The Wisconsin-Style Old Fashioned Offers a Unique Twist on a Classic Cocktail
Swap the whiskey for brandy and add some 7 Up. No, seriously.
Wisconsin is famous for its beer, dairy products and over-the-top Bloody Marys, which often include an entire charcuterie board as a garnish. There is, though, one regional specialty that often slips under the radar, a unique take on the classic Old Fashioned, made with brandy instead of whiskey and served in three varieties: sweet, sour and press.
The unofficial state cocktail, the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is most popularly served “sweet,” topped with a wash of lemon-lime soda such as 7 Up or Sprite. “Sweet” is a wholly accurate description. Depending on where it’s served, this brandy-based Old Fashioned may contain up to four ounces of soda, often with a muddled mixture of maraschino cherries, orange slices, sugar and bitters. A “sour” Old Fashioned replaces the lemon-lime soda wash for a topper of grapefruit soda, usually Squirt, or sometimes pre-packaged sour mix. “Press” style features a wash that is half lemon-lime soda and half club soda. While all varieties of the drink generally come garnished with fruit, some bars have taken to adding savory garnishes, such as olives, Brussels sprouts, pickled vegetables or even, because this is Wisconsin, fried cheese curds.
Most historians agree that the popularization of brandy among Wisconsinites — and specifically Korbel brandy, the brand most traditionally used — dates back to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. There, the Prague-born brothers Joseph, Anton and Francis Korbel showcased their namesake brandy to the more than 25 million Americans who attended the fair. At the time, brandy was a less expensive alternative to other spirits, and German-born Wisconsinites were drawn to the Korbel brothers’ Old World perspective. They purchased Korbel brandy by the case and took it home to Wisconsin, where they mixed it into not only their Old Fashioneds, but also Manhattans, martinis, sangria and, of course, Brandy Alexander as well. The practice of adding soda and fruit to an Old Fashioned emerged during Prohibition, when resourceful Wisconsinites added muddled fruits and sugar to make homemade spirits more palatable. But even as Prohibition came to an end and bathtub booze fell by the wayside, the habit of adding plenty of fruit to cocktails lived on in the state.
It’s this devotion to tradition that has kept the popularity of the brandy Old Fashioned alive and helps to make Wisconsin residents the top consumers of brandy in the U.S. While up-and-coming distillers in the area vie to make trendy craft brandies, many remain loyal to the Korbel brothers, with the state consuming a whopping 50% of the brandy that Korbel produces each year.
Today, the brandy Old Fashioned is so ubiquitous that it can be found on the cocktail menu at most bars and restaurants throughout the state. At Milwaukee’s Drink Wisconsinbly Pub, the cocktail is served in a variety of novel ways, including in frozen slushy form as well as on tap, flowing from Wisconsin’s only boozy drinking fountain bubbler. The drink can even be found in liquor stores throughout the Midwest as SoulBoxer Cocktail Co. produces the cocktail in bottled form. But perhaps the best spot to sample this beloved drink is at one of Wisconsin’s 250 supper clubs.
Supper clubs are a vital cultural dining experience in Wisconsin, and they’re a tradition that runs deep throughout the state. Some institutions, like the English Inn Supper Club in Green Bay, date back 100 years. Once known as remote, clandestine places to drink during Prohibition, these restaurants are now built around bringing together families for a hearty dinner or a Friday fish fry — and brandy Old Fashioneds are a staple.
While Chicago boasts its share of supper clubs, many of the city’s establishments serve the more traditional whiskey-based Old Fashioned. St. Clair Supper Club in West Loop is one of the few exceptions, listing the “sweet” brandy counterpart on its menu. But for a truly authentic experience, you’ll need to cross state lines in search of more out-of-the-way eateries, such as the Duck Inn Supper Club in the homey countryside setting of Delavan, or the 85-year-old Buckhorn Supper Club situation along Lake Koshkonong.
For cocktail enthusiasts, or anyone who enjoys stepping back in time, it’s a journey well worth making.
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