This Small Group of Women Master Blenders Are Reviving the Rum Industry
When Trudiann Branker earned a promotion at Barbados-based Mount Gay Rum in April, she joined a rare club. Branker became one of the spirits industry’s few female master blenders.
The master blender is an influential and respected role within the spirits industry. They oversee barrel aging and create combinations of aged spirits to craft new flavors of whiskeys, rums, and cognacs. New releases can be conceived to appeal to brand loyalists or new drinkers, often incorporating aromas and tasting notes that are reminiscent of the core label, but with subtle twists to give drinkers a different experience. Most master blenders have been men.
Campari claims that the first-ever female master blender is Appleton Estate’s Joy Spence, who still serves in that role today. When Branker was elevated to the same position at Mount Gay, she says Spence sent her a note to welcome her to the exclusive club.
“She was so supportive,” says Branker, who adds that Spence didn’t reach out to give her tips on rum making. “She gave advice on carving your own path.”
The rum industry, which generates $2.3 billion in revenue for distillers in the U.S. market alone, is seeing a larger group of women assuming the role of master blender. Alongside Branker and Spence is Lorena Vásquez, who has steered Diageo’s Zacapa rum for decades. Their elevated influence comes as the rum industry attempts to raise price points by educating drinkers on the benefits of rum with longer age statements and unique limited-edition offerings, a form of so-called premiumization that’s already been achieved by Scotch, American bourbon, and tequila makers.
While still fairly new to the role, Branker is making her mark with a limited-edition rum called Pot Still. Only 4,920 bottles are going on sale, priced at $170 apiece. The new rum’s notes include banana, vanilla, mocha, and almond—all iconic Mount Gay characteristics—but the butterscotch, dried fruits, and toffee are more unique to Pot Still.
“Pot still is how we made rum over 300 years ago,” Branker says. “As a new master blender, I wanted my first expression to be a tribute to how we made rum.” Going forward, her plan is to release at least two new Mount Gay expressions each year.
Each of the rum industry’s female blenders approach aging and blending differently, reflecting a balancing act of honoring a brand’s unique heritage, the regional distinctions that come from making rum in three different countries and climates, and also their own creative drive. They do have a few things in common. All three studied chemistry, and Branker and Vásquez both worked in beer before jumping into the rum business. Spence’s early career was in academia.
Branker ascended to the role at Mount Gay as the brand’s owner, French spirits maker Rémy Cointreau, is in the process of repositioning the rum to appeal more to connoisseurs. Updates include swankier packaging and a move to pull the lower-priced Mount Gay Silver from all markets outside the Caribbean.
Campari’s Appleton Estate is undergoing a similar evolution, with new packaging planned for 2020 and a greater emphasis on rare blend age statements including the 2017 “Joy” anniversary blend, which was priced at $250, and a 30-year-old Appleton that was selling at nearly $500 per bottle.
On the nose
Sales of Mount Gay, Appleton, and Zacapa are all growing in the U.S. and globally, according to data from research firm Euromonitor International, with Zacapa posting the strongest growth in 2018 from the prior year.
“When I’m putting together the different aged blends, I don’t use chemistry or do it in a lab with computers—I make all my judgments by smell,” Vásquez tells Fortune in an e-mail interview through a translator. She approaches blending as a self-proclaimed perfectionist and admits that her father initially dissuaded a career focus on chemistry and food technology, instead preferring Vásquez become a doctor.
But Vásquez says she has always been highly sensitive to food and aromas, picking up on the ingredients in a dish just by smelling it. “I have a very sensitive nose,” she says. As a blender, Vásquez always aims to retain Zacapa’s honeyed butterscotch, spiced oak, and raised fruit, but she also aspires to experiment and create unique rums for different sipping experiences.
Her range includes Zacapa Ambar 12, which is meant for cocktails, while Zacapa 23 contains a blend of rums from six- to 23-years-old and is better appreciated either neat or on the rocks. Zacapa XO has a similar age range—six to 25 years—but has an extra aging stage in French oak barrels that previously held cognac.
At Appleton Estate, when Spence first joined the brand in 1981 as chief chemist, her mandate was to modernize rum making at the Jamaican distillery. Since 1997, she has served as master blender and generally launches two new Appleton Estate rums annually in a bid to make the brand more premium. The new bottles sold in 2020, Spence says, will look more contemporary. Appleton Estate is also planning to reintroduce the 8-year and 15-year age statements.
“The consumer is much more interested in age statements and what a rum with an age statement represents,” Spence says. “It signifies that you are premium.”
The hallmark note for Appleton is orange, but coffee, vanilla, and ginger are often prominent. A career peak for Spence was when she got to create an expression under her own name. “No one has created a blend with their name on it,” reflected Spence. “I’m not a family member, I am just a regular employee. It was really an honor.”
Though women are still a long way from achieving parity as it pertains to the master blender role, the rum industry’s increased inclusiveness is an encouraging sign.
When asked about the role women play in rum as blenders, Spence says they tend to pay more attention to detail, though she’s quick to add women aren’t better blenders than men: “I think women bring a different flair to the industry.”
Branker, meanwhile, is encouraged that with more women ascending to the master blender role, there’s more attention to the opportunities that women can strive for in the liquor and broader manufacturing sectors.
“I think our voice is unique—and not because we are women,” Branker says. “But because of our history and our perspective.”
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