By Robin Meredith, Cocktail Columnist
Even those of us with a relatively enlightened, cliché-free view of New Jersey may be surprised to find out that one of the nation's most intriguing spirits hails from the Garden State. The most densely populated state in the country seems pretty far removed from the dark hollows of Kentucky and Tennessee or all those wacky mavericks distilling brandy and eau-de-vie in the mountains out west.
Laird and Company of Scobeyville, NJ (not far from Red Bank) produces an impressive range of apple-based spirits and has a truly fascinating history. Billing itself as “America's oldest family of brandy distillers,” Laird was founded in 1780 and its Scobeyville facility holds the very first bonded warehouse license issued by the Internal Revenue Service. Laird survived Prohibition by producing non-alcoholic apple products such as cider and applesauce. The Laird family still controls the company — the president and senior market executives are all eighth and ninth generation family members.
Unfortunately, the Laird product
you are most likely to be familiar with is Laird's Applejack (around
$16), which accounts for the vast majority of the company's 1.5 million
case annual production. The Applejack is a perfectly acceptable
80 proof brown spirit, but because it is a blend of 35% apple brandy
and 65% neutral spirits it has relatively little fruit character and
is easily overwhelmed by other ingredients in cocktails.
A far more interesting product is Laird's Straight Apple Brandy ($22), which is bottled “in bond” at 100 proof at the Scobeyville distillery. Laird's own production statistics pretty much tell the story— while it takes six pounds of apples to make a bottle of Applejack, twenty pounds go into each bottle of Straight Apple Brandy. Opinions are divided on Straight Apple Brandy's virtues as a sipping liquor. I enjoy it, but it could be a bit rustic for some, especially if your preferences lean toward smooth, mellow cognacs.
Where Laird's Straight Apple
Brandy really shines is in cocktails — the intense fruit character and
elevated alcohol create a vibrancy that shines through loud and clear
in classic cocktails like the Jack Rose and Marconi Wireless (essentially
an apple brandy Manhattan, recipe below). There aren't many recipes that call
for apple brandy, but it lends itself well to substitution with other
brown liquors. Just last night I made an Apple Cart, which is
basically a Sidecar with apple brandy instead of cognac — a great drink.
Laird's produces two higher-end apple brandies as well — the Old Apple Brandy (aged 7 ½ years) and the Rare
Old Apple Brandy (aged 12 years). I haven't found a source for
the Old Apple Brandy, but a bottle of the Rare Old Apple Brandy I stumbled
across in Denver (around $46) was a fine sipping liquor, although a
bit too subtle (and pricey) for use in cocktails.
Tracking these things down can be a challenge. If you're willing to venture into the wilds of Red Hook, LeNell's (www.lenells.com) is a reliable source for the Straight Apple Brandy (and an essential stop for anyone with even a passing interest in mixology). I'm not aware of any other reliable suppliers in the area, so please post any suggestions you may have.
The Marconi Wirless
As I mentioned earlier, ingredients make all the difference here. Make a Marconi Wireless with Applejack and cheap vermouth and you will probably wonder what all the fuss is about - make one following the recipe below and you'll have one of the best Manhattan derivatives you've ever tasted. This version calls for Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, which can also be a sourcing challenge (it is available at LeNell's). If you can't find it, the more readily available Punt Y Mes (made by the same company) is a fine substitute.
2 oz. Laird's Straight Apple
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
Several dashes bitters (both Angostura and orange work well here).
Combine ingredients with a generous number of large ice cubes (at least five) and stir for thirty seconds. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a twist of lemon (peel a two inch strip from a lemon with a potato peeler and squeeze between your fingers with the outer portion facing the surface of the drink).