Rum. It’s something to get passionate about. A unique combination of art and science. You know, like Leonardo da Vinci. But with less of the Mona Lisa. And much more drinking. Of all that wonderful rum. So, forget the Mona Lisa. Instead?
Meet Joy Spence.
Over two decades ago, Appleton Estate distillery made headlines when Joy Spence was appointed the rum industry’s first ever female Master Blender – the numéro uno. The head honcho. The boss.
Essentially, the person who decides what Appleton’s rum tastes like.
But, in such a traditionally male-dominated industry, how did this pioneering role model rise to the top?
It seems the Joy Spence story is as spirited as the rums she creates…
Discovering the Joy in Chemistry
At the tender age of 13, Joy showed a talent for science. She soon became fanatical about chemistry in particular, attending university in her homeland Jamaica and graduating with flying colours (a First Class Honours, to be specific).
After teaching chemistry in Kingston for a few years, she moved to England where she completed a Master of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry – at the University of Loughborough! And here, she left a legacy; she was awarded the highest ever final exam score, setting a record which still stands today.
After moving back to Jamaica, Joy Spence joined the spirits industry in 1979, working as a research chemist for Tia Maria.
But how did she come into rum?
The story goes that the two companies were located across the road from one another, nestled in the lush, verdant green lands of Kingston. While working Joy Spence, quite literally, spied what the rum-makers were up to… And set her sights on a new spirit.
“I used to look out the window of the lab and see that there was a lot of activity [at J. Wray & Nephew Limited]! I sent in my resume and was offered the position of chief chemist.”
And so history was made.
Joy at Appleton Estate
Having admitted to “never having drank a thimbleful of rum until I started here [at Appleton Estate]”, Spence worked closely with Owen Tulloch, Appleton’s Master Blender at the time.
He quickly recognised her unique organoleptic talent—the ability to detect, identify and differentiate between aromas—and with his guidance, Spence was able to extend her knowledge of the science of rum-making to include the artistic side as well.
And when Tulloch retired in 1997, the Appleton crown was passed on to its rightful heiress; Spence was appointed Master Blender.
Joy as Master Blender
Since then, Joy has flourished in both the science and artistry of rum-making, creating some of the finest spirits the world has ever tasted.
She’s been decorated with a myriad of awards, from honorary doctorate degrees to a national award from the Jamaican government for her contribution to the industry. This success, plus her larger-than-life character, have propelled her to fame amongst the international rum community.
She’s also created no less than ten unique rums for Appleton, including the limited-edition Appleton Estate 30 Year Old Jamaica Rum, and more significantly, has helped open up the field to other women. The rum industry now has a handful of women who hold the Master Blender title, such as Brugal’s Jassil Villanueva and Zacapa’s Lorena Vásquez Ampié.
“Being a woman in this industry? I never focused on gender — I knew that I had the technical and creative skills to do my job and do it very well and therefore all I focused on was getting the work done. As a result, I have never had any difficulty with attitudes.
More women have been promoted to master blender over the past few years. I think this is exciting for the industry, as women bring a different flair to the business.”
And it seems that superhuman sensory perception was enough to smash the rum industry’s glass ceiling.
A day-in-the-life of a Master Blender
Day-to-day, Spence spends her time touring the world as a global ambassador of rum; quite literally spreading the joys of this rich and rewarding category.
Her role at Appleton is also focused on developing new expressions for the brand’s rum range – developing limited edition offerings that showcase Appleton’s complexity and depth of flavour.
One such rum is the eponymous JOY; a limited edition blend released in 2017, in honour of Spence’s 20th anniversary as Master Blender. To commemorate the occasion, Appleton created its first 25-year-old rum – a fitting tribute to the visionary who has spent much of her career perfecting the nuances of sugarcane.
“For my anniversary blend, I simply set out to create the rum that I’d like to sip while watching the colors of my garden change in the warm glow of the Jamaican sunset.
It includes two rum marques, which are of particular sentimental significance to me: The first of these marques was laid down to age in 1981 – the year I joined the Appleton Estate team, and the second is my favorite marque of pot still rum. The final blend is a wonderful rum that I hope Appleton Estate fans will enjoy.
It’s called Joy, because that’s what people feel when they taste this blend for the first time – it also happens to be my name.”
Tasting notes of JOY Anniversary Blend
And as for flavour? Its name rings true with every sip.
Opening with Appleton Estate’s trademark delicate orange peel as a top note and intertwined with ginger and spice, it’s a rum that envelopes the mouth with warm vanilla and toasted oak.
A robust spirit, it leaves lingering traces of coffee, butterscotch and rich cocoa on the palette, finishing with layers of almond and brown sugar.
Sound tempting? We’d be terribly inclined to agree.
And so how does rum’s most-renowned, vivacious mastermind of flavour enjoy hers?
With ginger ale, cracked ice, a slice of muddled orange, and a few drops of Angostura Bitters, she says. To be sipped whilst looking up at the stars on a beautiful night in Jamaica.
Sounds alright from where we’re sitting. Could you beat that? We’re not quite sure.
But we’ll have a damn good time trying. Won’t you join us?