America’s oldest spirits brand sets out to challenge Asian perceptions of apple brandy

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Apple brandy: growing in Asia. Stock picture:getty/tasipas
Apple brandy: growing in Asia. Stock picture:getty/tasipas

Related tags: brandy, spirits, Asia

Should you utter the word brandy in some gentile Asian setting, the chances are someone will correct you. “Do you mean cognac, old chap?” they might put it, pointedly. “Isn’t brandy something cheap the English drink?”

But brandy, including apple brandy, has waking up across Asia, just as it did about a decade ago in the old world of Europe and North America.

And as is typical of the region in beverage and so many other segments, Asia-Pacific lags behind the rest of the world in terms of drinking tastes and settings. Where others lead, it is content to follow in their wake. But this is changing quickly.

Evolving at speed

Lisa Laird Dunn, a ninth-generation distiller of apple brandy and applejack that bear her family’s name, has been opening up new Asia-Pacific markets after she first sent her applejack and apple brandy to Australia in 2009. Now, Laird & Company is present in nine markets in the region. Their evolution reminds her of how North America and Europe developed back in the Noughties, though the speed with which this has been happening in Asian markets is breathtaking.

We are finding the same phenomenon in the Asian markets as we did at home when brandy started to become popular​,” the executive vice-president said from New Jersey, where her company has been distilling applejack and apple brandy since 1780.

But it’s been evolving more quickly in Asia than it did here. There has been this huge growth in top-quality cocktail bars in Asian markets, and it’s happening very, very quickly​.”

Australia remains Lairds’s top market there. The company works with Vanguard, an independent importer, marketer and distributor of premium liquor brands.

For us to get a very large distributor, we’d somewhat get lost in the shuffle. We need somebody who would give us a little bit more time and pay more attention to the brand that we are​,” Laird Dunn said of Vanguard.

Japan is the next in her sights, following Australia and New Zealand, followed by Singapore, China and Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and, most recently, the Philippines. Volumes to these countries are still quite small—“perhaps a couple of pallets going to Australia a few times a year​,” she said—but they are brimming with potential as more people get a taste for classic cocktails and growing numbers of places open where they can be mixed correctly.

This has been happening across Asia, with countries like Singapore and Hong Kong leading the scene. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are among the latest capitals to develop a vibrant cocktail bar scene, which Lairds largely relies on to promote its brandies.

Cocktail creations

Much of Laird Dunn’s work involves travelling to fledgling markets, where she sets out to convert cocktail bartenders to her brand’s cause by conducting masterclasses and introducing here regional brand ambassador, Callan Green. These serve to outline the long Lairds history and also highlight the role of applejack and apple brandy in classic cocktails.

Though it was popular in the American colonial era, applejack—which is like apple brandy but “jacked”, somewhat similar to how calvados is produced—waned in popularity during the twentieth century, leaving Lairds to control most North American production today.

Its Applejack line is probably best known for providing the central ingredient for the Jack Rose cocktail, with the addition of lime juice and grenadine. The drink was made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 classic, The Sun Also Rises.

I love bartenders, they are wonderful for us​,” Laird Dunn said. “The bartender community is a global community; they travel all round the world, they work in different countries, and there’s a really strong love for our Laird’s apple brandies among them. As they have travelled, they have created a demand for the product​.

We show them there are many classic cocktails, from pre-prohibition, post-prohibition that have used Applejack. There’s the Jack Rose, obviously, but I also love to see their creative talents and watch how they’ve put their stamp on our apple brandy​.”

After Australia and New Zealand, Singapore was the next market to open up. By then, Asian distributors had begun approaching Lairds to ask for its business. More niche spirits were finding demand as the cocktail scene started to boom.

Older than bourbon

Unfortunately for Lairds, this coincided with inventory issues in New Jersey, as it struggled to keep up with the resurgence of demand from consumers asking for classic cocktails like the Jack Rose. Laird Dunn was forced to pull its inventory from some markets, particularly those in Asia, leaving only a blended Applejack available.

At the same time, Lairds doubled its distillation using cold-storage apples, whereas previously the company would crush fresh apples.

Now I have inventory I’m really pushing my distribution in Asian markets, though it’s working little by little. We are mostly looking for small-type importers, looking to concentrate right now on the on-premise cocktail establishments because most of the bartenders are aware of the product, or at least aware of the classic cocktails​,” said Laird Dunn.

Distributors have been developing an interest in us, so we haven’t had to go around knocking on doors, looking for someone who would be interested in our brand. Most of our distribution internationally has been facilitated by bartenders​.”

Lairds’s long history and niche positioning can be seen as a blessing or a curse depending on how you look at these things. On one hand, it has a history that every American spirits brand can only glance over jealously, not least because it is the oldest distiller in the United States. Rightly or wrongly, history is synonymous with quality and refinement in Asia, so the brand is likely to appeal to a well-heeled market.

But on the other hand, it is not difficult for a small independent brand to be drowned out by the sheer variety of spirits available now in Asian cocktail bars, regardless of its history. And this is why Laird Dunn’s masterclasses, her Malaysia-based brand ambassador and an education programme for bar owners and bartenders to take part in are so important for projecting the Lards message.

We are the oldest distillers in the United States, so we let people know how we are older than bourbon. We had the first native distilled spirits in America, and Applejack was always included in early cocktail books​,” she said.

It should be a staple in everybody’s bar because it has historical value, and it’s got such versatility. At the same time this heyday we’ve had with bourbon and rye has been making way for brandy to come through in Asia. Now you are starting to see a lot more attention to brandy​.”

And with that, being corrected for mentioning brandy is becoming less commonplace. That is because people in Asia are starting to hear about Lairds Applejack.

Related topics: Beer, Wine, Spirits, Cider

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