Updated Aug. 27, 2019
What could possibly be better than an Appleton Estate rum tasting at The Mai-Kai? How about the first-ever such event at the historic Polynesian palace hosted by Joy Spence, the longtime master blender for the venerable Jamaican brand synonymous with pure premium rum.
Quick links below
* 5 things you might not know about Joy Spence
* 12 things we learned about how Appleton rum is made
* How Joy Spence wants you to experience Appleton Estate rums
Recipe: Joy Spence’s favorite rum cocktail
* Event preview, Joy Spence biography and Appleton rum overview
The 50 or so enthusiasts who were lucky enough to score a ticket to the sold-out presentation on Aug. 14 were in for a treat. In addition to four delicious Appleton rums, we enjoyed a complimentary Mai Tai and happy-hour prices on The Mai-Kai’s extensive cocktail and pupu menus.
But the most valuable take-away was undoubtedly the fascinating first-hand information provided by the world’s first female master blender. Her articulate and straightforward delivery, sprinkled with entertaining and whimsical anecdotes, made the rum-tasting experience a true Joy.
5 things you might not know about Joy Spence
* In her youth, she went to an all-girls catholic school and originally wanted to become a nun. “But I’m an only child, and when I told my mother I wanted to become a nun she marched down to the school and told the principal that she needs grandchildren.” Luckily for Appleton Estate and Jamaican rum devotees worldwide, she never joined the convent.
* Spence went to college to become a doctor, but she ended up concentrating on her passion for chemistry. When it came time to get some industry experience, she joined Tia Maria as a research chemist. At this time, the company that makes the dark Jamaican liqueur was located right next to J. Wray & Nephew, which makes Appleton Rum.
* She was bored at Tia Maria and always noticed the action at the “happening place” across the road, so in 1981 she sent a resume and set up an interview. “They told me right up front that there were no vacancies,” she said, but two weeks later they offered her a new position as chief chemist because they were so impressed with her resume. Despite the salary being less than her current job, she left Tia Maria and the rest is rum history.
* As chief chemist, Spence worked closely with the master blender, Owen Tulloch. “I became very fascinated with what he was doing in his private room,” she said, and her curiosity led her to knock on his door and find out. Spence recalled: “He started to test me and said ‘you have amazing sensory skills. You’ll become an excellent blender one day.’ So he took me under his wing and I studied with him for 17 years. When he retired, my bosses took a very bold move to appoint me as the master blender. No other woman had ever been given that position in the entire spirits industry. They actually got a lot of flack for it, but they knew what they were doing. My whole life changed after that.”
* The first rum she oversaw as master blender was the Appleton Estate 250th Anniversary release in 1999. She said her knees where shaking during the process. She wasn’t sure how it would be received, “but I got an excellent reaction” and “that gave me the strength and courage to continue and make the other blends that we now have in our portfolio.”
12 things we learned about how Appleton Estate rum is made
* Appleton Estate, est. 1749, is located in the lush and tropical Nassau Valley. “Believe it or not, it rains every day at 2 p.m., so we don’t have to worry about irrigation,” Spence said. This rainfall feeds the limestone springs beneath the ground, as well as the robust sugar cane crop.
* The estate grows 10 varieties of sugar cane year-round. The crop is harvested between January and May and crushed to yield juice. The juice is then boiled, resulting in crystals of sugar suspended in molasses. A massive centrifuge separates the two. The sugar is sold, and the leftover molasses is pumped over to the distillery, becoming the starting material for the rum.
* The limestone springs – which produce a distinctive turquoise blue water with “a nice soft, sweet taste” – are Spence’s favorite part of the estate. “When I’m feeling depressed and down, I take a glass of Appleton Estate Reserve, drive over to the water source, sit on a rock, and enjoy the beauty of the springs. I sip the Reserve, and by the time my glass is finished, all my troubles have been washed away and I’m ready to go back and face the problems of the distillery.” This unique spring water is added to the molasses.
* To the molasses they also add yeast that has been specially cultured in the Appleton laboratory. The yeast acts on the molasses, which is known as fermentation. This converts the sugars into alcohol. “After 36 hours, this process is completed and now we have fermented molasses that has 7 percent alcohol,” Spence said.
* To concentrate the alcohol and create rum, Appleton Estate uses two distillation methods:
– Small-batch, traditional copper pot-still distillation features stills specially designed for Appleton in Scotland. “The rums distilled from our copper pots have a distinctive orange peel top note,” Spence said. “The rums are rich, bold, funky, very aromatic. This is the heart and soul of our blend.” This rum is distilled at 86 percent.
– The modern column-still method is much more controlled, in contrast to the “more artisan” pot stills. “The column still rums tend to produce very subtle notes of banana, pineapple, coconut and lychee,” Spence said. This rum is distilled at 96 percent.
* The raw rums are shipped separately via tanker trucks into Kingston for aging. It’s “quite a treacherous journey” along a very winding road, Spence said, noting that she occasionally comes across a tanker and makes sure she stays clear. She laughed, adding that she imagines the tragic headline in the newspaper: “Master blender run over by own rum tanker.” But, she’s quick to add: “We’ve never had an accident because the drivers are very skillful.”
* Each rum is stored separately in huge stainless steel vats. They are diluted to 80 percent alcohol, then the aging process begins. Appleton rums are aged in the “highest quality barrels in the industry,” known as No. 1 select, once-used Bourbon barrels. They are shipped directly to Jamaica after they’re drained of Bourbon and immediately sealed. As Spence explained, lower quality barrels are not taken care of as well. They are often stored outside, where the bung holes open and “critters” can get into the barrel. “They become part of the flavor profile of the spirit” that’s later aged in that barrel. She said with a laugh that there’s a code used to describe this phenomenon when they analyze the competition. It’s “D.R.,” which means “dead rat.”
* The aging of rum in the oak barrels a mysterious and “magnificent chemical process,” Spence said. “Nobody has been able to fully understand it.” In simplified form, she explained, “the tannins in the oak give the rum a golden color and woody notes. Flavonoids produce flavors such as vanilla, coffee, cocoa, hazelnut and almond.” She made it a point to emphasize that Appleton does not add any flavor to the rum. “They’re created naturally when the rum interacts with the oak.” Oxidation can add sweet and fruity aromas to the rum as it ages. Appleton’s column- and pot-still rums are aged separately.
* Because of the phenomenon known as “tropical aging,” Caribbean rums “are the best value for your money in the spirits industry,” Spence said. Due to the climate, rum stored in barrels in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean ages three times as fast as in colder climates such as Scotland. “Our 21-year-old rum would have to age for 63 years in Scotland to get the same flavor profile and intensity,” Spence said, adding that this is scientifically proven. The Scotch Whiskey Institute sent Scotch to Jamaica to age and identified the 3:1 ratio, she said. If you compare a 15-year-old whiskey and a 15-year-old tropical aged rum, you’ll find that the colors are different and “you get a sharp bite in the back end of the whiskey whereas the 15-year-old rum is very smooth, mellow and complex,” Spence said.
* The downside of tropical aging, however, is the high evaporation loss (aka “angel’s share”). Barrels lose 6 percent of their rum in Jamaica, compared to 2 percent in Scotland. To minimize the loss, every three years Appleton conducts a “refilling exercise” in which they line up barrels that are a similar style and a similar age. They empty the barrels and fill them all back up. “The more space you have between the top of the barrel and the liquid, the more evaporation loss,” Spence said.
* If it weren’t for refilling, Appleton would never be able to release special limited-edition rums such as Appleton Estate 50, which included rums aged for a minimum of 50 years. To make this rum, Appleton started with 26 barrels but ended up with 13 “even after strict refilling,” Spence said. Without mitigating the evaporation, “we would not have had anything to bottle after 50 years.”
* Blending, the final step in the rum-making process, is more art than science. Spence did not reveal any secrets, other than to explain that the blending of Appleton rums includes the combination of “different pot-still rums, different percentages, different ages, with different column-still rums, different percentages, different ages.”
The highlight of the event, of course, was a tasting that’s similar to what you’ll find at the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience in Jamaica, the state-of-the-art visitor’s center that opened in 2017 to honor her 20th year as master blender. Under the master blender’s guidance, we had a true multi-sensory experience.
Appreciating any rum begins with becoming acquainted with the distinctive aromas. Samples of Appleton Estate’s full premium range sat before us, but Spence had us start with some unaged and aged rums that came straight from the distillery. The plain bottles were simply labeled “Unaged Column Still Rum,” “Aged Pot Still Rum,” etc. They were all diluted down to 20 percent alcohol (40 proof), but the aromas were on full display. Each table shared two samples from each still, two unaged and two aged around two years.
The aged versions had more color, but also noticeably different aromatics. The unaged column-still rum was very light, with dry and “very subtle fruity notes,” as Spence described it. On the other hand, the unaged pot-still rum was “very aromatic and funky.” The pot-still rum had much more aroma (and taste) even though both had the exact same strength. “People tend to confuse alcoholic strength with flavor,” Spence noted. This was a great example of how the same raw product, distilled in two very different stills, could turn into two very different rums.
Then, before we started the tasting her rums, Spence took us on a “sensory journey.” We passed around plates containing various flavors to help connect the dots with the flavors in the rum. But these foods weren’t for tasting. She asked us to smell the vanilla pod, nutmeg, ground orange, roasted coffee beans, and dark chocolate. “These are the dominant flavors you’ll find in the Appleton Estate range,” Spence said. The orange and nutmeg come from the pot-still distillation. The vanilla, coffee and chocolate come from aging in the oak barrels.
Now it was time to put our awakened senses to work on the premium range of Appleton Estate rums. (Note that prior to 2015, the first three rums below were branded as Appleton Estate V/X, Appleton Estate Reserve, and Appleton Estate Extra 12-Year-Old. The names and labels changed, but Spence’s blends and even the bottle design remained the same. Bottles remain in the wild, and you’ll also run across old reviews and recipes on this blog and elsewhere that refer to the older names.)
Appleton Estate Signature Blend is a combination of 15 aged rums. “When you smell Signature, you’re getting the distinctive orange peel top note, plus nice fruity notes, apricot, peach and hints of molasses,” Spence said. It’s ideal as a mixer, as The Mai-Kai and many of the top Tiki and craft cocktails bars well know. “In Jamaica, we love to mix Signature with Ting,” Spence said, referring to the island’s iconic tart and sweet grapefruit soda. “Signature is very fruity, great for mixing and cocktails.” Typical U.S. retail price: $20.
Appleton Estate Reserve Blend is a versatile spirit featuring 20 select aged rums. Explains Spence: “When you smell Reserve, you’re still getting the orange peel top notes, but now you’re getting spicy notes: ginger, nutmeg, with a hint of vanilla and some warm oak notes.” It’s aged longer than Signature, so it can be enjoyed neat or in simple, “elevated cocktails.” In Jamaica, it’s often mixed into a fresh coconut, which is “absolutely delicious,” Spence said. When you see tourists walking around Jamaica drinking out of a coconut with a straw, they’re probably drinking Reserve Blend, she said. It also “makes a beautiful Daiquiri” and other light cocktails, she said. “You don’t want to overpower the beautiful flavor of the rum.” This blend is a reconfiguration of the 250th Anniversary rum from 1999, which proved to be so popular it became a part of the permanent Estate lineup. Typical U.S. retail price: $25.
Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old is the first rum in the range with an age statement. As the name implies, it must sit in the barrel a minimum of 12 years. It features deep oak, fruity and cocoa notes. Rare Blend is best enjoyed neat, with a few pieces of ice, or in an “elegant cocktail” such as the Mai Tai. “It makes an amazing Old Fashioned,” Spence said. “This is one of the best values for your money in the spirits industry.” When you factor in the tropical aging and put it up against a 36-year-old whiskey, there’s no comparison, she said. Typical U.S. retail price: $37.
Appleton Estate 21 Year Old is a luxury rum that includes some rums older than 21 years, but due to the strict rules of Jamaica the declared age is based on the youngest rums in the blend. It features the distinctive Appleton orange peel top note, but it also has rich vanilla, coffee, hazelnut and butterscotch notes. It’s “exceptionally smooth,” mellow and complex, Spence said. Considering its age and the quantities that are produced, it’s a very good value, she said. Typical U.S. retail price: $125.
After hearing the stories and tasting all of these fine rums in sequence, you’re left with a deep appreciation of the care and craft that goes into them.
To cap the evening, we were invited to take a bite of the dark chocolate that we had set aside, then take a sip of the 21 Year Old. As the bitterness of the cocoa lingered on our tongues, the aged rum hit like a crescendo. “You get an explosion of flavors on your tongue,” Spence said. “I like to say it’s like a surprise party in your mouth. The bitterness of the chocolate disappears because the rum has cocoa notes in it that complement the cocoa in the chocolate.”
Before we wrapped up, Spence also made it a point to mention Appleton’s strict adherence to Jamaica’s high standards of rum production, known officially as a Geographical Indication (or GI). “It’s important to note that all the flavors in our rums are naturally derived,” she said, adding that Appleton will never add sugar, color or flavor to its rums. Spence didn’t point fingers, but lamented the fact that other countries allow their rum producers to add copious amounts of sugar and flavor. “If you want it pure, just buy Appleton Estate,” she said.
Before we left, all the participating tasters were declared to be official “Appleton ambassadors.” We also walked away with shirts and hats, along with the wooden coasters and tasting guides that were on the tables. We also left with an insatiable desire to taste more and to learn more about Appleton and Jamaican rum.
Luckily, Spence and her crew have us covered. “We have the largest stock of very old rums in the world,” she said, touting the 240,000 barrels that are aging at Appleton Estate. “This is why we can come out with beautiful limited-time offerings ever year.”
The last special release with wide distribution was a 30-year-old rum last year. This year’s release is an exclusive for the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, so a trip to Jamaica may be in order. But it sounds like there are more new rums in the pipeline.
If you’re extremely patient (and young), you can look forward to a 100-year-old rum to celebrate Jamaica’s centenary in 2062. Details were released at the 50th anniversary, including a plan to hide the barrels in a secret location and chain them to the floor to prevent theft.
In sticking to Jamaica’s high standards, this won’t be a true 100-year-old rum. The angel’s share would likely make that unfeasible. But the rum laid down in barrels in 2012 will also contain some of the Appleton Estate 50 Year Old released that year to celebrate the country’s independence. While it will carry an official age statement of 50 years, the 2062 release will indeed contain some rum that has been aged for more than 100 years.
Recipe: Joy Spence’s favorite rum cocktail
Appleton’s master blender revealed her go-to drink in a recent interview with the Master of Malt blog. “I like simple cocktails,” she said. “And I find that a Daiquiri with Appleton Estate Reserve, using brown sugar with a few drops of Angostura bitters, is quite delicious, simple and easy to make.” We took the liberty of creating the recipe below following classic Daiquiri specs.
Appleton Reserve Daiquiri
* 2 ounces Appleton Estate Reserve Blend
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
* 2-3 drops Angostura bitters
Dissolve the brown sugar in the lime juice, then add the rum and carefully add drops (not dashes) of bitters. Shake hard with cubed ice for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe glass.
A showcase for Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, this traditional Daiquiri riff lets the rum shine through, but it also adds just enough sweetness and spice to make it interesting and confirm that this is indeed an “elevated cocktail.”
More Appleton Estate rum recipes on The Atomic Grog
* All the Appleton rum cocktails at The Mai-Kai
* Signature Blend review and Lost Lake cocktail
* The Mai-Kai Hurricane (The Atomic Grog)
* Good Head (Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell)
* Jamaican Bad Decisions (Jeannie Grant)
* Mai Tai (Martin Cate)
Appleton master blender Joy Spence hosts rare rum tasting at The Mai-Kai
Joy Spence, the master blender of Appleton Estate in Jamaica, will lead an exclusive tasting of her acclaimed rums at The Mai-Kai on Wednesday, Aug. 14. The sold-out event is the first-ever official appearance at the historic Fort Lauderdale restaurant by the pioneering Spence, the first woman to hold the position of master blender in the spirits industry.
“It is Joy’s job to ensure that all Appleton Estate rum blends meet the high standards that consumers have grown to love and expect,” according to her company bio. Appleton is owned by J. Wray & Nephew, the oldest company in Jamaica and the island’s dominant rum producer. J. Wray & Nephew falls under the corporate umbrella of Italy’s Campari, one of the world’s largest spirits and beverage companies.
Spence has also created an impressive array of limited-edition premium rums, including:
* Appleton Estate 30, released in 2008 and again in 2018 due to popular demand. It contains liquid aged for at least 30 years along with 50-year-old rum. The latest bottling was limited to 4,000 worldwide. Just 900, priced at $495 each, were made available in the United States. Spence calls Appleton Estate 30 one of her favorite releases “because it celebrates years of fine, handcrafted rums in the Nassau Valley of Jamaica.”
* Appleton Estate Joy, released in 2017 to honor the master blender’s 20th year at the distillery. It’s a 25-year-old minimum aged rum that also includes rums that have been aged up to 35 years. “For my anniversary blend, I simply set out to create the rum that I’d like to sip while watching the colors of my garden change in the warm glow of the Jamaican sunset,” Spence said. “The final blend is a wonderful rum that I hope will be become a cornerstone of my legacy.”
* Appleton Estate 50, released in 2012 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence. It is comprised of rums aged for a minimum of 50 years and was limited to just 800 bottles, selling for around $5,000 each. The original barrels for this rum were laid down for this specific purpose by Spence’s predecessor and mentor, Owen Tulloch.
Spence graduated from the University of the West Indies in Kingston with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and Loughborough University in London with a master’s degree in analytical chemistry. She joined Appleton Estate in 1981 as chief chemist. Over the next 16 years, she studied under the guidance of master blender Tulloch.
She succeeded Tulloch when he retired in 1997, becoming the world’s first female master blender. After 20 years in that prestigious position, she was honored when the Appleton visitor center in Jamaica was named the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience following a $7.2 million renovation. Up to 200,000 guests a year can enjoy guided tastings and complementary cocktails, an interactive guided tour of the estate’s history, a modern cinema, a restaurant and lounge, a retail store, plus more.
Appleton Estate is the oldest sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica in continuous production, dating back more than 265 years. Much of its success and longevity can be attributed to its location in the lush and fertile Nassau Valley, which gives the end product a distinctive terroir. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a master blender like Joy Spence at the helm.
The Aug. 14 tasting, set for 6 p.m. in the Tahiti dining room, is not Spence’s first time at The Mai-Kai, a national historic landmark and arguably one of the country’s largest purchasers of Jamaican rum over the past 62 years. She spent an evening there in November 2018 with husband Emile, area Campari rep Charlie Kleinicke, plus some lucky guests (including myself).
It was an honor to be part of her first visit, share a cocktail and chat during happy hour. Before enjoying dinner and the Polynesian Islander Revue, Spence received a tour of the famous back bar and its collection of rare and historic rums (see photos above).
Spence’s visit this month comes almost exactly a year after a rum tasting hosted by David Morrison, an Appleton senior blender and heir apparent to Spence. He led guests through a sampling of four Appleton Estate rums as he shared his passion for blending and the inner workings of the distillery.
We look forward to learning even more about Appleton Estate and its rums from the master herself.
The Mai-Kai is at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, on the west side between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Call (954) 563-3272 for more information or to make dinner reservations. Valet and paid self-parking.
* Official site | Trading Post | Twitter
* Facebook: Official page | Friends of The Mai-Kai group
* Instagram: Restaurant | The Molokai bar | Trading Post
* Mai-Kai history: Book and official website | Facebook page
* Google Maps: Explore The Mai-Kai in 3-D
More on The Mai-Kai’s rums and cocktails
* Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica
* The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide: Okole Maluna Society
* Full list of 100+ cocktail recipes
* The Mai-Kai updates bar menu, adds classic ‘lost’ cocktail
* Heeeeeeere’s the rich history and lost stories of The Mai-Kai
* Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen (with photos)
Hear The Rums of The Mai-Kai symposium on the Inside the Desert Oasis Room podcast
Mahalo to Adrian Eustaquio and Inside the Desert Oasis Room for documenting the June 9 presentation featuring Hurricane Hayward and Matt Pietrek of Cocktail Wonk live on stage at The Mai-Kai during the closing festivities of The Hukilau 2019.
Click here to listen now or subscribe on iTunes and other podcast platforms
The Rums of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2019
Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog took guests on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. He was joined by rum expert Stephen Remsberg for an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at Pier Sixty-Six hotel on June 8, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai Grand Finale on June 9.
See the event preview | Full recap coming soon!
* Get detailed reports and photos on Tiki Central
‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’
The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.