When Joy Spence was studying chemistry at the University of West Indies, she hadn’t even heard of a rum master blender, let alone considered it as a future occupation. “I thought I’d probably be in some sort of research environment in a laboratory,” she considers. “Not in a million years would I have guessed that I’d branch out into this particular craft.”
Not in a million years would I have guessed that I’d branch out into this particular craft.
But this year, she celebrates 20 years as the master blender at Jamaican rum-maker Appleton Estate. It’s a significant milestone in any circumstance, but what makes this story even more special, is the fact that Joy became the first woman to earn the coveted title, when she took over from her mentor Owen Tulloch in 1997.
“When I joined the company as Chief Chemist in 1981, I thought I would just be going there to do the analysis in the laboratory,” Joy recalls.
“I didn’t think I’d get to touch the liquid and become a whole part of the process. I was given this amazing opportunity to be totally involved in the entire production process. It was a real eye-opener, because when I started I hadn’t had so much as a spoonful of rum,” she laughs. “But I fell in love with it because of its amazing and complex flavours.”
Breaking through the glass-ceiling
Within the rum industry, Joy’s glass ceiling-shattering promotion wasn’t a surprise; everyone knew she had served an extensive and world-class apprenticeship.
But outside of the bubble, she continues to be subjected to more than her fair share of humiliation. She can recount numerous examples of customs officers laughing in her face when she tells them she’s a master blender. “To this day, they never believe I could be doing this, they think it’s a joke,” she says, shaking her head.
It wears thin, she admits, but the relaxed Jamaican, whose name aptly matches her affable personality, prefers to focus on the positives. “Who would’ve thought a woman would be in this position in a male-dominated field?” Joy smiles. “I could have found myself stuck in a lab testing on equipment, instead I fell into something that never stops exciting me.”
Top-shelf, premium aged rum blends
If there were any doubts over her ability, she alleviated those concerns when she created Appleton Estate’s 250th Anniversary Blend in 1999.
“My first blend was supposed to just be commemorative, but it was so well-received that they decided to commercialise it, and it became the Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, which we launched in 2000.” She has released a host of top-shelf, premium aged rums since, but the pièce de résistance is her own celebratory drop, the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend.
Speaking with The CEO Magazine during her whirlwind global tour, Joy raves, “I wanted to develop a rum that would be so complex it would be appreciated not only by rum connoisseurs, but by whiskey and cognac drinkers too – it is just absolutely unforgettable. It has this amazing orange peel top note wrapped with ginger and spice, finishing with warm vanilla coffee, cocoa, butterscotch and almond notes.”
It has this amazing orange peel top note wrapped with ginger and spice, finishing with warm vanilla coffee, cocoa, butterscotch and almond notes.
Joy’s passion and fearlessness has paved the way for an influx of women master blenders in the spirits industry, and she regularly visits schools to create a clear pathway for young science students who wouldn’t have otherwise considered a career in rum-making.
Let’s hope by the time these young women reach the same lofty heights as Joy, border security will understand that there are women master blenders too.