Bourbon is often called “America’s native spirit,” and for good reason. But there’s another type of liquor that can claim the title of being America’s oldest native spirit. It’s one that many drinkers aren’t familiar with, even though it’s been bottled in New Jersey by descendants of a Revolutionary War fighter since the 18th century.
It’s applejack, and it’s as American as 350-year-old apple brandy beloved by George Washington. Lately it’s become a back-pocket favorite of bartenders at some of the country’s best cocktail bars, from PDT to The Dead Rabbit in NYC.
The first applejack distillery on record dates back to 1696, beating bourbon by almost a century (although corn and other grain whiskeys were being produced around that time). Applejack is a blend of one-third apple brandy and two-thirds neutral grain spirits. Although there are some smaller distillers making it these days, the name most synonymous with applejack is Laird’s.
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Laird & Company, based in Scobeyville, New Jersey, is a family-run business that has been around since 1780, when Robert Laird first established the distillery. Prior to opening, Laird served in the Revolutionary Army under George Washington, and one of his responsibilities was supplying the troops with enough applejack to keep them drunk and happy.
Other presidents were fans as well. Lincoln served it in his Illinois tavern, and Lyndon Johnson gifted Soviet Premier Kosygin a case of applejack at a summit in 1967.
“Applejack was an extremely popular spirit during the Colonial era,” says ninth generation family member Lisa Laird Dunn, Laird & Company vice president and world ambassador. “Most colonists produced their own. [Their property value] was elevated if it included apple trees and a still house.” She credits the longevity of the brand to the family’s focus on tradition, heritage, and perseverance. “How many other family businesses can say they have survived for nine generations, moving into their 10th?”
Currently, Laird’s produces six types of applejack and apple brandy. The core is Laird’s Blended Applejack, an 80-proof blend of apple brandy (aged for three to four years) and neutral spirits. It has a pleasant, light apple flavor with a bit of subtle grain notes, and is drinkable on its own but better in cocktails.
New this year is Laird’s Straight Applejack 86. It bridges the gap between the Blended Applejack and the Apple Brandy. It’s 100 percent apple brandy bottled at 86 proof, and should work well as a whiskey substitute in any drink.
The most famous applejack cocktail is the Jack Rose, a classic drink that was purportedly John Steinbeck’s favorite. A simple blend of applejack, fresh lemon and grenadine, it’s booze-forward and traditionally served up.
These days bartenders enjoy working with applejack and apple brandy, using it in a variety of drinks as a substitute for other spirits or as the star of the show.
“Laird’s, and by extension apple brandy as a category, is so much fun to use behind the bar,” says Nick Bennett, head bartender at NYC’s Porchlight, “because of how much of a conversation it can create between the guest and bartender.” In addition to being a versatile spirit, Bennett believes that applejack’s history is a selling point. “It is the spirit that basically founded our country,” he says. “Does anyone actually still think that Johnny Appleseed was planting apple trees to make apple sauce? He was making brandy.”
At The Dead Rabbit, one of the most famous bars in the world, bar manager Jillian Vose is also very fond of making drinks with applejack and apple brandy. “I absolutely love working with apple brandies for cocktails due to their wide range of options and versatility,” she says. “It’s also what I choose to sip on alongside a nice cold cider when I’m out.”
Jim Meehan of New York City’s PDT is reportedly a Laird’s fan; his PDT Cocktail Book included no fewer than five apple brandy cocktails. Newly opened Brooklyn cocktail den Until Tomorrow features the spirit in a bright, boozy drink called the Crawdaddy, comprised of rum, lemon, ginger, and Gran Classico bitter.
Applejack might not ever reach bourbon’s level of popularity, even if it did come first, but Lisa Laird Dunn is continuing to try to change the public’s perception, with the help of knowledgeable bartenders. “There remains a large share of consumers who are not familiar with [applejack],” she says. “My goal is to continue spreading the word to both bartenders and consumers worldwide.”