Seven Questions with Appleton Estate's Pioneering Female Blender, Joy Spence

Joy Spence of Appleton Estate rums with her anniversary edition, "Joy."

More than two decades ago, Joy Spence shattered the spirits industry’s glass ceiling by becoming the world’s first female master blender. To honor this – as well as pay homage to her years at Jamaica’s Appleton Estate – the distillery debuted a limited-edition 25-year–old rum called “JOY”, crafted in honor of pioneer Spence and her 20 years as Appleton Estate’s master blender. We thought this would be a fitting time to check in with her.

VIBE: What's the biggest change you've seen in the rum business since you started?

Joy Spence: The consumer’s desire for more flavor and complexity in spirits is driving the industry and the rum category much more forward then when I first began at Appleton. Specifically, the younger generation of legal drinking age consumers is exploratory by nature. They are constantly seeking out new experiences. We feel strongly that Appleton will continue to benefit from both the shift in consumer tastes and the desire to broaden their horizons within the spirits realm.

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VIBE: Higher-end rums are doing well, although rum overall isn’t seeing much growth in the US. How can that be changed?

Spence: Discovery and education about rum is vital for growth. Appleton Estate is leading the charge with its “Cane to Cocktail” educational program aimed at the bartending community, hosting interactive tasting and blending seminars in a half-dozen markets across the country. Seminars are hosted by Appleton Estate’s senior blender David Morrison with cocktail expertise from a local bartender ambassador. We’re now in our third year of the program, and are seeing success in elevating the premium rum category and rum awareness overall.

Bartenders attending the seminars experience Appleton Estate as a premium rum brand proud to lead the category to a new phase, a phase where premium rum is viewed as a serious, complex spirit and recognized as completely separate from standard rum. Once the bartenders are on board, there is no doubt Appleton Estate will gain popularity with consumers when they discover it, too. In fact, Appleton Estate has seen double-digit growth YTD, specifically in the on-premise, and we believe this is driven by the bartender and consumer need for exploration.

VIBE: What are the most important qualities to be found in Jamaican rum in general and in the ones you produce for Appleton, and how do they differ from the rums of other countries?

Spence: The islands in the Caribbean have their own style of rum, which results from their production processes. For instance, Cuban and Dominican distillers tend to produce light style rums, and then you have the French islands that produce rhum agricole, which has a completely different flavor profile altogether. I love the beautiful rich and complex flavors and aromas of our Jamaican rums as well as the versatility. Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum is a true reflection of the riches of our island and the passion of our people.

VIBE: What are the biggest challenges today for the rum industry, at a time when brown spirits like whiskeys are in ascendance?

Spence: We don’t view whiskey taking away market share from rum. Rather, premium rum offers curious drinkers an opportunity to expand their horizons in the spirits world and discover new flavors they may not have known before. As I mentioned before, bartenders play a major role in the consumer discovery process, and we’re seeing their interest in the category deepen. The bartending community is now championing premium rum and introducing it to consumers like they have done with bourbon and rye whiskey. The emergence of rum-dedicated cocktail hotspots in New York, like Rum Hall and Mother of Pearl, and other major markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago is further evidence of rum’s increasing momentum    

VIBE: Appleton is marking your 20th anniversary with Appleton Estate’s “Joy” Anniversary Blend. What's special about it?

Spence: For my anniversary blend, I simply set out to create the rum that I’d like to sip while watching the colors of my garden change in the warm glow of the Jamaican sunset. It includes two rum marques, which are of particular sentimental significance to me. The first of these marques was laid down to age in 1981, the year I joined the Appleton Estate team, and the second is my favorite marque of pot still rum. The final blend is a wonderful rum that I hope Appleton Estate fans will enjoy.

VIBE: There were few women in positions of authority in terms of distillation and blending in the world of spirits, but increasingly we're seeing women rise to the top. We know about the hurdles women have to climb but what advantages have they brought to producing spirits?

Spence: I think that women are an undeniable and formidable force in the industry. Between going behind the bar or behind the barrel, more females are entering both the bartending and distilling professions and rising to the top. I believe that women in general have more acute senses and we are more attuned to them, allowing us an advantage when it comes to tasting, blending, mixing and more.

VIBE: Your favorite way to drink your own rums?

Spence: My favorite cocktail is my own creation, the Joy. Appleton Estate Reserve, served with ginger ale, a slice of orange muddled, a few drops of Angostura Bitters, and cracked ice. I, however, would enjoy Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old simply neat to appreciate the warm vanilla, coffee, cocoa and almond notes derived from aging.

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