The Van Trump Report

Nine Generations Later Americas Oldest Distillery Still Running

Laird & Company is synonymous with apple spirits, producing the vast majority of all Applejack and American Apple Brandy on the market. The Laird family began distilling in America in 1698 after Alexander Laird emigrated from County Fife, Scotland, where he had already perfected his distilling technique. Apples were the most abundant natural resource in the area, so Alexander made use of what he had to produce the now world-famous Applejack for his own pleasure, as well as his friends.

Modern-day Laird’s Applejack is a far cry from what colonists sometimes called hedgehog quills. Now, consumers can expect a smooth blend of apple brandy in a base of clear neutral spirits of at least 80 proof, coming across as a strong, faintly apple-flavored liquor reminiscent of bourbon or golden rum. Interestingly, prior to 1760, George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their Applejack recipe. There are even entries that appear in Washington’s diary in the 1760s referring to the production of “cyder spirits.” As a Revolutionary soldier serving under George Washington, Robert Laird and his family provided the troops with Applejack. Robert Laird would eventually found Laird and Company in 1780, and in the process receive License No. 1 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Opportunities and challenges emerged as America went through the Roaring Twenties and eventually into prohibition. The Jack Rose cocktail, made with Laird’s Applejack, lemon juice, and grenadine, would captivate fashionable drinkers at the time, but soon the Lairds would be forced to transition to nonalcoholic apple drinks and food preservatives for the Army in order to keep the business afloat.

During Prohibition, all of Jersey was a hotbed of applejack bootlegging, and it was believed that much of the nonalcoholic cider was bought by bootleggers who’d ferment and distill it into hooch. This lead to another problem as counterfeiters began refilling Laird bottles with rotgut. Not to be outsmarted, Dunn’s grandfather John Evans Laird invented an unrefillable bottle with a fixed metal one-way spout… love the innovation!

Refusing to be just another applejack brand, the family would over time purchase nearly 150 applejack labels and several distilleries. But they soon learned, killing the competition also narrowed the market for applejack. Eventually, Americans began losing their taste for Jersey Lightning as California wine, imported vodka, and mixed drinks came to dominate the spirits market.

Maintaining a hold on the family business proved too much in the 1970’s as New Jersey’s apple orchards were nearing extinction and big players were entering the spirits markets. The Lairds would relinquish 90% of the company for over 20 years before wrestling back full ownership in 1993. Lisa Laird Dun, VP of Operations is the ninth generation to have a hand in running the family business and, when reflecting on how her father brought the company back home, said two hundred years of family and business history creates quite a sense of ownership and attachment – to succeed, you have to control your own brand.

Today, Laird & Company is America’s sole remaining applejack producer, and though it represents under 2% of the company’s volume, it reflects in 14% of its profits. Interestingly, 10-15% of Jersey Lightning is actually consumed in Jersey. Family members are quick to mention how the “cocktail revival” has provided tailwinds for the company as millennials and others have an interest in retro mixed drinks. Americans are rediscovering homegrown legacy spirits like bourbon and applejack, and the company spends time promoting applejack-based cocktails in bartending seminars and press events across the country.

Expect to see the 10th generation of Lairds soon as 11-year-old daughter Lisa thinks it’s cool to have her name on a bottle, just like her mom did, just like every other Laird. Her son, Gerard, now 13 and a budding engineer, wants to know how everything works, so you’ll find him watching the bottling line and waiting to drive the forklift.

Where some see headwinds, others see opportunities to grow in new areas or innovate existing ones. All of our businesses will face the headwinds from one source or another, so be ready to pivot. (Source: njmonthly, lairdandcompany, wiki)

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