If you would have told a young Joy Spence that she would be working in the spirits industry, creating limited edition flavors of rum for Appleton Estate and making history as the first woman master blender, she wouldn’t have believed it. She studied chemistry in college and had plans to become a medical doctor. But when her attempts to get real world experience left her bored with those plans, she was lured away from the medical world into spirits.
“People would look happy and everybody looked busy,” she said of watching employees go in and out of the historic Appleton Estate distillery in her native St. Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica. “I said, ‘you know something?’ That’s the happening place to work. Let me send my resume over there.”
With her impressive knowledge of chemistry, which is, of course, very important in the creation of alcohol, the Appleton Estate made a role for her when there were no job openings at the time. In 1981, she joined the Jamaican rum company as chief chemist. At that time, she’d never had a drop of the drink.
“It was unheard of for women to be seen drinking rum. It was looked at as not being very ladylike in that era,” she recalls. “I remember tasting, at that time, an Appleton 20-year-old in a ceramic jar with very unique packaging. And I said, ‘Let me taste this. This is the first rum I’m going to taste.’ I was just so blown away with those beautiful, complex flavors.”
With the help of her first taste, and the teachings of the brand’s former master blender Owen Tulloch, Spence was inspired to come up with all sorts of flavors, aromas and aging processes that would help define the taste of many Appleton Estate favorites over the years. When Tulloch left his post 16 years after she joined the company, Spence became master blender in 1997 and has been a face of the brand (including its popular tours) since.
“It was a totally male-dominated field at that time and it’s still mostly male-dominated,” she says. “But I’ve been happy that other females have been given the opportunity to be appointed master blenders.” She celebrated 40 years with the brand in October, making rums for every taste and occasion, bringing in new fans of the premium aged rum flavors. “Whenever I release a new limited edition,” she says, “it’s sold out in a very short period of time and people are asking, ‘When is the next release?'”
These days, she finds inspiration in what the consumer’s needs are, past editions they still have in stock at the distillery, and in “the spirit of the Jamaican people, our music and just sitting in my garden watching the birds fly around to get that final momentum to create the various expressions.” What emerges are the coveted flavors found in the Appleton Estate range, which usually consist of orange top notes with a hint of molasses and spice. A swirl of the glass then brings out those complex flavors, like the vanilla, coffee, ginger, nutmeg, hazelnut and almonds that come about during the aging process. Spence best enjoys those flavors in her very own “Joy” cocktail.
“I simply put an ounce and a half of the rum in a glass, a slice of orange, few drops of bitters, muddle the pulp of the orange, add some crushed ice and top with ginger ale,” she says. “Very refreshing!”
Something perhaps more refreshing than that is Spence getting to see the trail she’s blazed, helping Appleton Estate to become a favorite rum in a crowded field, and also inspiring other young women to be leaders in the industry.
“I remember a very touching moment when I went to the Tales of the Cocktail [conference] in New Orleans. A beautiful African girl went down on her knees and she said, ‘Thank you so much for opening doors for other women of color!’ And believe you me, I cried,” she recalls. “I didn’t know I had such an impact on women.”
While Spence has no plans to retire anytime soon from being the number one woman in the blending business, she is glad to help encourage the next generation of women chemists and master blenders take up space by just being the best at what they do. It’s certainly worked for her.
“I help a lot of women, help them realize their full potential in this industry,” she says. “I say to them, don’t focus on gender or color, just focus on your craft and you’ll be successful.”