Joy Spence the Rum Diva from Jamaica

Rumporter : Last year, you celebrated your 35 years of career at Appleton Estate, and this year you are celebrating your 20 years as Master Blender. You are the rum industry’s first female Master Blender. That must be a complicated position in a rather male-dominated sector but does it also bring a different vision and a more sensitive dimension to the Appleton rums? And more generally, to the trade of Master Blender?

Joy Spence Rumporter
Joy Spence in the holy house of Appleton Estate – © Appleton

Joy Spence: It is said that females have more acute sensory skills and approximately 70% of a master blender’s job is sensory analysis – what many people do not understand is that blenders use their sensory skills, that is they evaluate products using their sense of smell, rather than their sense of taste because you can detect many more aromas than you can flavours.

R: You have a background in chemistry. You could have had a career in the medical sector, in agronomy, in the perfume industry or even as a teacher at a high school or a university, but instead you chose to work in R&D for J. Wray & Nephew. Was that the random result of a job search or an actual desire? Where does your passion for rum come from?

JS: Once I graduated I returned to the classroom as a lecturer in chemistry but after a few years I wanted to expand my horizons.  I therefore looked at companies where I could apply my degrees and I started out in the private sector working in research and development.  I saw J. Wray & Nephew Limited/Appleton Estate as a Company with a great future and when the opportunity presented itself I joined the Company.  I was working with the then Master Blender, Owen Tulloch, and became fascinated with the whole art of sensory analysis and creating rums and I was very fortunate that he took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew and the rest, they say, is history.

R: How does one go from being an ordinary chemist and lab technician at J. Wray & Nephew to General Manager of Technical and Quality Services at Appleton Estate?

JS: In rum manufacturing, the Master Blender has several members of staff who are trained chemists who support the process.  I joined Appleton Estate as the chief chemist and had the honour of working with the Master Blender and under his tutelage and guidance I was able to extend my knowledge of the chemistry of the rum manufacturing process to the artistic side also.  While working with Owen we discovered that I had very good sensory skills and flair for blending and when he retired I was honoured to have been named Master Blender.  Joy Spence Rumporter

R : Beyond the chemist background and the scientific knowledge, what are the skills required to become a Master Blender? How does one learn the art of aging and blending?

JS: To be a good Blender you must have excellent sensory skills; you must have a detailed understanding of the rum production process as well as understand the chemistry of rums and how the rums will interact with each other and finally you must have a creative mind.

R: Who/What influenced you the most? Why do you only use American barrels?
JS: In my career I have been most influenced by my predecessor and my mentor, Owen Tulloch. My husband and two children have also had a great influence on my life and, of course, the team at Appleton Estate.
R: Every day must be unique in your trade. Can you tell us about your typical day at Appleton Estate?
JS: Day to day, I am responsible for maintaining the consistency and quality of our existing blends, creating new rum blends and monitoring our inventory of rum currently aging in oak barrels. Simply put, it is my job to ensure that each of our Appleton Estate rum blends meets the high standards our consumers have grown to love and expect.

R: The name “Appleton Estate” appeared in 1655, with Frances Dickinson as its owner; but the sugar refinery/distillery has been launched “only” in 1749. That makes it the oldest distillery in Jamaica and the second-oldest still-working distillery in the world. How hard is it to feel the weight of over 260 years of history on your shoulders?

JS: I really don’t let anything distract me from getting the job done. I have the technical and creative skills to do my job and I have also received the best training on the job by my mentor, Owen Tulloch, who was the previous master blender and therefore I just focus on the tasks at hand.

R: The 4,600 ha estate is surrounded by hills in the Nassau valley, which allows it to benefit from a microclimate. All the sugarcanes come exclusively from its parcels and the molasses is made on site. The open air spring is fed by the Black River and is filtered naturally through a limestone soil and a karstic substratum. With all these elements, can we say that the Appleton rums come from a genuine terroir?

JS : All Appleton Estate rum is produced on a single estate, in a small circumscribed geographic area. Consequently, Appleton Estate is one of the few rums in the world to claim a terroir (the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product), and the only rum in the world that has a terroir as unique as the Nassau Valley. It has: Geographic demarcation – 400 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains 2,000 feet above sea level; soil demarcation – Soil is very fertile and rich in nutrients; weather demarcation – Unique microclimate

Distillerie Appleton Estate

R: What are your 10 varieties of sugarcane? How do they shape the Appleton flavor? Do you have a molasses with some peculiar qualities?

JS: The varieties of sugar cane that we use is proprietary information but they do produce fruity and buttery notes in the rum.

R: Jamaica’s motto is to produce heavy, high esther rums, often by the use of dunder, and even of muck; and which are then sold to brokers. Except for a couple of rums for each distillery, that do not exceed two or three years of aging, nothing remains in the country and the locals tend to favor overproof white rums. Appleton’s operations and style is quite different from the traditional image of the Yardies. How would you explain that?

JS: The Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum brand has an over 260-year heritage and the Appleton Estate range was developed as a premium aged rum range. We were at the forefront of defining and creating the premium rum category over thirty years ago with the introduction of Appleton Estate V/X Jamaica Rum now called Appleton Estate Signature Blend. All of our variants are produced to the highest quality standards. Within the range we have a variant to suit every drinking occasion and every price point from Appleton Estate Signature Blend, which is the perfect rum for cocktails, to our luxury sipping rums and limited editions including Appleton Estate 21 Year Old Jamaica Rum, Appleton Estate 50 Year Old and now Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend.

R: Do you believe that Appleton’s success will increase the reputation of the Jamaican rum and lead to a collective success that includes the other distillers and the sugarcane farmers?

JS: We do hope that Appleton’s success will further promote the Jamaican rum industry as a whole.

R: The current line of Appleton rums has nine products: White (for cocktails), Special Gold (ESB for cocktails), Dark (caramelized ESB for cocktails), Signature Blend (average age: around 4 year old), Reserve Blend (average age: around 6 year old), 8 year old (age of the youngest rum in the blend), 12 year old (age of the youngest rum in the blend), 21 year old (age of the youngest rum in the blend) and 50 year old (age of the youngest rum in the blend). Will Appleton release “premium” white rums, or are these the exclusive domain of J. Wray & Nephew (which is part of Appleton Estate)?

JS : The Appleton Estate range consists of 6 rums:Rhum Appleton Estate Appleton Estate Signature Blend
Appleton Estate Reserve Blend
Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old
Appleton Estate 21 Year Old Jamaica Rum
Appleton Estate 50 Year Old
Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend
The Appleton Estate range is a premium aged rum range and currently there is no plans to launch a premium white rum under the Appleton Estate brand name.

R: Appleton is known for blending rich pot stills rums and light column stills rums. Is that a decision of yours or do you simply perpetuate the tradition?

JS: Appleton Estate was traditionally produced by blending rich pot still rums with light column still rums – the pot stills were used to create depth of flavour and complexity and the column still rums were used to tone the pot still rums. I have continued that tradition with the rums that I have created which include:
Appleton Estate Reserve Blend
Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old
Appleton Estate 50 Year Old
Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend

Distillerie Appleton Estate
R :  One of Appleton’s secret recipes resides in the fermentation process. Is it related to special yeasts or to carefully planned temperatures and fermentation time? Where does the characteristic citrus aroma come from?

JS: The pot stills at the Appleton Estate are a special type of pot still that were developed for, and are unique to, the Appleton Estate. The pot distillation method produces a fuller, more flavourful rum than the column distillation method. It is the rums produced on these stills that are the heart of every Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum blend and impart to our rums their unique character and the beautiful orange peel top note which is a hallmark of the brand. This orange peel top note is a result of the unique shape of the pot stills, as well as the fact that the pot stills at Appleton Estate are 100% copper (rather than copper lined).

R : How do you proceed when you create a new rum? Do you plan to release one or several new rums, particularly to celebrate the 270 years anniversary of the company in 2019?

JS : Creating a new rum blend is both science and art. Before I start I have an overall vision of what I want – do I want to make a rum that is going to be great for making cocktails or is it a sipping rum. Once I know what type of blend I want to create, I then look at what kind of flavour profile am I looking for – for instance do I want a rum that has a lot of oak notes in it or am I looking for something that has more spice notes. After that I go to work – experimenting with different rums of varying styles, types and ages – seeing how the different marques of rum interact with each other and how they influence the overall profile of the blend. When I get the combinations right and the blend is what I first envisioned, then my work is done.

Joy Spence Rumporter Appleton Estate

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