Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Finding the Best Kind of Joy in Making Rum

Joy Spence is an all-too-rare phenomenon in the spirits world. An industry veteran with 35-plus years of experience under her belt, she became the industry’s first female master blender for Jamaica’s Appleton Estate rum in 1997. This year, the brand celebrates the 20th anniversary of that achievement with a special bottling called Joy.

We sat down with Spence to taste her new rum and chat about her career highlights, how the rum industry has changed over the decades and why she thinks rum is poised to challenge whiskey.

Tell us about this rum.

“It’s a blend of rums, some as old as 35 years, and includes one I selected from 1981, the year I joined Appleton. There’s also some 25-year-old pot still rum, which adds a whole other dimension to the flavor. The youngest rum in the blend is 25 years old.

“Tasting it, you’ll notice the orange peel top note intertwines with ginger and spice. It finishes with warm vanilla, coffee, cocoa, butterscotch, almond and brown sugar. I’ve been drinking rum for a long time, and I’d say this rivals some 25-year-old single malts out there. When people drink it, they can’t believe it’s rum. It has the complexity of whiskey, but it’s not overpowering with oak.”

How long did it take you to create it?

“It took me six months to create several prototypes. But I’ve had it in my head for about two years. I selected rums I knew would fulfill the profile I was looking for: exceptionally smooth, complex flavors, a sweet, mild oak finish. The idea was to create a rum that embodied the passion I have for the brand and would also be exciting for the consumer.

“I was also very involved in the packaging—the curvy shape of the bottle, in particular. I wanted elegance and sophistication, something that reflected my spirit. It’s not the same boring square rum bottle. I wanted it to be different, reminiscent of the Hennessy bottle. And the bird on the label is a hummingbird, Jamaica’s national bird.”

What are you most proud of in your career?

“One highlight is being able to see the growth of premium aged rum category. We started it in 1986. It took a while before we could stand on firm ground with consumers accepting premium aged rum.

“I’m also proud of helping improve our tools to better anticipate and respond to volume. Mechanization is important part of transition. For example, the mechanization of sugar cane harvesting, and filling and dumping barrels. Sounds boring, but it leads to efficiency.”

What are the greatest challenges?

“Making sure you have stocks available for aged rum—for example, 21 years old, 12 years old—so you have enough to respond to market demand. That’s always a tough balance.”

What are some changes you’ve seen in the rum industry?

“We are one of the few big brands that to go from cane to cup, meaning more and more producers are buying molasses versus growing their own sugar. It’s a bad thing—you have more control over the quality of your molasses if you grow your own cane and make your own sugar.”

What’s next for you?

“I’m working on some limited-time offerings to create a buzz around the brand and keep consumer focus. I can’t disclose what it will be—another special rum.”

How do you see rum evolving in the years to come?

“The premium aged rum category is the one to watch. In my estimation, it will be the next whiskey. I do a lot of master classes with consumers. People still think of rum as something you mix with juices or cola. They don’t realize that good rum can be sophisticated and enjoyed like any other fine spirit.”