At most places in the United States, when you order an Old-Fashioned at a bar of any repute, the cocktail you’ll get contains ice, bitters, sugar, maybe an orange peel and bourbon or rye. But if you happen to be in Wisconsin, the greatest drinking state in the land, and give that same order, you’re more likely to get a mixture of brandy and a splash of lemon-lime soda like Squirt or Sprite over ice, often with a muddled cherry and a slice of orange. This is the Brandy Old-Fashioned, the official cocktail of the Dairy State that’s recently been making its way to cocktail menus across the country.
“Wisconsin has been obsessed with brandy for a long time,” says John Dye, the owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge and The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee. Though the history of the cocktail or the state’s fascination with the spirit is spotty, Dye speculates it goes back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair held in nearby Chicago where the Czech brothers Josef, Antone and Francis Korbel debuted their sweet American brandy. “Apparently, it made quite the impression on thirsty Wisconsin Germans,” Dye says.
Wisconsin is still a prodigious consumer of brandy, and Korbel in particular. In 2017, Korbel’s director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen said Wisconsin and Minnesota together are responsible for 60 percent of their total sales.
Incorporating brandy into the Old-Fashioned format gained popularity in the middle of the 20th century thanks in part to brandy producers. How the drink evolved from the traditional format of bitters and sugar to the lemon-lime soda topped cocktail isn’t clear. “My personal guess is that people were making traditional Old-Fashioneds with brandy and started adding soda to make it more of a long drink so it wouldn’t be so strong and could be enjoyed over a longer period,” Dye tells InsideHook. “There are a lot of minor variations of the Brandy Old-Fashioned, and I think everyone would say their favorite restaurant, bar or grandparent makes the best, greatest Old-Fashioned.”
There are some standard variations on the drink. “Every bartender in Wisconsin needs to know how to make a Brandy Old-Fashioned with one of three requests: sweet, sour or press,” explains Brian Bartels, the author of the forthcoming The United States of Cocktails. “Sweet is a splash of 7-Up, sour is a pre-packaged sour mix and press is short for Presbyterian, which was originally a half club soda, half ginger ale highball from the turn of the nineteenth century.” Beyond that, most every bar in Wisconsin has their own version of the cocktail, some served in pint glasses, others with simple syrup or maraschino cherry juice. “No one really owns the Brandy Old Fashioned the way Wisconsin owns it,” Bartels wrote. “For as popular as Old Fashioneds are on many a cocktail menu, I feel the Brandy Old Fashioned deserves more national attention.”
Though the Brandy Old-Fashioned is still, mostly, a regional favorite, it’s been spreading through cocktail menus around the country thanks in part to a recent wave of American brandy makers seeking to reintroduce the drinking public to one of the country’s original spirits. Last year, cocktail world heavyweight Jeff Bell and winemaker Thomas Pastusak teamed up to develop and launch Bertoux Brandy, a blend of pot-distilled California brandies balanced for cocktail making. “Brandy was an integral figure in the beginning stages of cocktail culture and lost favor over time and is now working its way back up to be a key competent for cocktail creation,” Bell says. And after over a decade of whiskey dominating bar menus, drinkers could want something different. Brandy as an ingredient in a drink they’re already familiar with could be just the thing.
The Brandy Old-Fashioned has been gaining steam across the country. You can find one on the menu at Doc Crow’s in Louisville, Kentucky, under the name “Old Smashioned,” or at the Bit House Saloon in Portland, Oregon. In Denver, you can order one at The Plimoth or Bin 46, and in Washington, D.C., you can find it on the menu of Chicken + Whiskey. At Violet’s in San Francisco, bar director Patrick Poelvoorde serves a kind of midway point between the Brandy Old-Fashioned and the Whiskey version of the cocktail by combining brandy, rye, amaro and bourbon. You can also find one at establishments that never stopped slinging them even as they fell out of fashion on the coasts, like Kozel’s Restaurant in West Ghent, New York. They even come in bottled form as the “Old-Fashioned Brandy Sweet” from Arty’s Cocktails. Or, if you’re looking for a little Badger State in Brooklyn, The Turk’s Inn, a new take on the iconic Hayward, Wisconsin chophouse that operated from the 1930s until 2014, is opening its doors at the end of this month. The Brandy Old-Fashioned is on the menu there.
On the whole, awareness of American brandy in the craft cocktail community is on the upswing, thanks in part to people like Joe Heron, who founded Copper & Kings American brandy in Louisville in 2014. “When we looked at the market, you had $10 brandy and $50 brandy, and nothing American in the middle,” Heron says. “What we were trying to do is define American brandy, and not be defined by cognac.”
To that end, Heron has traced the ways that bartenders have been using brandy on menus, and has seen the Brandy Old-Fashioned take root. “Even if we ignore Chicago and Minnesota, the Wisconsin-style Old-Fashioned is moving out of Wisconsin,” he says. “It’s in steakhouses in Texas and in bars in Louisville.”
The appeal of the drink, Heron thinks, has something to do with its roots in the Midwest, a lack of pretension mixed with a drink that just plain tastes good. “It’s very refreshing and not too sweet,” he says. “It looks really elegant on the bar just freshly made. People will see it and say, oh, I’ll have one of those too. It’s like a cocktail in a flannel shirt — it’s cozy, and it looks great.” And maybe, in time, it will become just as ubiquitous outside its home state.
Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.