Lady Laird: How the Laird's Applejack VP Earned Her Right to the Family Throne
Back when Lisa Laird Dunn started selling Laird’s Applejack to retail accounts, the guys — they were always guys — would say to her, “I don’t buy my whiskey from a woman.”
That was the least of the lip she took. There was also plenty of innuendo and some harassment for good measure. Women weren’t around much in the 1980s distilling industry, so Laird Dunn says she rolled with the punches, occasionally throwing some sass right back.
“I had my job to do,” she says via phone from Laird & Company’s Scobeyville, New Jersey office. “I just had to stay focused and keep moving.”
Laird Dunn’s diligence landed her in the role of vice president and world ambassador at America’s first commercially licensed distillery, founded by her ancestors in 1780. Though she’s quick to add, “We’re not too big on titles around here.”
The staff, consisting of 35 full-timers (three are Laird family members), just do what needs to be done in order to produce Laird’s revered Applejack, a blended brandy distilled from whole apples and neutral spirits. Family lore has it that in 1698, distiller William Laird immigrated from Scotland to Monmouth County, New Jersey and set his sights on the local apple bounty.
The ninth generation to take company reins, Laird Dunn has a hard time pinning down when she officially joined the business. It’s always been there. She jokes that she was practically teethed on Applejack. "As early as ten years old, I used to prepare my dad’s evening cocktail, which I always took a sip," she says. Throughout high school and over summer breaks, she worked in production, quality control, and assisted the bookkeeper in accounting. Still, when she went to college in Maryland, she thought she’d become a veterinarian.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she recalls. “All those hours in the lab.” Laird Dunn took a few economics courses and would visit Laird’s accounts when she needed money. As she got a little older, her perspective began to shift. Maybe Laird’s wasn’t just the family business. Maybe this brandy thing could be her future, too.
“The pride starts setting in,” she says. “I realized that nobody really has what I have: a family-owned company hundreds of years old. Why would I want to walk away from that?” So long, biology major.
Laird & Company is a story born out of America’s earliest history. The company was founded by Robert Laird (William’s grandson) who served in the Revolutionary War under General George Washington. Robert shared Applejack with the troops. Around 1760, Washington wrote to the Lairds asking for the applejack recipe. Seventy years later, Abraham Lincoln would order it for the tavern he owned in Illinois (the family keeps a copy of the bill).
Laird descendants have carried on the tradition and the business by maintaining the original brand and adding to the portfolio. In addition to Applejack, Laird & Co. makes several apple brandies: the 100 proof, the 7 ½ year old, the rare 12 year old, and the newer unaged Lightning Jack. They import wines from Italy, France, and Chile; they import select spirits, such as Casoni Limoncello, Lazaroni Amaretto, and Moletto Grappa. But the heart of the business has always been those delicious, aromatic apple brandies. Even if the public didn’t always appreciate them.
Laird Dunn calls them the “lean years”—the 10-year period beginning in the late 70s, when brown liquors fell out favor with customers who had moved to vodka instead. “We even stopped distilling because we had such a large inventory of apple brandy,” Laird Dunn remembers. “But we’ve always been aware of the caliber of product we have.”
Today, many cocktail bars would consider the line-up incomplete without a bottle of Laird’s on the shelf. Laird Dunn credits “the bartenders” for bringing her family’s product back into the limelight.
It started around 2005 with a call from Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club. “She said to me, ‘I want to buy your product.’ I said, ‘You do?’” Laird Dunn laughs. As cocktail culture re-emerged and studious bartenders referenced old recipes, the demand began to creep upward. Then it exploded.
The interest had returned, but Laird’s would need to rebuild their distribution network to get the product where people wanted it. Wholesalers had their hands full with larger spirit producers, so Laird Dunn relied on enthusiastic and determined bar managers and beverage directors to help find supportive boutique importers.
“The bartenders were thankful that we have kept producing the product, and have maintained a high quality. I believe we’re so well received because they love the product so much.”
Laird Dunn has met bartenders abroad who said they were introduced to Laird’s apple brandies in the States, then brought bottles back home. That interest has led to the product being available in markets that weren’t on the company’s radar before, such as England, Sweden, Germany, Singapore, Australia, and Canada— all because of the men and women behind the bar.
The production facilities (one in North Garden, Virginia where they source the apples and distill, and the other in Scobeyville where production is finalized) are busy this time of year. It’s primetime for fall distillation (they also distill in the spring), and due to years of stalled production, the apple brandy inventory is running at a shortage. They produce about 20,000 cases a year and are working to double that.
When Laird Dunn visits accounts these days, people are thrilled to see her. She serves as the public face of Laird & Company, and represents an enviable spirit heritage. She was honored in 2014 with the Tales of the Cocktail Ruth Fertel Pioneer Award, which acknowledged her ongoing contributions to the industry.
In the summers, Laird Dunn’s two children, Laird Emilie Dunn (age 17) and Gerard James Dunn (age 19), work on-site. They’ll make their own determinations about whether or not to work at the company full-time one day, just like Laird Dunn made her own choice. When that time comes, Laird & Company will be there.