Order an Old Fashioned practically anywhere in the world, and you’ll get some sort of derivative of what was once known as “the whiskey cocktail.”
Except in Wisconsin, where the bartender will ask you if you want it sweet or sour. Because in Wisconsin, Old Fashioneds aren’t made with whiskey. They’re made with brandy. Then they’re topped with either sweet or sour soda (once in a while, club soda, and that’s called press, short for Presbyterian). Forget about an orange twist. They’re always served with a muddled cherry and orange.
So, how did this classic drink evolve into something completely different in Wisconsin? The brandy component likely started with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There, three Czech brothers – Josef, Antone and Francis Korbel – debuted their namesake brandy. At the time, a good portion of the United States’ population flocked to Chicago to attend the fair, and a large number of Wisconsin residents swooped into town, using the trains that connected the state with Chicago. It’s thought that the good German folks in Wisconsin preferred brandy to whiskey, so the Korbel brothers took note and marketed to them.
Today, Korbel still takes note. Wisconsin consumes more brandy than any other state in the country, and together with Minnesota next door, they make up 60 percent of their entire brandy sales, says Paul Ahvenainen, Korbel’s director of winemaking. “One time I was visiting Madison, and walking back from visiting a bar called the Old Fashioned, and there in the window of the state historical museum was a bottle of our brandy,” Ahvenainen says. “I thought to myself, ‘God, is this a great state or what?'”
During Prohibition, brandy sales were halted. “While it was not hard to get a medicinal wine permit, a medicinal liquor permit was a rare bird,” Ahvenainen says, adding that Korbel stopped all brandy production for many years.
Wisconsinites didn’t stop consuming brandy, and much of it may have come from Canada from European makers. Some in the state likely tried to make their own. That’s where the second part of the state’s signature Old Fashioned recipe likely hails from. The drink’s fruity muddle is believed to have evolved during Prohibition. Good spirits were sometimes hard to come by then, so bartenders used sugary syrups and fruits to cover up the taste of bad booze.
After Prohibition, the state’s supper club culture helped to promote the drink, and in the 1960s, brandy making at Korbel was resurrected by Adolf Heck. “Distributors did a good job of getting the word out,” Ahvenainen says. “Wisconsin’s a pretty value-driven state, and there was an ad at the time that went something like ‘A nickel a drink and more than worth it,’ which sold Korbel as a premium product.”
The ad took hold, and the drink’s been passed down from one generation to the next, Ahvenainen says. “It’s just this big phenomenon,” he says.
It’s a phenomenon that’s spurred local distillers to create brandies in-state, too. When Herb Kohler challenged his creative team at Kohler Company to look into craft spirits, they looked at what they did well (making artisan chocolates) and looked at what Wisconsin did well (drink brandy). Last year, the company released its first spirit, KOHLER Original Recipe Chocolates Dark Chocolate Brandy, and this year, the company released a mint chocolate brandy. “The bitterness of the dark chocolate and the sweetness of the brandy just popped,” says Gerald Allison, manager of the KOHLER chocolates business. The first drink Peter Kalleward, mixologist for Destination Kohler, came up with was, of course, a riff on the Wisconsin Old Fashioned.
In Wisconsin, every bar serves an Old Fashioned, but now craft bartenders are coming up with modern riffs. At Movida Spanish restaurant in Milwaukee, bartenders use Spanish brandy, a chili-infused simple syrup and a muddle of strawberries and lemons. At the Cheel, a Nepalese restaurant in Thiensville, they make a version using French cognac.
And at Camp Bar in Milwaukee (which also has two suburban locations), they make 10 different versions, switching out seasonal versions, too. In fall, they make one using a pumpkin spirit from Great Lakes Distillery, and in the summer, they make a sangria version with grapes, sweet Grenache, orange and cherry bitters, brandy and soda water. “We make some pretty wild Old Fashioneds,” says John Klinzing, bar manager.
At the bar and restaurant named The Old Fashioned in Madison, they serve seven different versions, and one day, every September, they sell classic Old Fashioneds for $1 apiece. They sell thousands. “It’s just packed,” says Ahvenainen, who visited once to experience the day. “They have multiple bartenders set up. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Kohler Dark Chocolate Brandy Old Fashioned
Peter Kalleward, mixologist Destination Kohler
2 Luxardo cherries
4 dashes Angostura bitters
splash of water
½ oz. Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
2 oz. KOHLER Original Recipe Chocolates Dark Chocolate Brandy
1 oz. club soda
Glass: rocks or Old Fashioned glass
Garnish: cherry and orange wedge or peel
Muddle two cherries with Angostura bitters and a splash of water in the bottom of a glass. Add ice, then pour over orange liqueur and chocolate brandy. Gently “roll” or pour the ingredients back and forth from the original glass to another, larger glass, until mixed and combined (It’s like shaking, but not so violent). Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice, top with club soda, garnish with cherry and orange.
Traditional Wisconsin Old Fashioned
1 sugar cube
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 orange wedges
2 maraschino cherries
2 oz. Korbel Brandy
1/2 oz. lemon-lime soda, sour soda and/or seltzer
Glass: Old Fashioned, a short tumbler also called lowball or rocks glass
Garnish: orange wedge and toothpick with 2 to 3 maraschino cherries
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of your glass. Dash the bitters on top of the cube. Then add the orange wedges and cherries, and muddle them together until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the brandy on top and stir to combine. Add ice, and top with lemon-lime soda, sour soda and/or seltzer.
For an Old Fashioned sweet, use lemon-lime soda. For an Old Fashioned sour, use sour soda like Squirt. For an Old Fashioned soda, use seltzer water, and for an Old Fashioned press, use half seltzer and half lemon-lime soda. Garnish with another orange wedge and a toothpick with cherries.