Joy Spence is one of those rare people who has worked not only in the same industry, but also at the same company, for 40 years. She joined Appleton Estate as chief chemist in 1982 and has been the master blender since 1997.
During her career, chronicled at the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, she’s seen numerous rum industry modernizations, from increased mechanization to more rigorous quality control. She’s also seen higher visibility of women in the industry. In 2018, she received the Jamaica Prime Minister Medal for Science and Technology.
We spoke with Joy about her career and her ruby anniversary.
How did you get interested in rum, and what made you decide to pursue a professional career as a master blender?
I joined Tia Maria as a research chemist. I became bored and envious of the activities at Appleton Estate, so I submitted my résumé. I met Master Blender Owen Tulloch and discovered the world of rum and the passion for rum. Before, I never thought I would appreciate rum as a complex, sophisticated spirit.
It’s common perception that the rum industry tends to be male dominated. How did this affect your experience coming up in the industry? How—if at all—has this changed?
The rum industry is still very male dominated. I had to work twice as hard to prove that I was just as capable. I am now very excited that more women have been appointed as master blenders. They have been working in the background…but no one was bold enough to appoint them as master blenders and so it is an exciting time now for females.
What’s it like to be the first woman to become a master blender?
I was in total disbelief. In the rum industry, the title is earned through years of training and assessment. You are assessed, not only for your technical capabilities, but also sensory skills and creativity, year after year.
After working at Appleton Estates for 40 years, how has the company evolved?
I have seen many technological changes…ISO certification, which is a whole different view on putting systems in place, specifications and compliance audits. Increased staff training, improved reward and recommendation programs. Every aspect of the business has changed.
We’ve also worked very hard over a long period of time to develop the Geographic Indicator [GI] for Jamaican rum. I was responsible for the technical side. A GI helps in cementing the perception of premium quality for the category outside of Jamaica, and there is no better way to honor and preserve the authenticity and legacy of the high-quality of our product—a genuine, differentiated identity that sets a standard for all products bearing the label of Jamaican Rum. It honors and credits the knowledge of Jamaica’s finest rum producers and exclusive traits of the land itself, while guaranteeing authenticity and premium quality.
The designation and symbol protects the traditions, cultures and resources of these communities and fosters a long-term economic and societal well-being, wealth and education for generations to come.
Any advice for someone looking to get into the rum industry? What should they do if they want to become a master blender?
Obtain a deep understanding of the process, from sugarcane straight to aging and blending. Understand not only fermentation and distillation, but also how the rum transforms during aging. Be a sensory expert with a good grasp of how to blend the different styles of rums. Act like a sponge for knowledge. Try to learn as much as you can. Be passionate about your craft and remain humble.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!