YOU COULD DRIVE RIGHT BY Laird & Company, a weathered brick-and-tin building down a winding country lane in southern Albemarle County, without ever suspecting that one of America’s most historic libations is distilled inside. Indeed, most locals have no clue that Laird’s Applejack, an exceptional blend of apple brandy and neutral spirit, is being crafted right under their noses. So how does a Jersey girl like me wind up touring a rural Virginia distillery that isn’t open to the public?
Well, I’m a bartender by profession, and became an instant fan when I discovered Applejack, with its smooth apple flavor and caramel notes, a few years ago. This past fall I entered a competition to create a new cocktail based on the classic Jack Rose, a simple-yet-delightful tipple containing Applejack, grenadine, and lemon juice. My winning version added pineapple juice and bitters and was dubbed the “Jack Barnes” after the Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises character who orders a Jack Rose at the bar of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris. My prize was—yes!—a trip to see the hallowed ground where Laird’s Applejack is made.
My journey down to Virginia mirrored the long journey of Applejack itself. See, the legend dates back to 1698, when Scotsman William Laird immigrated to New Jersey and started making brandy from an abundant supply of apples. It wasn’t until 1780 that his great-grandson Robert Laird established America’s first commercial distillery in Scobeyville, New Jersey. Robert was also a soldier in the Revolutionary War under George Washington, who historical records indicate had written earlier to the Laird family requesting their Applejack recipe. They obliged, and later supplied the troops with Applejack too. (Back then, the drink was a breakfast staple.)
Not even Prohibition could stop Applejack, with Laird & Company obtaining a federal license to produce brandy for medicinal use. But New Jersey’s large orchards were vanishing, and in 1941 the Lairds bought out the Virginia Fruit Distilling Co. in North Garden, Virginia. Since 1972, all of the company’s distilling has been undertaken down that quiet country lane, even if the bottles still bear a New Jersey address. Currently, that’s about a million cases a year.
I arrived at the height of the fall production period, shortly before a Crown Orchard truck from just down Route 29 rumbled to a stop and unloaded another 68,000 pounds of local apples. (It takes about 100 pounds to make one 750-milliliter bottle of Applejack.) Busy as he was, master distiller Danny Swanson was my personal tour guide. The distillery is everything you’d expect when you hear “oldest family-owned distiller in the country”—a cross between an apple barn and a secret lab, with just a handful of seasoned employees overseeing the operation.
The whole facility smells ripe and amazing. And the process of making Applejack seems so simple, it almost belies the magic of the end product. After unloading, the apples are ground into pulp, which is poured into slatted racks and squeezed under a hydraulic press. The juice is naturally fermented into hard cider—using no additives, starters, or yeast cultures. The cider is distilled to a high proof in tanks and then transferred into charred-oak barrels. There it begins its long aging process, until the brandy is finally shipped in casks to New Jersey for final blending, bottling, and shipping from coast to coast.
While I was in Virginia, I was lucky enough to visit several other local businesses making impressive hard cider, wine, and beer—always exciting for a bartender obsessed with craft products. I sat in their tasting rooms, sipping, as happy as I could be. But I still found my thoughts drifting back to my time at the humble Laird & Company distillery. I’m not the only bartender who has turned on to Laird’s Applejack, and there could come a time soon when it’s transformed from secret ingredient into cocktail-culture mainstay—especially on its home turf. Go ahead, Virginia, claim a bottle of Laird’s Applejack, and its local flavor, as your own.