Applejack. Ever heard of it? Not the cereal, not some cloying, flavored vodka cocktail and definitely not the My Little Pony doll. (to be clear, I’m not a Brony; I just have two children under the age of 6.)
The applejack I’m referring to is the original American Spirit. Still sound unfamiliar? I can relate.
When I first discovered applejack, roughly five years ago, I hadn’t heard of it either but what I learned has since changed my life.
America’s oldest spirit, applejack, was produced and consumed by George Washington himself. A delicious, high-proof, brown spirit, it is (depending on the brand) made from 100% apples. Yet, very few people know about it.
That’s because applejack, for most of the 20th century, was a forgotten spirit. A quaff never called for. After being one of our country’s most popular drinks for over 200 years, applejack was pretty well snuffed out, first by the popularity of other spirits, and second, by the temperance movement. With the exception of Laird’s (the country’s oldest operating distillery in New Jersey, who somehow kept applejack alive all those years), applejack was history.
A few years ago, my business partner Casey and I decided applejack needed a comeback. At that point in our careers we both had great experience marketing spirits, and with applejack we felt we could do something special. Even so, to a lot of people that concept might’ve made us seem naïve. Creating a product that has little demand isn't normally considered particularly savvy. Applejack is a category that, in the US, sells in the tens of thousands of cases per year (as opposed to the tens of millions in the whiskey category) so, from a scale standpoint there’s a pretty low ceiling. It’s a product that we would have to explain most of the time when introducing it to people, and I’d also guess that well more than half of NYC’s bars and restaurants don’t carry it.
All this is to say, if I were an investor seeing our plan for the first time, I’m not sure I would have placed a bet on us. But Casey and I saw this as the time for a big swing…
Applejack may not be the most popular spirit around, but it has so much going for it that is just waiting to be discovered. It is an authentic American spirit that few people are familiar with, yet is undeniably tasty. True, it’s a small category, but it’s also a sleepy one with few players in the market in terms of competition. And, while the world can’t seem to get enough of authentic brown spirits, our feeling is that the back bars and liquor store shelves already have more than their fair share of small batch whiskeys and ryes.
The more we thought about applejack, the more we thought of it as a big opportunity. A chance to offer people something truly unique, authentically American, and without question delicious, that brought new value to a consumer who was curious about new experiences and cared about things made locally. And while it was a small category, we did note that applejack was (ahem) cropping up on some very interesting menus; places where the staff cared about their guests’ spirits experience as much as their food.
The more we learned, the more the opportunity just made sense. And with our agency's experience helping brands (especially spirits brands) connect with people, we decided to take the plunge.
It took a few years but we found great local partners within New York (Black Dirt Distillery & Van Brunt Stillhouse) to help us source the apple juice, distill, age and bottle our spirit. And through a lot of hard work, including hand-labeling and numbering every bottle in our initial run of four hundred cases, we’re up and running in one of the world’s most exciting and competitive spirits markets, NYC.
Both Casey and I grew up in and around the New York area our entire lives, so for us, applejack isn’t only a way to develop a successful business, it is also a way for us to become engaged in the local economy by making a product we’re proud of that’s true to where we came from.
As of last fall, we’re officially on the market and things are going really well; we’re in over eighty accounts, people are more interested in applejack than we’d thought they’d be, and we’ve received a good amount of coverage and accolades from respected spirits writers. Charles Passy, of the Wall Street Journal even asked, “Is applejack poised to become the next bourbon or rye?”
It’s an exciting time to be involved in the craft spirits market. No doubt we’ve got a long way to go to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves, but the opportunity to be part of something this big is thrilling and the ride is half the fun.
Let me know what you’re drinking. What undiscovered spirit should Barking Irons Distilling & Imports Co. try to revive next?