From chemist to cocktails: Meet the rum industry’s first female Master Blender

October 24, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum

The spirits world remains an old boys club, with men commanding the majority of the Head Distiller and Master Blender positions at high-profile brands. Joy Spence, 64, the Master Blender at Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum, who claims to be the spirits industry’s first female Master Blender, is the exception to that rule.

Based in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, home of Appleton’s headquarters, Spence oversees the quality of existing blends and also creates new ones. While she’s been with the company since 1994, she was a latecomer to the creative side of the industry.

Intent on being a scientist, the Jamaica-born Spence graduated from the University of Loughborough in England with an Master’s in Analytical Chemistry. She worked as the chief chemist at Jamaican rum distiller and Appleton’s parent company J. Wray and Nephew Limited. Ultimately, she got involved in the artistry of side of rum because her job required constant interaction with J. Wray’s Master Blender.

Since then, Spence has created ten rums for Appleton, including the limited-edition Appleton Estate 30 Year Old Jamaica Rum, and more significantly, has helped open up the field to other women. The rum industry now has a handful of women who hold the Master Blender title, such as Brugal’s Jassil Villanueva and Zacapa’s Lorena Vásquez Ampié.

Spence spoke to Fortune about her passion for science, what it means to be blessed with “organoleptic talent,” and the ideal way to savor the rum she makes. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How did you get into the spirits world?

Joy Spence: I fell in love with chemistry at age 13 and set my mind on becoming a scientist. My passion for rum sparked during my chief chemist job at J. Wray and Nephew Limited. I had to make sure that the chemical specifications of rum such as alcoholic strength were met, and the job involved working with Owen Tulloch, the Master Blender at the time. My interest grew through our interactions. Owen said I had an organoleptic talent—the ability to detect, identify and differentiate between aromas—and with his guidance, I was able to extend my knowledge of the science of rum-making to include the artistic side as well.

What exactly does it take to be a Master Blender?

You must be a sensory expert and have a good understanding of the chemistry of the process. The development of a rum blend is a combination of art and science. You first identify the style of rum you want and then look at the stocks of rum available while bearing in mind their chemistry profiles and how they’ll react when they’re blended together. Then, you decide on the best artistic combination of the blends.

Can you share more about what your role entails?

I’m in charge of selecting the barrels of rum that will go into the particular blend that we are making on any given day. Each of our blends has a secret formula so first we select the barrels of rum that we are going to use based on the formula and then we “nose” each barrel to ensure that it has aged as we wanted it to. The barrels are then blended together, and then we nose and taste the final blend. At the same time, we analyze the blend in the lab to make sure that it meets technical specifications such as alcoholic strength.

I’m also in charge of monitoring all the barrels that are aging in our facilities and make sure we’re adhering to environmental and safety guidelines.

The last part of my job is being an ambassador for the brand where I travel around the world and educate people about premium aged rums. I’m on the road 40% of the time.

Why are there such few women at the creative head of spirit brands the way you are?

Traditionally, the industry was looked at as being a male profession, and as a result, women were not aware of the roles that were available. Also, historically, spirits brands have been family-owned businesses, and the trade is passed down from father to son.

Have you faced challenges professionally because of your gender?

I have been very lucky in that I have always received the support of my colleagues and other people in the field. Also, my focus has been not my gender but the technical and creative skills to do the job.

Rum doesn’t quite have the cache of scotch. Do you consider it part of your job to change that perception?

Definitely—and it’s something that I really enjoy doing. I’m constantly telling people they should give premium aged rum a try because they don’t know what they’re missing. The higher end variants in the Appleton Estate range such as Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old and Appleton Estate 21 Year Old Jamaica Rum are beautifully rich, complex sipping rums that are comparable to the world’s finest cognacs and whiskies. Their depth of flavor is impressive to even the most serious spirits connoisseur.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy rum?

With ginger ale, a slice of muddled orange, and five drops of Angostura Bitters. Sipping this drink while looking up at the stars on a beautiful night in Jamaica is heaven.

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