Behind the Scenes at Appleton Estate with Master Blender Joy Spence

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Appleton Estate.

The water source. At distilleries around the world, the first thing you invariably hear about their magical water source. You may be pointed towards a creek, flowing down from the Sottish highlands, as I saw at the Glenrothes, or peer down into deep, black pool emerging from a cave, like I found at the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee. But hands down, the most breathtaking water source that I’ve yet seen is at Jamaica’s Appleton Estate. After driving several miles on a bumpy, rutted path through cane fields, we emerge into a clearing with an oblong pond and a small pump house to the side.  A grove of trees shields the far side of the pond, and one end narrows into a stream that wanders through a grassy field, a few cows lazing about in the sun. Surely the dark, aquamarine hue of the water is a trick of the light — perhaps a reflection from the sky. But as I left the car and approached the pond’s edge, my brain slowly accepted that the water really is an almost unnatural shade of translucent blue-green.

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The water source at Appleton Estate
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Water source at Appleton Estate

Our group is joined pond-side by Appleton Master Blender Joy Spence and Catherine McDonald, Global Brand PR manager for J. Wray & Nephew, who arrived in the car just ahead of us. Joy is well-known in the spirits world as the first female master blender for a major brand, and for her thirty-five year tenure at the company, which she joined as the chief chemist. In addition to her regular blending and oversight duties, Joy’s days are further filled hosting visiting VIPs and delegations such as our group. Joy informs us that the blue color is the result of the filtering through natural limestone, and that the water’s chemical composition is partly responsible for Appleton’s signature flavor. A half hour earlier, Joy had lead us up into the nearby hills to experience a sweeping overview of the sugar cane fields that comprise Appleton Estate, where we got the obligatory selfies and group photos with Joy out of our system.

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Overlooking Cockpit Country near Appleton Estate
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Earlier in the day, our little group of nine rum explorers had sleepily piled into a bus at 7:30 AM for our three hour trek to Appleton. Passing through the outskirts of Kingston, we saw the locals heading to work, school, or occasionally, no place in particular. Following a long stretch of flat farmland (mostly sugar cane) we headed up into the hills of the Cockpit Country. The road became twisty and narrow, passing through dozens of microscopic villages and small towns, and our group’s mission became to spot the most interesting bar names. My personal favorite: Maggotty Jerk Center, appropriately named as it’s in the town of Maggotty (population: 1335). Standing with Joy overlooking Appleton’s sugar fields was our first opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of our past several hours of travel.

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Rums prior to blending at Appleton Estate

Back at the ranch (okay, the Estate) after our water source experience, we gathered in a barn for a session on rum blending, led by Joy. In front of each of us was a menagerie of small bottles and glasses. Some glasses held the core of the Appleton product line, while others held samples of both aged and unaged pot and column stilled rums. As Joy led us through a slide deck on rum and Appleton’s history, we sampled each offering in turn. Given the high level of run wonkery in our group, we interjected with all sorts of questions Joy probably doesn’t usually get: “What’s the PPM ester count of Wray & Nephew Overproof?” “Since Campari owns Appleton, do you source your barrels from Wild Turkey?” The core range we tasted included the recently renamed Signature Blend, the Reserve Blend, the Rare Blend 12 year, and Appleton 21.

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Appleton Estate’s Joy Spence
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A pleasant plot twist during our session was a competition to see who among us rum wonks could create a blend closest to the Appleton Reserve, using the pot and column still samples before us, with each person taking away a 200 ml bottle of their blend. I was sorely templated to make my blend entirely from the aged pot-stilled rum, so I could squire it home undiluted, but discretion won out. To my great surprise, Joy judged my blend to be the closest, netting me a prize of a bottle of Appleton Rare Blend 12 year, autographed for me by Joy.

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Camper English and Kate Perry crush cane at Appleton Estate
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Molasses tasting at Appleton Estate with Joy Spence

With a good amount of rum in our tummies from the blending session, we emerged into the Jamaican sunlight to take a tour akin to what regular visitors to Appleton might experience–although in our case, Joy was our personal guide. At a cane crushing demonstration stop, Kate Perry (GM of Seattle’s Rumba) and Camper English ( quite literally ran around in circles to drive a simple cane press from which we consumed cups of fresh pressed juice. We also tasted fresh molasses out of a small-scale boiling kettle, similar to what would been used in the distant past to separate sugar from molasses.

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Pot still scale model at Appleton Estate
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While the demonstrations were fun (as in “fun for the whole family”), our group was raring to see the heart of the operation–show us the pot stills! Making our way past tanker trucks and warehouse buildings, we finally arrived at the still house. The five, 5,000 gallon, double retort pot stills, lined up in a row, are a sight to behold, each with a hulking swan arm neck bowing down into the first tank (retort). In Scotland, the copper pot stills are almost always polished and shiny, whereas in in Jamaica the pot stills are consistently a dark matte brown, almost if they’re painted. An elevated walkway places you a few yards from the stills for good viewing. Beyond the stills we could see fermentation tanks, but there was no up-close visit of those to be had on this particular tour.

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Pot stills at Appleton Estate
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Column still at Appleton Estate

While Appleton–and Jamaican rum in general–is renowned for using pot stills, there are plenty of column stills in use as well. Here at Appleton, you can spy one of the column stills if you look for it. It’s clearly labeled “column still,” but it is easily overlooked next to the grandeur of the giant pots.

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Aging warehouse at Appleton Estate

The final tour stop was the Appleton aging warehouse, which was more for show than for high volume aging of barrels. We learned that Appleton has approximately 240,000 barrels of rum aging in various locations across Jamaica, mostly near Kingston; doing so helps reduce the risk of an unforeseen catastrophe at any one warehouse. Here at the Estate, the aging warehouse holds only a tiny fraction of that number.

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Of all the distilleries we visited in Jamaica, Appleton Estate was by far the most polished and tourist ready. This isn’t surprising, given that Appleton’s parent company is J. Wray & Nephew, who owns roughly 85 percent of the Jamaican rum market. J. Wray in turn is owned by Gruppo Campari, the Italian spirits behemoth that also owns Wild Turkey, Skyy Vodka, and of course Campari. They have money to spend to create a family-friendly distillery visit that appeals to the even the casual visitor to Jamaica. That’s a great start, but I knew there was much more to the J. Wray & Nephew story that a trip to Appleton wouldn’t provide.

My opportunity to dig deeper into the J. Wray story came a few days later. At a dinner for our group at a restaurant called JoJo’s in Kingston, we were joined by representatives from several distilleries, including David Morrison, senior blender at J. Wray & Nephew. Like Joy, David started out at J. Wray and Nephew as a chemist, and he was hand-picked by Joy to learn the skills of blending. Today he is the heir apparent to Joy whenever she decides to retire. It’s rumored that Joy and David aren’t allowed to travel together, in order to minimize the risk that something might happen to both of them.

Over late-night drinks (Appleton rum, of course), David filled us in on other aspects of J. Wray’s operations. Of particular interest to me was New Yarmouth, the other J. Wray & Nephew distillery and the only currently operating distillery we didn’t tour. When I wrote up my Jamaican Rum Distillery Cheat Sheet, I came across New Yarmouth but found it incredibly difficult to find any details. Among the things that David shared with us about New Yarmouth:

  • It has both pot and column stills
  • The overall capacity is larger than Appleton Estate
  • They make different marques (recipes) than at Appleton
  • Wray & Nephew Overproof gets its distinctive flavor from rums made at New Yarmouth
  • It’s similar to Appleton in appearance – neither new (like Clarendon) or incredibly old (like Hampden Estate)

David also mentioned that J. Wray & Nephew doesn’t necessarily bottle all the rum it creates. This isn’t particularly surprising once you know that it wasn’t until fairly recently that Jamaican distilleries sold rum under their own brands (e.g. Appleton,) rather than selling bulk rum to blenders and private labels.

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The CocktailWonk and Appleton’s Joy Spence

Our Appleton visit was a perfect start to our trek across six different Jamaican distilleries. Joy and Catherine were incredibly generous with their time and their rum, and we were privileged to see much more of the site than the typical visitor. The Cockpit country that surrounds the estate is gorgeous, making yet another reason to visit Appleton if you ever find yourself nearby.

24 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at Appleton Estate with Master Blender Joy Spence

    1. I was part of a special group, organized by WIRSPA, all of us people with a keen interest in rum and a history of rum advocacy. The Jamaican distilleries are effectively part of WIRSPA.

      I’m reading your article now!

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