When Joy Spence joined Jamaica’s Appleton Estate 40 years ago as chief chemist, it was a fitting start for someone whose name is Joy. From her research job next door to the Appleton distillery in Kingston, she couldn’t help but notice how much more fun it looked than what she was doing: “I’d see that everybody looked happy and busy and I said, ‘You know, that’s a happening place to work!’” She sent her resumé, interviewed for a position, and became Appleton’s first chief chemist, a role created specifically for her. (One minute in her infectious presence makes this turn of events entirely believable.)
With those auspicious beginnings, then-master blender Owen Tulloch quickly noticed Spence’s exceptional sensory capabilities. In 1997, she succeeded Tulloch as Appleton’s master blender, a position no woman had ever held for a major spirits brand. (Similarly, no woman had the title of master distiller until 2006 when Joanne Moore became master distiller for gin’s G&J Distillers.) Once appointed, she set a precedent for the spirits industry at large.
Over her 24-plus years as master blender of the Campari-owned rum brand, Spence has been responsible for more bottlings than she can remember: “Do you know what? I’ve never counted it, there are so many!” she says, and laughs. Under her direction, the Appleton Portfolio currently includes five releases — a Signature blend and four age-statement expressions — and a rotating cast of limited-edition labels, including the eponymous Joy blend she created to commemorate her 20th anniversary in her role in 2017. New expressions in 2021 alone include 15-Year-Old Black River Casks; a reimagined and repackaged 21-Year-Old Nassau Valley Casks; and a bottling to be released later this year honoring Spence’s 40th anniversary with Appleton.
Spence recently spoke with VinePair about the importance of chemistry in rum, the current climate for women in the spirits industry, misconceptions about premium aged rum, and bringing joy to everything she does.
1. Your background is in chemistry and you almost pursued a Ph.D., and had interest in medical school. What sparked your interest in the spirits industry?
I was actually lecturing in analytical chemistry at Jamaica’s College of Arts, Science, and Technology, and decided I wanted to get some industry (field) experience — and so, I actually started at Tia Maria—the coffee liqueur—as a research chemist. Then [later] Appleton created a new position for me: chief chemist. My role at the time was to take the laboratory to first-world standards. I became totally fascinated by the world of rum, and realized I could use my sensory skills while applying my strong chemistry background to create a new profession for myself.
(Owen Tulloch, then master blender) recognized that I had all the necessary talents to be an excellent blender, so he took me under his wing and said, “I’m going to tutor you.” And it has never changed since; my love, my passion for the spirit has now become a part of my DNA.
2. In a recent interview you said that Appleton Estate got flack when they appointed you, a woman, as master blender for the brand in 1997. Do you think those attitudes still exist today for women in rum or spirits in general?
No, absolutely not, because there are so many women as master blenders in the industry now and that whole view has changed. It is recognized that women have brought a different dimension to the industry. So, it is much easier now for a female to get appointed master blender.
3. Did you have any women role models in the spirits industry when you were coming up as a future master blender?
It took a long time before other women were appointed master blenders, but at the time I remember that there was a Women in Spirits Forum in the United States, and Dr. Rachel Barrie (another chemist) from Scotland was part of it at the time, and I was so fascinated with Rachel and her expertise. She really encouraged me to continue along my path. At that time she still was not appointed master blender, but she was well known in the whiskey world.
4. What would you say to women who have aspirations for top blending or distilling positions in the spirits industry? As a pioneer and role model do you feel a sense of responsibility toward mentorship of other women?
My advice for women who want to enter the field is that they should really focus on their craft, and eliminate any negativity because you’re going to have some difficulties along the way, although the road is much easier now. You must be passionate about your craft, and most importantly, remain humble. I now spend a lot of time doing motivational talks in all-girls high schools, encouraging them to think outside the box for their careers, and to look at the wonderful career that I have had, not only using chemistry but my sensory skill.
5. Tell us about the process for helping to establish a GI (geographical indication) for Jamaican rum. How did that affect the quality and perception of the spirit?
It has been a long road developing the GI for Jamaican rum. I was really responsible for the technical side. I worked a lot with the Swiss Intellectual Property Organization, so they made several trips to Jamaica working with the rum producers here, and we are in the process now of doing a little tweaking to the GI. That process is underway and we are waiting for approval from the Jamaica Intellectual Property Organization. It’s created much more focus on Jamaican rum and people are much more careful now about declaring “Jamaican rum” on the label only if it meets those GI requirements. And it helps establish a perception of quality for the category outside of Jamaica.
6. What do you think is the biggest challenge for placing premium, aged rums such as Appleton bottlings as sipping alternatives for whiskey drinkers?
I think we have two big challenges. The first is lack of awareness from dark-spirit drinkers on premium aged rum. Because most of the time whiskey drinkers don’t include premium aged rums in their drinking repertoire. And it is something we’re working on changing by actively engaging with these consumers, showcasing the excellence that lies behind our rums.
The second biggest challenge is dispelling this misconception that rum is not premium or meant to be sipped, but just simply to be had in cocktails. This, coupled with the fact that we really don’t have a clear, defined rule for aging in the rum industry, creates this cloudiness in people understanding what aged rum is all about. But once we introduce a dark- spirit drinker to our premium aged rum category, they’re immediately converted. They are so fascinated with the complex flavors and notes, the craft and history. We cannot be compared to any other spirit. And tropical aging is very important because spirits would have to be aged three times longer on the continent to get the same flavor profiles that we get here in Jamaica.
7. What do you think are the biggest areas for opportunity for premium, aged rums in the future?
We have actually established what we call a Rare spirits group in Campari [the Rare division], so we’re focusing on our 21 Year Old, for example, and having a different type of consumer education in our Rare category. Education is extremely important, spending time with those dark-spirit drinkers who don’t understand what premium aged rum is all about. I find that the young professionals are being converted to premium aged rum, and so we need to spend more time with them, and help them understand how complex a spirit it is, and that you can enjoy it in the same way you would a fine Scotch or Cognac.
8. Which is your favorite Appleton expression to drink, and what is your favorite way to drink it?
I always say it depends on the occasion — and we have a rum for any occasion! But when I’m at home sitting in my garden, just looking at the doctor birds fly around, with my orchids, I tend to drink 8-Year-Old Reserve, but on those very special occasions it would be 21-Year-Old Nassau Valley Casks.
9. What is the best part of your job?
I’d say the best part of my job is engaging with consumers and spreading the word about premium aged rum and what makes Appleton Estate so unique and different from other rums, and just watching [consumers] enjoy our rums and [seeing] that they’re so fascinated that a rum can be so complex and sophisticated. To me, that is gratitude. That’s the joy of rum.
10. After 40 years, any plans to retire?
No plans to retire just yet! I still have some work left to be done.