The big interview: Joy Spence, Appleton EstateBy Melita Kiely
Having trained as a chemist, Joy Spence turned her attention to rum and was the first woman to become a master blender in the spirits sector, at Jamaica’s Appleton Estate. Melita Kiely talks to a true pioneer.
*This feature was first published in the March 2022 edition of The Spirits Business magazine.
‘Trailblazer’ and ‘pioneer’ are terms thrown around with ease in today’s world. But skim Joy Spence’s CV and her important influence on the spirits sector is irrefutable. For a female scientist who joined the rum industry when “women were not really allowed to drink rum”, Spence has shown that success is absolutely attainable.
“I have to tell you, I went to university hoping that I would heal the world as a medical doctor, but unfortunately I realised I could not handle trauma,” Spence recalls. Instead, she pursued a degree in chemistry, which led her to lecturing after graduation. A lucrative scholarship opportunity took her to the University of Loughborough in the UK, where she completed a postgraduate Masters degree in chemistry. Her brilliant brain scored her top marks in her final exams – the best in the university’s history, and a record that still stands today. When Spence returned to Jamaica, rum came calling.
“I decided I wanted to get some industry experience in food and beverage,” she says. “I was actually now working at Tia Maria liqueur company as a research chemist. It was a one-product operation, so I got very bored because I have to multitask. And J Wray & Nephew, which owned Appleton Estate, was right next door.”
In her “moments of boredom”, Spence said she would walk and look over the fence to see “lots of activity taking place over there”. “And I said, hmm, that seems to be the happening place to work. So I just took a leap of faith and sent my resumé over there,” she adds.
When called for an interview, Spence was told “right up front” there were no vacancies, the company was just keen to meet her to discuss her impressive CV. “A few weeks later, I got a call from them to say we’ve created this position for you, chief chemist, and we want you to modernise the laboratory. So that’s when my whole world changed.”
Spence’s career went from strength to strength, and she was promoted to the position of master blender in 1997 – the first female master blender in the spirits trade.
“I was filled with emotion because I never dreamed that this would be my career path, and then when I found out I was the first female, that was just an unforgettable experience,” Spence explains.
“As a woman, I had to work twice as hard because there were males in the organisation who thought I would not succeed. But it was the confidence of my bosses who appointed me; they made it quite clear that they appointed me because they have the greatest confidence in me, and that one day I would be an amazing master blender.”
This confidence, and female empowerment, is something Spence is passionate about paying forward – particularly after celebrating 40 years in the rum trade last year. “I’m a philanthropist who assists young women in need to further their education,” Spence says. “So as a result of my personal philanthropic work, J Wray & Nephew donated J$20 million (around US$257,000) to my favourite 40 charities to celebrate my 40 years with the company. This was just unbelievable.”
Last year’s theme was ‘joy to the world with education’, inspired by Spence’s passion for learning. “We set up some ‘joy to the world’ technology corners for children’s homes because with the virtual education, they were lacking in computers, computer desks and chairs, wi-fi, etc,” she says. “This year, our theme is ‘gender equality for a sustainable tomorrow’. So we’re going to be focusing on women in need.”
Over the past four decades, Spence has been at the forefront of some sensational rums. Notable award-winning bottlings include Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Years Old, the limited edition Appleton Estate 50 Years Old Jamaican Rum – the oldest rum blend ever bottled for consumers, which retailed for US$5,000 – and the a trio of vintages: 1994, 1995 and 1999.
Of the many expressions Spence has worked on, the one that “stands out in my memory” is the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend. Created to commemorate Spence’s 20th anniversary as Appleton Estate’s master blender in 2017, the rum ranges from 25-year-old liquid to some that is 35 years old.
“It has a very special place in my heart because it was named in my honour, and I had full input into the bottle shape, the packaging, I was just given the full range to develop this product,” she recalls fondly.
“I used a very special 35-year-old rum as the heart; that rum had a beautiful, complex elegance to it; it opened up with delicate orange peel intertwined with ginger and spice, finishing with delicious vanilla, coffee and layers of almond. Beautifully complex.”
To mark her 40-year milestone, the Appleton Estate Ruby Anniversary Edition was launched in January 2022.
The limited edition bottling was a blend of five Jamaican rums. “When I personally selected the casks for the Ruby Anniversary Edition, I looked at the unique stocks of rum that were available to include rums from when I joined the company 40 years ago,” Spence explains.
“I selected the youngest rum to be 35 years, which, incidentally, was the oldest rum in the Joy Anniversary blend. Then I selected a 45-year-old cask to be the heart and soul of the blend, so that’s the oldest rum in the blend. This rum really opens up with toffee, cinnamon, mint, orange, delicate apple overlaying rich vanilla, warm butterscotch, rich coffee and toasted oak.”
Appleton Estate’s “enviable” stocks of very old rums is what sets it apart, says Spence. Having the stocks to release these rare aged expressions is exciting, and Spence sees demand growing.
“Whether it’s a blend, or a single cask, consumers are willing to pay big bucks to purchase these special offerings. Everybody is looking for something new, so it’s an exciting time for us in the rum industry.”
Spence sees great value in age statements too as an important marker for spirits enthusiasts. “A statement is very important because it is synonymous with being premium,” she notes.
“People in the spirits world recognise age-statement whisky and Bourbon, so they can relate to the statements in the rum world – in particular Jamaican rum because we adhere to the minimum-age system, unlike other producers.”
Differing rum regulations from one region to another is an ongoing topic of conversation in the category, and can divide opinions. Spence can see benefits and drawbacks in creating a more universal set of regulations but adds the difference in rules is also what makes rum great.
“Each producer sees themselves as unique and separate, and doing their own little magic in their own country,” she says. “And so that creates intrigue. It’s about balance between being able to collaborate more with other rum producers from other nations, while still focusing on the uniqueness of your particular island.”
As consumers worldwide are better educated about rum, and in particular the provenance of Jamaican rum, Spence is confident the subcategory is garnering greater respect globally.
“Appleton Estate is focused on consumer education and spreading the word about Jamaican rum,” she adds. “The premium aged rum category has created quite a stir, and so more consumers are now understanding the uniqueness of this category and linking it to Jamaican rum. They are discovering they can sit and actually sip and enjoy rum neat, in the same way you would a fine whisky.”
To engage further with rum fans and create a more premium aesthetic for the brand, Appleton Estate unveiled a packaging refresh in early 2020. The bottle was given a new cork closure, under which a neck label illustrated Appleton Estate, nestled in Jamaica’s Nassau Valley. The new design coincided with the launch of Appleton Eight Years Old Reserve (43% ABV), created by Spence. The plan had been for Spence to travel the world, “spreading the joy of rum”, as she eloquently puts it.
“But then Covid appeared, so we had to do everything virtually. And that created a greater focus for the consumers because we were able to spend more time with the different markets all over the world. When you’re travelling, you can only go to maybe three markets at most in one trip. But in a day, I could do virtual training and communications about the launch in one day, so I was able to cover much more territory and reach many more consumers with the new packaging.”
With 40 years’ worth of accomplishments to her name, I ask Spence what her proudest achievement is. “Oh Lord, I have so many,” she says. “But I have to say, The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, named in my honour, is my favourite because, as I keep telling people, this happens to you after you die. People never name a building or a facility in your honour while you’re still alive,” she laughs. “Every time I go there I still can’t believe this has really happened.”
It’s not just the rum trade, either, that has noticed Spence’s significant achievements and contributions to both Jamaica and the global rum trade. In 2017, the master blender was bestowed with one of the highest Jamaican civilian commendations possible: ‘Order of Distinction’ Rank Commander.
The following year, Spence set another record by becoming the first woman to receive the Jamaica Prime Minister Medal for Science and Technology. Spence was the only woman nominated for the award.
“I didn’t even have a speech prepared because I thought that I would not have a chance at all with these esteemed gentlemen, who were the other persons that were being looked at as possible winners,” Spence says. “That was extremely proud as a woman, the first woman, to have been able to receive this award.”
Spence certainly does not want to remain the only woman breaking these barriers and works to encourage more women to pursue careers in science and technology. “There could be much more encouragement for women to enter STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths],” Spence says. “Traditionally the focus is on studying medicine or becoming a lawyer, so I do a lot of motivational talks with young girls making their career choices to help them see that there’s a whole world out there. You can think outside the box for your career – and look what has happened to me using not only my chemistry background, but also my sensory skills for a very exciting career.”
She believes there should be more talks, including at university level, to help women “fine tune” exactly what career plans they want to follow.
“And as I tell everybody,” Spence adds, “don’t just act locally but think globally. And you know, you can make an impact on the world – not just in Jamaica.”