Jersey Lightning

The Laird family of Scobeyville has been distilling applejack a long time. How long? They once gave George Washington the recipe.

Photo by Deborah Ory.
A collection of classic Laird’s Applejack bottles.
Photo by Deborah Ory.

When Lisa Laird Dunn misplaces something in her office, she knows who to blame: Uncle Joe. Joseph Tilton Laird III remains pretty active for a guy who died in 1950. “I work in a haunted house,” Dunn says. “Things—bottles, files—move around, disappear, and reappear in a different place. But Uncle Joe’s a friendly ghost. And he loves his applejack.”

If Uncle Joe is rummaging around for a bottle of what was once known as Jersey Lightning, he’s in the right place. On a fireplace mantel in the 300-year-old house in Scobeyville, an estate section of Colts Neck, stands a collection of Laird’s Applejack bottles dating back to the 1800s. The cloudy glass bottles are empty, but that shouldn’t trouble a ghost. Looking at the rows of bottles, Dunn says, “Apples are who we are.”

The clapboard house serves as the headquarters of Laird & Company, the country’s oldest distiller. Dunn—who is vice president—is the ninth generation to have a hand in running the family business. Now 48, she was the last Laird to grow up in the yellow-shuttered, two-story house. Her office—her father’s childhood bedroom—is in the upstairs parlor, across the hall from the room that was her nursery.

The story of Laird’s is Jersey history in a bottle. Scotsman William Laird settled in Monmouth County and, around 1698, began producing apple brandy. William’s great-grandson Robert Laird served in the revolutionary army under George Washington. Prior to 1760, the young Washington requested and received Laird’s recipe for “cyder spirits”; he remains the only outsider to secure the family formula.

Robert incorporated Laird’s Distillery in 1780 as the new nation’s first licensed commercial distillery. Applejack was made and sold at the Colts Neck Inn, which was built by one of William’s descendants, owned by Lairds for generations, and is still in business today. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, inn proprietor and distiller Joseph Tilton Laird, Uncle Joe’s namesake, moonlighted as trainer of a superb racehorse named Fashion. His son Joseph Tilton Laird Jr. was the thoroughbred’s jockey. In those pre-casino days, the freakishly fast mare became a gambler’s sure thing and a cultural sensation, routinely capturing marathon races with purses of $20,000, equivalent to over half a million dollars today. Flush with Fashion’s winnings, the Lairds moved their distillery to the 22-acre Scobeyville property, flaunting its handsome colonial house.

In those simpler times, “early Americans really lived by ‘an apple a day,’” says Win Cowgill, a Rutgers agriculture professor. “And Jersey was a major producer of apples. On any Jersey farmstead,” he explains, “apples were stored in cold cellars and made into all sort of staples—applesauce, apple butter, apple preserves, apple vinegar, apple juice, apple cider.” Farmers often distilled their cider into rough, high-proof liquor simply by letting it ferment.

Applejack—brandy distilled from apples—was once the nation’s most popular drink. Indeed, America’s earliest cocktail may well have been the apple toddy, which is applejack muted with boiling water and demerara-sugar syrup. During the Roaring Twenties, the Jack Rose cocktail—Laird’s Applejack, lemon juice, and grenadine—captivated fashionable drinkers.

Modern-day Laird’s Applejack is a far cry from what colonists sometimes called hedgehog quills. A smooth blend of apple brandy in a base of clear neutral spirits of at least 80 proof, it comes across as a strong, faintly apple-flavored liquor reminiscent of bourbon or golden rum. The company still produces purer apple brandy, bottled in a range of proofs and vintages (which Dunn refers to as age statements). These snifter libations are to applejack what single-malt whiskey is to blended Scotch.

Today, applejack represents under 2 percent of the company’s volume but 14 percent of its profits. Ten to 15 percent of the Jersey Lightning is actually consumed in Jersey. Newer products include imported wines, spirits such as Caribbean rum, Mexican tequila, and Canadian blended whiskey. The company’s various labels include Banker’s Club, Five O’Clock, Kasser’s, and, of course, Laird’s. All told, the business moves “over a million cases a year,” says company president Larrie Laird, the founder’s great-great-great-great-great grandson.

“The cocktail revival has been good for us,” says Laird’s longtime sales and marketing director, Tom Alberico. “We’re very pleased with the interest in retro mixed drinks. And we’re delighted that Americans are rediscovering homegrown legacy spirits like bourbon and applejack.” He and Dunn now promote applejack-based cocktails in bartending seminars and press events.

Family fortunes reached their nadir during Prohibition. “Laird’s simply transitioned to producing nonalcoholic apple drinks, and apple pectin, a food preservative, for the Army,” says Dunn. “During Prohibition, all of Jersey was a hotbed of applejack bootlegging. I wouldn’t be  surprised if our [nonalcoholic] cider was bought by bootleggers who’d ferment and distill it into hooch.”

After repeal, the family’s immediate problem was counterfeiters who refilled Laird bottles with rotgut. To stymie them, Dunn’s grandfather John Evans Laird invented an unrefillable bottle with a fixed metal one-way spout.

“The family refused to become just another applejack brand,” Dunn says. “We bought close to 150 applejack labels and several distilleries. But in retrospect,” she adds, “killing the competition also narrowed the market for applejack.” Americans lost their taste for Jersey Lightning as California wine, imported vodka, and mixed drinks came to dominate the spirits market.

Today, Laird & Company is America’s sole remaining applejack producer. Never mind that the family obtains all its apples from orchards in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Laird & Company owns a distillery. “We stopped distilling here in 1972,” Dunn says. “At that point, Jersey orchards were well on their way to extinction, with only a few left, producing mainly juice.” Uncle Joe, who played football at the University of Pennsylvania, served as company vice president before a 1950 heart attack ended his life at age 46.

The ninth-generation distiller looks pensive, as if Uncle Joe had whispered in her ear. “It’s such a shame that Jersey’s apple orchards became housing developments and McMansions. In fact,” she adds ruefully, “where I live in Wall is a former apple grove.” Though Laird’s applejack is fermented and distilled in Virginia, its “made in New Jersey” designation lives on, Dunn asserts, because “it is blended, aged in bourbon barrels, and bottled right here in Scobeyville.”

Just as the intrepid clan overcame what Win Cowgill calls “Jersey’s apple deficit,” they have met other challenges. In the tumultuous 1970s, the family sold 90 percent of their ownership to a spirits conglomerate. But Dunn’s father, company president Larrie, spearheaded a buyback in 1993.

“Two hundred years of history—that creates quite a sense of ownership and attachment,” Larrie says. “To succeed, you have to control your own brand.” Today, the hands-on, all-family board consists of Larrie, Dunn, first cousin John Evans Laird III, and John’s 89-year-old father, John Evans Laird Jr. “My mom, Rose Marie Laird, acts as family archivist,” says Dunn. “We are all very proud of our history.”

The unobtrusive but vast Scobeyville bottling facility and warehouse is a short walk from the colonial house, with a weathered barn in between. “The barrelhouse,” says Larrie, gesturing toward the plant, has “the capability to handle a million gallons.”

As for a tenth generation, Dunn says, “My 11-year-old daughter, Laird Dunn, thinks it’s cool to have her name on a bottle, just like I did, just like every other Laird. My son, Gerard, who is 13 and a budding engineer, wants to know how everything works. He likes to watch the bottling line and can’t wait to drive the forklift.”

Click on the following links to read more articles from August’s Special Dining Issue:

The 25 Best Restaurants in New Jersey.

Readers’ and Critic’s Choice Restaurant Poll: The results of our 26th Annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant Poll.

Savor City: Paterson, the one-time Silk City, is a Great Falls of ethnic eating.

Save My Restaurant: Owners learn to be careful what they wish for after inviting Gordon Ramsay and his reality TV series Kitchen Nightmares to right their ships.

The Wizard Of Zod: Why New York wants to grab New Jersey’s hugely talented, most idiosyncratic chef, and why he doesn’t want to leave—yet.

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