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Joy Spence: Rums - Deftly Crafted

She confidently poured the liquid into three clear stem glasses. Three finger shots, if you will. Handing one to each of us, she raised her glass, eying the contents with pride. The delicate aroma caressed my nostrils and I remarked on this. “Oh” she said, “I will get to that in time.”

Her next instruction was to hold the glass to the light, and without commenting on its beautiful copper hue and excellent clarity and brilliance, she focused our attention on the “green ring of aging” which appeared on the meniscus of the liquid. She explains, “It comes from the tannin in the oak, and the richness of the colour and the shade of green are indications of the aging, giving the full bodied product you have in the glass.”

Then we were told to “lean the glass and let the liquid settle back into the glass and look at the legs…” Of course, the legs were not on the race track, but were rather gracefully, slowly walking in gentile fashion down the sides of the glass. The explanation…the viscosity of a full-bodied drink causes the leisurely flow of the liquid to the bottom.

Finally, we got to swirl the contents of the glass. What did I experience? The intoxicating smell is best described by our host “a complex aromatic release of the coffee, cocoa, vanilla, the orange peel” all blended to make Appleton Estate Extra, the 12-year-old which is among the Appleton Reserve range of upscale bottling.

The Master Blender of the Wray and Nephew line of fine rums, Mrs. Joy Spence, OD, was relaxed and engaging as she gave us a peak into the science of the rum-making process as well as its many artistic qualities.

Sir Howard Cooke, Governor General of Jamaica, presenting the Order of Distinction to Joy Spence

The 1972, UWI First Class Honours graduate in Chemistry says it was her high school teacher who sparked her passion in the subject. “My chemistry teacher at Holy Childhood, Mrs. Eldora Mills was my mentor. She always told me how good I was. I was 13 and I would stay back and help her prepare the specimens for the labs in the upper school. I was therefore always ahead of my class.

“Then she went off to have a baby and died in childbirth. I vowed then that I would honour her memory by developing competency in Chemistry.”

Life on campus, for Joy, was a time to realize her career dream, have fun, meet and interact with new people, be happy... a time of joy. This was encouraged by her father, a former educator who by then was employed in the private sector. His formula was hard work plus play made for a great person. She listened well.

“I was Irvine Carnival Queen. I was a member of the Dance Society, President of the Chemistry Club. I liked to lyme. Picking plums from the tree at the library where I spent a lot of my study time, was fun.”

Appointed the first female Master Blender in the spirits industry globally in 1997, Joy had a special study routine which included regular use of the Library. “I would go there after my classes for the day ended. I had to satisfy my own curiosity on issues I heard in the lectures of the day. The lecturer’s note alone were not good enough for me, I had to know what other authorities had to say on the matter.”

“I regarded my lectures as very important. I listened keenly. I made copious notes. I tried to understand the subject matter. Then I used the library to validate my understanding.” She explained that having “engaged her mind” she then had time to participate in numerous extra curricula activities before making the journey home to Molynes Gardens, via two JOS buses.

She had high praise for her lecturers, including Professors Gerald Lalor, William Chen and Kenneth Magnus. In recognition of her application to this subject Joy received the Chemistry prize at graduation, and was acclaimed to have had the highest Chemistry average of any student at the UWI up to then.

After UWI, Mrs. Spence taught at her alma mater, Holy Childhood High School for Girls. Then she was off to the University of Loughborough in England where she gained the M.Sc. in Analytical Chemistry.  Then it was back to teaching, this time at the then College of Arts Science and Technology (now UTECH) before a newspaper advertisement for a chemist caught her eye.

Soon she was hired as a Chemist at Estate Industries where the world famous Tia Maria liqueur was made. It was not enough. “I soon got bored. Lab work on one product was not enough to keep me satisfied.” She explained that next door, she often saw tankers and trucks arriving, and understood they were off-loading a variety of alcoholic beverages. So, in short order, she put her resume together and dropped it off “next door.”

She was invited to an interview and offered the job as Chief Chemist. Years later, she was shown her interview notes written by the HR manager “…she is going to get bored soon.” She chuckled, “I have been with Wray and Nephew for 29 years!”

On arrival at Wray & Nephew, Joy was made to believe Master Blender Owen Tulloch was unflappable, did not allow intrusions. But the she worked her way into his laboratory space, and for 17 years was his “sorceress apprentice.” Mr. Tulloch discovered her keen sense of smell and her acute ability to differentiate taste. Joy never drank alcohol before joining Wray & Nephew in 1979!

“In the 1980s, the Chief Chemist started creating the super premium blend, Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum the ultra premium blend, Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year Old and Appleton Estate Master Blenders’ Legacy, a tribute to three Generations of Appleton Estate Blenders”, her company notes.  Appleton Estate Exclusive, Appleton Estate 30-year-old Jamaica Rum and Appleton Estate 250th Anniversary are additions to her contribution to Appleton’s reputation for fine rums.  This range, she acknowledges, has shown how sophisticated, how complex, rum can be, with the many different flavours, subtle infusion of ingredients that only the connoisseur can identify, but the layman or rum lover can appreciate as being simply “different.”

Master Blender Joy is no longer in the classroom but she continues to be interested in the way the subject is taught. “Chemistry should be easily accessed using the technology of the time…text messaging, electronic game formats, rap songs.” On Joy’s priority list is the desire to teach at the formative level…third form, when students begin to learn the subject, to provide them with the perfect foundation for successfully grasping the concepts.

Mixing is an art Joy has not confined exclusively to her work. She is a very social person, mixing as often as possible with the clientele, conducting tours at Appleton Estate in St. Elizabeth and giving seminars on rum blending.

Her love for things arty extends to her gardens at home, her flair for interior decorating, evident at home and office!

And talk about love…she smiles beautifully when asked about her family. Husband Emile, provides great support in her career development. Daughter Tracy-Ann, graduate of the UWI’s Mona School of Business, she acknowledges is a math genius, while son Sean is an undergraduate at Columbia University with an eye on reading for a Law degree. “Why no chemistry?” I asked. “Well, I tried, very hard. They both acquiesced to fifth form, but determined they had their own career goals.”

The activities for Homecoming Week, beginning February 14, include a “Dance- off.” I reckon Joy will offer great competition in this event. After all, she is not one to back-off from a challenge!

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