Recognized as the oldest family of distillers and producer of the oldest native distilled spirit, Applejack and Apple Brandy, the Laird family and Laird & Company have proudly distilled in Monmouth County for 300 years. Distilling throughout three centuries on the basis of tradition and family, today marks the 10th generation of Laird family members joining the business with three generations working there together.
THE HISTORY OF THE SPIRIT
It comes as no surprise that being the oldest native distilled spirit comes with a long history.
“It predates bourbon by about 100 years and New Jersey historically was very well known for its Applejack production,” explained Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president/world ambassador of Laird & Company. In Colonial days it was known as cider, cider spirit, apple brandy, applejack and they were all synonymous with the same product.
“So in New Jersey the nickname for Applejack was “Jersey Lightning” and that was due to the fact that Jersey was so well known for its Applejack production, so that’s where the Jersey came from and lightning was due to its potency because it was pretty high proof.”
According to Dunn, the Laird family arrived in Monmouth County in 1698 after immigrating from Scotland. The family has made the assumption that in Scotland the Laird’s were scotch producers and when they arrived to New Jersey and found apples to be plentiful they started to distill applejack.
In addition, Dunn shared that historically applejack has been produced in two different fashions; distill and distillation and freeze distillation or jacking. For freeze distillation the apples are crushed and the fresh cider ferments into hard cider where it is then put into a barrel and left outside to freeze. As it freezes the water freezes out of the liquid so they would pull it off, chop it off and continuously let it freeze until it became more condensed and ultimately became alcohol.
“Our family has always distilled, hence being distillers from Scotland, so they would always distill the product and there are records as early as the mid-1600s of stills here in the United States and Applejack being distilled,” explained Dunn. “My ancestors were Revolutionary War dragoons.
“My fourth great-grandfather and his brother lived under the command of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War and their uncle, Elijah Laird, was General George Washington’s guide when he was in this area.”
Another piece of history special to Applejack and the Laird family is that during the Revolutionary War they supplied troops in the area with Applejack and General George Washington and his officers were hosted for a meal at a Laird family home.
As Applejack stands the test of time as does its Colts Neck roots as Laird & Company has only moved once in 300 years and that move was simply a mile-and-a half down the road in 1850. According to Dunn, they use 1780 as their official start date because, although they were distilling for 100 years, before that they have Robert Laird’s account book of operations from 1780.
During the World Wars when everyone strove to make their war efforts, Laird & Company would produce pectin from their product by pressing the apples and obtaining the leftover material and then dehydrate that and dry it. Dunn explained how pectin was used as a food preservative for the war rations.
MOVING TO MODERN TIMES
Prohibition brought about another use for Applejack.
“During Prohibition we were actually given a permit to produce for medicinal purposes,” said Dunn. “So we were open toward the end of Prohibition and distilling apple brandy and Applejack.
“There were prescriptions given out for various ailments, one in particular being depression. “… The one that really cracks me up is depression, like who wasn’t depressed during Prohibition when you couldn’t get alcohol,” said Dunn with a laugh. “I think everybody was lining up for the depression prescription.”
During the late 60s, 70s and 80s brown spirits began to lose popularity and it wasn’t until about the 90s that spirits of this nature resurged and gained back consumer enjoyment.
According to Dunn, that has a lot to do with the bartending community.
“It’s become a profession again and I feel like there’s a lot of pride now to be a bartender,” she said.
“Looking back at classic cocktails, a theme of these drinks were that they were made with authentic and fresh ingredients as opposed to synthetic options.
“So as they looked back at these historical cocktail books from the early 1900s they would find Applejack in quite a few cocktails, so that’s really helped rebuild or create this renaissance of the popularity of Laird’s Applejack and our apple brandies because the bartending community has really taken a love for the product,” she said.
Today, step into a metro market and take a seat at the cocktail bar and you will find Applejack cocktails on their menu and a bottle of Applejack behind the bar. According to Dunn, it’s having a trickle-down effect and is moving into smaller metro markets such as Nashville; Atlanta, which is a little bigger; Austin, Portland and Seattle.
At 16 markets right now, a few additional markets are being opened and Laird & Company is exporting due to the fact that the bartending community is a very global one.
“We have a product called Bottled in Bond, it’s our 100 proof and the bartenders have taken a love to that product because it was one of the most authentic products that we had available, said Dunn.
That would have been around prior to prohibition when these drinks were being developed because we have our blended applejack, which wasn’t created until 1972.”
Moving towards today, consumers are finding enjoyment in straight spirits once again.
“And now consumers are now drinking straight spirits so our brandies are doing well and we just introduced last year a straight applejack, which we call Applejack 86, which is again a straight apple brandy and it’s at 86 proof and this would have been the product that you would have been consuming post prohibition if you were enjoying Laird’s Applejack, she said. It would have been 100 percent apple brandy at 86 proof.”
“It’s a very cyclical business, I just hope the cycle lasts for quite a while,” she said with a smile.
Crafty cocktails are also resurging with the Applejack spirit as bartenders take a cue from historical cocktail recipes. “The signature, probably the most well known historical cocktail is The Jack Rose, which was created in the early 1900s and it is Laird’s Applejack, fresh pomegranate grenadine and fresh lemon juice,” said Dunn.
With family roots as strong as the trees that bear the apples, the Laird family remains a significant part of the brand and company. “I represent the ninth generation and my son has just joined the business so we are now moving into our tenth generation so we currently have three generations working here together: eighth, ninth and tenth, said Dunn. He graduated in May and now he’s come on board full time. He’s been working here summers and so forth. So that’s really fun.”
That was probably the main objective of my career, to get the tenth generation interested.”