If apple pie is the epitome of American cuisine, then perhaps apple brandy, or applejack, is the true American spirit.
"I know I'm a little biased, but yes, applejack is the American native spirit," says Lisa Laird Dunn. She's a woman who would know.
While it's not unusual for children to follow in their parents' footsteps and join the family business, Laird Dunn's case may be a bit different. Known as the "First Lady of Applejack," she's the vice president and ninth generation of her family's business: Laird & Company, the oldest family-owned distillery in the United States. Laird & Co. has licensed commercial transactions in the U.S. dated to 1780, and a history of apple brandy production stretching even further back.
"We predate bourbon by about a hundred years, and we were producing applejack before there was a state of Kentucky," Laird Dunn says.
The History of America's Oldest Distiller
That's right, the country's oldest distillery makes apple brandy, and is based in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The company's headquarters are in Scobeyville, a piece of Colts Neck Township, which itself borders a handful of towns including Marlboro, where I spent the first 13 years of my life. I grew up to be a professional drinks journalist, traveling the world and talking about whiskey and spirits and cocktails, yet I just recently learned about the history Laird's and it's startling proximity mere miles from my childhood home.
Perhaps I should say I was subconsciously influenced by this local legacy to pursue my eventual career path—which at least serves as a better origin story than enjoying the occasional dram of whiskey so much that I started to write about it. But I digress. While the presence of Laird's may have failed to register with my younger self, its reputation has been known to others since before America was even a country.
The family traces its roots to Alexander Laird, who came to colonial America in 1698. The Scotsman is believed to have brought over a distillation background, and by 1717, was distilling and serving apple brandy at the Colts Neck Inn. In 1760, a young man by the name of George Washington, who would himself go onto run a distillery, among other achievements, wrote a letter requesting the family's applejack recipe.
Monmouth County is notably the site of the Battle of Monmouth, and during the Revolutionary War, the Laird family hosted Washington and his officers for a dinner, and provided their troops with applejack. All to say, applejack's claim as America's true spirit stems from its time in the trenches, helping us win the darn thing.
Laird's headquarters, including historical structures which the family plans to turn into a visitor's center and museum in the near future, as well as one of its barrel maturation warehouses, is still located in New Jersey. The active distillery is now located in Virginia though, near the source of its apples. "Even though we're the Garden State, we don't have as many apples anymore," Laird Dunn says.
As much of the state has given way to suburbia, trucking apples up from the Shenandoah Valley didn't make much sense in comparison to moving the site of distillation. That's particularly true given the fact that the distillery has steadfastly continued to use entirely fresh apples for its products. "When you look at it, it's still a very small production," Laird Dunn. "We're the original craft distiller, and there's only so much that we can produce in a season. We only use fresh apples, we don't purchase any apple juice from anybody. So we have that limited time span."
If applejack is America's native spirit, why was it largely lost to the annals of time until a recent reemergence? One reason is, as Laird Dunn explained, the difficulty in scaling up authentic brandy production versus grain-based spirits. Further though, tastes change and evolve, and as is the case with so many of the wonderful imbibing ingredients we get to play with today, the onset of the cocktail renaissance is what brought on a newfound surge for Laird's.
"As we look at historical cocktail books, you come across applejack—there are so many classic applejack cocktails," Laird Dunn says. "And Laird's Applejack was here in the early 1900s prior to Prohibition [when many of those books were being written] and post-Prohibition."
As bartenders began reviving those old recipes, they wanted Laird's, but weren't always able to get their hands on it. While Laird Dunn says that, "there were so many bartenders who really had an influence on the product it would be difficult to name," she does mention one early adopter specifically: Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club in New York.
As Laird Dunn recalls, Saunders was flabbergasted that she couldn't get Laird's for her bar, especially as the product hailed from neighboring New Jersey. "So she reached out to me and said, 'how do I get this?' And I said, 'well, the distributor won't carry it, if you can convince them to carry it, I would love to sell it to you!'"
What happened next was a bartenders' grassroots campaign to get in on the applejack fun, circa 2006. "And Audrey got the bartenders in New York City together and they kept ordering and ordering it, and hounding the distributors, and finally they would bring it in," Laird Dunn says. "Then they would buy it all and divide it amongst themselves and it just continued to blossom."
Another early collaborator was LeNell Camacho Santa Ana of LeNell's Beverage Boutique, then in Brooklyn. "Lisa's brand was not well represented by larger distribution companies who are typically out to play with big corporate dollars," she says. "Family stories and history many times only mean something to a distributor's sales team if dollars are behind encouraging conversation. At that time Laird's was lost in the shuffle among larger brands."
LeNell's was known—and still as is, albeit from its current home in Birmingham, Alabama—for tracking down specialty spirits. "The cocktail craze meant both pro and home bartenders were seeking out many classic ingredients," Camacho Santa Ana says. "I did my best to be the go-to store for classic cocktail fixin's."
In 2008, that culminated in several in-store events with Laird Dunn. "Lisa and I organized an in-store introduction to Laird's, and she gave out books on the history," Camacho Santa Ana recalls. "I have one of those on display near her apple spirits even today. She is the kind of woman in business I love to support."
Support from bartenders only continued from there. In fact, bartenders took such a liking to the Laird's Straight Apple Brandy Bottled in Bond expression—'bottled in bond' signifying a product with a minimum four years of age, bottled at 100 proof, and distilled in one distillation season at a single distillery—they used it all up. Inventory ran out in 2014, and the 'bottled in bond' designation had to be removed. "It just shows you the force that the bartending community can be in spreading the word," Laird Dunn says.
After a four year hiatus and an increase in production, it's back. "We doubled our distilling in the fall and we added a spring distillation with cold storage apples," Laird Dunn says. "And thankfully, or luckily, we're ecstatic that just last month [August 2018] we reintroduced our bottled in bond."
The Next Generation
Today, Laird Dunn actively continues the brand's connection with bartenders and encourages their creative, enthusiastic applications of her family's products. "One of my favorite parts of my job is going around the country and around the world and sampling cocktails that these talented bartenders are creating with our product," she says. "It just amazes me."
Even more amazing to her though is that she's not alone in the endeavor. Joining her and her father, Larrie Laird, in the company is her son, Gerard Dunn. "We just had 10th generation join the company full-time; my son just came on board," she says. "It's the first time that we've had three generations simultaneously at the company so it's definitely an exciting time for us."
All three of them better save some space, though. "My daughter's a junior in college and she's looking to come on board, too," Laird Dunn says. "My grandmother stepped in for a short time after my grandfather passed away, but [...] I'm the first female to achieve the level of executive position. So I'm very happy to have my daughter come on board as well."
Family ties and local roots stretching back three centuries both run deep. "It's the pride that we've been able to flourish through the ups and downs, and the history of our state and our country," Laird Dunn says.