Black-owned and bartender-owned, Equiano is a nuanced and dynamic spirit in more ways than one—we spoke to founders Ian Burrell and Aaisha Dadral.
A report by DAN Q. DAO for Saveur.
“We wanted to get some conversation flowing. We wanted people to start asking: Why shouldn’t a rum sit side-by-side with a top bourbon, a single malt whiskey, an amazing rye, some really good aged tequila, or Cognac?” Ian Burrell says, with a sense of confidence. “Because that’s what I want people to look at—the rum category. For me, it’s bigger than any one brand. Equiano meant to elevate the whole category.”
Burrell should know a thing or two about this mission: He’s a household name in the spirits industry, founder of the world’s first-ever rum festival (which started way back in 2003), and a multi-award-winning global rum ambassador. And though Equiano only launched in 2020, it’s fair to say Burrell hasn’t just elevated the category—he’s reimagined it entirely in his own image. “My ethnicity here in the United Kingdom is African Caribbean,” he explains. Equiano Rum, as such, is the first African Caribbean rum.
Equiano starts in Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, at the pioneering Grays Distillery, which produces a traditional molasses rum aged in French Limousin oak barrels—including ex-Cognac barrels—for a minimum of 10 years. That liquid is then sent halfway around the world to Barbados’ Foursquare Distillery, where it’s blended with a Caribbean counterpart that’s been aged in American oak ex-bourbon casks.
The result? A rocks-friendly, chestnut-colored spirit that nods to its transatlantic origins, boasting aromas of baking spice and notes of stone fruit and familiar toasted oak, along with Foursquare’s signature buttery quality.
The release comes at an opportune time for rum—industry publication The Spirits Business reports that “rum has shown a certain level of resilience during the pandemic,” noting that sales of the cane spirit actually increased 38 percent between April and June 2020 compared to the same three-month period the previous year. At a little less than $60 a bottle, Equiano falls squarely into rum’s premium segment, which has seen exciting developments in recent years with releases ranging from Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña 25 Year and San Diego’s Cutwater Barrel-Aged Rum to the Bacardí Group’s Gran Reserva line and the Facundo brand.
“Premium, super-premium; these have always been marketing terms to me,” Ian Burrell asserts. “I always like to flip it and say that any rum can be premium if it’s made at a premium. The unfortunate thing with the rum category is that some [producers] feel that they have to add loads of sugar and spices and flavors to their products to make them more sippable. That doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing spiced rums. But we just wanted to create a rum that was still all-natural, that you could sip by itself, with a couple pieces of ice.”
Burrell is joined on the project by several co-creators, including Foursquare’s Richard Seale, Oli Bartlam, Amanda Kakembo, and Aaisha Dadral, founder of the branding studio crave. Indeed, Equiano isn’t significant just for its boundary-defying liquid, but also for its message and packaging, which eschew kitsch and reflect the team’s nuanced understanding of cultural representation. In an era where thoughtful branding should be a given—not an afterthought—it’s refreshing to see.
“Everything we do is really quite different from how most people approach not just the rum category, but spirits in general,” Dadral says. “[Equiano] feels different from other rum bottles—we don’t have a paper label, we don’t say we’re tropical, and we don’t have ships and sea beasts on our bottle.”
But Equiano Rum has no need to loudly proclaim its provenance or island bona fides. The story is right there in its name. Born in 1745 in Nigeria, the brand’s namesake, Olaudah Equiano was sold into slavery at just 11 years old—eventually landing in the Caribbean and then the United Kingdom, where he sold rum to save up for his liberation. Traveling the world as a free man and abolitionist, he would later pen a highly influential autobiography as one of the first published African writers in British history.
Olaudah Equiano’s personal history is intertwined with the very origin of rum, which is believed to have been popularized during the British maritime colonial period. Yet, Burrell says, the effects of this colonial past still linger today in the production of sugarcane—and thus rum—in the Caribbean’s former British colonies. During the 1800s, ongoing Anglo-French wars disrupted much of the sugar trade, spelling disaster for local refineries.
“Barbados has always been part of this colonial tug-of-war,” says Burrell, explaining that European politics frequently crippled colonial industries. “Just to put it in perspective, there were 200 sugar refineries in Guyana at the turn of the 19th century; now there are four. In Jamaica, there were nearly 100 or so sugar refineries. Now there are three. There’s only one in Barbados.”
Yet, Equiano Rum is a model for how rum brands can give back and work with distillers who are invested in local communities. Burrell notes that Foursquare, one of the fastest growing spirits companies in the world, has only been able to start growing its own sugarcane because of the brand’s success.
“We’re seeing a change. Distilleries and owners in Barbados, and in Jamaica, are starting to grow [sugarcane] again, but it’s slightly different from mezcal or tequila, where you can grow everything in a particular area,” Burrell says. Rum’s commercial success will be integral in reintroducing sugarcane production to the Caribbean. “We need to sell more rum to go back to growing sugarcane to make more rum to invest back into the community.”
In the spirit of giving back, Equiano donates 5 percent of its global profits, plus $2 from every bottle sold through the company’s website, to an organization dedicated to freedom and equality. This year, the choice is Anti-Slavery International—the oldest international human rights organization in the world.
“We can help generate funding and income for an organization like Anti-Slavery International, and we’ll benefit from them by learning about what they do, so we can actually help make the world better,” Burrell says. “It’s one of the first things I said: If I get involved with a brand, I want to be able to use my position to actually help out. That’s something we all agreed on even before we had the name, even before we had the liquid.”