Bourbon or brandy? Sour or sweet? Those are the million dollar questions.
If you’re ordering an Old Fashioned in Wisconsin, brandy sweet is the correct answer. That’s because the Brandy Old Fashioned is the (un)official cocktail of Wisconsin. Nationally, Old Fashioneds are typically made with rye or bourbon whiskey, but the true Wisconsin Old Fashioned is made with brandy -- Korbel by tradition.
The Old Fashioned cocktail dates back to the 1800s when the bartender would give you the bottle of whiskey, rum, gin or whatever to fill your own glass after he prepared the sugar, bitters and water, and it was originally called the Whiskey Cocktail.
Over time, bartenders put their own twist on the Whiskey Cocktail. They added new liqueurs and absinthe, which made a “fancy” and “improved” cocktail, but nostalgia set in and many craved the unimproved, simple old-fashioned drink. And so, the Whiskey Cocktail became known as the Old Fashioned.
You may be wondering how brandy entered the scene when most people were drinking whiskey.
Take a trip back to the World’s Fair Chicago in 1893. Industry was booming and Chicago and Milwaukee were developing at rapid rates while boasting incredible potential. The World’s Fair was the coolest, most exciting thing to happen to the region, so naturally a lot of Wisconsinites attended. (It’s important to note that Wisconsin was highly populated with Germans at this time.)
Korbel launched their brandy and sold it at the World’s Fair, where said German Wisconsinites were in attendance. Given Germans’ cultural preference for brandy over whiskey, they bought Korbel brandy by the case at the World’s Fair and took it home to Wisconsin. To this day Wisconsin buys copious amounts -- roughly a third of the brandy Korbel produces every year goes to Wisconsin.
Now, if you remember, the liquor in the Whiskey Cocktail/Old Fashioned was interchangeable, so those brandy-loving Wisconsinites swapped out whiskey for brandy and the Brandy Old Fashioned was born. And that was that. America had its Old Fashioned, Wisconsin had its Brandy Old Fashioned.
The Wisconsin way to make a Brandy Old Fashioned is to add the sugar, bitters, oranges and cherries to the glass and muddle until the sugar dissolves. Add ice, brandy and Sprite, 7Up, Squirt, sour mix or seltzer depending on whether you want sweet, sour or seltzer. The Wisconsin default is sweet, so add Sprite or 7Up and you know it’ll be good.
Today, Wisconsin is still committed to the cocktail and it’s seen throughout the state. Starting this season, there are Brandy Old Fashioneds on tap at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Brandy Old Fashioneds. On tap. Commitment. You can also get one at pretty much every bar or restaurant in the state. More commitment. In a state laced with tradition, the Wisconsin Old Fashioned stands to remain a brandy cocktail made the old-fashioned way.
So, when you go to another state and order a Brandy Old Fashioned, and the bartender asks, “Are you from Wisconsin?” You can proudly smile and nod because that’s your cocktail and everyone knows it. But beware, it probably won’t be as good as an Old Fashioned you can get in the cheese state.
Or you can visit your favorite steak joint in Wisconsin and we’ll make it right every time.
By Betsy Lizer