Interview by Tricia Williamson
The original visitor centre at the Appleton Estate was opened in 1988 and 30 years later, on Thursday, January 18, 2018 it was reopened, as the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience (JSAERE). The facility is now four times its original size, and features a restaurant and lounge, a jerk pit, and a theatre. At the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, visitors will enjoy a guided tour of the artefacts that tell the history of the Appleton Estate, Jamaica’s oldest sugar estate and distillery which is still in continuous production mode. In the distillery, visitors will view the copper pot stills that are unique to the Appleton Estate and which give our rums their distinctive character. They will then visit one of the company’s aging houses, where our rums rest in oak barrels for up to 50 years, before sampling fresh sugar cane juice, as well as wet sugar – a combination of brown sugar and molasses. In this issue of PANACHE, we had the great honour of sitting down one-on-one with the lady behind it all- the world’s first female Master Blender, Dr. Joy Spence, OD.
Photography by Craig Harley
PANACHE: What was your first experience with rum?
Joy Spence: My first encounter with rum was when I actually joined the company, because I never drank rum before that. So I started working in the laboratory as a Chief Chemist, where we test for various blends, do sensory analysis and also taste. The first time I tasted Appleton Estate 12 year old rum, I said, “Oh my gosh, this is such an amazing complex spirit with wonderful flavours! I was detecting vanilla, coffee, cocoa, almond, a little of orange and I just didn’t know that rum could be so complex. I just thought at the time that rum was a very harsh spirit and all you’d be getting is the smell of the alcohol, but didn’t know it had all these beautiful flavours in it. That’s how I fell in love with rum.
PANACHE: Who was your mentor and what was that relationship like?
Joy: My mentor was Owen Tulloch. We had a wonderful relationship (smiles). You know most people in the company feared him [Laughs] and didn’t want to go into his office, but we got on so well. You know I am the sort of person who considers that there are only two answers to any sort of question- yes or no. I am fearless. So I knocked on his door and went in and shared that I was very fascinated with the work he was doing. I saw him as an artist in the whole process whereas I saw myself as more as the scientist. I wanted to get more involved with the artistry so he took me under his wings. He showed me how the various rums aged over time and how the various flavours developed. I worked with him for 17 years and when he retired I was appointed Master Blender.
PANACHE: Describe the experience of becoming a Master Blender, the first female to be bestowed that honour in the world.
Joy: When I was appointed Master Blender, we started doing some research and realised that internationally there was no other female Master Blender in the entire spirits industry. And I couldn’t believe it! I thought, here I am just a little Jamaican woman… (Laughs) Breaking this milestone and actually breaking the glass ceiling for other females in the industry and I really felt proud as a Jamaican.
PANACHE: What attracted you to work at Appleton?
Joy: I was working at Tia Maria as the Research Chemist right next door to J. Wray and Nephew Limited. At that time I was just working on one product at Tia Maria and I became very bored because I love to multi-task. So on my days of boredom, I would look across the fence and see lots of activity taking place- tankers rolling in and a lot of people looking very busy. And I thought that it looked like an interesting place to work. So I sent my resume over there, they called me in for an interview. Though at the time they didn’t have a vacancy, they were very impressed with my resume and two weeks later they called with a position they had created for me. I was offered the position of Chief Chemist and that’s how I joined the company.
PANACHE: That’s excellent. On another note, given your work with Appleton, is there a personal favourite you have in the brand?
Joy: Ahhh, it depends on the occasion. If I am just drinking everyday like at a party or just relaxing in my garden at home, I’ll have Appleton Estate Reserve. For very sophisticated occasions, I’ll have the Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old or the 21 Year old Rum.
However, in terms of the blends that I have developed, the one I would say is closest to my heart is, the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend, because I was asked to create this blend in celebration of my 20 years as Master Blender, and given the fact that they named the rum in my honour.
PANACHE: There’s no comparison anywhere where a company has bestowed such honour on its Master Blender, from the rum to this new tour. How does that feel?
Joy: Ohhhh can you imagine (laughs), I’m still in a state of shock. I still can’t believe when I am driving on the road and I see the road signs with my name on the sign and I think to myself “Oh my gosh, that’s my name.”
When the Managing Director told me last year May, while I was away in Milan, that he had something to tell me and he said, “I have decided to name the rum experience after you.”
So I said, “Hold on, I was just in a meeting and the name of the experience is going to be the Appleton Estate Rum Experience!” So here it is I am telling the Managing Director and so he asks me, “So who is the Managing Director? I am and I am telling you that I have decided to name this facility after you.”
Tears just started to flow.
PANACHE: When it comes to your work what is your philosophy in life?
Joy: I am very passionate about anything that I do. Even for the simplest task I apply passion to it. I am very creative and I think outside the box, then I put my own little flair, passion and creativity into it. I look at flavours that were not traditionally seen as rum flavours.
PANACHE: How do you innovate with a heritage product like Appleton with such a rich history?
Joy: The interesting thing is that we have many different styles of rum at Appleton and all of them are aging uniquely. So even after 25 years these rums develop different flavours during the aging process. We have rums as old as 50 years developing very unique flavour profiles. They provide many bases to work with over the years that it is never exhausted and that makes it so unique and fascinating.
PANACHE: What are some of the obstacles you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Joy: Interestingly, as a female Master Blender I didn’t have a lot of obstacles, most persons knew that I was working in the industry before as a Chief Chemist and had spent years understudying the previous Master Blender. So I didn’t have difficulties as a female, where people showed negative reactions to me. And when I was first appointed, I thought that journalists would give me a hard time, but it was absolutely not the case. They embraced me.
The area where I have the biggest problem is when I travel and have to deal with immigration and customs. They never ever believe that I have this occupation. They give me a hard time and think that I am actually making it up. I remember I was in Miami International Airport and the Customs Officer asked me, “What do you do?” I replied that I was a “Rum Master Blender”and he looked at me and said, “Really now? This is the best excuse I have heard for a profession in a long time.” And of course, I was coming from Jamaica so he drilled me with more questions. Then, the Customs Officer next door to him, started to listen to this conversation and he looked across and he recognized me from the Travel Channel. He then jumped off his seat and came over and said, “Oh my god, you are the rum lady! You know how long I have wanted to meet you,” and shook my hand.
My customs officer then believed me and apologized.
PANACHE: You have met many people throughout your life as a Master Blender, who would you say has been the most memorable.
Joy: Let me take a moment to think about it, I have met so many wonderful people… I would say Bobby Flay (laughs) and Andrew Zimmern … simply because I’m a foodie too! I was so fascinated that I could sit and talk with these persons about their skills and how they became very famous Chefs.
PANACHE: With all this wealth of knowledge how do you pass it on for the next generation?
Joy: Well, I used to teach before I went into the rum manufacturing business and so at work I am always teaching and always passing on my knowledge. I am not selfish with my knowledge at all. So I will sit down with the workers in the blending hall or my own staffers in my department and say, “Look, this is how you’re going to grow in the business, these are the tricks of the trade and this is what you need to know.” They call me ‘Mommy,’ ‘Äuntie’ (Laughs).
PANACHE: What’s been your proudest moment in all your years?
Joy: Well, I have two. The first was being honoured with the Commander of Distinction from the Jamaican Government. Then the proudest moment was when I was here for the opening and cutting of the ribbon at the launch of this new rum experience tour and facility.
PANACHE: Any thoughts for anyone who may be considering a future as a Master Blender?
Joy: I would recommend to any young female looking to enter the business to ensure that they have very good sensory skills because that is the baseline for becoming a great Master Blender. They should be creative and have good knowledge of the rum manufacturing process. They should also be passionate and should always give 110% to whatever they are doing. And most importantly, they should always be humble. Once you have all those qualities you will be successful.
PANACHE: Excellent Advice, are you on social media?
Joy: (Laughs) The company has a site, but no I don’t have a personal presence there. You know why?
Joy: I have seen so many instances where persons get into a web of confusion by just making one innocent comment on their personal site. Happens all the time, so I said, you know something, if I was just a little unknown person… yes, but once you’re in this realm and you have your brand, I have decided that whatever is going to be there is going to be through the company.The company decides exactly what they are going to say on social media, but I stay away from making personal comments.
PANACHE: Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you would love to do?
Joy: Two things… I have been to New Zealand about four times, I think it is one of the most beautiful places on this planet. I would love to be able to take my family there for them to actually experience that beautiful country. And secondly, I have always wanted to go to Botswana, my dream one day is just to stand by the elephants and just hold their trunks (laughs). I love elephants and I find Africa fascinating and Botswana has a variety of experiences there… so hopefully one day, I’ll go to Africa.
“Joy Spence, Appleton Estate’s Master Blender and the World’s First Female Master Blender (of a global brand) with more than 20 years of experience, was awarded the honour of the Order of Distinction (OD) in the Rank of Commander (CD) by the Government of Jamaica in recognition of her contribution to the promotion of Jamaica’s rum industry and Brand Jamaica globally. The Order of Distinction (OD)is a national order in the Jamaican honours system conferred upon citizens of Jamaica who have rendered outstanding and important services to Jamaica, or to distinguished citizens of a country other than Jamaica.”
– The RumHowler Blog –