Long before the Declaration of Independence was hancocked, the Laird family had put roots down in New Jersey and was distilling spirits from the most abundant resource around: apples. Over 300 years later, Laird & Company is still in business and family-run, residing on the same estate and pumping out the majority of the world’s American apple brandy, also known as applejack. For this installment of VinePair’s Need to Know column, we asked company president Lisa Laird-Dunn for the details on the distillery’s history and its plans for the future.
William Laird moved to America from Scotland in 1698, and settled in central N.J.’s Monmouth County. There, he began distilling apple brandy with the local produce. While he’d previously made Scotch overseas, this was more of a passion project — something he’d either drink himself or share with family and friends. It wasn’t until 1717 that the then-unlicensed Laird family distillery set up shop behind the Colts Neck Inn, which is also still in operation today. At the time, the inn was a common pit stop for travelers and stagecoaches, so the distillery always had a steady flow of customers. In 1780, Laird & Co. received the USA’s first distillery permit. Today, every bottle from Laird & Co. boasts an eagle-crested emblem that reads “Distillers since 1780.”
Jacking, a.k.a. freeze distilling, is a somewhat crude process in which a fermented beverage is placed in freezing temperatures. Then, any frozen chunks of water are removed, leaving a boozier and more concentrated liquid. Unlike more traditional distilling, jacking doesn’t allow the producer to remove undesirable compounds from the “heads” and “tails” of the base spirit — only water is removed, so the final product will be unrefined and more prone to off-flavors. Though jacking is believed to predate distilling, the practice was really only employed by small farms, as farmers would make jacked spirits whenever the weather got cold enough to do so.
But despite the name of its best-selling Applejack, Laird & Co. claims that its products have always been distilled traditionally, never jacked. The bulk of its apple spirits are straight brandies, but its legendary blended applejack is a mix of apple brandy and neutral grain spirits. (The terminology can get a little messy, but apple brandy, applejack, and cyder spirits are all synonymous.) Because American apple brandy isn’t required to conform to origin and aging requirements like its French cousin Calvados, distillers in the U.S. can sell both unaged and aged bottlings.
According to Laird-Dunn, members of the Laird family fought alongside George Washington in the mid-1700s, and one of her ancestors, Elijah, was Washington’s guide for the Monmouth County area. It was there that he took a liking to Laird products.
“He was hosted in the family home, and I’m sure we were serving applejack,” Laird-Dunn says. Later on, Washington began producing apple brandy of his own, then often referred to as “cyder spirits.” He subsequently asked for and received the Laird family’s own recipe for apple brandy. No one outside of the family has gotten their hands on it since — not even Abraham Lincoln, who served Laird’s applejack at his tavern long before he became president. According to Laird-Dunn, he used to sell half-pints of the brandy for 12 cents.
As the town’s name would suggest, there are many, many horses in Colts Neck, N.J., but few are as famous as Fashion, the champion mare that helped grow the Laird family fortune throughout the 1840s. At the time, Samuel Laird — the triple-threat inn proprietor, distiller, and horse trainer — trained Fashion, and his son, Joseph, was the horse’s jockey. Over the decade, they traveled up and down the tri-state area with Fashion, frequently winning $20,000 purses (which would equate to well over half a million dollars today) in long-form races. “We were more well known at that time period for horse racing than distilling brandy,” Laird-Dunn says. “Samuel was a very renowned horse trainer.”
In the early 1940s, the demand for Laird Applejack was at a fever pitch, but due to a lack of sufficient refrigeration and cold storage for fruit, the distillery had an all-too-limiting cap on production. To appease the masses, the Laird family sought out other distilling locations and apple orchards to fuel expansion.
“We purchased two additional distilleries,” Laird-Dunn says. “There was one up near Syracuse, and a Virginia distillery we purchased in 1941.” For years, all three distilleries would run consecutively throughout the fall months, sometimes carrying on production into the early spring. It was all weather dependent, but with more apples and distilleries came more apple brandy. As demand eventually tapered off, Laird & Co. shut down the New York and New Jersey distilleries. Nowadays, all Laird distilling is done in Virginia, and the product is then brought up to New Jersey to be aged and bottled.
Applejack appears in a handful of classic cocktail recipes like the Jack Rose and the Widow’s Kiss. But after Prohibition, cocktail culture shied away from incorporating apple brandy into drinks. It largely became known as a historic novelty to sip now and again.
“A lot of our consumers were elderly,” Dunn explains. “They were drinking it as a shot [with] a beer, or just with a bit of ginger.” But thanks to the 21st-century cocktail renaissance, bartenders have since dusted off the cocktail books from their grandparents’ bar carts, and rediscovered — and in many ways, repurposed — more classic ingredients. Along with St- Germain, Chartreuse, and Fernet-Branca, Laird’s Applejack was among the spirits to get a second life as a legitimate cocktail element.
“It was our savior,” Dunn says. “It was such a wonderful feeling that people are appreciating the product again.”
About a year and a half ago, the brand rolled out its first-ever RTD cocktail: an apple brandy-based Old Fashioned. And in October 2023, Laird & Co. announced the release of its first-ever low-ABV canned offering, the American Mule. A riff on the traditional Moscow Mule, the RTD cocktail contains apple brandy and ginger liqueur, and clocks in at an even-keeled 5.5 percent ABV.
“It’s delicious,” Laird-Dunn says. “We’re very excited about it.” The American Mule will hit store shelves in a few short months.