Spirits of Monmouth County
By Michael Sheehan
George Washington asked for the recipe (and was the only outsider who ever got it). Abraham Lincoln served it in his New Salem, Illinois tavern. Along with rum, it was a favorite quaff of American colonists. It’s Laird’s AppleJack, and its birthplace is right here in Monmouth County. Laird’s, which celebrates its 230th anniversary this year, is the oldest licensed commercial distillery in America.
The company can actually trace its history back more than 300 years to 1698, when William Laird emigrated to America from County Fyfe, Scotland, and settled in Monmouth County. Laird was rumored to be a distiller of Scotch whiskey in his native country and he turned his talents to the most abundant resource he could find — apples. And applejack was born.
The Laird family’s roots run deep in Monmouth County history. In 1717, they built the Colts Neck Inn, which served applejack for four shillings, sixpence a gallon — about half a day’s wage. The inn housed the distillery until a fire in 1849, when the operation was moved to its present site in Scobeyville (technically Colts Neck Twp). The inn was rebuilt and was run by successive generations of Lairds and still operates today, although no longer with Laird family onwers.
Prohibition tested the company’s survival. Production of apple products like sweet cider and applesauce kept them in business until repeal. Meanwhile, in 1933, Laird’s was granted a federal license to produce apple brandy for medicinal purposes. That made it possible to produce legal quantities of AppleJack, which the company was able to put on the market immediately after Prohibition was repealed in December of that year.
Applejack was a feature of many early American punches and drinks, partly because it was the most readily available distilled spirit in the East. A punch named the Jersey Devil, a mixture of cranberry juice, apple cider and applejack, survives today. The Jack Rose, made with applejack, grenadine, and lemon juice, was born during Prohibition and has become a classic cocktail.
“I drink to make other people more interesting.”
As applejack declined in popularity, however, Laird diversified, distilling other spirits like scotch and vodka and, since 1995, importing wines and spirits from around the world. Applejack now accounts for just a small fraction of the company’s sales, but remains as its flagship product.
Today, Laird’s is the last applejack producer left in America and it still makes applejack the way it was made 300 years ago. The process starts with fresh, sweet apples pressed into apple juice that’s allowed to ferment naturally (no additives needed) and then distilled into 160-proof apple brandy. The brandy is allowed to age in charred oak barrels for four to eight years. Applejack is made from mixing the apple brandy with neutral spirits.
The Laird family is recognized as the oldest family of distillers in the nation and the company is currently being run by the eighth and ninth generation of the family. Eighth-generation Larrie Laird is the company’s CEO, while ninth-generation John E. Laird and Lisa Laird Dunn serve as vice presidents.
Although the Scobeyville facility doesn’t offer tours, there are plans to build a visitor center.
Laird & Company
1 Laird Road
Scobeyville, NJ 07724
732-542-0312 / Website
Michael Sheehan, a longtime writer and marketing executive, and his wife Ellen have lived in Monmouth Beach for nearly 50 years.