Jassil Villanueva Quintana is a maestra ronera, Spanish for rum master. In the world of spirits, they play the alchemist responsible for coaxing the fermented liquid into a blended libation that is a pleasure to drink.
Yet as Quintana perfects the blends at Brugal, one of the largest international golden rum brands in the world, she can’t help but stand out. Not only as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry but, at just 28 years old, Quintana is the youngest rum master in the world.
This puts her at an interesting intersection in the spirits industry. It’s a time when millennials–a massive group of consumers who’ve been exhaustively studied by marketers–are favoring brands like Hendrick’s that position themselves at the confluence of sophistication and history, the more idiosyncratic, the better. With a female millennial injecting her personal magic into the mix at Brugal, the brand may be even more appealing to her discerning peers.
Brugal, founded in 1888 and presided over by five generations of Quintana’s family, doesn’t need to manufacture heritage. Its founder, Andres Brugal Montaner, emigrated from Spain to Cuba during the second half of the 19th century, and later settled in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, where he established a rum business that continues in his tradition to this day, even though Scotland’s Edrington owns a majority stake in the company. Brugal produces an average of 89,000 liters per day, aging it in over 200,000 American white oak barrels on site in Puerto Plata. Last year Brugal produced 24,672,931 liters.
Though it’s currently the number-one brand in Spain and the Caribbean, Brugal isn’t in competition with the more familiar Bacardi or Captain Morgan, both of which command a large part of the global rum market. No matter, because premium spirits are poised for growth–perhaps because of millennials’ penchant for quality and quirk, according to industry research from IWSR. Parent company Edrington reports that focusing on Brugal’s premium blends resulted in 50% growth globally in the last year.
For her part, Quintana is well-equipped for the challenge of bringing the Brugal heritage to a new generation of sippers. She tells Fast Company she never doubted she would eventually join the family business because of an inherent passion for the process she observed through watching her father and uncles practice their craft. Quintana is quick to note that she never felt pressure to follow in their footsteps, but understood that she couldn’t just jump onboard when she grew old enough to take part.
In addition to officially interning at Brugal, she earned an undergraduate degree in business administration from Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, in Santiago de los Caballeros, then spent time in the U.S. at the English Language Institute at Florida International University. Quintana then went back to get her MBA. Only then did she feel ready to begin the rigorous training required to become a maestra ronera.
“Making a quality rum is not only about blending and aging, but also about overseeing the molasses, the distillation process, and quality of the distillate, the sourcing and quality of our casks and the wood management, and the skill and process we use to take our barrels and combine them into the perfect rum blend,” Quintana explains.
Of Brugal’s 1,000 employees, only 18% are women. Despite persistent gender prejudice particularly against female rum masters, Quintana maintains, “Women are proven to have a stronger sense of smell, and therefore, some might say make even better maestras.”
That’s likely why Quintana argues that she can’t remember any batch being a complete disaster–“not with all the training we went through to avoid it,” she declares. “However, I embrace the times when I didn’t get something just right–when a blend isn’t perfect or when some things just don’t come together the way you expect,” she admits. Quintana explains that part of a maestra’s job is trial and error with blending because every cask ages so differently. “Failures helps us to learn from our mistakes and become better in the process,” she says.
Quintana believes her attitude comes from the company culture at Brugal, which encourages everyone’s opinions and ideas. “I was given the opportunity recently to create our annual special family blend–Papa Andres–and was given complete control on my vision for that rum,” she offers as an example. “Sometimes other people might have the final say in the end because they are most experienced, and as my family elders and work elders, I respect that,” Quintana says.
The ability to create her own blend that completely reflected her own ideas and opinions resulted in the forthcoming Papa Andres Alegria blend, which is scheduled to be available in the U.S. this year. “The results are truly phenomenal,” Quintana enthuses about her special elixir, which will retail for $1,500 and come in a crystal decanter.
Crafting the limited-edition blend is just one milestone on Quintana’s career journey, but one she’s taking to heart. “It feels great to lead the way for the future women in my family and the rum industry in general,” she says. She offers words of advice for other young people who aspire to be trailblazers in their field: “Don’t be afraid to speak up and make mistakes. I used to be quiet and shy, until I was able to really come out of my shell at school and then as a maestra. You’ll never learn if you remain quiet and reserved in your opinions.”