallop but big flavors as well.
8. People should only drink rum mixed with cola or fruit juice.
If someone only wants to drink Rum & Cokes, good for them. And if someone wants to sip theirs neat, awesome. Burrell, like proponents of myriad other spirits, believes that people should enjoy their drinks however they prefer. How about a Burrell Daiquiri, for example?
There are also the Gayle Seale Daiquiri (a.k.a. Bajan Daiquiri) and Pina ReFashioned. For the former, combine two parts Doorly’s Barbadian Rum, one part fresh lime juice, a half-part of J.D. Taylor Velvet Falernum, a half-part of sugar syrup, and three dashes of Angostura Bitters. The latter is made by combing 2.5 oz. of premium aged rum, two barspoons of Pina Re’al Pineapple Purée, and three dashes of chocolate bitters, stirring with a block of ice until very cold and garnishing with a dehydrated slice of pineapple and a drizzle of cream of coconut.
Burrell shared that the premium rum category is growing steadily. Many people are enjoying premium rums neat, treating them as “sipping rums.” It can also be interesting to pair rums with chocolates as their cocoa and spice notes play well together. And, of course, there’s the indulgence of rum and cigars.
9. Good rum should taste like whisky or brandy.
Let’s shatter this myth by making a small but impactful change to the sentence above: Good rum can taste like whisky or brandy.
There are, as Burrell explained, similar notes when comparing whiskeys and rums. This is mainly due to cask aging. Another similarity between rum, whiskey and brandy is the angel’s share, known as the duppies’ share in Jamaica. The duppies are spirits that island hop throughout the Caribbean, stealing rum from casks.
On average, angels take two to three percent of whisky from Scotch producers. In Kentucky, the angels take two to five percent. Head to Cognac and the angels take two to three percent, just like the do in Scotland. But in the Caribbean, the duppies take a six- to ten-percent share. According to Burrell, this is also known as tropical aging, and it’s the cost of producing rum in the region.
Back to the myth: Rum should taste like rum. In fact, the Rum Ambassador said that good rum has the flavors of the sugarcane distillates unique to its production. So, it may taste like whiskey or brandy, but good rum will taste like good rum.
10. Rum doesn’t have any rules and should be produced like whiskey.
Rum is produced in accordance to regional rules and regulations, just like whiskeys (or whiskies) and other spirits. Scotch, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky, bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and Canadian whisky have rules specific to them that govern their production.
The same is true about rum. Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Australia… All of those countries and more have rules in place that must be followed for a distiller to label their product as rum.
Cuba is very strict when it comes to rum. Martinique has a rum AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or “Controlled Appellation of Origin”), and Venezuela has a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or “Denomination of Controlled Origin”).
Burrell has encountered far more than just these ten rum myths throughout his travels and encounters with bartenders and consumers. This list makes up his current top ten. Anyone curious about other myths or who has a rum question should reach out to him via his social media channels or website, listed below.
I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.
After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.
A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.