A visit from the queen of rum
“When people taste it, the first word you hear is, ‘Whoa,’” says Joy Spence, smiling. I take a sip. “Whoa,” I exclaim. She laughs.
We’re sampling Spence’s masterpiece, the Joy Anniversary Blend, the culmination of her 20 years as Appleton Estate’s master blender. It’s a lushly complex blend of aged rums, created by a legend in the industry: the first woman master blender at any distillery—anywhere—and winner of 2016’s Golden Rum Barrel Award for Most Influential Rum Blender of the Last 10 Years.
Recently, Spence came to rainy Vancouver from the tropical sunshine of Jamaica to offer a taste of the Appleton lineup—including the Joy Anniversary Blend—to industry experts, and to talk about her role as a pioneer in the spirits industry.
Spence started her career at Appleton Estate 35 years ago, as the company’s chief chemist. When the master-blender position opened in 1997, her scientific skills, combined with a fine-tuned palate, made her a natural for the job—except for one thing. “No other company was brave enough to appoint a woman,” she Spence. “I’m very proud, and not only that I was the first female, but that I was able to open the door for other women.”
Since then, several prominent spirits houses have hired female master blenders, including Kirsteen Campbell at Famous Grouse and Jassil Villanueva Quintana at Brugal. It only makes sense, says Spence. “Women have better palates. It never fails.”
Once she’d crossed that first hurdle, Spence encountered few obstacles in her career. “The main challenge for me was to have the confidence to continue the work of the previous master blender,” she says.
She quickly earned recognition for her work, garnering numerous awards, two honouary doctorates and the Jamaican government’s Order of Distinction. Her greatest accomplishment, though, was creating a style of rum that made Appleton Estates a world leader. It’s a unique blend of column- and pot-distilled spirits that have been aged in oak barrels. The column still contributes structure and elegance; the pot still adds spice, fruit and warmth. Blended together, they produce rums of great character, with that distinctive Appleton profile of orange, spice, vanilla and toffee.
Still, even handcrafted, aged rum doesn’t get the respect of fine whiskies or cognac, and that, too, is something Spence wants to change. She considers it her mission “to educate the consumer about the complexity of rum.”
A fine rum, she insists, has all the finesse of cognac. It’s something to sip slowly and luxuriously, on its own or perhaps with a single ice cube. She’s convinced that one day rum will outlive its reputation as the harsh Caribbean spirit described in a 1651 document as “Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil… a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
“I hope I will still be around when premium rums find their day in the sun,” she says.
Chances are, that day might come with the release of the Joy Anniversary Blend. The rums she used in it range from 25 to 35 years old. Only 1,000 cases have been made for the worldwide market, making it an extremely limited edition that will retail for $299 a bottle when it lands at BC Liquor Stores in October.
Spence takes a sip and says: “There’s an amazing orange-peel top note intertwined with ginger and spice – fruit, warm vanilla, butterscotch and coffee. The finish is sweet brown sugar and it’s extremely smooth. People have said if you tried it blind, you won’t be able to tell it apart from cognac.”
She smiles warmly and says, “It’s my favourite rum that I’ve made for this portfolio. I like to say when you drink it, you will feel joy.”
—by Joanne Sasvari