Rob BurrTotal Wine & More recently asked Rum Expert Robert A. Burr to answer a few questions for us. Robert is the founder of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, and along with his wife and son, hosts this annual “celebration of cane spirits in the new world” each April. In addition to the festival, Robert has authored Rob’s Rum Guide, which offers tasting notes on hundreds of different rums. Robert is also the National Rum Examiner, a position that allows him to be an ambassador and promote all things rum to his readers. Be sure to say hello to Robert at the festival this year!

Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer our questions today, Robert.

First, what is your background? How did you become such a well-known figure in the rum world, running a hugely successful festival and writing a national column among other achievements? Did it start as a hobby? Do you work in the spirits industry?

I’ve been a rum enthusiast since my early years. The drinking age was 18 when I grew up in Miami. I discovered Barbancourt Rhum from Haiti in 1976. It was like no other rum I’d ever tasted. It made me curious to discover the various styles of rum. In 1986, I began publishing Fisheye View scuba magazine, traveling to nearly every island or country in the world where I could go beneath the waves to photograph brightly colored corals, fish and invertebrate species. It seems every island I visited shared one fact — they each made the best rum in the world! I was pleased to further discover the wide range of styles that had evolved with each territory.

In 2006, I predicted that rum was ready for a new era of enlightenment, a period of greater appreciation and better understanding, featuring higher quality premium products and more brands being imported to our shores. As it turns out, my timing was right. We’re now in an expanding era of great new rums coming to market and classic, authentic Caribbean spirits being imported here in greater numbers. At the same time, we envisioned a bigger and better rum festival, located in Miami.

No, I don’t work in the spirits industry, but I talk about it a lot.

Rum RenaissanceYou are a highly respected rum judge as well. What are some of the most prestigious events that you’ve been asked to be on the judging panel? What skills are required to be a successful rum judge?

If you have a good palate, a fine sense for identifying flavors and scents, an ability to describe what you’re experiencing, the basis for sense memory from visiting and learning many aspects of rum production and development, you might make a fine rum judge.

We’ve been asked to judge rums at many events, from Tampa and San Francisco to New York, Berlin, Prague, London, Madrid, Rome and Paris, just to name a few. Along the way, we’ve become good friends with a number of the best rum judges from many countries. In 2009, we began organizing ourselves into the International Rum Expert Panel. We each gain a lot by sharing our experiences and working together to better define the means of judging, scoring, discerning qualities of fine rums. We often travel together to visit our favorite distilleries, obscure locations, large operations and very small concerns. We’re always learning more, gathering information and identifying the means by which various styles of rum are created.

The Miami Rum Renaissance has been growing rapidly in each of its first four years. We noticed that you again moved to a new location this year, the Doubletree Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center. Is that because you needed more space, a common trend for your festival? What is fueling the enthusiasm for rum here in Miami and is that a trend everywhere else as well?

In 2008, we began with 150 friends enjoying 50 different rums at a beautiful poolside setting in Coral Gables. This encouraged us to launch the festival in 2009. We attracted about 1,000 rum enthusiasts at the Shore Club on Miami Beach. The following year at the Raleigh Resort we gathered 1,900. Moving to a larger venue each year we reached 4,000, then 8,000 attendees. This year, we’ve doubled the size of our exhibit space again — now 40,000 square feet — to accommodate upwards of 15,000 rum fanatics, professionals and beginners.

Yes, we’ve outgrown every exhibit venue due to local costumers’ ever-expanding enthusiasm for rum brands and expressions. Rum is so subjective. There are so many styles. Everyone finds something they love. Then, their own enthusiasm spreads to their friends. Rum is delicious. Rum is fun. Rum is a sailboat, a palm tree, a beautiful beach. The delight of discovering new rums is infectious. We share our love with friends and it spreads.

It’s not just in Miami — rum is thriving in many markets around the world. But Miami is the center of the rum universe, the unofficial capital of the Caribbean. Across this region — across the entire western hemisphere — almost everyone has a cousin in Miami. So, this is where the world’s biggest and best rum festival must be located.

Part two of our interview with Robert Burr will be posted tomorrow, stay tuned!