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Spirits For The Spirit: The Legacy of Laird & Co.
12/29/2007 - By by Richard Fireman
The Legacy of Laird & Co.For those who know it came as no surprise when, in 2001, Laird and Company won the award for the best New Jersey Family-run Business of the Year; it was recognition long overdue.
Laird, after all, is America’s oldest distillery, having the proud distinction of having been granted License #1 after Prohibition; and it was “born” right here in Colts Neck and the first record of sale was in 1780! As you’ll find out below (and on their website: www.lairdandcompany.com), the business has a rich and storied past, replete with U.S. presidents and historical personages. Over the years it’s had its share of ups and downs, has contributed greatly to American culture, and has branched out into a multidimensional enterprise. No longer do people wake up and tip a wee bit of applejack with their breakfast, as they used to do a couple of hundred years ago; in fact, applejack today only represents a small portion – about 5% – of their total revenue. As Larrie Laird, President and CEO of the operation, has said, although it is now only a small part of their business, they have no intention of ever stopping its production; there’s an emotional as well as historical connection. As Vice President Lisa Laird Dunn, who is in charge of advertising and public relations for the company, phrased it, it’s their “heart and soul.” LICN sat down with her to explore her views on Laird’s past, present, and future.
LICN: I suppose Laird is best known for your three “flagship” products. Please tell us about them.
LLD: Laird’s Applejack and our Laird’s Apple Brandies – we have the 7½ -year old and the 12-year old. Applejack today is not what it was back in the Colonial era. In the mid ’70’s we changed the Applejack to a blended product. Today it is 35% apple brandy, 65% neutral grain spirits: like a blended whiskey, but with an apple brandy base rather than rye or corn. Prior to the ’70’s, Applejack was a straight brandy. The reason for the change was the taste of the American consumer. Consumers were moving towards lighter spirits. At the time, all of the brown whiskey-type products were becoming blended and a little bit lighter. So we basically went with the consumer trend. And also, it’s quite expensive for the raw materials as well, because in each 750 [ml] of applejack there’s seven pounds of apples…
LLD: …and that’s only with 35% apple brandy. Our straight brandies are over 20 pounds of apples per bottle; so it’s a lot of raw material. We have our Laird’s 71?2 -year-old apple brandy; this is a straight apple brandy at 80 proof, and it’s aged for a minimum of 71?2 years. This is also a great product for making different cocktails, but a sipping brandy as well. And then we have our Laird’s 12–year-old Rare Apple Brandy, which we introduced in 1999; this is a straight 100% apple brandy at 88 proof, aged a minimum of 12 years. We also have a fourth apple product, Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, which is a straight apple brandy at 100 proof that has been gaining some popularity in New York City. Many of the top bartenders have been developing signature cocktails and it’s becoming quite popular in the city.
LICN: You have your own orchards?
LLD: No, we don’t have an apple tree! We purchase all of our apples from the Shenandoah Valley down in Virginia. That is where we do our actual fermentation and distillation. Our distillery is in North Garden, Virginia. There aren’t any apples left in New Jersey! We used to be surrounded by apple orchards; [now] it’s all housing developments.
LICN: Historically, I’ve read that your applejack was first sold a couple of miles from here at the Colts Neck Inn. Do you still have a relationship with them?
LLD: We still frequent the account quite often. They’re very supportive of Laird’s Applejack and all our brands; so yes, we do have a relationship with them. That’s where we started.
LICN: Being the 9th generation of the Laird family, do you feel a kind of obligation to continue the traditions established by your ancestors? Or do you want to take things in new directions…or some of both?
LLD: There is a huge responsibility to continue the family tradition – I represent the 9th generation, so I do not want to be the one that messes things up! [laughs] There is a lot of pressure, but I do enjoy it. In 2005, for our 225th anniversary, I developed a new package which I think brought us into the 21st century…much more upscale, a little more contemporary; but it still had the historical look to it. That was a tough road – changing the package – with the family. Applejack was always in an amber bottle, and we had to go to a clear bottle. I didn’t show the family the package until I was finished designing it, because I knew I would never get a consensus. When they first looked at it there was just silence. But now everyone has grown accustomed to it, and they like the package and it has fulfilled its purpose. Sales have increased, our distribution has increased, and we have also received great publicity with the new package. We’re even getting some play with the younger consumers now – they are very, package-conscious – but we have also received a few e-mails from some old-timers that have been enjoying the Laird’s Applejack for years and saying they like the old package; one gentleman actually asked us to send him a label to frame so he could still see his old package! [laughs]
LICN: Speaking of tradition, I understand this building dates back to revolutionary times. The sense of history it brings is amazing. Do you find it still inspiring, or has it become matter-of-fact for you?
LLD: It’s a great place to come and work every day; it’s not like going to a normal office. I love it here. And I think it really does instill the history and the tradition of the company…of what we have established and accomplished here.
LICN: A few years ago (2001) your company won the award for the best New Jersey family business. That must have been very gratifying.
LLD: Oh, yes, it was great. I laugh, though: it took us 221 years for us to get it, to finally be recognized; but it was great. We felt very honored to receive the award.
LICN: Can you tell us something about your plant in Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains? Do you like to travel down there?
LLD: It is beautiful country where our distillery is located. I try to go down there once a year, usually in October when we’re distilling; our distillation period is from September through November. We purchased our Virginia facility in 1941 when we were expanding the business…my grandfather and great uncle had started a campaign to purchase other apple brandy brands, applejack brands, and distilleries in order to preserve the integrity of the product. uring Prohibition everybody was producing bootleg applejack: there were hundreds and hundreds of applejack distilleries up and down the east coast. With the enactment of the 21st Amendment, most of these distilleries became legal operations. Laird’s was the brand leader. Many of our competitors would take an empty bottle of Laird’s Applejack, refill it with their product and then resell it. In order to protect our name, and the product, we started this campaign and we purchased close to 150 different applejack and apple brandy labels. My grandfather also developed a patented, non-refillable bottle to ensure that our competitors couldn’t continue this practice.
LLD: And during that time period is when we purchased the Virginia Fruit Distilling Company in North Garden, Virginia [in 1941]. We have just three employees there year-round…that’s it.
LICN: That’s it?! I imagined this big plant.
LLD: No, it’s very small. We only distill 3 months of the year, and applejack is not as popular as it was back in its heyday. Applejack is a very small percentage of our overall sales and profit for the company; but it is the heart and soul.
LICN: So what is one of the largest components of your business?
LLD: Right now the Value Spirits. In this market you’ll find Laird vodka, gin, rum, Canadian…We also have the Banker’s Club line, the Kassers line…we have a range of products from vodka, gin, rum, tequila, amaretto, Canadian scotch, blended whiskey, bourbon…just about any product, we have a label for it...and we ship nationwide. We also import wines and spirits, predominantly from Italy and Chile. Our import portfolio has become a very important component of our business. We have also just begun exporting applejack to Great Britain. This is a big venture for us.
LICN: Some of it to Scotland too, I guess?
LLD: Yes, we’re finally returning home [laughs].
LICN: Can you tell us about some of the charities and non-profit organizations supported by Laird?
LLD: There are so many. We are always donating to different organizations… Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Jersey Shore Partnership, Collier Services, New Horizons in Autism, and Friends of the Park. We always work with the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, all the way to the Holmdel Fire Department. We get very involved with all the community services.
LICN: I read about the search for the original letter from George Washington inquiring about the recipe for applejack. I wondered if it ever turned up or if it turned up on e-bay!
LLD: [laughs] No, it hasn’t turned up yet! We’re still looking…I think, unfortunately, it may have burned. We donated the letter to the Monmouth Historical Society for safekeeping and they had a fire – either it burned or someone took it at that point.
LICN: Speaking of history, I understand Abraham Lincoln served your applejack in a saloon he owned.
LLD: Mm-hmm…for 12 cents a half-pint.
LICN: Wow. I think it’s a little more now…
LLD: Just a tad.
LICN: That was before he went into politics?
LLD: Yes. He was a tavern owner.
LICN: And President Lyndon Johnson had a connection?
LLD: Yes, when they had the summit in Glassboro with Kosygin , as a token of America and as a gift, Johnson gave Kosygin a case of Laird’s Applejack. There are stories of the state police coming up and getting the case and taking it down there.
LICN: Also President William Henry Harrison?
LLD: William Henry Harrison, yes…“the Hard Cider Candidate.” They say that at his Whig rallies the hard cider – which was applejack – was flowing so freely that he got the voters inebriated and they went and voted for him [laughs].
LICN: Hey! That’s a good strategy! [laughs]
LLD: And he won the election! But that was what they did – they used to ply the voters with alcohol and then go get them to vote. That was a very common practice back then.
LICN: Is it true that your applejack was originally known as “Jersey Lightning”?
LLD: Yes, as far as I know; it’s had quite a few other names too, some that weren’t so appealing. Hedgehog Quills…it was high proof, very rough, and a lot of it in the Colonial Era was homemade…
LICN: Like moonshine?
LICN: You’ve kept up with the times with a fascinating website, Lairdandcompany.com. In addition to lots of facts and a great history, I noticed some interesting recipes on there, both for food and mixed drinks. Care to tell us about any of your favorites?
LLD: Okay…I put applejack in just about everything…it is very versatile to work with. We have a stuffed pork chop recipe that I make with an applejack glaze, and then also there’s Veal Scobeyville – it has a cream apple brandy sauce that’s absolutely delicious – we also have an onion soup recipe that’s really good. Applejack is great with dessert…our applejack pound cake is phenomenal, apple pies…To celebrate our 225th [anniversary] I traveled around the country and spoke about the history of applejack. For these presentations we developed an authentic 18th century menu, and all the recipes were prepared with applejack. We also had cocktails that were paired with each dish. The dessert was an apple bread pudding, which was Emeril Lagasse’s recipe. He uses applejack on his show. And then drinks…My favorite for years has been the Applejack Old Fashioned. One of my recent favorites is the Jersey Girl. It is basically a Cosmopolitan, prepared with applejack instead of vodka; very nice.
LICN: Is it true that you originally trained to be a veterinarian?
LLD: That was my original plan. It was always an inner battle.
LICN: Any second thoughts about that? Are you involved with any animal-related causes?
LLD: No. I think my son is going to take the reins with working with animals; he’s only 10 now, but he keeps telling me he’s going to move to Australia and work with the Australian zoo. His idol was Steve Irwin. Any question you ask him about animals he can tell you; he loves animals.
LICN: So you’re married with children?
LLD: Yes…my son, Gerard, is 10 and my daughter, Laird Emilie, is 8.
LICN: Does your husband [Jerry] work in the business?
LLD: No, he is a territory sales manager for the nation’s largest videoconferencing integrator.
LICN: Can you tell us a little about Laird’s historical connection with horseracing?
LLD: Fashion is recognized as the best race mare of all time. Her trainer was Joseph Tilton Laird, who was my great-great-grandfather, and her jockey was Joseph Tilton Laird Jr., my great-grandfather. It is amazing how famous she was – they had gloves named after her, people would name children after her; the people of that time were just so into the races. In fact, prior to the Civil War, the big match race was between the North and the South, which would draw huge crowds. I think it was 1841 when one of the most famous match races was between Fashion – she represented the North – and Boston, who represented the South. My great-grandfather rode her to victory. The race was four 1-mile heats, with a purse of $20,000. My great-great-grandfather was a great trainer in the mid 1800’s. He ran the Colts Neck Inn, operated the distillery, and he still found time to pursue his passion, raising thoroughbred racehorses.
LICN: Back during the Prohibition era Laird was granted a special exemption, a federal license.
LLD: For one million gallons. During Prohibition doctors would prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes; but I’m sure some of that inventory also went to the politicians. I don’t think it was all for medicinal purposes. There were articles that my grandfather and my great-uncle were concerned about delivering. Prohibition is when the mob came into play. There were a lot of bootleggers then, and quite a few applejack bootleggers here in New Jersey.
LICN: Some time after that is it true that the company used to sponsor a beauty pageant for “Miss Applejack”?
LLD: Yes, there was a Miss Applejack Beauty Pageant.
LICN: Where do you see the company headed in the future? Any new plans you can let the readers in on, or are they secret?
LLD: Our plan is to keep an eye on the marketplace and be able to adapt; that is one thing we have been able to do very well in order to keep the company going for so long. Because we are a small family firm we can adjust fairly quickly to market trends and make the necessary changes internally in order to survive. At one time we were just applejack, but we have diversified through the years with other types of brands. We will continuously look for new products. We will continue to expand our wine and imported spirit portfolio. My primary goal is to export Laird’s applejack into additional markets. I think that is where our growth will be.
Laird’s History at a Glance• 1698 – Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Bill
[adapted from www.lairdandcompany.com]
• Alexander Laird, a County Fife Scotsman, emigrates with sons Thomas and William [“Bill”]. Bill settles in Monmouth County and begins production of applejack for his own use, as well as for his friends and neighbors.
• 1717 – Colts Neck Inn
• A descendant of William Laird builds the Colts Neck Inn, which serves as a stopping point for stagecoaches and dispatch riders traveling from Freehold to Amboy, NJ. Robert Laird’s accounts book of the Colts Neck Inn operations in 1780, the first commercial records, shows that "cyder spirits" - applejack - was a standard item on the menu, at a price of four shillings, six pence per gallon: about a half-day’s wages.
• 1760 – George Washington
• Robert Laird, a Revolutionary War soldier under George Washington, supplies the troops with applejack. Historical records show that prior to 1760 George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their recipe for producing applejack, which the Laird family gladly supplied; to this date he is the only “outsider” to have been shown the recipe. Entries appear in Washington’s diary in the 1760’s regarding his production of "cyder spirits."
• 1780 – The first known commercial record of Laird’s Applejack is sold.
• 1849 – Fire
• The applejack distillery flourishes at the Colts Neck Inn site until 1849, when a fire burns the distillery to the ground. Robert Laird, a fifth generation Laird, rebuilds the distillery at its current Scobeyville site. In 1851 expanded commercial production of applejack begins.
• 1900’s – Prohibition, Exemption, War Efforts
• In the early 1900’s, sixth-generation Joseph T. Laird, Jr., faced with Prohibition, is able to keep the company in operation by producing other apple products, such as sweet cider and applesauce. Seventh-generation John Evans Laird and his brother, Joseph T. Laird, III, also keep the company in operation by producing other apple products during Prohibition. In 1933 Laird & Company is granted a federal license under the Prohibition Act to produce apple brandy for "medicinal purposes," allowing the company to reopen the distillery. This also allows the company to have aged inventories of applejack available immediately after the repeal of Prohibition. New and modern facilities are added, and applejack production continues until the outbreak of World War II, when the plant is converted to the drying and dehydration of apple pomace for production of pectin and other products to aid in the war effort.
• Today, and for almost 300 years, the art of producing applejack has been passed down through successive generations of the Laird Family. Eighth generation Larrie W. Laird is now President of Laird & Company and heads America’s oldest family of distillers.
Forte and Shipwreck
Favorite musical artist:
I have always loved Elvis; also The Eagles and Rob Thomas
Gone with the Wind, Braveheart, and Titanic.
Biggest pet peeve:
Bad manners of young people today
People I would like to dine with:
My seven “greats” grandfather William Laird – I would love to know his thoughts, dreams, and aspirations as he arrived in America and why he left Scotland;
my grandmother, Mabel Laird – I was 1-month old when she passed away and I never had the opportunity to know her;
Ronald Reagan – I admired his leadership qualities, moral standards, and love for our country.
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