Laird & Co. toasts the 10th generation

By Hedda Schupak

America’s oldest distiller has gone from privately owned to public and back to private. What started as a favorite Colonial drink became a working-class staple. Today, the brand has gone upscale and is used in craft cocktail recipes.

When you’re the ninth generation leading a family business that served George Washington, you don’t want to be the one who screws it up, says Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president and global ambassador at Laird & Co. The Scobeyville, N.J., company is America’s oldest distiller and leading producer of applejack and apple brandy, an American-original drink enjoyed since before the colonies became the United States.

Laird & Co. is one of the country’s oldest family-owned businesses. Though its official founding date of 1780 makes it the 26th-oldest U.S. family business, William Laird Jr. began distilling apples into spirits in 1698. The company even survived Prohibition; in 1933, it received Federal Liquor License #1 under the Prohibition Act to distill apple brandy for medicinal purposes.

No pressure, right?

Putting pressure on the next generation is not the way Larrie Laird, the eighth-generation CEO, and his daughter, Lisa, operate. Although Lisa is an only child, Larrie never insisted she join the company. Neither will Lisa pressure either of her own children, Gerard or Laird Emilie, to take over someday.

Animals, cars and alcohol
A passionate animal lover, Lisa originally planned to be a veterinarian but changed her mind in college.

“I became a science major but gradually realized I didn’t want to go through all those years of vet school. I switched to economics and decided to go into business, maybe to New York and into advertising, or come here. I worked here summers, and realized with the history and legacy, why do I want to do something else?”

Her father, Larrie, joined the company as a teenager and stayed until he was about 20 or 21. “I had been out of high school for a couple of years and decided not to go to college. I got married and had a child [Lisa], but I left the company because they didn’t pay enough and we needed more money,” he says.

He worked in auto racing for about five years, building chassis, doing some fabrication work and racing professionally a bit himself. But a problem in the family firm’s Virginia distillery led him back.

“I got a call from my brother to please go straighten it out.” His older brother, John Evans “Jack” Laird Jr., was a CEO administrator type, Larrie says.

“He didn’t get his hands dirty. I’m mechanically inclined to begin with, and my hands get very dirty,” Larrie says with a laugh. He solved the problem and stayed on for good.

Lisa’s son, Gerard James Dunn III, needed no pressure to join the family business. The G10 member knew from a young age it was what he wanted.

“I started the summer before high school to make cash. I started sweeping floors, cleaning machines, et cetera,” he says. Two of his friends worked with him that summer but declined to return the following summer. Gerard, however, grew more and more interested and emotionally invested in the company through high school and college.
“Larrie sat me down and asked if I was interested in joining full-time, and I said yes. No pressure. I just wanted to,” he says. Gerard, who holds the title of operations manager, is learning everything he can from his mother and grandfather and simultaneously teaching them about marketing in the digital age.

George Washington drank here
Laird & Co. traces its origins to 17th-century Scotland. Alexander Laird was the first family member to travel to the New World in 1678. It’s believed that his son, William Laird Sr., came over with him and that one or both were Scotch whiskey distillers in the old country. William Laird settled in Monmouth County, N.J., in 1698 and began distilling apples, the most abundant crop in the area.

Technically, apple brandy can be called applejack, but over time Laird (and other distillers) adjusted the terms to differentiate the products. Laird’s applejack is a blend of apple brandy and “neutral spirits,” whereas its “Old Apple Brandy” is a straight apple brandy aged for a minimum of 7½ years in once-used bourbon barrels and not blended with other spirits. The company also makes a variety of other apple brandy and applejack products; the differences lie in the aging and blending processes as well as in the proof (alcohol content) of the liquor.

There is evidence that George Washington was acquainted with the Laird family’s brandy well before the start of the American Revolution in 1775. Robert Laird, grandson of William Laird Jr., was an innkeeper in Colts Neck, N.J. — a popular stopping point for stagecoaches — and somewhere along the line Washington had tasted Laird’s apple brandy.

Entries in Washington’s diary refer to “cyder spirits,” and he wrote to the Laird family around 1760 asking for their recipe. They kindly complied. Meanwhile, after the Revolutionary War began, Robert Laird and his brother Richard served as soldiers under Washington, and the family provided the troops with applejack. General Washington and his officers were guests for a meal in the home of Moses Laird, one of William Jr.’s sons and an uncle of Robert and Richard. Moses, who served as Washington’s guide through the Monmouth County area, isn’t listed as being involved in the company but, Larrie and Lisa say laughingly, “We hope he served applejack!”

The war was still going on when Robert Laird recorded the first commercial transaction of his “Old Apple Brandy” in 1780, which is why the company’s founding is dated from that year. But the family clearly was distilling spirits at least 20 years earlier.

As American settlers advanced westward in the 1820s, so did applejack. John Chapman, the preacher who became known as Johnny Appleseed, rose to fame for giving apple seeds to western pioneers to start a sustainable crop in their new homes. Gospel preacher though he was, he obviously was not a temperance advocate, because records show he also taught his congregants how to make applejack, according to Lisa.

Laird archives for the Civil War era are very sketchy, but they do show that by the mid-1800s, an Illinois saloonkeeper by the name of Abraham Lincoln was serving apple brandy for 12 cents a half-pint. It’s not clear if it was Laird’s product, but apple brandy definitely was on Lincoln’s drink menu.

Today, Laird & Co. has 34 employees and two locations: the headquarters in New Jersey and a distillery in North Garden, Va., about 10 miles southwest of Charlottesville. Since the mid-1970s, all Laird’s apple spirits have been distilled there. The lush Shenandoah Valley has many more robust apple orchards than New Jersey, where much of the farmland was sold and cleared for development over the years. Laird buys its apples —Winesap, Delicious, Granny Smith and more — from other farmers. The aged product is then blended to ensure a consistent flavor from batch to batch.

“We use ugly apples” — those deemed not attractive enough to sell in supermarkets — says Lisa.

Once in barrels, the product moves from Virginia to New Jersey for blending, bottling and distribution or, sometimes, for additional aging if the Virginia warehouse gets too full. In New Jersey, the company also blends, bottles and distributes a variety of non-apple spirits under contract for other brands, and for brands it has bought that are not sold under the Laird name.

Prohibition and changing tastes
The second Robert Laird — grandson of the first — was at the helm of the company in the early 20th century and died shortly before Prohibition began. His nephew and heir apparent, Joseph Tilton Laird Jr. (Larrie’s grandfather), closed the company down at the beginning of Prohibition and went into banking instead, becoming the president of Freehold (N.J.) National Bank.

But Joseph’s two sons, Joseph Tilton Laird III and John Evans Laird (Larrie’s uncle and father, respectively), soon reopened it, producing non-alcoholic apple products such as cider, juice, apple soda and applesauce, until a stroke of good fortune positioned the company to survive.

“Two years before the end of Prohibition, we got a license from the federal government to produce apple brandy for medicinal purposes, for the armed forces overseas,” says Larrie. As a result, when Prohibition ended, the Lairds had some product aged two years already and could get back into the marketplace quickly.

There was another brief hiatus during World War II when Laird’s New Jersey distillery was shifted into wartime production of apple pectin (a preservative) and other necessities for the war effort. The company otherwise continued to thrive, relatively unchanged, well into the late 20th century. But by then another, more insidious occurrence was threatening its future: Consumers’ tastes were shifting away from brown spirits. Applejack was the domain of the “shot and a beer” crowd in the workingman’s corner bar, not the nascent craft cocktail scene increasingly preferred by young affluent professionals.

“It used to be strictly blue-collar, but now it’s more upscale,” Lisa says of Laird’s brand, attributing its resurrection to “lots of Millennials and craft cocktails.

“The brand was kind of stagnant, as most brown spirits were, but now suddenly there’s a new appreciation of brown spirits like bourbon.” That movement helped build up the brand again: What grandpa drank as a shot is now beloved by 25-year-olds who pay $25 for craft cocktails using it, says Lisa.

“Bartending is now a profession again. It had been looked upon as a part-time job, not a career. Now it’s back to fresh juice, fresh cocktails. If you look at books [published] prior to Prohibition, applejack is in a lot of those recipes.” 

The definition of “craft,” however, is somewhat elastic, and there’s controversy in the industry about it. The American Craft Spirits Association defines a “craft distillery” as one that produces fewer than 750,000 gallons per year; is independently owned and operated; and is transparent regarding its ingredients, distilling, aging and bottling. But quite a few boutique small-batch brands that meet those criteria are quietly owned by major corporate entities.

“Some should give up that title,” says Larrie dryly.

Laird & Co. is in the same situation: By production criteria, it qualifies as a craft distillery, but corporately it doesn’t, says Larrie.

Many Lairds, few distillers
Of the 67 descendants of William Laird Jr., only 12 have been part of the business. That may someday become 13 if Lisa’s daughter, Laird Emilie, eventually joins. She’s currently still in college and, while not ruling out a future at Laird & Co., wants to work somewhere else first. That’s her own choice, says Lisa. She’s assured her daughter that she doesn’t have to join the business unless it’s really a passion.

Also working at the company now is ninth-generation member John Evans Laird III, Lisa’s cousin, who is executive vice president and is in charge of finance. His father, Jack, was Larrie’s much-older half-brother.

Although the company has often employed non-family members in key positions, a Laird has always been at the helm. Larrie, an octogenarian, is actively involved every day.

“For all intents, Lisa is COO and I’m CEO,” he says.

“He’ll never retire,” adds Lisa.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away. I just take mine in a more concentrated form,” Larrie quips back.

Laird & Co. was a publicly traded company from 1936 to 1973. Larrie assembled a team of investors to take the company back to private in 1973 and, in 1993, the family bought out those investors.

“That was major decision for John, Larrie and I to make. We had to mortgage everything we own to do it, and I had to decide, “Is this what I want to do?’ ” says Lisa. Her husband, Jerry Dunn, is not involved in the company; he provides videoconferencing and communication services to businesses.

The business has a small board, all family: Lisa, Larrie, John and his son and daughter, John Evans Laird IV and Roxanna Laird. Lisa’s mother, Rose Marie, is secretary and John’s wife, Patricia, is assistant secretary. They’re not officially on the board, but they attend meetings and take notes. There’s no formal family council; everyone is close by, so if there’s something to discuss, they simply discuss it, say Larrie and Lisa.

Currently, the company is 50% owned by Larrie and Lisa, and 50% by John and his family. Future ownership will pass through irrevocable trusts.

“You have to be inventive,” acknowledges Lisa. “A family business is not easy to pass down to the next generation.” Although Larrie generally shies away from consultants, they needed financial advice for transition planning and used a consultant to set up the trust plan.

Spirits in a man’s world
Over the history of the company, there were times when women stepped forward to save it. Lisa’s grandmother Mabel, who had worked at the company, ran it after the sudden passing of her husband until Jack was ready to take over. Mabel and Lisa are the only female family members to have held a leadership role, but one Janice Custer was vice president of production for 30 years until her retirement in 2018. Although not a Laird family member, she is a descendant of the famed Civil War general.

But Lisa, as global brand ambassador, is the first Laird woman to have a role visible outside the company.
“When I first joined, and especially out on the road, there were no other women [in the industry],” she says. But at least in her family’s company, it wasn’t intentional. “With our ancestors, it was never ‘No, you can’t come in.’ No [women] ever made the choice to come into the business.”

Possibly with good reason: Things are better now, but Lisa has dealt with sexism in the industry and quickly learned to hold her own against inappropriate remarks and behavior from men she met while selling or at industry functions.

Into the future
Larrie believes one of the reasons Laird & Co. has survived this long is that leadership of the company has passed down peacefully since Colonial times.

“For one reason or another, members have been interested in the business from generation to generation. There’s no formula; it’s not always father to son, there’s nephew and sideways movement. But I’m not aware of any time that the company was in danger of not continuing. Everything is fuzzy before Prohibition — that was a horrible time for the industry — but there never was a chance that it wouldn’t continue.”

There were disagreements, to be sure, but no battles of major consequence, he says. Today, both he and Lisa acknowledge butting heads — sometimes hard — but their disagreements are around policy, product, processes or promotion, not about power.

Lisa drove the repackaging and repositioning of the company’s products, introducing a 12-year-old apple brandy in 1999 and embracing new upscale bottle and label designs in 2005 to replace packaging that had been designed in the 1950s and only slightly tweaked in the 1970s. All the products were repositioned up-market. The company provides a laminated bartender guide with recipes for both classic and modern artisan cocktails.

Gerard agrees that upscale is the place to be. “The value brand market is shrinking every day,” he says. He would even consider moving into other high-quality spirits like bourbon or rye, but he also doesn’t want to stray too far from the brand’s history and heritage.

For now, he’s focusing on technology to be competitive. Often a bone of contention between generations in family businesses, going digital isn’t a wedge at Laird & Co.: Larrie and Lisa are more than content to let Gerard take that lead.

“I still have a flip phone,” says Larrie.

Even as Gerard prepares to take the company further into the future, he’s always conscious of the past.

“For me, it’s the history,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by stories of George Washington, and you can just feel the aura that’s here. Nobody has this history. I would have been foolish not to join the business.”

His mother and grandfather certainly will drink to that!  

Hedda Schupak, a frequent contributor to Family Business, last wrote about U.S. Lumber Co.

Laird & Co. Again Answers the Nation’s Call

In the time between our first interview with the Laird family and publication of this article, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States — especially New York and New Jersey — with a vengeance. Along with dire shortages of personal protective equipment for medical personnel and first responders, hand sanitizer also is in short supply. Laird & Co., along with many other spirits makers, stepped in to fill the void.

During World War II, Laird & Co. used its apples to produce pectin needed to preserve the troops’ rations. Last March, the company quickly ramped up to begin producing hand sanitizer.

“Because we have ethanol alcohol, we can produce hand sanitizer,” says Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president and global ambassador. It wasn’t quite as easy as flipping a switch, because the FDA kept changing its guidelines, and also because the ethanol had to be adjusted so it couldn’t be consumed. Otherwise, the sanitizer would have been considered — and taxed as — an alcoholic beverage. To make matters more complicated, one of the largest refineries creating isopropyl alcohol (the kind used for medical purposes and a potential additive) had a fire and caused a worldwide shortage.

Lisa finally located an additive product called Bitrix, a bitter-tasting agent that discourages anyone from drinking the finished sanitizer. It’s highly caustic in concentrated form, and employees must be covered head-to-toe and wear industrial masks to work with it.

Laird & Co. still needs to continue making its regular products, so not all production has changed over to hand sanitizer, but by mid-April the company had produced 20,000 gallons of sanitizer. About 30% of that was donated to first responders and health care providers. The rest is being sold to various governmental organizations such as the Port Authority, the U.S. Post Office and the state of New Jersey, where Laird’s sanitizer is being used at the coronavirus testing site at Kean University in northern New Jersey. Lisa says the company is getting calls from as far away as Baltimore and Boston begging for it.

As much as Laird would love to donate all the hand sanitizer, the company has had to sell some to offset costs, says Lisa.

“Obviously, [applejack] sales are down quite a bit, with restaurants and bars closed. But we still have to support our employees,” she says. The company has kept 100% of its staff.

Employees working on site follow CDC recommendations, including social distancing and mask wearing. Every morning a nurse takes their temperature and asks health questions. Anyone not feeling well must stay home for 14 days.

“We’re doing everything we can for safety,” says Lisa. The owners are also buying the staff takeout lunches from local restaurants.

“We’re trying to support them and also let employees know we’re appreciative. I’m really proud of my group!” Lisa says.

— Hedda Schupak

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact .    

Article categories: 
September/October 2020

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