A Scotsman in New Jersey back in 1780 named William Laird established America’s first distillery. He made an aged apple brandy that was called Applejack. It is still sold (as Laird’s Applejack), and as a born and bred New Jerseyan, I feel it an obligation to always have a bottle on hand.
I grew up in a home where there wasn’t a lot of booze. We had some beer in the summer (the Pabst, Schaefer, Rheingold, Piels and Budweiser of the NJ of that time), the odd whiskey sours for an “occasion,” but there was always brandy and schnapps. Brandy is distilled from many fruits. The fancier stuff – French Cognac, Armagnac, Peruvian Pisco – comes from grapes, but my parents liked blackberry or peach brandy. Laird’s sells an apple brandy (100 proof), while the Applejack is 35% apple brandy and 65% neutral spirits.
Schnapps also refers to fruit brandies, herbal liqueurs, infusions, and “flavored liqueurs.” They are made by adding fruit syrups, spices, or flavorings to neutral grain spirits. We always had some peppermint schnapps on hand for “medicinal” purposes. That was a tradition my mother’s Austrian family brought with them. I still keep a bottle in the house, just in case. “Schnapps” comes from the German word “schnappen“, which refers to the fact that the spirit or liquor drink is usually consumed in a quick slug from a small shot glass.
I heard about Laird’s Applejack in an undergraduate history class at Rutgers and bought my first bottle soon after.
When the Lairds established America’s first commercial distillery in the tiny community of Scobeyville, NJ, they obtained License #1 for a distillery in the state. Back then, Applejack was also imbibed in an unaged form dubbed Jersey Lightning. Laird released an official unaged Jersey Lightning in 2014.
The family tradition is even older. In 1698 Alexander Laird, a County Fife Scotsman, emigrated from Scotland to America with his sons Thomas and William. William settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey. William probably was making scotch back in the old country, but here he turned his skills to using the abundant apples of the New World.
Robert Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier serving under George Washington, and the Laird family supplied the troops with Applejack. Historical records show that, prior to 1760, George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their recipe for producing Applejack. The family gave it to him and entries appear in Washington’s diary regarding his production of “cyder spirits.”
I didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln had a “saloon” in New Salem, Illinois. His menu of 1833 shows Apple Brandy sold at 12 cents a half-pint. A half-pint would get you pretty mellow, so a night’s lodging would cost another 12-1/2 cents, and a meal was a hefty 25 cents.
An article in New Jersey Monthly gave some modern apple brandy drinks (Born to Run, Lincoln Park Swizzle, Ol ’55), but I say they have too many fancy ingredients (Aquavit, Framboise, Falernum, Peychauds) to seem like a real Jersey drink that honors the spirit’s traditions.
I have been known to move a Manhattan across the river by using some Applejack, and my wife likes a Jumping Jack (1.5 oz. Laird’s AppleJack, 1 oz. chilled espresso and .5 oz. cinnamon syrup). But most of the time the Applejack or brandy is either straight up or on the rocks just as it comes from the bottle, or, in winter, used in the hot toddies my Aunt Millie taught me to make. After all, traditions are traditions. And, yes, since I had to take a photo of the bottle, I did have some Applejack while I was typing this.