If you order an Old Fashioned in 49 out of 50 states, you can expect a whiskey cocktail made with sugar, water and bitters, typically Angostura.
In Wisconsin, however, the Old Fashioned ditches convention. Wisconsinites swap their whiskey for a brandy-based mixture served one of three ways: sweet, sour or press.
“ ‘Sweet’ is with 7-Up, ‘sour’ is with Squirt soda or pre-packaged sour mix, and ‘press’ is half 7-Up, half club soda,” says Brian Bartels, author of The United States of Cocktails, and owner of Settle Down Tavern in Madison. “Most people opt for ‘sweet’ or ‘press.’ ”
Regardless of which option you choose, unlike the spirit-forward original, Wisconsin’s brandy Old Fashioned contains approximately four ounces of soda. It also features a muddled mixture of maraschino cherries, orange slice, sugar and bitters, among other possible garnishes.
“Some people in Wisconsin like to serve the Old Fashioneds with some truly unique garnishes as well, such as with olives, brussels sprouts and pickled veggies,” says Bartels. “We had someone order an Old Fashioned sour with olives the other night at Settle Down Tavern. I’ve also seen some garnished with a hard-boiled egg. We get weird and wonderful in Wisconsin.”
“The brandy Old Fashioned wasn’t broken, so they never fixed it.”—Robert Simonson, cocktail writer and Wisconsin native
As with most origin stories, details about how the brandy Old Fashioned came to be are unclear. The popularization of domestic brandy can be traced to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a fair held in nearby Chicago.
More than 25 million Americans attended the fair. There, they witnessed three California lumbermen, brothers Joseph, Anton and Francis Korbel, showcase their namesake brandy. It became popular in Wisconsin, where many with German and Polish ancestry were eager for a domestic take on an old country spirit. As legend has it, it was even more affordable to drink it in a cocktail.
A few decades later came Prohibition and the introduction of all of the cocktail’s fixings: the cherries, orange slice, soda, olives and so on. Prohibition made it illegal to produce, transport, import and sell alcohol, so bootlegging and bathtub gins were at their peak. Shoddy alcohol was bought and sold on the black market.
Prohibition was especially disliked in Wisconsin, where those of German descent regarded drinking as part of their culture. Resourceful Wisconsinites sourced whatever spirits they could find and muddled various fruits and sugar to make them more palatable.
Korbel stopped brandy production for a few decades after Prohibition, but that component of the Old Fashioned stuck in locals’ minds. Today, Wisconsin consumes 50% of the brandy that Korbel produces, making state residents the top consumers of brandy in the U.S.
Adding fruits to an Old Fashioned remains popular, too.
“Wisconsinites are conservative people, skeptical of trends and unimpressed by the worldly ways of the rest of the country,” says Robert Simonson, a cocktail and spirits writer for The New York Times, author of The Old-Fashioned, and a Wisconsin native.
“Once they find something they like, they stick to it and see no reason to change,” he says. “The brandy Old Fashioned wasn’t broken, so they never fixed it.”
John Dye is owner of Milwaukee’s oldest cocktail bar, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, founded in 1938. He says that he isn’t sure why soda was added to the brandy Old Fashioned.
“It does take the drink from a boozy special-occasion cocktail to a drink that can be enjoyed socially for a longer period of time,” he says.
Simonson says that he always orders brandy Old Fashioneds at supper clubs, a vital cultural dining experience in Wisconsin. Each one makes the drink slightly differently, he says.
“Supper clubs are ideal because of the overall atmosphere,” he says. “But any bar can make you a decent one. They are like Sazeracs in New Orleans, one of those cocktails that are so common in a certain part of the nation that every bartender knows the recipe.”
The cocktail is inextricably linked to Wisconsin.
“As soon as you cross the state lines into Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa or Michigan, it’s unreal to see how less [brandy Old Fashioneds] are ordered and made,” says Bartels. “[They’re] truly unique to Wisconsin and this part of the United States.
“Like [bar owner] Troy Rost says in my book, ‘You can always spot a Wisconsin bartender by looking at their red-stained fingers from grabbing cherries in the cherry juice.’ ”
A brandy Old Fashioned is one of the top-selling drinks at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, says Dye. He recalls a story about how the bar’s second owner chartered planes to Las Vegas in the 1960s and ’70s. Vegas bars didn’t all stock brandy regularly, so Bryant’s owner took matters into his own hands.
“He would load several cases of brandy on the plane for the enjoyment of him and his friends while in Las Vegas,” says Dye. “That story always makes me smile. I can’t imagine a more Wisconsin thing to do.”
Get the recipe for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned Cocktail