Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Joy Spence, Appleton's Master Blender, is an inspirational person. You can feel the respect people have for her, everywhere she goes. When she walks into a room to do a presentation, everyone shuts up and listens, while having a smile on their faces. She has an aura of respect, warmth and strength. It's a real privilege to have been able to interview her!
Can you briefly tell us about your history in rum and how you became Appleton’s master blender?
I fell in love with chemistry at age 13 and dreamed of becoming a scientist. After high school I attended the University of the West Indies and graduated in 1972 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry with First Class Honours.
I then spent a few years teaching chemistry before moving to England to pursue a Master of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Loughborough, I graduated with the highest ever achieved by a student at Loughborough.
After graduating from Loughborough, I returned to Jamaica and to teaching. In 1979 I left academia for the private sector and two years later joined Appleton Estate as Chief Chemist. As the Chief Chemist I worked closely with Master Blender, Owen Tulloch, and this sparked a passion for the art of creating rum.
Owen soon discovered that I had considerable organoleptic talent – the ability to detect, identify and differentiate between aromas. Over the next 16 years, under his expert guidance, I extended my knowledge of the science of the rum-making process to include the artistic side as well, honing my sensory skills and developing an unrivaled mastery of flavours and aromas. Then, in 1997 I made history when I smashed the spirit industry’s glass ceiling and was appointed the world’s first female master blender.
Creating rum provides me with the perfect balance of art and science. In rum-making, they are so intricately intertwined that it is difficult to pinpoint where the science stops, and art begins.
You’ve been working in the rum world for nearly 40 years. What are some of the most important changes you’ve seen happening in all those years?
I have seen many changes having worked for almost 40 years in the rum industry:
1. The significant growth of the Premium aged rum category.
2. Introduction of LTO’s (Limited Time Offers) focusing on small batch ultra-premium rums
3. Modernization of blending and bottling operations to gain more efficiencies
4. Greater consumer engagement and education
5. The engagement of Master Blenders as Ambassadors, creating a wider platform for technical information
6. The establishment of educational tours at production facilities
Many people look up to you. Who are the people you look up to, who’ve helped and inspired you in your career?
There have been so many persons who have inspired me in my career. They are:
1. Owen Tulloch , the previous Master Blender who took me under his wings and taught me the craft
2. William McConnell and Anthony Bell who took the bold move to appoint me as Master Blender
3. Bob Kunze -Concewitz (Campari Group CEO) who has recognized my talent in so many ways, including renaming the Appleton Estate rum experience in my honour
4. My J. Wray and Nephew family and the people of Jamaica for their unwavering support
5. My family who have been my greatest cheer leaders
At Chicago rum-fest I attended a seminar about women in rum and their challenges in a male dominated industry. That was eye opening. There are now more and more women in important positions in the rum industry, many who name you as a role model, being the first female master blender in history. Can you describe the challenges you’ve had to overcome to succeed in this industry?
As a female in the rum industry I have had many challenges. I had to work harder to gain recognition and experienced chauvinism in certain areas. I was carrying the weight for other females and so I had to make sure I was successful. Persons thought that I was a family member in order to have achieved the position, or was married to the owner.
Many rum enthusiasts are very excited about recent news from Luca Gargano. How do you feel about releasing a cask strength pot still rum through Velier?
I am extremely excited about working with Luca Gargano on a project that is dear to my heart. It has always been my wish to bottle a single marque pot still rum. Almost 40 years later my dream has come true and it will be one of the most sought after LTO's.
I refer to the project as “a tale of two passions”.
What is your system for ageing and blending? Do you blend pot and column still rums before ageing or do they age separately?
We age all of our pot still and column still marques separately. This gives us greater flexibility to react to change in market demands. At the end of ageing we blend, chill filter and bottle.
Some of the other distilleries in Jamaica produce a lot of high ester rum, which has become quite popular in rum enthusiast circles. Why is that something you’ve stayed away from?
The production of high ester rums in Jamaica represent a very small production of rums in Jamaica. Appleton wanted to maintain the traditional process style in order to become the leader in the premium aged rum category.
What does the Jamaica GI mean for Jamaica rum and the Jamaican people?
The Jamaican government is currently working on a GI that embraces the high production standards for Jamaica rum namely :
Fermentation using non-GMO molasses and non-GMO, naturally occurring yeast.
Distillation using only Jamaican limestone-filtered water.
No additives to affect taste or aroma profiles of our rums.
Commitment to tropical aging (aged in Jamaica), which increases the positive influences of barrel aging nearly 3X faster than spirits aged in cooler climates.
Commitment to minimum aging, ensuring all rum in the bottle is at least as old as the age stated on the label.
Notable presence of pot still rum in all of our rum blends.
It is important to note that this project is still on-going and not finalized yet by the Jamaican government.
For Jamaican People the GI symbolises A CULTURE OF PASSION, PRIDE & DETERMINATION!
Jamaica is world-renowned with a population of just under 3 million – no wonder the phrase “We Little But We Tallawah” (“we’re small, but we’re strong and can achieve anything we put our minds to”) and this rings true for rum-making, too. This tenacious spirit and passion would come through in the imagery and tone of voice used in all Jamaica Rum GI communications. We are using the GI as a mission to improve the perception of rum.
Unlike other spirits like whiskey and vodka, there is still a job to be done to educate the public on the quality and possibilities of rum. Through the creation of the Jamaica Rum GI and our commitment to the highest quality standards, Jamaica is proud to participate in leading the charge on this initiative.
We’ve been pretty proud to have had Appleton 15 as an exclusive release in Canada. That’s about to change with the worldwide release of the 15. Is that a different blend from the one we have in Canada?
The global release of the Appleton 15 will be the same blend that was launched in Canada.
Appleton 12 has a new packaging design and the 8 year is replacing the Reserve. Are the new 12 and the 8 different blends from the ones with the previous label?
The Appleton Reserve 8 YO is a different blend from the old Reserve blend .The previous Reserve Blend did not have an age statement. The Appleton Estate 12 YO Rare Casks is the same liquid but in a new package.
In the past you’ve mentioned really liking the Appleton Reserve. Are you sad to see it replaced by the 8?
I really enjoyed the Appleton Reserve but as part of our strategy to become the leader in the Premium aged rum category, age statements are important and the Reserve 8 YO is truly exceptional.
During the 40 years you’ve worked in rum, you’ve created many different expressions. Looking back, if you could pick one of your past creations for you and your lovely husband to sip while relaxing in your backyard on a warm romantic Jamaican night….which would it be?
I would select the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend to sip and enjoy on a warm romantic Jamaican night in my garden. The blend oozes with passion.
Let’s end with a non-rum question. I believe one of your passions is dancing, right?! What is some of your favourite music to dance to?
I love all genre of music but 60/70 soul, contemporary reggae and Latino music get me rocking!
Thank you very much Joy! Please keep inspiring us all!