Profile: Joy Spence

The world’s first female master blender, Joy Spence, is a chemist, philanthropist and all-round spirited raconteur. Jaq Bayles meets the architect of Jamaica’s best-known rums

If ever anyone represented the case for nominative determinism, Joy Spence, Appleton Estate’s master blender, is surely that person, for she does indeed seem to find joy in everything. A powerhouse of energy, enthusiasm and ideas, at 61, Spence still marvels at the way her life has turned out and has firm plans to ensure her good fortune spills over into the lives of others.

The day after the launch of the world’s only 50-year-old rum, the world’s first female blender (and one of still only a handful) is ensconced in the back of a mini-bus, taking a bunch of journalists to tour the Appleton Estate in the parish of St Elizabeth, in Jamaica’s Cornwall county.

She is buzzing with the success of the launch in front of Jamaica’s prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, one of her heros, and regaling us with anecdotes about the distillery. A favourite is the tale of one of the warehouses in Kingston, now closed down, which had a water tank on its roof that somehow ended up full of fish.

“People were always up there with fishing rods,” she tells us, throwing back her head and releasing one of the great, open-throated laughs which pepper her conversation. “We have no idea how the fish got there. Maybe the birds dropped them.”

Spence is an easy traveller, well used to the bumpy, winding drive from brand owner J Wray & Nephew’s headquarters in Kingston to the estate in the centre of the island. Before the bypass was finished in 2002 it was a four-hour hike between the two sites. The journey time has now been halved, much to Spence’s delight as she still travels out to the estate twice a week when she’s not in another part of the globe carrying out her ambassadorial duties.

So how did the daughter of a banana industry worker and a ‘homemaker’ get to head up one of the world’s best-known rums?

Passion in progress

Born in the parish of Manchester, Spence grew up in Kingston from the age of two. “When I was tiny I wanted to be a teacher. When I was about four I used to go to this free school and one day the teacher was absent. When my mother came to pick me up she found me standing on a stool teaching the class.”

Indeed, Spence did go on to be a teacher for a while, and it is something she has never let go. Along with all her work for Appleton, she finds time these days to teach chemistry to pupils who want help – for free.

Spence discovered her own passion for chemistry at the age of 13. “It was all because of my wonderful chemistry teacher, Eldora Mills. I used to help her prepare the labs for the upper school and realised I had a passion. I was very advanced academically because of helping set up the labs, but when I reached the sixth form she died in child birth.

“I was devastated – she was my role model – but I was determined to carry on and make her proud. I taught myself chemistry from text books and the school had someone come in to facilitate the labs.”

The self-taught Spence went on to graduate from the University of the West Indies in 1972 with a Bachelor of Science Degree, First Class Honours, then returned to her old high school to teach chemistry.

In 1975 she joined the faculty of Jamaica’s College of Arts, Science & Technology (now the University of Technology) as a chemistry lecturer before moving to England to pursue an MSc in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Loughborough. Her final exam scores were the highest ever achieved by a student at Loughborough – a record that still stands today.

After graduating from Loughborough, Spence returned to Jamaica and resumed lecturing at the College of Arts, Science & Technology. In 1979 she decided to switch careers and gained a position as research and development chemist at Estate Industries, the producers of Tia Maria.

But, two years on, she found the job was not taxing her enough. “I was bored at Tia Maria. I have to multi-task or I get bored very easily. I used to look over the fence at Wray & Nephew next door and I thought it looked a lot of fun, tankers and trucks always coming and going. So I sent them my resume and they offered me the job of chief chemist.”

But her reputation for restlessness followed her. “I found out later that the HR manager had taken the time to write in the comment section of my employment record that I wouldn’t be here very long because I would get bored here too.” Spence seems incredulous that anyone would do such a thing. Especially given that “31 years later, here I still am.” And there’s that laugh.

As chief chemist Spence worked closely with the master blender, Owen Tulloch, who recognised something special in her sensory skills and quickly became her mentor. “I worked on the sensory stuff as well as the scientific side and got very involved in the distilling. Owen let me in on distilling secrets as he could tell I had good sensory skills.”

All this was at a time when it was largely unheard of for women to be seen drinking. Says Spence: “I didn’t even drink before I joined the company. In those days a woman didn’t go into bars. It wasn’t seen as a proper thing for a lady to do. It’s all changed now.”

So enthralled did Spence become with the distilling process, combining art with science, that she started making her own blends “on the side”.

She warms to her theme: “Once I started to appreciate the complexities of the spirit I realised what a wonderful spirit rum is and I started looking at serving it with mixers and bringing out the flavours of the spirit.”

And of course there are many different flavour profiles to rum, with Appleton producing a raft of offerings. Spence says she favours Appleton Reserve for everyday drinking and the 21 year old for sipping. “The flavour profiles are all dictated by marketing, whether it’s a sipping rum or a drinking rum. We have to make lots of batches that are all slightly different.”

Delving further into the process, she points out the importance of the variety of sugar cane used. “We have several varieties and all produce a slightly buttery and sweet note.” Then there is the secret yeast culture which is handed down from generation to generation, constantly replenished to maintain the consistency. Should a hurricane or some other disaster wipe out the stocks, says Spence, she holds the secret to recreating the culture.

Natural successor

While still working under Tulloch as chief chemist Spence was also appointed general manager for technical services and was instrumental in steering J Wray & Nephew, through the ISO 9002 accreditation process, which the company received in 1996 in a record time of six months.

In 1997 Tulloch retired and Spence was seen as his natural successor. She says, modestly: “At the time not many people were interested in the position, and even if they were they weren’t being groomed like I was. Being a woman in a senior position I knew some of the men felt uncomfortable – but that’s normal and I don’t let those things bother me.”

The rest, as they say, is history – a history which found its recent culmination in the release of the 50-year-old Jamaica Independence Reserve, the care for which Spence inherited when she became master blender. She cites the launch as a career highlight – “being part of history” – along with being awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government (2005) for services to manufacturing.

Spence adds: “This year has been very special to me because I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Loughborough University and an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the University of the West Indies.”

She says the philosophy that has helped her gain her numerous achievements is that “there are only two answers to any question. Yes or no. I am not afraid to take risks”.

And she still has plenty up her sleeve for the future. “I have one blend secret I am working on that I would like to have realised before I go. It’s going to be historic in how it’s aged.”

She is also ambitious for the four years left before she should retire, hoping through her ambassadorial role to help Appleton achieve 3 million case sales. Sales are currently at 1.2 million cases.

Clearly, Spence is reluctant to see an end to her role at Appleton but says: “If I have to retire at 65 I have a back-up plan. I want to go back into education. There’s a need for a good foundation in chemistry in Jamaica. I want to set up a school for third formers. Pupils fail badly in sciences.”

And she has high hopes for the future of women in Jamaica. “It’s opening up more now for women and I do think my appointment helped pave the way. I think it’s going to change very rapidly in Jamaica because boys are not doing well in school. In some areas girls are more focused.

"I think mothers pamper boys in Jamaica and everything must be catered to them. Girls are strong now. In the past they would get married early, but not any more. They are determined to succeed and get a first degree and a second degree. They have this drive and ambition that they’re going to succeed.”

She says university attendance is in a ratio of 60:40 in favour of females. In the ranks of employees at J Wray & Nephew she estimates the ratio at 70 male to 30 female, but adds: “When I started it was probably 80:20.”

Despite obviously having worked hard for her accolades, Spence reveals that she feels lucky, adding: “Life is full of surprises.”

But it’s hard to believe she has time for surprises in her life as, astonishingly, outside of her distilling and teaching, she has been “working on a little cosmetics line”, an all-natural night-time moisturiser called Nite Essence, and her own natural all-purpose cleaner, which she plans to take to a commercial level. Both products she manufactures in her home laboratory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also husband, Emile, daughter Tracy-Ann (29), son Sean (24) and shitzu-poodle Thunder to factor into the work-life equation. And she still finds time to grow orchids – “I like sun orchids, I have dozens of them” – watch National Geographic TV and listen to 70s soul music.

But for now our bus has arrived at the Appleton Estate and she is about to treat us all to a rum seminar. First, we visit the source of the water used in the distilling, an amazingly blue oasis. Four young men who have been swimming in the river follow us to the source, thinking we are tourists and hoping for money, says Spence. When we return to the mini-bus, she calls for the largest bottle of rum stashed in the back and hands it to the swimmers. They grin and wave their appreciation. “They will have a good afternoon,” she smiles, unleashing that laugh again. Spreading the joy.