Paula F. / Yelp
Earlier this week, I wrote an article about the revival of the Old Fashioned in bars in cities across America.
“Almost any place I put them on the menu, they’re one of the top sellers,” said Eben Klemm, a scientist turned mixologist who curates cocktails for New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel.
“These were unsellable a decade ago,” he continued.
Shortly after publishing time, my inbox started to fill up with emails from a somewhat unexpected place: Wisconsin.
“People in Wisconsin are making fun of you on Facebook,” one read.
Read another: “The Old Fashion[sic] is as much a standard as tap beer.”
And another: “I have lived most of my life in southern Wisconsin where the Old Fashioned has been something of the state cocktail (if there were such a thing) for well over 50 years. As a 59-year-old bartender and server, I’ve seen just about every variation on the cocktail.”
You see, the Old Fashioned is something of a state treasure in Wisconsin. While the drink largely fell out of favor in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s, Wisconsites’ love for the Old Fashioned continued on unabated.
The only major difference is that the Wisconsin version of the Old Fashioned is almost always made with brandy and soda (and often, fruit) instead of whiskey.
I called up John Dye, the owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge and The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee, for guidance.
“People get really, really passionate about their Old Fashioneds. Many people have recipes, even though it’s generally the same ingredients wherever you are in the state,” he said. “It’s a family tradition — lots of grandparents make Old Fashioneds around the holidays.”
He joked: “I’ve theorized that Angostura bitters would have gone out of business if it weren’t for Wisconsin.”
At the recently renovated Jazz Estate, bartenders serve three takes on the classic cocktail: a Wisconsin version, a more typical Old Fashioned with whiskey, and a house drink made with bourbon, Amaro, Angostura bitters, and cold-brew coffee.
“At the majority of bars in the state of Wisconsin, the bartender will ask you, ‘How do you want it?’ because you can have it served sweet or sour. There are two kinds of sodas you can put in,” Dye said. “But even if you ask for a whiskey Old Fashioned, they would still ask how you want it because they would most likely still serve it with soda.”
“It’s two different drinks, in a way.”
The most common theory for why Wisconsinites take their Old Fashioneds with brandy dates back to 1893, to the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago’s World Fair.
“A lot of the Germans from [Milwaukee] went down there … A lot of people drank European brandy, but a blight in Europe caused brandy batches to go bad,” Dye said. “Korbel basically introduced their American brandy at the World Exposition, and since Milwaukeeans already loved brandy, they really attached to Korbel.”
The growing love of brandy later merged with the popularity of the Old Fashioned to create the drink that most Wisconsin residents would be familiar with today. It’s apparently been a Friday night fish-fry staple ever since.