Sipping Jamaican Rum With Master Blender Joy Spence

At Appleton Estate, Spence dispels stereotypes—one barrel at a time—as the rum world’s first female master blender.

Sipping Jamaican Rum With Master Blender Joy Spence

“We are proud that the spirit of our Jamaican people shines through every bottle” at Appleton Estate, says master blender Joy Spence.

Courtesy of Appleton Estate Barrel Warehouse

Rum often gets a bad rap, in part because of its union with sugary counterparts in brightly colored cocktails. But the distillation process and varieties of the spirit around the world are just as complex and impressive as your best Japanese whiskey or Burgundy wine.

It was science and good timing that led Jamaican-born Joy Spence to her current role in the rum world. Spence’s high school chemistry teacher—a mentor who was “like her second mother”—sparked Spence’s interest in science, so much so she’d even hang around after class just to learn more. “My chemistry teacher played an enormous role in developing and cultivating my passion for chemistry,” says Spence. After she earned her master’s degree in analytical chemistry and did a stint teaching high school and university students, she joined liqueur brand Tia Maria as its research chemist to gain more industry experience.

Craving another challenge, she took a leap of faith and submitted her resume to J.Wray and Nephew Ltd., the owner of Appleton Estate, the oldest rum distillery in Jamaica. That move paid off: The brand was so impressed with her work, it created the position of chief chemist for her in 1981. At that time, Spence never thought about becoming the master blender, but when she began working with Owen Tulloch—who held the title at the time—rum inspired a new path for her career.

We are proud that the spirit of our Jamaican people shines through every bottle.

“I discovered the complex and amazing flavours of rum and how I could use my sensory skills as part of my craft. Owen taught me the tricks in the trade and how by combining different styles of rums, one could produce so many different blends with their own distinctive flavor profiles,” she says. When Tulloch retired in 1997, Spence was appointed master blender. This year, she celebrated 40 years with Appleton Estate.

“My love of rum has become a part of my DNA—moving from a simple moment of enjoyment to this undying passion for innovation, creating various expressions that everyone can enjoy,” she says.

This year, Appleton released Spence’s 15-year-old Black River Cask, which pays tribute to Jamaica’s Black River, the source of the limestone-filtered water used to create all Appleton Estate rum. “My favorite part of the process in creating the 15-year-old Black River Cask was the sampling of the final prototype and recognizing that we had a winner,” she says. That memorable taste is due, in part, to Spence’s beloved Jamaica.

Jamaica’s tropical climate and limestone-filtered water gives its rum a full-bodied flavor enjoyed in cocktail glasses around the world. “We are proud that the spirit of our Jamaican people shines through every bottle,” Spence says.

Spence’s favorite cocktails to sip are the Appleton Estate 8-Year-Old Reserve Daiquiri using brown sugar syrup, and “The Joy”—a cocktail she created with Appleton Estate Reserve Blend ginger ale, a slice of muddled orange, and five drops of Angostura bitters. She urges people to think of rum beyond cheap cocktails to a more elevated status that can even pair well with food. “Our Estate Signature Blend pairs very well with a ceviche, the 8-Year-Old Reserve pairs excellently with jerk chicken, and our Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old Rare Casks is a perfect pairing with deconstructed oxtail,” she says.

Spence’s fascination with rum continues to inspire each barrel blend she creates as the spirit world’s first female master rum blender—a title that she encourages women in the industry to believe they can also attain: “My advice to other women who are exploring the possibility of becoming a master blender is to focus on your craft, not your gender. Develop that passion and use failure as the base for improvement. If you combine these attributes with humility, you will earn total respect.”

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Kristin Braswell is a travel journalist and founder of Crush Global Travel. She has penned pieces for Vogue, CNN, USA Today, Essence, NPR, Architectural Digest, Ebony, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Her perfect day includes soca music, rum, and the ocean.
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