Women Who Lead: Joy Spence on 40 Years of Smashing Ceilings
“I developed such a passion for rum in my career path that I knew there was no turning back,” says Joy Spence. “This was it for the rest of my life.”
That’s not to say that the celebrated Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum Master Blender – a female, Jamaican-born trailblazer in an industry dominated by males – necessarily knew she’d end up where she did; creating some of the world’s most respected rum and travelling the world to share it.
“It was surprising I ended up here because I never had ‘Master Blender’ on my vision board,” says Spence. “Becoming a medical doctor was my goal. When I started university, I realized couldn’t handle trauma, so I stuck to the path of chemistry instead.”
When she graduated from the University of the West Indies with a Bachelor of Science degree, Spence started lecturing chemistry. After adding a Master of Science Degree in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Loughborough, she joined Appleton Estate as Chief Chemist in 1981. When Spence gained the coveted title of Master Blender in 1997, she became the first female to do so.
Ever since then, Joy Spence has been smashing ceilings while satisfying the palettes of rum enthusiasts around the world.
She credits two influential people in her life for impacting her colourful career path. “The first is my chemistry teacher when I was in high school; she’s the one who inspired my passion for chemistry,” says Spence. “The second one is the previous Master Blender, Owen Tulloch, who took me into his little private room with rum and taught me all about rum. If he didn’t extend that invitation, I would not be here today.”
Spence also says her Jamaican heritage has shaped her career. “I think representation as a Caribbean woman has been very important in my career because I was able to break the glass ceiling for other Caribbean women to be given the opportunity to become master blenders and I am so proud of that,” says Spence.
The journey through that glass ceiling was not without its hurdles at times. “I had several challenges along the way being a female in a male-dominated industry,” says Spence. “But what I did was not focus on the negativity and instead use that as a sounding board for improvement. And I was able to use my learning experiences to help other women in the industry realize their full potential.”
Spence’s advice to women hoping to become Master Blenders is not to focus on their gender, but their craft. “Be passionate about what you’re doing, become a sponge for technical knowledge, and – most importantly – remain humble,” says Spence.
“There are several prerequisites to being an excellent Master Blender. First, you should have an excellent knowledge of the chemistry of the process. You should have excellent sensory skills. Finally, you should have a little PR savvy about you,” she adds.
On the public relations front, Spence’s work sends her internationally to share her passion, knowledge, and favourite blends through high-profile events.
“My international travels have made me become a more patient individual. I can understand and respect different cultures and people in the world that are different to my own,” says Spence. “It was an important learning experience for me to be more open and appreciative about different ways of living.”
Spence says there isn’t one career highlight she’s most proud of; there are three. “Being given the national honourment from the Jamaican government for my contribution not only to rum but to Brand Jamaica is one. Being the first female in Jamaica to receive the National Medal for Science and Technology is another. Last, but not least, having The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience named in my name was an honour,” says Spence.
The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience takes guests through the Appleton Estate property in Nassau Valley for a multi-sensory experience centred on the Appleton Estate range. Guests will take a journey through the history of Appleton Estate and the brand’s unique “Cane to Cocktail” rum-making process.
Though choosing a favourite blend is like picking a favourite child for Spence, she says she has a soft spot for Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend. The anniversary release was a limited edition created in celebration of her 20 years as Master Blender.
“I had the opportunity to create a blend in my honour so I used my very special 25-year-old rum marque to be the heart and soul of that bottle,” says Spence. “I was intricately involved in the package development, the selection of the bottle – it was a holistic approach.”
Aside from The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, Spence has a few recommendations for visitors to Jamaica.
“Jamaica has so many microclimates and my favourite part of the country is Portland on the eastern part of the island,” says Spence. “I love to do rafting on the Rio Grande. It’s about a three-hour journey on this beautiful river, meandering through hillsides and beautiful waterfalls along the way. Of course, tourists love to gravitate toward Negril because we have beautiful white-sand beaches. It depends on the type of experience you’re looking for – we have everything in Jamaica.”
If you’re looking for Spence outside of Appleton Estates, you’ll find her in her peaceful garden.
“I enjoy Appleton Estate sitting in my garden, watching the doctor birds fly around me and enjoying the orchids and the Jamaican sunsets,” says Spence when asked how she best enjoys the rum. Her drink of choice these days? The Appleton Estate 8-Year-Old Reserve – neat. “I love the beautiful spicy, fruity, honey, and vanilla notes of the rum,” she says with a smile.