Behind the Bar Stick People

The Drink That Changed My Life: Lisa Laird Dunn on the Applejack Drink That Started a Revolution

Distilleries aren’t shy when it comes to showing off their historical cred. But with federal liquor license #1, Laird & Company in Scobeyville, N.J., can claim unequivocally to be the first legal distillery in the United States. Nine generations later, Lisa Laird Dunn carries the family’s applejack and apple brandy mantel as vice president of the company.

The apple-based spirits from Jersey fruit were an instant Colonial-era hit with George Washington’s troops (one of which was founder Robert Laird himself) and remained so all the way through the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, who gifted a case of Laird’s applejack to Soviet premier Alexei Kozygin in 1967. But soon after LBJ and Kozygin clinked glasses, America’s love affair with brown spirits cooled.

Laird apples for the distillate.

Still, in the late 1970s, Laird Dunn began working summers at her family’s distillery, and by 1984, she ditched her notions of becoming a veterinarian and dove full-bore into the business.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar that doesn’t pour one of the 300-year-old company’s products. Applejack appears on backbars from the Jersey Shore to Kuala Lumpur. But it took a lost weekend in Manhattan for Laird Dunn to realize her place in the family’s legacy.

“A shot and a beer!”—when Laird Dunn entered the family business full-time in 1984, that was the refrain that best summed up the applejack drinker and a very male and very East Coast drinker at that. But those gents, nursing suds and spirits in work-a-day taverns in the Garden State, weren’t really doing much for the brand.

Laird Dunn in a Laird apple orchard.

“We carried the brand because it was near and dear to our hearts, but it wasn’t a big seller,” says Laird Dunn. “Our longtime customers were getting older or stopped drinking and started passing away. Sales were not what they are today.”

It was early November 2006, and Laird Dunn was planning a much-needed girls’ getaway weekend when she happened upon an article in the “New York Post” in which a dapper young bartender named Jim Meehan was mixing up something called the Applejack Rabbit at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern.

“I was all excited,” says Laird Dunn. “I thought, Oh my God, we’re in the ‘Post’!”

It was a particularly chilly first weekend for November; the thermometer struggled to make the stretch to the 50-yard line. But it suited Laird Dunn’s brisk anticipation of discovery, as well as the warm welcoming glow of Gramercy Tavern.

With her friends in tow, she strode up to the bar and found Meehan, excited for this moment to meet the man who recognized applejack’s charms beyond the rim of a shot glass. “I was so excited. I told him about seeing the story in the ‘Post.’ But he was excited to meet me,” she says. “He said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting Lisa Laird!’”

Laird Dunn.

At Laird Dunn’s request, Meehan set to mixing up the Applejack Rabbit, an old pre-Prohibition quaff tweaked by Meehan for the modern day. “Where I live, the cocktail culture hadn’t hit yet, so I loved watching his pride and professionalism,” she says.

Then the drink came, gently, reverently slid across the bar. Up to now, the breadth of Laird Dunn’s cocktail experience with applejack had been relegated to far too many sticky sweet Jack Roses. But this—the warm apple notes made decadent with maple syrup, and equal parts fresh lemon and orange juice adding levity and balance—was revelatory. “I’d never experienced anything like this,” says Laird Dunn. “I was floored.”

Applejack aging in ex-bourbon barrels.

The rest of the weekend brought more applejack awakening, with visits to venerable cocktail dens like Pegu Club (its owner, Audrey Saunders, says Laird Dunn was instrumental in banding bartenders together to demand her product and spur distribution) and Little Branch, where barman Mickey McElroy not only made Laird Dunn his American Trilogy, a rye-applejack riff on an Old Fashioned, but he also came from behind the bar, knelt down and kissed her hand.

From that first sip at Gramercy Tavern to every subsequent one thereafter, Laird Dunn saw a different kind of future. “That whole weekend changed everything for me and my whole thought process,” she says. “I knew it was a good product, but I never saw that love and embrace. I was so overwhelmed, and that turned everything around for me.”