A quick Google search of “women drinking alcohol” will render thousands of images: smiling collegiates clinking beer bottles at a pub, sultry Carrie Bradshaw-types holding a cosmo with manicured hands, pregnant women declining a glass of wine until they become one of the memed mamas announcing that “the kids are gone to bed, now it’s wine o’clock.” The acceptance of women as liquor enthusiasts has shifted societally over the years, but change has also come from within the spirits industry itself – starting with a Jamaican woman named Joy Spence.
Appleton Estate is one the world’s most well-known rum distilleries, located on Jamaica’s south coast. In 1997, Appleton made history by appointing Joy Spence as its Master Blender, the first woman in the spirits industry to hold the title. Master Blenders are responsible for the creation of blended spirits, employing science and art in a unique alchemy. With nearly three decades in the role, Spence has used flair, creativity, and innovation to take rum from sugar cane stalks to our glasses, and from the past into the future.
Appleton Estate is Jamaica’s oldest distillery, in operation since at least 1749. The day before my beachside interview with Spence, I was invited to an afternoon at Appleton Estate for the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, led by the industry icon herself. Watching her move among the staff (who are nothing if not respectful), the other guests (who frequently interrupt with bashful requests for selfies) and the grounds itself (I’ve never seen someone handle sugarcane with such care), it’s easy to see just how much she loves her work. Being the only Black journalist in our tour group and one of Jamaican descent, it was an odd feeling to be on those grounds. While other visitors laughed at the recreations of how sugar cane was pressed in the 1700s and mused at how beautiful the surroundings were, the dull ache in my stomach said “Your ancestors might have been enslaved here.” In 1655, the grounds of the Estate were established when the British bested the Spanish in the ongoing colonization of Jamaica. Captain Frances Dickinson was instrumental in England’s successful capture of the island and was rewarded with 6000 acres of land in the Nassau Valley by King Charles II. That land became a sugar cane plantation, and Appleton Estate was born.
Fast forward to 1981, when an intrepid young woman named Joy Spence sent her resume to J. Wray and Nephew Ltd., owners of Appleton. With a love of chemistry that started when she was 13, Spence graduated with honors from the University of the West Indies, worked as a chemistry teacher, and earned her Master of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry from University of Loughborough in the UK before returning to Jamaica and entering the spirits industry. Working at coffee liqueur company Tia Maria as a research chemist, Spence was happy in her career but ready for a new adventure. “It was a one product operation, very boring,” said Spence. “I have to multitask.”
Fortunately, Spence was called in for an interview with the Appleton team. Unfortunately, they had no open positions but were so impressed with her resume that they wanted to meet. “It seemed as if my destiny was Tia Maria, but three weeks later, I got a call,” she recounted. The Appleton team created a new position for her — Chief Chemist — and the adventure Spence was looking for began.
I felt I would have resistance globally, especially with male journalists — but they welcomed me with open arms. The biggest resistance was in Jamaica, actually.
As Chief Chemist, Spence worked very closely with Appleton’s previous Master Blender, Owen Tulloch. Spence explained that in her youth, it was socially acceptable for women to drink wine, but not much else. “You were seen as a very loose person if you were drinking rum,” she laughed. However, Spence’s work allowed her to circumvent the stigma and get better acquainted with the spirit. Learning from Tulloch, Spence saw just how dynamic rum was — and how her skills intersected with it. “[Rum] has so many components to it. I realized that I can use my sensory skills, which I never imagined I could use in a profession, then apply my chemistry to all the processes in rum making. And I said, what a wonderful combination!”
Tulloch recognized Spence’s unique talents, most notably, an organoleptic one — giving her the ability to detect, identify, and differentiate between aromas. This made Spence his choice as his replacement for the Master Blender position, and after years of tutoring, Spence was promoted to the role in 1997. I asked Spence about the obstacles she faced taking this role in such a male-dominated industry, and she shared that her biggest detractors were the ones closest to home. “I felt I would have resistance globally, especially with male journalists — but they welcomed me with open arms. The biggest resistance was in Jamaica, actually.” Spence said that her male coworkers thought it was impossible for a woman to be a Master Blender and believed she would fail. She was able to prove the haters wrong, and set the stage for more women to do the same. While there is still much work to be done, gender inequality is top of mind within the industry. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust reports that female WSET diploma graduates have increased from 10.6% in the 1970s to 42.8% in 2017, and more women have followed in Spence’s footsteps. Other pioneering female Master Blenders include Trudiann Branker for Barbados’ Mount Gay Rum in 2019, and Dr. Emma Walker for Johnnie Walker in 2021.
Maybe 'aging like a fine wine' is overrated. I think I’ll take a page out of [Joy] Spence’s book and age like a fine rum instead.
Back at the Estate, we enjoy a tasting of Appleton’s new Hearts Collection — a rare 100% pot still release of vintage rums from 1984 to 2003 created and selected by Spence — and see just how her gifts of scientific intellect, organoleptic ability, and artistry come out to play. Spence guides us through the tasting, first asking us to smell the rum, then take a small sip. Then, she asks us to put a drop of water in the glass, and sip again. The chemical interaction opens the rum into an even more complex taste profile, and it’s fascinating to witness. This is where the magic of chemistry comes alive for me, and you can see the satisfaction on Spence’s face as we experience the very emotions that she planned for when she created these rums.
Spence is not only scientifically gifted, but artistically inclined as well. Her creative imprint is felt in her personal style, when she talks about her love of interior decorating and landscaping, and how she describes her work at the Estate — from the design of the rum bottles to the look of installations at media events. I mentioned the artistic flair I witnessed during my time with her and asked how she feels that has helped her career. “My natural creativity sets me apart,” she replied definitively. “This is an experience inside of an experience, and it’s the experience that sells the product.”
Something that Spence has added to the future of the Appleton Estate experience is a look back to the past, which speaks to the dull ache I felt on the plantation. The company recently unveiled a monument on the tour grounds called “Lest We Forget,” which honors the enslaved whose labor built the distillery. “It’s an important part of our history,” Spence shared, and that’s no small sentiment. Through a partnership with the University of the West Indies that uncovered the names of those who toiled on the plantation, Appleton Estate has taken a major step in incorporating the enslaved in the story told to visitors and consumers.
When I think about your gifts making room for you, I think of Joy Spence. How else can you explain a woman with a multitude of talents who created her own lane, making history, and changing the future of an industry at the same time? With decades of scientific and creative excellence, pioneering efforts in the industry, and a presence that is undeniably respected the world over, I figure that maybe “aging like a fine wine” is overrated. I think I’ll take a page out of Spence’s book and age like a fine rum instead.