Master blender Joy Spence discusses passion, misconceptions and the Appleton Estate Hearts Collection

Joy spence

In One For The Road, we speak with the best wine and spirit guides to get to know them better. Here, we talk to Joy Spence, master blender of Appleton Estate and the first woman to hold such a title in the spirits industry

One of the best things that ever happened to sugar is sweet Jamaican rum, a delicious spirit that oozes with molasses, tropical fruit and spice. Typically masked by more sugar in a cocktail (the horror), it is a drink that’s best drunk neat, especially if one is trying the spirit for the first time. While the story of rum traces back to Barbados, it is the island of Jamaica that refined the rum-making process, distinguishing itself with robust flavours and strict standards—limestone water’s a must and any added sugar would be illegal. Like single malt whisky, it is handheld all the way through, making sure the drinker takes it as seriously as the makers do.

Today, there are only six rum distilleries that operate in Jamaica, Appleton Estate being one of them. Bringing fame to the name is Joy Spence, the master blender responsible for more bottlings than she can remember, since joining the estate in 1981 as chief chemist. We speak with her to find out more about the industry, misconceptions and the Hearts Collection, made in collaboration with rum expert, Luca Gargano. The collection has two new vintages, the 1993 and 2002, both available exclusively through Campari Group Rare Division’s sales executive, Cathy Sun (send in your enquiries here).

Hi Joy, what is it like to be you?

I feel blessed. As a proud Jamaican, chemist and master blender, I get to experience the best of all worlds. When I’m not creating new expressions that tap on my scientific training and craft, I may be travelling around the globe spreading the love for Jamaican rums. When I’m home, I get to enjoy my gardens and the beauty of Jamaica. Not many people have the opportunity to make their passion their work, and I consider everyday a huge blessing.

What was growing up like for you and what brought you to where you’re here now?

Growing up, I’d always wanted to be a teacher. I was four when my mother found me conducting ‘lessons’ when she came to pick me up from school. At 13, my chemistry teacher Eldora Mills inspired my love for the subject when she appointed me as her assistant. And when she passed away from complications in childbirth, my sixth-form self was devastated. Wanting to make her proud, I taught myself chemistry, continued to facilitate the labs under guidance and worked my way towards a science degree.

I ended up teaching for a while at my old high school and taught chemistry at the university. After pursuing my masters in analytical chemistry at the University of Loughborough, I applied for a job at J. Wray and Nephew Ltd knowing that chemistry would be an asset for the craft. Owen Tulloch, the master blender back then, hired me as chief chemist. He noticed that I had a natural affinity in identifying traits in rum and mentored me to become his successor.

Appleton Estate
Appleton Estate’s sugar plantation. Photo by Appleton Estate

How does it feel to be one of the most influential women in the cocktail and spirits industry?

I’m incredibly humbled to be recognised in the field and I see it as one of my biggest achievements. It’s a position with a responsibility to keep pushing further and it is my hope that I’ve inspired not just other women to follow suit, but also the men to advocate other women with potential, just as what Owen did for me.

What advice would you give to women wanting to work in the spirits industry?

It’s a male-dominated industry, but things are slowly changing. There will always be naysayers but as long as you keep believing in yourself, be passionate and continue to further your craft, sooner or later that passion of yours will shine through.

What makes Appleton Estate so full of heart and deliciousness?

What makes our rums here at Appleton Estate so different can be summed into 3 key factors. 1) The land. We’re located in the heart of the Nassau Valley where the climate is lush with extremely fertile terrain and our own natural water sources. We’re one of the few rum brands that are proud to claim terroir as a key differentiator. 2) Our distillation process is a hybrid of heritage and modern techniques that include the use of proprietary yeast and copper pot stills, which imparts our signature orange peel note. 3) Every step reflects a commitment to Jamaican excellence. To ensure the highest quality products, Appleton adheres to strict minimum ageing guidelines; the age statement on a bottle refers to the youngest drop of rum in the blend. We also use no additives.

Appleton Estate Hearts Collection
Appleton Estate Hearts Collection 1993 (RRP S$560), available exclusively via Campari Group’s Rare Division. Photo by Appleton Estate

What are some memorable moments from creating the Hearts Collection with Luca Gargano?

I will never forget the dramatic Polynesian prayer Luca did when I brought him to the spring—our distillery’s water source—on his first visit. He performed this elaborate ritual over the pond which bewildered both my Jamaican colleagues and his Italian entourage. Another moment was when he came down for a blind tasting of the potential rums I shortlisted for our first Hearts Collection. He had no clue which were my picks but we somehow landed on the exact same rums.

What’s your favourite Appleton Estate expression and why?

My favourite Appleton Estate expression changes depending on the occasion. When I just want something easy for a daytime cocktail, I tend to gravitate towards our 8 Year Old Reserve for how versatile it is. When it’s a special occasion, I’d opt for something more complex with a bit of funk, like the Hearts Collection, so everyone take the time to savour each sip.

As master blender, what would you say is your biggest creative achievement?

My biggest achievement to date would be the release of our Limited-Edition Appleton Estate 50 Year Old. It’s the oldest expression of rum that we have ever worked on and the oldest blend that has ever been introduced to rum market.

What is your creative outlet outside Appleton Estate?

I consider myself quite the homebody. When I’m not at the estate, I will be visiting the natural gems of Jamaica or gardening and cooking at home. I’ve grown quite a few orchid varietals over the years, and I enjoy sitting in my garden and appreciating the surrounding calm while sipping an Appleton Estate cocktail.

Appleton Estate Hearts Collection
Appleton Estate Hearts Collection 2002 (RRP S$460). Photo by Appleton Estate

What important changes have you seen during the course of your work in the rum industry?

The role of master blenders has changed over the years. While we do serve our primary role of creating new rums, we also play a very important role as brand ambassadors, which isn’t a problem as I’m someone who genuinely enjoys sharing my passion with others. The view of women leading spirits brands and cocktail bars has also changed. There used to be only a rare few and I’m glad that the larger industry today is a lot more diverse than what it was before.

What’s the biggest misconception the average person gets about rum?

The average person tends to assume that rum is sweet since it’s made from sugarcane and molasses. Rum, like its whisky or cognac counterparts can be just as complex in the flavour spectrum depending on its type, production methods and terroir. Every distillery has its own hallmarks and the best way to understand it, is to explore rum with an open mind.

What big plans do you have for the future of rum?

More releases that could shake up the rum world! While I can’t say for sure what they will be, we do have an extensive inventory of over 100,000 barrels across various age statements that we can get creative with.

Should anyone visit Jamaica, where should they go?

One of my very favourite experiences is a lunch or dinner at Stush in the Bush. It’s an incredible restaurant, featuring all vegan dishes from produce grown on their farm. You have to drive up a winding road and into the heart of the mountains to get there, but it is so worth it. For a little adventure, I also love rafting on the Rio Grande!

It’s late at night and you want one last drink for the road. Name that cocktail.

It will always be a Rum & Ginger Ale but with a few touches. It’s extremely easy to make at home as all you’ll need is 30ml rum (Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve), 90ml ginger ale, five drops of Angostura bitters, a fresh squeeze or muddled orange slice and an orange wheel for garnish. It’s one of my go-tos because it’s simple, refreshing and it allows rum flavours to come through.

Appleton Estate

Featured photo by Appleton Estate