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The Interview: Joy Spence, Master blender, J Wray and Nephew Ltd, Jamaica

Published:  23 July, 2008

Why did you decide to become a blender?

After graduating in chemistry I worked as a university lecturer. Then I decided I really needed some industry experience, so I joined Tia Maria as a research chemist. But I soon became bored working for a one-product operation. I would often look across the fence at Wray & Nephew and see a buzz of activity, so I sent in my resume and they offered me the position of chief chemist, providing technical support to the master blender. I became very interested in the art of blending, as I could use my creativity and move away from the more mundane laboratory work. The master blender (Owen Tulloch) reckoned I had very good sensory skills, so he started training me. I worked with him for 17 years and when he retired in 1997 I was promoted to master blender.

Why do you think it took so long to appoint a woman as a master blender?

At Wray & Nephew it was probably because I was the only woman who was interested in blending at that time, but I was very surprised to learn that I was the first female master blender in the industry globally.

Have you experienced any problems working in a male-dominated industry?

Not in Jamaica, because I had worked alongside the previous master blender for many years and everyone knew that I had the talent. But internationally it took a while to gain acceptance because I had to convince people that I had really earned the position and wasn't just married to a member of the family! When they started to value the blends I had created it was easy going from then on.

Have there been amusing moments being a woman in a traditionally male role?

Yes, at immigration when I travel on business. People find it hard to believe it when I tell them what I do because they are not used to the idea of a woman working as a rum blender. When I visited New Zealand with Owen the immigration officials were very amused when I told them my job. There was a lot of winking. They seemed to think I was his girlfriend and had just come along for a holiday. Another time, on the way to Mexico, I explained that I was a rum blender visiting on business and I was immediately carted off to have all my documents inspected. They thought it was a big joke that a woman was calling herself a rum blender.

Is the rum industry becoming less male-dominated?

Yes, in the Caribbean there are many more opportunities now for women to move up in the industry. But it is still behind the wine industry, which opened up a long time ago and now has lots of female oenologists.

Why has it been slower to change?

A lot of the companies are family-owned and so have been passed on from father to son or grandson. And I think that often the women in the family were simply not interested in working in the business.

What are the most important skills for a rum master blender?

You have to have exceptional sensory skills, be creative and have an excellent knowledge of the rum manufacturing process. To create complexity, it's important to understand how the rums will combine and age.

What are the classic mistakes people make when they first start blending?

Putting together different styles of rum that are not necessarily compatible. Initially it appears to work, but as the rums marry there is a complete transformation in the flavour profile. This is where experience really makes a difference.

What's special about Jamaican rum?

The variety of sugar cane that we use, the water, the yeast that is specially cultured from our sugar cane, the unique style of pot stills and the climatic conditions for ageing. It is so hot in Jamaica that the rum ages three times as fast as it would in a cooler climate, so you get much better extraction from the barrel and a better quality product in a shorter time.

How is rum viewed within Jamaica?

Very positively, because we grow up on rum. We say that Jamaicans drink rum from the cradle to the grave. There is a bottle of it in every home, and it is used for everything. If someone has a cold they will drink it mixed with honey and lime; if somebody dies it is sprinkled on the grave; if someone builds a new home it is sprinkled on the foundations to ensure good fortune. Rum is truly versatile!

How is the current global market for rum?

I travel four times a year to different export markets, and there has been quite a change in the past three or four years, especially in the UK, because of the cocktail explosion. The premium, aged rums are being used more and more in cocktails, so it has become an inspirational drink for young people.

Do you like to see your rums in cocktails?

Oh yes! When I see bartenders using Appleton in cocktails, I feel really proud.

What's the next step up from master blender?

There isn't one, really! All you can do is gain more experience, train young blenders coming up behind you to ensure continuity in the business and keep trying to find new ways of doing things to keep the business efficient.

Are there any female blenders coming up behind you?

No, unfortunately. None of the women at Wray & Nephew are interested!

Joy Spence, Master blender, J Wray & Nephew Ltd, LdM Brands Division, 234 Spanish Town Road, Kingston, Jamaica WI, Tel: +876 923 6141 or 757 7603

Distributed in the UK by: J. Wray & Nephew UK Ltd, 3rd floor, 5254 Southwark Street, London SE1 1UN

Tel: 020 7378 8858

Joy Spence joined J Wray & Nephew Ltd as chief chemist in 1981. She was appointed general manager of Technical and Quality Services in 1996 and became the industry's first female master blender in 1997. Spence is based at Appleton Estate in Jamaica's Nassau Valley, from where she oversees production of the company's flagship brand, Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum.