As the world’s first female master blender and a role model to many, it seems apt that Appleton Estate’s Joy Spence was inspired to pursue her career path due to the guidance of a strong woman in her own life.
In light of International Women’s Day this week, Ashley Pini took the opportunity to speak with Joy about her experiences as an influential woman in the drinks industry, and how she’s taken that position and become a leading example for both young women and Jamaica as a whole.
ASHLEY PINI: Where did you passion for chemistry start and what drove you to study the science at university? What age were you when you realised this was something you were interested in?
JOY SPENCE: Well, I accidently fell in love with chemistry when I was 13 because of my chemistry teacher. She was such an awesome teacher, and she was also like a second mother to me. I would stay back in the evenings and help her to prepare the laboratory work for the upper school. So I became very experienced, knowledgeable and advanced in chemistry. When I reached fourth form, she died in childbirth. It was a very emotional time for me and I made a vow that I would become the best chemist possible in her honour. So that’s how I considered my path in chemistry.
After finishing school, I went to the University of the West Indies and pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, where I achieved first class honours. From there, I did some teaching/lecturing at my old high school and at the University of Technology, but I reached a point where I wanted to get some manufacturing and industry experience.
So I joined Tia Maria as a research chemist in 1979. However, at that stage, Tia Maria was a one-product operation, and I love to multitask. I became very bored during the days, so they started getting me to do research chemist work in the mornings and PR in the evenings.
J. Wray and Nephew, the parent company of Appleton, was actually located right next door to Tia Maria at the time, and I used to look out the window at the lab during my days of boredom and watch all the activity that went on over there. So I sent my resume over to J. Wray and Nephew, went for an interview and two weeks later they offered me the position of chief chemist. This was all in 1981. From there, I started work under the previous master blender, Owen Tulloch, and that is when I fell in love with rum. Owen helped me to hone my sensory skills, he taught me the art of blending, and on his retirement I was appointed the master blender in 1997.
AP: So you had this wonderful ability to understand chemistry, but you must have already had the sensory skills necessary. Did Owen bring those skills to light?
JS: I knew from childhood that I was able to differentiate aromas better than most others, but I had no idea I would apply this skill set to the art of blending rum.
I had a wonderful relationship with Owen. He taught me everything. Whenever anything new was happening in the distillery, or he was blending a different style of rum, he’d walk me through the process. He showed me how flavours developed into different notes at the end of aging, and I was eager to learn, so we worked continuously together for 17 years.
AP: During your transition from chief chemist to master blender at Appleton Estate, did you find there were hurdles along the way, or did you find this was quite a smooth progression?
JS: I went through a range of different positions with the company. So from chief chemist, I went into a research and chemistry position, then I was appointed the general manager for technical services – this meant I was responsible for chemistry, the lab operations, research and development, environment, health and safety, so I covered a wide area of responsibility. Product development was definitely a key part of that. There were slight difficulties during this mobility, because I was the only female at the managerial level of production. In that position, you have to stand firm and let everybody understand that you have the technical capabilities and you’re as good as any male.
AP: You’re obviously blessed with your sensory abilities. Do you find there are any differences between men and women when they’re tasting or looking for different aromas?
JS: People say that women have a greater sensory abilities than men, but as far as I’m concerned males have just as good sensory skills as females, it just depends on your natural talent and ability.
AP: Now you’re in this position as the world’s first female master blender, you have received a lot of attention and become a role model for many people. Has that changed how you feel about your role and your day-to-day work?
JS: It hasn’t really changed how I feel about my role and my day-to-day work, but it has allowed me to promote an alternative way of applying chemistry in a male dominated industry. So I do a lot of motivational talks with female high school students, and I encourage them to think outside the box to recognise that there are professions out there that women can enter and become successful in, especially in areas that are considered male dominated.
AP: Do females have a lower university attendance rate than males in the West Indies?
JS: Well it is quite skewed in the Caribbean, because at university 70% of the population is female and 30% male. So it’s actually the opposite of what you might expect!
But there definitely still are barriers, believe it or not. You still have areas where a woman will not be seen in that particular position. Although more and more females are now entering the boardroom and becoming managing directors, it’s not yet at the rate that we would like to see happen.
AP: On to the rum side of things, in your role as master blender, are you able to evolve the style of the rum at all, or is your role to make sure consistency remains in place?
JS: I maintain the consistency of the existing blend. I do not tweak the formulas of the existing blend, but for new expressions, I add my own flair to them and my own particular style.
For example, the first rum I created was a 250 Anniversary Blend for Appleton Estate and then my next blend was the Appleton Estate Reserve Blend. For both, I wanted to create a sipping rum that was extremely versatile and had less powerful oak, but also had some spice to it, with rich vanilla, ginger and nutmeg notes. I tend to not produce rums that are very oaky in nature.
AP: In that role, once the rum is developed, do you now have to showcase that to the world through PR? Are appearances now a big part of your role?
JS: It is now a big part of my role, because I’m also a global ambassador. A part of that is that I go to various countries to promote the Appleton Estate range of rums and do masterclasses with trade, influencers and, of course, some consumers.
AP: Are you, therefore, a bit of a role model for Jamaica as a whole. You’re presenting Appleton, but are you also presenting Jamaica?
JS: Yes, certainly. As a matter of fact, last year the Jamaican government bestowed the honour of the Order of Distinction, the Rank of Commander Class on me, which is a national honour in recognition of my contribution to the promotion of Jamaica’s rum industry and brand Jamaica globally.
AP: That’s incredible! Obviously that affords you a lot of travel. Do you enjoy that?
JS: I do enjoy visiting the various markets and observing how consumers actually appreciate and enjoy Appleton Estate. It’s very heart-warming for me to see how everyone embraces our rum.