Appleton Rum: “There’s so much artistry to it”

Joy Spence, master blender for Jamaica’s Appleton Rum, on balancing science and creativity, and being a pioneer in a male-dominated field

Joy Spence. Photograph courtesy Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum

To become a master blender, you should have great sensory skills. It’s the perfect combination of art and science — you never, ever know where one starts and the other ends. You have to have that innate creativity. There’s just so much artistry to it. Although there is the scientific part, the chemistry, there’s just this natural ability that you have to have, to know how to mix different types of rum to create that extraordinary blend.

There’s a big difference between the rum un-aged and aged. An aging rum is like an aging woman. It gets more complex as it sits in the barrel and matures. The longer it sits in the barrel, the more mellow and smooth it becomes.

It was sheer coincidence that I ended up at Appleton. I probably saw myself working in a laboratory, doing straight analytical work. I never knew that I’d end up, you know, in this exciting profession.

I was born in Manchester, Jamaica, but grew up in Kingston. I left Manchester at about age two. I attended Mico Practicing Primary, then Holy Childhood High School. I was the head girl. I left Holy Childhood and went to the University of the West Indies to pursue my degree in Chemistry. I achieved first class honours.

But I was far from being a nerd. I was involved in a lot of activities. I was the dance captain, I choreographed all the dances for festivals, I was in 4-H, I was in the Glee Club. Anything that was going on, I was there. I guess I have the natural gift, so I didn’t study a lot. When I was on campus at UWI, people thought I was going to fail, because I was Carnival Queen, I was in the dance troupe, I was picking plums when everybody else was studying, And when they saw me getting A’s, A’s, A’s, they thought, she’s unreal!

I joined Estate Industries as the research chemist, and worked there for two years. Then I saw lots of activity taking place next door, at J. Wray and Nephew [owners of the Appleton brand], and decided, Oh, this is a place that could really satisfy my curiosity. So in 1981 I applied for the job of chief chemist, and from then — it’s history.

I never, ever thought of becoming the first female master blender. It was just all about my passion and my job. That was my focus. I always strive for excellence in whatever I do — down to my garden has to look perfect. When our PR company did the research, they realised that there were no other female master blenders, not just in the rum industry, but in the entire spirits industry. They said, Oh, this is a phenomenal achievement, especially for a Jamaican woman.

When I was awarded the Order of Distinction [a Jamaica national award], I was like, Oh my God, it’s a national honour. When I got the letter from the Prime Minister, I called the office. I said, are you sure you have the right person? They were laughing, because they said no one had ever asked them that. I said yes, but I had to query this one. When I do international trips, that’s when I realise how recognised I am, and how respected I am in the industry. I feel proud of that, to be respected in that way.

I really didn’t have any difficulty finding acceptance in the industry, because people in the trade knew I was the chief chemist. It’s just persons outside the industry who might believe that probably I’m family, not realising I’m just a regular employee who on the basis of my skills and talent was given this opportunity.

Few women consider this route. There are a lot of women who, even if they work in the laboratory, they do not believe they could end up in that position. I tend to encourage women that you can still apply your chemistry but have the opportunity to create exceptional blends, meet wonderful people, tour the world. In the past, master blenders used to be hidden away in the laboratories, but now you actually have to go out and become an ambassador for the brand. You have to do a lot of public speaking and public relations.

I’ve had fabulous experiences touring the world and learning about different cultures. Of course, it’s not easy being on the road. Most of the time we just get a chance to say, Oh, that looks beautiful, not being able to stop. We are up from 6 am working until 2 am every day.

Yet observing consumers enjoy the rums that I’ve made and seeing them grow in the various markets is a part of what fuels me. It feels very rewarding that consumers like something that you’ve blended. My proudest creation is Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, because that was the first one I ever created. So it has a very special place in my heart. Between seeing consumers enjoying my product and teaching — I do a lot of teaching to various persons in the company — I feel very rewarded.

You know, I never drank even a thimbleful of rum before I started working here. I was amazed that rum could be so complex and sophisticated. And of course, in the era in which I grew up, [it was thought that] women really should not be drinking. My father was very strict, so when I told him I was coming here to work he said, [whispering] You’re going to work in a rum company?

I said, No, dad, I’m just going to be the chemist . . . And fell in love, and the romance is still going strong.