Joy Spence is the first female master blender and the creator of most of Appleton Estate‘s special edition rum flavors. Spence dreamed of becoming a doctor and pursued a degree in chemistry in college.
However, when her attempts to gain real-world experience bore her, she was drawn away from the medical world into spirits, especially when she noticed how happy the employees of Appleton Estate seemed as they came in and out of work in her native St. Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica.
She told Essence, “People would look happy and everybody looked busy. I said, ‘You know something?’ That’s the happening place to work. Let me send my resume over there.”
Given her exceptional chemical expertise, Appleton Estate created a role for her even though there were no employment opportunities at the time. Spence became the chief chemist of the Jamaican rum company in 1981. She had never even tried the drink before.
Since drinking rum was considered unladylike during that time, she said it was unheard of for ladies to be seen doing so. “I remember tasting, at that time, an Appleton 20-year-old in a ceramic jar with very unique packaging. And I said, ‘Let me taste this. This is the first rum I’m going to taste.’ I was just so blown away with those beautiful, complex flavors.”
After experiencing her first taste, Spence’s creativity blossomed under the guidance of the company’s former master blender, Owen Tulloch. She found the motivation to come up with a variety of flavors, aromas, and aging techniques that helped define the flavor of many Appleton Estate favorites over the years.
When Tulloch ended his 16-year post in 1997, she quickly advanced to the position of master blender. She now serves as the brand’s ambassador.
Though she was well suited to her new role, it wasn’t without its difficulties. She told Refinery29, “I felt I would have resistance globally, especially with male journalists — but they welcomed me with open arms. The biggest resistance was in Jamaica, actually.”
Spence explained that her male coworkers believed a woman couldn’t be a Master Blender and that she would fail, but she rose above any critiques and let her accomplishments speak for themselves. She added, “My natural creativity sets me apart.”
The trailblazer expressed her satisfaction that more women are having the chance to be selected as master blenders, despite the fact that the industry is still dominated by men.
“I remember a very touching moment when I went to the Tales of the Cocktail [conference] in New Orleans. A beautiful African girl went down on her knees and she said, ‘Thank you so much for opening doors for other women of color!’ And believe you me, I cried,” she reminisced. “I didn’t know I had such an impact on women.”
The Jamaica-Gleaner reported that in 2022, Spence received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), making history once again as the first Jamaican woman to do so.
Spence recently attended the James Beard Foundation‘s (JBF) Appleton Estate Extraordinary Dinner Series in New York City. The event also highlighted two years of collaboration between Appleton Estate and The JBF’s Women’s Leadership Program, which strives “to champion gender and racial equity by supporting women throughout the lifecycle of their careers.”
She told Essence, “For me, success means being an agent of change for women in the spirit industry. Having been the first female master blender in the world, I’ve been able to open the doors and give opportunities to other women to become master blenders in the industry. So, for me, I became an agent of change. And I’m so proud of that and proud of the fact that so many women now have been appointed master blenders.”