Monday, February 6, 2012

A Taste of Appleton Estate with Joy Spence: The Perfect Blend

Appleton Estate Entrance Sign
Appleton Estate sits in the fertile Nassau Valley of Jamaica. Many visitors to this country will drink Appleton Estate Rum during their stay and a handfull of them will take the pilgrimage to tour the distillery. In a recent visit, myself and a few others had the very special opportunity to spend a day touring this distillery with their Master Blender, Joy Spence. Some people dream of meeting celebrities such as rock stars and actors; others, like myself, do as well, only they are called master blenders. Having had this opportunity, I was compelled to share my joyful (not pun intended) experience. Like the memorable impression left from sipping a well-blended, aged rum, I give you that intoxicating view here. Enjoy!

Our tour begins and we turn onto a dirt road, traversing through the labryinth of sugar cane fields that is Appleton Estate. Joy Spence instructs the driver, "right" then "left" then "right" again and again as we move towards our hidden destination. January through April is harvest time and while we make our way looking out the windows of the bus, there is only sugar cane stalks, the road ahead and the road behind. I'll admit, it provokes images from a scary movie. Children of the Cane? After 15 mintues we stop and proceed to the life blood of Appleton Estate Rum, its water source.

It all begins with the water...

Blue Hole
There is another "Blue Lagoon" in Jamaica, but you won't find Brooke Shields or Christopher Atkins here. It is significant in more ways than rum..I mean one. It is known locally as the blue hole, an underground limestone spring supplied by runoff from the Trelawny hills and is also the beginning of the longest river in Jamaica, the Black River. The rumor that Appleton Estate's water source begins with a mystical blue hued water hole is true and it is beautiful. Its blue color, attributable to the limestone, turns to green just several meters downstream. I learn that the little raindrops I see appearing on the water's surface are not drops at all, but bubbles from small fish called "tiki tiki". Tiki?! Awesome!

"Kill to mill" in 24 hours...


Truck full of sugar cane ready to be cored
The discussion of sugar cane harvest ensues as we make our way back to the distillery. Presently, the majority of Appleton Estate's sugar cane is harvested with machines, however many local men are also hired to cut cane by hand in certain sloped areas. Joy laughs as she later tells us the fact that only the old men cut cane today; the younger ones just want to listen to dancehall music and cut a record deal. Its delightful to listen to the age old process and what a day in the life of a harvest worker is like. We all smile hearing it starts and ends with Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum! Once loaded on the trucks, the sugar cane is brought to be cored (see above photo) to determine the quality. Local farmers are contracted for their sugar cane as well and quality is important. The higher the sucrose content, the higher the quality and their payout. The time from the cutting of the cane to the mill is critical. Sugar content in the cane decreases due to bacterial growth and this process is directly proportional with the time lapsed since it was cut. After 24 hours, the cane is no longer usable. Readers take note: from the water source to the sealed bottle; when you drink Appleton Estate Rum, you're drinking homegrown Jamaican!!

Appleton Estate Distillery
In addition to hiring local workers,we learn Appleton Estate displays their social responsibility by completely funding the local area primary education schools and supporting the electricity in the region. We pass the new containment site being built to hold the Vinasse Dunder from the distillery. This waste material is high in postassium and is used to fertilize certain areas replenishing the depleted soil. Waste not, want not! For each hectare of land used, 110 tons of sugar cane are harvested. Once the cane stalks are milled, the sugar cane juice is processed for its raw sugar, which is sold, and the by-product, molasses, is the base for making Appleton Estate Rum. The morning passes with a round of house made rum punch and soon lunchtime approaches. However, our palates must be fresh for the tasting and blending class following the upcoming seminar. We shall drink first, then dine. Priorities!

The Joy of Rum: A midday seminar

Various Appleton Estate Rums
Blending Competition 
We all sit down in an wooden shed, apparently built from old wood used in the distillery some time ago. Not only is it a relic itself, it is filled with old photos and century old iron tools used at the Estate. The class begins and all goes quiet as Joy tells us a story about rum. The powerpoint slides bring me back to an earlier point in time. If only graduate school lectures had this appeal! The presentation is highly-informative and flows naturally, well, like the rum going from my glass to my mouth.

Appleton Estate Rum Flight
(V/X, Reserve, 12 year, Master Blender's Legacy, 21 year)
Joy addresses the important aspects of their fermentation and pot distillation while discussing how the marks or unique flavor notes they target are used to make a rum. We learn about their barrels and the effects of aging in the Caribbean relative to other climates. They have over 240,000 barrels of rum aging! She explains the renaming of their white rum to "Genesis" for the local market and its recent success. Our tailored tasting is interactive and engaging. Listening to Joy explalin how she tastes rum as we sip Appleton's aged rums in their little rum shack, literally, is a highlight of the tour. Life is good!

Now for the blending competition...

Mike Streeter of RumConnection with Joy Spence
1st Place Prize: Appleton Estate 21 year
The goal was to blend our own mixing rum similar to the Appleton Estate V/X using five different rums (see photo above). Undergoing this short rum practicum not only gave us a hands on training in the art of blending, but also a renewed appreciation for the sort of refined skill set necessary to create a blended rum. It was fun and surprising. Joy judged all of our creations one by one. Her professionalism dictated a quick and painless period of waiting. First, second and third place was announced but in the end all of us won something more. We walked away with a more well-rounded understanding of Appleton Estate, their rums and a day of memories to last a lifetime. Winning!

Every distillery tour review must have a picture of their stills...

Copper Pot Stills at Appleton Estate Distillery

A very special thank you to Joy Spence and Appleton Estate for their
gracious hospitality and a most memorable day in Jamaica!


  1. Amazing post.Nice work.Keep up the good work.
    blend built in blue

  2. Hahaha yes you are right, this picture looks like its from a horror movie, I guess I have watch aline movie and this pictures reminds me of that one.