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.
Publishing Editor Ashley Pini spoke recently with Joy about her experience 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 your passion for chemistry start and what drove you to study the science at university?
Joy Spence: Well, I accidentally 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 the 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 first 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 multi-task. 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 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 in 1997, I was appointed Master Blender.
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 as General Manager of Technical and Quality Services – this meant I was responsible for chemistry, the lab operations, research and development, environment, and 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 have received a lot of attention and become a role model for many people as the world’s first female Master Blender. Has that changed how you feel about your role and 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 to be 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 are definitely still 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 and style to them.
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: 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 Government of Jamaica bestowed the honour of the Order of Distinction, which is a national honour in recognition of my contribution to the promotion of Jamaica’s rum industry and brand Jamaica globally.