Renewed Spirits

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005


Lisa Laird Dunn has a problem. She has a 225-year-old product that appealed to George Washington a whole lot more than it does to the generation of the Bush twins.

Dunn, vice president of Laird & Co., has spent the last eight months traveling across the country, trying to attract new customers to the apple-cider-based liquor known as applejack by concocting more modern recipes and telling the story of America's first commercial distillery. It was established in 1780 by her ancestor, Robert Laird.

On a recent afternoon, she brings her two children, Gerard, 9, and Laird Emilie, 7, from their home in New Jersey to a company facility south of Charlottesville to show them how the Lairds turn apples into assets. The small distillery complex, which is not open to the public, has a funky, time-worn appeal that comes from long use and minimal makeover. A musky aroma of tons of ripe apples sweetens the country air.

"Our market was older males, and it's dwindling," says Dunn, 44, a ninth-generation Laird descendant and distiller who has recently upgraded product packaging and developed new drink recipes using applejack.

She came up with a caffeine-rich Red Apple cocktail, for example, which calls for a splash of the popular energy drink Red Bull (1 1/2 ounces applejack, 3 ounces Red Bull and 1 ounce cranberry juice, mixed and poured over ice in a tall glass). "We're after the bourbon drinker, gearing to younger men and women," she says.

Her family's business, based in Colts Neck, N.J., also makes vodka, gin, rum, tequila and blended whiskey and imports and distributes European wine and specialty liquors.

Only 5 percent of sales come from applejack, an odorous and potent mixture of 35 percent apple brandy and 65 percent vodka. (Until the early 1970s, Laird's applejack was entirely apple brandy.) Laird also sells a small amount of aged, 100 percent apple brandy, a beverage similar to Calvados.

"But for us," says Dunn, "applejack is our heart and soul." This fall, with demand still relatively low, the company will make only about 300 barrels of apple brandy, or about 25 percent of the volume produced in the mid-1970s. That's far less than the amount produced when the population of the entire nation was only 2.8 million and applejack was a favored drink of Colonial Americans and frontier settlers.

As the story goes, native Scotsman William Laird settled in the present-day Monmouth County, N.J., in 1698 and began making distilled apple cider. It was William's grandson Robert, a Revolutionary War soldier, who 82 years later opened the first commercial distillery and supplied the grateful troops with applejack. Applejack was as much of a breakfast staple in the early 1800s as orange juice is today.

"We have records that show that George Washington was so impressed, he asked for the applejack recipe," says Dunn (the company complied but hasn't provided the recipe to anyone since, she says). She also has documents showing that before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln served applejack at his Springfield, Ill., tavern for 12 cents a half-pint. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed the occasional applejack martini, she says, and Lyndon Johnson gave a case of applejack to Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin at a summit meeting in 1967.

Prohibition didn't stop the Lairds. They were granted a federal license to distill apple bandy for medicinal use. And when the Prohibition Act was repealed in 1933, their warehouse was full of aged brandy, ready for sale. In 1941, as large orchards disappeared in New Jersey, the Lairds bought the former Virginia Fruit Distilling Co. in rural North Garden to take advantage of the abundance of apples in the Shenandoah Valley region.

From mid-September to mid-November, under the eye of master distiller Lester Clements, 40 tons of apples per day are crushed and pressed, and the resulting juice is then distilled. It takes 7,000 pounds of apples -- a mix of Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Winesap and Granny Smith -- to make one barrel of apple brandy.

Thus far, Dunn's son, who spent the afternoon munching on apples and poking around the old buildings, has shown no interest in becoming a distiller like his ancestors. Gerard would prefer to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Steve Irwin, host of Animal Planet's series "The Crocodile Hunter." Dunn's daughter, Laird Emilie, on the other hand, "wants to be the big boss like her grandfather," Dunn says. "That's because my name is Laird," the girl says.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company