I'm the first woman master blender for Mount Gay Rum, the world's oldest rum distillery. Here's how I turned my love of science and spirits into a career.

  • Trudiann Branker is the master blender at Mount Gay Rum in Barbados, the world’s oldest rum distillery.
  • She oversees the aging and crafting of spirits and ensures each batch meets the brand’s standards.
  • This is what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Bailey Berg.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

I’ve been on a journey to become a master blender since I began my studies in college. I’ve always had a passion for chemistry and wanted to work in beer or spirits, so after getting my bachelor’s in biology and chemistry at Howard University, I continued my education at the Siebel Institute of Technology, a school in Chicago that focuses on the science behind brewing and distilling.

After school, I returned home to Barbados to work with a beer company on their brewing team. In 2014, I joined Mount Gay to work in quality assurance. There I met Allen Smith, the master blender at the time. He saw that I had strong knowledge of chemistry and distillation, a passion for the art of making rum, and what it would take to step into his role when he retired. He took me under his wing, and we worked closely together for five years.  

I’ve always wanted to work in the spirits industry

Branker says she’s always been fascinated by the scientific aspect of distilling spirits.Trudiann Branker/Mount Gay Rum

There’s something fascinating about the balance of art and science that comes with working with spirits. There’s not an exact method every time, so as brewers we have to work across many variables to create consistency.

When I began working with Allen, the team knew that he was planning ahead for retirement, which he finally did in 2019 after spending 13 years as master blender. We had many discussions about who would take over, when, and what that transition would look like. 

It was daunting to be asked, but also a great honor, and I felt that I was ready to take the role and make my mark on an iconic brand. I’m proud that Mount Gay saw my potential, and I can only hope this means that more women will study chemistry and take on roles working at distilleries in the future. 

Allen and I always worked closely together. He recognized my ability to blend rum and account for the nuances between barrels and ages, and he taught me how to be patient with the liquid and how to wait until the right moment to recognize when the liquid is matured enough to be blended.

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It was daunting to step into a leading role for an iconic brand

Branker says all eyes were on her when she first became master blender.Trudiann Branker/Mount Gay Rum

I became Mount Gay’s master blender in April 2019. In the beginning, it felt like all eyes were on me, waiting for what my first move would be. I’d already started working on the new blends for XO and Black Barrel, as well as my first edition of the Master Blender Collection, so I stayed busy and focused during my first few months. Once they were all bottled, I held my breath through the first few tastings.

People responded positively, and as glowing reviews came out and awards started coming in, I was able to finally breathe a bit more easily. It’s incredibly exciting to take Mount Gay, the world’s oldest running rum distillery, on a new direction with updated blends and exciting limited editions, all while honoring the genuine rum tradition. 

My days start early so I can arrive at the distillery by 7 a.m.

Branker arrives at the distillery to work each day before 7 a.m.Trudiann Branker/Mount Gay Rum

My journey to St. Lucy, at the northern tip of the island, is through cane fields and past the sugar factory, rum shops, and churches. It’s refreshing to be surrounded by my culture and terroir to start the day. On arrival, I walk the cane fields to evaluate the cane juice and then even before my morning coffee, I get to tasting. 

In our barrel bonds, I take samples from a selection of our aged rums to taste with my team. Finally, by mid-morning, I head to my office with some coffee and review my tasting notes. The afternoon is typically spent in our lab analyzing flavor profiles and alcohol strength and working on future innovations. To end the day, I walk the estate with the blenders to plan the next day. By 5:45 p.m., I’m back in my car to head home for dinner. 

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People often misunderstand what working in spirits is like

Branker says her job doesn’t leave much room for cocktails parties.Graham_Bell

I think it’s hard for people to understand that we work so many years in advance. The rum that comes out this year has been in the works for years already. That means today, I’m working on rum that will be on shelves in five years.

I think there’s also a perception that working in rum, or any spirits for that matter, is all about drinking and having big parties. It’s quite the opposite — my job is quite detailed and intricate, so it doesn’t leave much room for mixing cocktails, because as a taster we need to focus on the quality of the rum itself and not how it may taste with mixers.

In the coming months and years we hope to launch a new series and meet new guests. We’re patiently waiting to announce the next in our Master Blender Collection, which should be quite interesting to rum enthusiasts, as we’re using something (can’t say what exactly) we’ve never used before at Mount Gay.

We’re also very much looking forward to welcoming people back to our distillery and reopening our tastings and tours. 2020 was very quiet, so we can’t wait to have people visit again and to show them what making rum is all about.

Bailey Berg is a freelance writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. She covers beverages, travel, and the environment (and often where they intersect). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, Atlas Obscura, Fodor’s and The Counter, among other publications. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.

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