Tradition is at the core of any brand that has longevity.
And Mount Gay Rum has been around for more than 300 years, so its culture is steeped in history. So when the world’s oldest premium rum recently named Trudiann Branker its first-ever female master blender, many might have assumed that winds of change blew across the distillery’s Bajan headquarters. After all, Branker succeeded Master Blender Allen Smith, who held the position for more than 25 years and created blends like XO and 1703. Now, she’s entrusted with selecting and blending hundreds of casks of aging rums to ensure they live up to the brand’s legacy.
But if you spend any time at Saint Lucy, Barbados, Mount Gay’s primary production facility, two things become immediately evident. First, there are more than a few women in charge of various aspects of rum production, from fermentation to distillation. And second, Branker is more than ready to take on the role, as she apprenticed for three years with Smith and brings a passionate curiosity for the production of rum. We sat down with Branker at the distillery to talk tradition, change, and what it means to be “first.”
Congrats on the recent promotion. How did you find out that you were officially the master blender?
Trudiann Branker: It was a process. I started as a quality assurance manager here at Mount Gay, and I worked closely with Allen. About two years into that relationship, we had a meeting where we sat down, both myself and Allen [with Mount Gay executives], and we had a conversation about when Allen retires. They said, “We’d really like you to move into this role.” I was excited and embraced it wholeheartedly. Still a number of years after that, working with and learning from Allen, I’m taking over some of the daily responsibilities slowly, in that transition phase. So it wasn’t an interview and then they called me [laughs].
What was it like to take up the mantle? What did you do on day one?
TB: To be honest, prior to taking over the role, I still spent a lot of time at the Saint Lucy plant, because as quality assurance, I was back and forth between both plants. On day one, I walked in and the team leader was downstairs, and he was like, “Okay, where do we start?” And I was like, “Let’s walk through the bonds.” And I love it. I love walking through the bonds, seeing all the barrels, doing that walkthrough with him to select barrels. I find that very hands-on approach completes the process for me. And then after that, I just settled in. I would not have been responsible for the blending staff previously. So I met with them, because I’m only as good as my team.
As a native Bajan, what does Mount Gay mean to you?
TB: Mount Gay is an institution, and it’s synonymous with Barbados—even if you don’t work at Mount Gay, that is what it is. When I first came to work here, it was an honor to be part of something that is 300-plus years [old]. To know that you’re going to add to that lineage or legacy, and now as master blender, it is even more impressive when you think about it. It’s an honor. It really is.
You have a lot of respect for the brand and the people you work with. Where does that love—not only for the brand, but for the people that work here—come from?
TB: One, it’s my character. Two, just working with them, you see it! Everybody here is so passionate about what they do. When you go on to the still and the guys are working [and you see] it’s their passion for every minute of the day and for every drip that comes off the still. It’s when you go to the barreling bond and you see the guys there in barreling and emptying barrels. It’s that dedication they have to the job every day that makes me have that emotion and that respect for them every single time I interact with them or I am given the responsibility of elevating the liquids that they’ve worked so hard to produce. Also, Mount Gay has a reputation of having employees that work here a really long time. They give years and years of their lives
When you look at the fact that this is a rum known worldwide, how does that feel when you imagine someone right now in Hong Kong or Australia is ordering a cocktail with Mount Gay?
TB: When I first started working at Mount Gay, that was one of the things I had to wrap my mind around. Like I said, I started in quality assurance, and one of the things you do there is compliance. But it wasn’t just for the Caribbean, the United States, or the UK—you had to think Australia, Eastern Europe … you know, the world. So that’s in my mind when I make a blend, that are going to go worldwide every time they leave here.
You now have the opportunity to put your fingerprint on the Mount Gay brand and flavor profile. What direction do you want to take it?
TB: My first goal is always to stay true to Mount Gay. So with regard to the flavor profile and what we do, I’m always going to honor what we have done. I don’t want to change the DNA of Mount Gay because it’s what I love about the brand. But what I’m really excited about doing is showing you new expressions of Mount Gay—transitioning us from what we’ve traditionally done or what we’ve seen in the past and elevating it and showing something new.
I’m very passionate, and you can hear it. I love what I do in regard to blending and maturing rums in different types of wood and playing with different types of barrels. I’m also extremely passionate about the upstream. I want to make sure that I am familiar with the still where the liquid comes off, and even going as far back as fermentation and being involved in how we do that. You know what that profile looks like from there.
How does being the “first female master blender” resonate with you?
TB: What it means to me specifically is not that I am defined by being a female. My hope is to be a great master blender regardless. But it’s always amazing to be able to show people—especially younger women and little girls—that the route through science, math, and STEM subjects does lead to something that you can have recognition for. It’s a new spin on it for them. I am not saying or hoping that they want to become the next master blender, but it’s to help them to see that if you do these things, you sit in these classes, and you embrace science, look what happens.
I’ve seen several women here at the distillery running things. Has this consistently been the case, or is that more recent?
TB: It’s not really just Mount Gay, but it’s everywhere in the world. When it comes to the industry, it’s been very male dominated. I don’t think the spirits world is chauvinistic in any way; it’s just what has been happening. But I do see more women taking up the mantle. While I am the first female master blender from Mount Gay, I am not the first female master blender, not even in the region. Joy Spence [from Appleton Estate] has been at another Caribbean rum brand forever [laughs]. But you are seeing that transition, you are seeing the younger girls who would have chosen to be in science or logistics, and that is manifesting itself and now you have these female heads in the industry.
What do your children think about their mom’s new job?
TB: My daughters are three and one. To them, my job doesn’t even exist at this point. They’re too young at the moment, but I hope that when they’re older and they realize what I do—and more specifically, what it means to be a female running a department or a processing industry—that the world’s their oyster. They can do anything!