Rum Journal: A Conversation With Robert Burr

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If you like rum, if you’ve found your way into the mysterious, wonderful world of rum, it’s likely you’ve come across the name Robert Burr.

For years, Burr has been one of the world’s greatest champions of rum, spreading its gospel around the world, telling the story of the spirit with the essential Rob’s Rum Guide and, in recent years, celebrating it with the Miami Rum Festival.

Now in its 11th year, the rum festival returns this weekend in Coral Gables for what should be another exciting rum-filled extravaganza.

To learn more, Rum Journal caught up with Burr to talk about the latest trends in rum, the growth of the category and the latest on the festival.

Talk about this year’s festival.

The 2019 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival continues the trend of a fine tasting event for rum enthusiasts. Our first event was in Coral Gables at Venetian Pool in 2008 and we’ve returned to Coral Gables for the May 17-18th event at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club. As our rum festival grew from a modest gathering of 150 people to an international gathering of up to four thousand people per day at a large convention center, we began to re-evaluate our priorities. In 2015 we made the decision to focus on the quality of our rum tasting and discovery experience, rather than the total numbers of attendees. This time, we’re limiting attendance to 500 persons per day for a more intimate and elegant experience. We’ll feature a lot of new producers, some old favorites and a fine selection of rare, limited edition luxury rums from my collection.

This has long been the leading rum festival in the United States. What’s been the reason for that?

Perhaps the combination of being well organized, having a sense for reaching out to rum enthusiasts and the trade successfully, gathering some notable rums to sample and being active in the rum community on a global scale have given us a solid platform to spotlight fine rums. In addition, the location of South Florida is geographically convenient for all the rum producers in the Caribbean region, and Miami is the top local rum market in the world in terms of sales per capita. We’ve been here on the front lines to promote the renaissance of rum, this new era of awakening and greater appreciation that rum enjoys. We produce events that we would enjoy attending, and hope that other like-minded friends might agree.

What makes Miami such a great rum town?

First, we have the consumers that appreciate good rum. That includes our friends who have migrated here from rum countries, as well as locals that have easy access to some many brands and expressions. Secondly, a fine array of good cocktail bars, fun gathering places and well-stocked liquor stores that present a grand array of rums from many territories. Rum is Miami’s spirit of friendship, a laid-back lifestyle and a tropical social lubricant. If another place was a better rum town, it just wouldn’t be right.

What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the rum industry since you first started the festival?

The explosion of limited edition, luxury and special editions from large and small producers. The vast majority of rum sold is white rum, gold rum and spiced rum, but for the discriminating consumer, the flood gates have opened for very special products. The cycle is voracious. As more consumers become educated, the producers have extended their offerings to include more interesting rums. As the number of interesting rums have increased, consumers are seeing some serious excitement in the category. The end result is that rum — once considered rather ordinary and unremarkable — is now being compared to the finest spirits in the categories of Scotch, Cognac, Whiskey, Bourbon and Brandy. The shelves at our liquor stores are filled to the brim with a deep selection of rums from many countries. We are also well on our way into the new American Rum Revolution as distilleries pop up in every corner of North America with boutique offerings often made with great pride and ingenuity. The number of rum distilleries in the USA will easily eclipse all those in the Caribbean region. 

What are the biggest trends in rum right now?

The rum market is fracturing. While a dozen major international brands dominated the American rum market fifteen years ago — similar to the big names in beer twenty years ago — a myriad of special rum offerings are finding their way to market in some states. There are more spiced and flavored rums than ever before, and some of the boutique brands are going to great lengths to produce high quality expressions. More regional rum brands are getting attention. We see a wider range of rums from dry to sweet; from light bodied delicate aged rums to funky bold flavor bomb profiles. Special wood finishes are popular, with second maturations in Cognac casks, sherry, port, Madiera wine and liqueur casks. Rum cocktails have become more popular, beyond the fun-loving tiki libations and boat drinks, to more sophisticated and creative takes on rum themes.

What is it that made you fall in love with rum?

For me rum was always closely related to travel and discovery. As publisher of a scuba diving magazine, my wildest dreams were realized in adventures to amazing places, near and far, where nature’s greatest treasures were revealed. Meeting people from other cultures, seeing life through their lens, experiencing their food and customs and always — searching for rum along the way. Back in the 80s, travel was easy, cheap and with few restrictions. The rums in my collection were trophies — along with island art and keepsakes — vivid reminders of my epic travel adventures. Somewhere along the way, I realized I knew more about rum than most of my friends. I developed a genuine enthusiasm for rum, for the producers, the methods, the distinctions, the lore and the role of rum in many cultures.

There’s been some negativity in the rum world of late. Why is that and what do you think can change it?

There’s plenty of negativity in politics, news, online sites, just about everywhere you look. Although rum is a spirit of camaraderie, some folks get a little carried away with their enthusiasm to the point of putting down others. It’s human nature. Some of the online sites — which offer the opportunity to meet others with similar interests — are also tempting venues for bullies to show off. Sometimes I think, if anyone could be a rum snob, it might be me, but I’ll always resist an aggressive stance when sharing my preferences about rum. I hope to be accommodating, helpful and civil when sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm for rum. I have been to most of the distilleries, I’ve met and become close to many of the top producers, I’ve seen behind the curtain and understand many of the traditions of rum production. I’ve been criticized for not telling all the “secrets” I know about how rum is made, but my perspective is to accept rum for what is is, what is has been and what it can be, rather than passing judgement on others for their differences of opinion in public forums.

Where do you see rum going in the next few years?

The sheer number of producers, distilleries, expressions and variations of rum is astounding  — and growing at a rapid pace. I think it will be quite common to find local rum produced wherever one might travel. Excessive regulation of spirits is beginning to crumble to reasonable levels. Alcohol is not candy, and must be regulated to some degree, but there should be nothing wrong with visiting a distillery in central Florida and later, wanting to purchase a case of rum directly, just as you can with produce, wine, merchandise, or specialty food items. To me, unbridled free commerce should not be limited by local ordinances. A friend said that it’s easier to buy bullets than bottles. I say, let’s be reasonable and practical in our approach to sales of fine spirits. These are small businesses. They create jobs, create items for the local economy, are an outlet for artistic expression. Let’s hope rum in the future can becomes a free spirit in terms of commerce.