Case Study: The Old-Fashioned, Wisconsin Style | By Toby Cecchini, 9.22.09
Your past always catches up with you. Growing up in Wisconsin, I had an ingrained awareness — and disgust — of the state’s insular signature drink, the brandy old-fashioned. It was what people drank before and after football games or ice fishing. I considered it insipidly sweet and townie lowbrow, and I left before I was enough of a drinker to be proven otherwise.
On a swing through the southern part of the state on bike last week, however, I’ve had to confront this cocktail demon over and over. I found it not only exactly all of those things, but heartrendingly so. It’s a Wisconsin artifact that still holds pride of place in old-time timberline culture, alongside muskie fishing, deer hunting and the Friday-night fish fry at the supper club.
Much has been made of the badger state’s capacity for brandy — and I use that term loosely, to encompass some fairly dubious cousins, like the favored blackberry. Korbel is as fancy as it gets in these parts. Every bartender here knows the drill: a bar spoon of sugar, three dashes of Angostura bitters, a lightly muddled slice of orange, a slug of brandy, lots and lots of ice, a splash of soda and, of course, a bright red maraschino cherry, often with an extra dose of the fluorescent juice that they swim in.
I tried making a few high-toned versions with cognac and fresh juice, ginger simple syrup and several kinds of bitters, swapping in French sparkling lemonade, and was duly punished for my hubris. This drink has been around long enough that it defies too much streamlining as handily as it does all of your efforts to dislike it. Yes, it is sweet, and yes, the mild domestic brandies that reign in Wisconsin — not to mention the embrace of commercial sodas — would make cocktailians shriek.
But considering it a simpleton’s drink was my mistake. It’s more a family of drinks, revolving around a central theme. There are four main ways to order it: sweet, with 7 Up; sour (which is not), with sour mix or Squirt; “press” with half 7 Up and half seltzer; or seltzer only. There are regional garnish customizations using pickled vegetables — including mushrooms, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, brussels sprouts and olives — that seem counterintuitive until you taste the salty, vinegar tang playing off of the spice of the bitters and the sweet thrum of the brandy. By God, our great-grandparents were on to something.
No one lays claim to this drink, though some link it to German immigrants who brought back a fondness for Korbel brandy from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It has evolved into an almost unrecognizably passing relation to the classic rye old-fashioned. And while few people outside of the state have ever heard of an old-fashioned made with brandy, few within its borders are aware the drink is made any other way.
The brandy old-fashioned isn’t a drink I’m going to be mixing up for friends anytime soon. But slumped on a stool in a supper club on the shore of Lake Waubesa, aching from the day’s struggles over roller-coaster hills and waiting for the broiled walleye and deep-fried cheese curds, it is a balm, so perfectly embodying Wisconsin culture that I can taste in it Packers football, apple fritters, Sorel boots and white pines. You grow up and learn that acceptance can be wonderful.
Brandy Old Fashioned | By Darcy O’Neil, 12.1.10
As usual, I waited until the last minute before writing, and as I write this I haven’t even decided what I’m going to write about! Obviously the topic is brandy, so that helps to narrow it down. The first thing that comes to mind is the Brandy Old Fashioned. Now, like most people I know whisky belongs in an Old Fashioned, except if you are from Wisconsin. I’m not from Wisconsin, but I do have extended family there and ever since my first visit, brandy has become an equal in the Old Fashioned.
The Old Fashioned is one of those drinks that have been around for a long time. It’s also a drink that hasn’t been extremely popular, until the recent interest in classic cocktails. But in the great state of Wisconsin, the Brandy Old Fashioned has stayed relatively popular.
Blog | By Diane, 1.15.08
I am from Wisconsin and I have to say, I never knew you could make an Old Fashioned with anything BUT brandy. Ordered the Wisconsin way, it’s “a Brandy Old Fashioned, sweet, with fruit.” Order a plain old Old Fashioned, from a bartender or waiter/waitress transplanted to my fair state and you never know what you might get.
This staple at fine dining stops around the state may not be as popular as trendy mixes, but ask anyone in Wisconsin and I’ll bet they will tell you it’s a classic – never outdated and NEVER out of style.
By Jeffrey M. on January 16, 2008 4:31 PM
Here in Oregon I’ve made friends with a pretty sizeable group of Wisconsin transplants, who taught me about the brandy old-fashioned when I first started working with liquor.
Once in a while someone will order a brandy old-fashioned at my bar, and I always delight in asking them, “What part of Wisconsin are you from?” and watching their surprised reaction.
Thanks for the post. I’m married to a Wisconsinite and can’t watch a Packer game without a brandy old fashioned in honor of my hubby’s grandmother. You’ll never find nicer people than those from the Badger State. Great blog!
By Ron T. on December 31, 2008 4:16 PM
The safest city to order a Brandy Old Fashioned and have it made properly is in Green Bay, where it is the Number one cocktail
By Anonymous on December 16, 2011 1:32 PM
Greetings, and Merry Christmas !! A brandy old fashion has been my drink for many years. I have found leaving Wisconsin to any other state, bartenders do not know how to make them. I feel it is Wisconsin drink….been drinking them for 30 years
Salud! The Old-Fashioned, Wisconsin’s Cocktail | Lindsay Christians, 1.31.12
The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest cocktails in existence, and around here, one of the most popular. At the restaurant of the same name on the Capitol Square, manager Jennifer DeBolt estimates her bartenders make up to 400 Old Fashioneds on a given Saturday night.
“I can’t explain its appeal,” he added. “It’s incredibly sweet, but to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one has ever gone broke underestimating the sugar-drinking capacity of the American public. A sweet drink is going to be popular.”
For the dedicated fan, the Old Fashioned downtown celebrates the cocktail once a year on the third Thursday in September, where for a brief window of time Old Fashioneds cost $1 each.
“We line them up behind the bar,” DeBolt said. “We make 1,500 in three hours.”
The Brandy Old-Fashioned, Solving the Mystery behind Wisconsin’s Real State Drink
The Brandy Old-Fashioned | By Jerry Minnich, 6.10.05
“Brandy old-fashioned. Sweet.” Any bartender in any Wisconsin supper club can make it with his eyes closed. It’s a wonder the drinks aren’t lined up under the bar, pre-made.
When I moved to Wisconsin from New Jersey many years ago, I was mystified when, upon ordering a Manhattan, I was served a brandy Manhattan. Soon, I discovered that an old-fashioned was actually a brandy old-fashioned, and that “brandy and Seven” was considered a potable drink.
Fish-fry authority Jeff Hagen, in his acclaimed book Fry Me to the Moon, declares the brandy old-fashioned to be Wisconsin’s State Drink. “Milk?” says Jeff. “Forget it. Got brandy?”
For more than 30 years, I have wondered how this came to be. Why brandy? And a related question: Why Korbel brandy? Korbel is only the fourth leading brand in the U.S., yet it has a virtual lock on the Wisconsin market, outselling any other brand by more than two-to-one.
While others pondered the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the lost island of Atlantis, I lay awake nights wondering, “Why brandy? Why Korbel? Why here?”
The traditional old-fashioned calls for a sugar cube mulled in two tablespoons of water in the bottom of a squat 6-ounce glass. A dash of bitters and 1½ ounces of bourbon are added. The glass is then filled with ice cubes and topped off with club soda and a slice of orange. That’s the traditional recipe.
Does it sound like the Wisconsin drink we know?
Not much. We use brandy, not bourbon. We add more fruit. And we fill it up with 7-Up or Sprite or some other sweet stuff. In other words, we like ‘em colorful and sweet. And we like ‘em so much that the brandy old-fashioned is the most popular cocktail in Wisconsin. Even here in ultra-hip Madison, at the Avenue Bar, this is the most-ordered cocktail.
“Korbel’s big break came in Chicago with his wine and brandy being featured at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The many Germans who saw the world’s fair in Chicago became Korbel’s best brandy customers. Word certainly spread. Even today, because of its large German population, neighboring Wisconsin buys the most Korbel brandy of any state. The battleship Wisconsin was christened in 1899 with a bottle of Korbel Viking Champagne.”
Eureka! This explains everything! The German population, which was much higher in 1893 than it is today. The popularity of brandy, And the brand dominance of Korbel. It might also be a marketing lesson in the importance of brand identification.
All brandy marketers today know where Korbel is positioned: in fourth place, behind E&J, Christian Brothers and Paul Masson. But 35% of Korbel’s total national brandy production is shipped to Wisconsin. In fact, 10% is shipped to Madison! A Korbel spokesman in California said that, of 400,000 cases of brandy produced annually, 140,000 go straight to Wisconsin.
In the liquor trade, the “Brandy Belt” is both legend and fact. It consists of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There’s not a bartender who doesn’t know the order, “Brandy old-fashioned. Sweet.” (“Sweet” means 7-Up, not club soda.)
Crockett, Albert Stevens (1935). The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book.