Flava magazine: The spirit of a master blender

Joy spence lead image

(Published in Flava magazine 2016, issue 1)

The spirit of a master blender – Flava 2016 Issue 1

Joy Spence knows a thing or two about fine rum. She is, after all, the world’s first female master blender and architect of one of Jamaica’s best known rums, Appleton Estate.

Part of an elite group of spirit-making women – there are now three female master blenders in the world – Joy has been working for Appleton Estate since 1981 when she joined the world-class Jamaican spirit producer as chief chemist.

“I became very fascinated with the whole act of blending and the use of sensory analysis to be able to differentiate the different aromas in the rum,” Joy says. “So, I started tutoring with the master blender….I tutored with him for 17 years and when he retired I was appointed the master blender in 1997.”

You could say Joy had well and truly broken through the glass ceiling.

“The spirit industry is a very male dominated industry and the role of master blender is usually handed down from father to son,” Joy explains. “However, I think more and more women are seeing the benefit of entering this particular field, that there is scope for females in this area.”

Since then, Joy has been involved in the making of 10 of Appleton Estate’s famed rums – including the estate’s most recent release, Appleton’s limited edition Jamaica Independence Reserve 50-year-old rum.

But how do you become a master blender? Joy says while her science background helps, you have to have a “nose” for it.

“You have to been born with it,” Joy says. “Then you develop on that skill. It is basically learning how to memorize different aromas. I have developed a very big sensory bank in my brain. I can differentiate over 300 different sensory aromas.

“Taste is also linked, but the analysis is predominately sensory. We do tastings from time-to-time just to confirm some of the sensory tastes and aromas that we are not too sure of. The final test for the consumer is the taste.”

Cayman connection

I’m interviewing Joy at The Wharf Restaurant, nestled right at the start of world famous Seven Mile Beach. The master blender is visiting Cayman to conduct a series of rum tasting workshops, including an exclusive tasting event at Kaibo Restaurant, North Side, where guests will be able to sip on Appleton Estate 50 Year Old Jamaica Rum – Jamaica Independence Reserve.

Released in 2012 to mark 50 years of Jamaican independence just 800 bottles of this precious rum were made, which retails at a staggering US$5,000 each. Joy was personally responsible for conducting extensive quality checks on each barrel to ensure that it had aged to perfection and had achieved the smoothness, complexity and richness required.

Joy’s passion for rum is contagious. But, ironically, she says, it wasn’t until she started working at Appleton Estate that she took her first sip of rum.

“I was hooked,” she says with a chuckle. “I love rum and the Appleton brand.”

A passion for chemistry

Joy was born in the parish of Manchester, Jamaica, and grew up in Kingston. She developed a passion for chemistry from an early age, thanks to her third form chemistry teacher, Eldora Mills.

“I would spend most evenings with her preparing the lab work for the upper school, so I really fell in love with the subject,” Joy says. “I became very attached to the teacher, but in fourth form she died in child birth. I made this pledge that I would become the best chemist there is to honor her.”

Indeed, so determined Joy was to continue her chemistry education she ended up teaching herself sixth form chemistry from text books – a pre-requisite for a chemistry degree, something which Joy was determined to gain.

“In upper sixth we didn’t have a chemistry teacher,” Joy says. “The school facilitated me by getting a teacher to come and assist with the practical exercises as you have to have a trained teacher for these. I was so passionate about chemistry that I was determined that this is the subject I would do at university.”

Joy went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from the University of the West Indies and then a masters in analytical chemistry from the University of Loughborough, U.K. But, while blending rums might seem a long way from the lab work of a typical chemist, you’d be surprised.

“It’s actually deep science,” Joy says of rum making.

“One of the main prerequisites to becoming a master blender is to have a science background, preferably chemistry or bio chemistry to be able to understand all the processes in rum manufacturing and in particular the aging process, because a very complex reaction takes place when the rum ages in the barrel.”

Premium rums

Today, Joy’s role is equal part master blender and brand ambassador as the demand for rum, and in particular premium rums, grows ever stronger. A large part of Joy’s role takes her to all four corners of the globe where she aims to ignite in people the same enthusiasm and passion that she has for rum.

Indeed, she explains that the premium sector of the rum industry is now the hottest sector as the industry aims to entice a new generation of elite drinkers.

“Consumers are becoming much more sophisticated in their palates and we have been able to demonstrate that rums can be complex and sophisticated just as fine cognac or single malt are,” Joy explains.

“Traditionally consumers have this impression that rum is just this harsh spirit that you would mix with your favorite mixer; they did not understand that it can be complex and sophisticated. This is what Appleton Estate is trying to do, to educate consumers on the premiumization of rum and that it is a niche that we really want to be a part of.”

Traveling the globe as a brand ambassador has led Joy to become known as the “Rum Lady.” She says she is often recognized – after all, it’s not that often that you encounter a lady in her 60s in the rum business. She regales me with one of her most recent tales.

“I was traveling through Miami airport. When I reached the customs area, the customs officer asked me what my profession is. So, I told him that I am in the rum business and that I am a master blender. He looked at me and he said, “You know this is the best excuse I have heard for a long time.” So, I said to myself why would one want to make up a story like this? At the same time the customs officer who was seated beside me looked across when he heard the conservation, recognized me from the Travel Channel, jumped off from his seat and said, “This is the rum lady. I’ve always wanted to meet you.” He came across and shook my hand! So, now my customs officer could actually dig a hole six feet into the ground, and apologized profusely,” she says with her trademark hearty laugh.

A legendary brand

So, what makes Appleton Estate rums so great?

“They are consistent in quality, they are complex and they have very unusual flavor profiles, such as a beautiful orange peel top note – a hallmark of our range,” Joy says. “The orange peel top note is developed from the copper pot stills which have been designed uniquely for Appleton Estate.”

Indeed, it is this top note that is the inspiration behind one of Joy’s favorite ways to enjoy a glass of rum.

“I would pick Appleton Estate Reserve as this is the rum closest to my heart as I was heavily involved with the development of it.

“I would enjoy it by putting a slice of orange in the rum, muddle the pulp in the rum, add about five drops of Angostura Bitters and then top up with ginger ale and some cracked ice.”

It sounds delicious. Indeed, Joy confirms that it is the perfect refreshing drink for a hot sunny day.

She adds: “At a party I would have Appleton Estate VX – it’s great for making cocktails, it’s a very good mixer. For a sophisticated occasion, Appleton Estate 12-year-old or 21-year-old. These rums are sipping rums that you just sip and enjoy and appreciate them for their complexity.”

But perhaps the pièce de résistance is Appleton Estate’s 50-year-old rum – the oldest bottled rum in the world.

“I would enjoy it in a nice brandy snifter,” Joy says. “I would also warm the snifter with my hands to help release all those volatile aromas.”

She adds: “You could either have it neat or with a few cubes of ice. The aromas are so complex – powerful vanilla, coffee, hazelnut, maple, complex spices and, of course, that warm, woody aroma having been aged for 50 years in the barrel.

“It is just a wonderful explosion of flavors.” Joy adds.

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