A Trailblazing Dame in the Spirits Industry

Lisa Laird Dunn shares her story on overcoming stereotypes while rising to the top of her family's distillery.

Female headshot Lisa Laird Dunn is the vice president of Laird & Company, and the ninth generation of Lairds to sell the family's signature Applejack brandy.

Every year, Tales of the Cocktail inducts hardworking women of the spirits and cocktail industries into the Dame Hall of Fame to celebrate their contributions to the industry. Each of these women has their own story: from their starts, to their stumbles, and, finally, to their successes. In this series, Tales co-founder Ann Tuennerman highlights some of the past Dame Hall of Fame recipients, and explores the path that led them to where they are today.

Despite the fact that Laird's Applejack was founded by her family, Lisa Laird Dunn's journey to becoming the company's vice president and world ambassador was far from easy. In a time when women — especially younger ones — weren't taken seriously in the spirits industry, Laird Dunn fought against gender discrimination from both within and outside the company to earn her place at the top of Laird's Applejack. Her pioneering efforts have earned her the reputation as a trailblazer for women who share her aspirations to work in the spirits industry.

Where were you born and raised?

As the eight generations before me, I was born and raised in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Although born in Red Bank and have lived in various towns in Monmouth County, I consider Brielle to be my hometown.

What attracted you to enter the cocktails/spirits industry in the first place?

I guess you could say spirits, and more precisely Applejack, runs in my veins. The heritage and pride of my family's history in the spirits industry was the catalyst to my entering the industry.

Was it planned or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?

Believe it or not, originally it was a temporary gig. After my college graduation, my intended career path was not 100 percent decided upon the spirits industry. I came aboard Laird & Company and progressed through various positions. As I began to appreciate the family business, it became clear that this should be my career path.

What and where was your first job in the industry?

Prior to entering Laird & Company I worked in the hospitality industry as a waitress and hostess. My first job in my family's firm was in the Quality Control Lab in our production facility.

Was there a moment when you decided that the cocktail/spirits industry would be your career path?

It's impossible to choose one moment when I decided the spirits industry would be my career path. It was a progression. Possibly when the family decided that I should be the face of the Laird family in the market and moved into sales.

As a woman in a traditionally male dominated industry, what did you find most rewarding and most challenging?

Back in the Dark Ages, when I came into this industry, there were no female counterparts. Every day seemed to be a challenge. Many male members of the older generation did not appreciate this young woman as an associate. Not only did I come up against resistance externally, but internally within the company as well. I have to admit, though, I did enjoy the challenge!

What I find the most rewarding is watching other women come into the spirits industry and become successful leaders. When I hear that many of these women admire me and the path I forged, it is most humbling.

Woman flanked by two men For the Laird family, who's passed Applejack down through nine generations, making spirits is a family tradition.

Was your family supportive of your decision?

My family has always been very supportive of my decision. I have to give kudos and much thanks to my mom for helping out with the care of my children as I traveled. Without the comfort of knowing they were well-cared for, I could not have done it.

How has the role of women in the cocktail/spirits industry changed since you first joined it?

The fact that there are female counterparts is the major role change. Women are now holding major positions within spirit companies, becoming distillers, opening their own distilleries, and becoming leaders in the bartending community. Not only are they role models to women, but they are to male bartenders as well.

For a woman who wants to pursue a career in this industry, what top 3 tips would you offer?

  1. Be authentic. Don't try to be someone you are not. I find it's crucial to be true to yourself in order to succeed and be happy. Be able to look back and be proud of the path you chose.
  2. Find the career-life balance that works best for you, especially if you have a family. Accept that there will always be an ebb and flow. Your life-balance will change week to week, month to month, and year to year. There will be times your career dominates your schedule and vice versa. I look at it as balancing two careers: one as a mother and the other in the spirits industry.
  3. Speak up. Make sure your voice is heard, that your ideas are articulated, and take the lead when necessary. But above all, always do so in a respectful manner. Whether we like it or not, women are held at a higher standard in the business world no matter what industry we may choose.

How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?

I first learned about Tales of the Cocktail from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope. They attended my 225th celebration in NYC and proposed the idea of sponsoring an Applejack seminar at Tales in 2006. The rest is history.

Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.

My first Tales was quite the experience. I was amazed at the quality of bartenders that attended. It was much more intimate the first few years. It was a lovely way to build relationships with the bartending community. I was also humbled by the love and appreciation for Laird's Applejack by everyone with whom I came in contact with.

Applejack, from which "jacking" takes its name, is still produced today by Laird & Company. Applejack, from which "jacking" takes its name, is still produced today by Laird & Company. (Photo: Laird & Company)

How did you first hear about the Dame Hall of Fame?

The lovely LUPEC ladies reached out to me with the wonderful idea to celebrate women in our industry. As a female distiller/owner, I was asked to speak and sponsor Dame Hall of Fame.

Were any of its past inductees your mentors or role models?

Since I guess you could say I'm an "elder" in the industry, there were no mentors for me. Many of the inductees were forging their paths as I was. I admire all of the inductees and the contributions they have made to the spirits industry.

What was it like to be inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame?

To be nominated and inducted by some of the most talented women in the spirits industry was an extreme honor. For many women to look to me as a pioneer is very humbling.

How has it energized your career overall and what opportunities have flowed as a result?

The opportunity to build and forge relationships with other spirit-minded women has been the result of this award. Together, we have energized our careers and the industry.

Kindly describe any key professional relationships and friendships that were forged through your induction.

The number of friendships and key professional relationships that have developed through my induction are limitless. I would be remiss to name anyone in particular so as not to offend and omit anyone.

Ann Tuennerman Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, Ann Tuennerman is a serial entrepreneur focused on hospitality.

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