What drink would you give someone if it was their very first time sampling rum? According to Trudiann Branker, the first female master blender at the world’s oldest commercial rum distillery: a rum punch. But specifically, one that’s a little more “lime-forward.”
“I’d start them there, then, move on up to the different blends [we have here at the distillery] so that they understand the trajectory and that different types of rum are made to be consumed differently,” Branker says with a smile.
“You try to make a rum for everything,” she adds.
The liquor isn’t synonymous with Barbados, a tiny, easternmost island in the Caribbean, but in many ways, it should be. Staking its claim as “the birthplace of rum,” the earliest-known mention of “rum” can be traced to a lease agreement signed on March 30, 1650 at Three Houses plantation in St. Phillip, Barbados. The island is also home to Mount Gay rum distillery, founded in 1703, making it the oldest running distillery in the world, and giving it claim to the world’s oldest rum.
Today, as of 2019, Branker is the master blender at the distillery. She joins Mount Gay and Barbados’ impressive list of firsts when it comes to rum as the distillery’s first woman master blender. And as Branker describes it, the work done in this role is both an art and a science.
A Master Blender is the person in charge of deciding the composition of blended spirits. Rums are typically aged in barrels, and different types of barrels can yield different flavor profiles. It’s up to the master blender to know the right time to remove the rum from barrels, while also understanding which ones should be blended together to create the right expressions.
Back in 2014 when Branker first joined the distillery as quality assurance manager, she relied heavily on her chemistry background. “It was very science-led, you know, you break down the alcohol into its chemical components… but that is actually the after-effect, it’s not where you start at all,” comments the Howard University alum. “You have to think like the person who is your client. What is the first thing they are going to perceive? [It’s] the nose when they open a bottle, the sip when they first taste. And so you have to perfect that part first. It’s all about understanding what is happening in a barrel and what that will look like in a mature rum, and which of these mature rums go with different barrel types to really create the final picture or any final blend.”
Like many other technical fields, Branker is often the only woman in the room. She acknowledges that while she was extremely fortunate, especially living and working in Barbados, to have many female (and male) mentors throughout her career, the lack of women in the industry becomes quite apparent, once outside of the island’s shores.
“With regards to the industry in general, [if] I go to any technical committee meeting, [or] any course, anything [like that], I am still very much a minority when I’m standing there,” she says. “I think that to me is one of the hardest things, when you show up in the industry itself or to industry events… and the first thing, the first impression people get is ‘you’re not what we expected’ and I’m like, well, what did you expect?”
Rum is big business in Barbados. It is not only important to the country’s GDP, where exports of the liquor currently account for a little over 40 million USD of Barbados’ GDP of about 4.3 billion, but it also represents an important part of the country’s heritage.
This is why the island is on a journey to reclaim rum, in an incredibly tangible way, from its hosting of the annual Food and Rum festival (rebranded from ‘Food, Wine and Rum,’ drawing focus more closely to the island’s unique heritage), to the country’s desire to safeguard its rum traditions via a geographical indicator application.
“I think it makes it more holistic to acknowledge the history [and to also] show the journey,” states Branker. “Barbados’ history is Barbados’ history. We’re not reshaping Barbados’ history at all, you know what I mean? But we are going to celebrate the trajectory of what rum represents [for us] today.”
Most recently, at Mount Gay, the distillery is turning its focus to its supply chain.
“I’m really deep in the throes of launching this new product, that’s going to be my first contribution to [Mount Gay’s] permanent SKUs, and it’s everything that I could have hoped to bring to the rum industry,” she says excitedly.
“To be able to say that we grew our own sugar cane, we made our own molasses, we fermented it, we distilled it and we made our own rum and I could literally walk from the field where that sugarcane was grown to the distillery and back, that has really been a source of great pride for me because it’s been years in the making and a contribution I never thought I’d be able to make.”
And as for Branker’s personal drink of choice? Maybe it will surprise you, maybe it won’t; she keeps it very simple with Mount Gay’s XO blend and soda water.