The Old-Fashioned Widow — Photo courtesy of Samuel Berman
For most cocktail universes, the recipe for an Old-Fashioned is the distillation of simplicity: bourbon or rye, sugar syrup, a dash of bitters and orange zest as a garnish. It’s a drink formula that’s stood for over 200 years – except in Wisconsin.
Sometime around the turn of the last century, local Sconnies decided to mix up a unique version of the Old-Fashioned, replacing the brandy with bourbon and adding carbonated soda and fruit puree to create a more sweetened to appeal to brandy immigrants. – and schnapps-loving countries like Germany and Poland.
Order an Old-Fashioned at Tin Widow, arguably the best cocktail bar in Milwaukee, and you might get a blank stare from the bartender: she’s not being rude, she’s just waiting for further instructions. Because Wisconsin Old-Fashioned is not only unusual, but also exceptionally special.
Wisconsin Old-Fashioned Kid and Pretzels — Photo courtesy of Robert Curley
“You have to indicate the preparation you want,” explains Sam Berman, co-owner of Tin Widow; “sweet” (mixed with lemon-lime soda like Sprite or 7-Up), “sour” (mixed with grapefruit soda, traditionally Squirt), “press” (half lemon-lime soda, half sparkling water), or ” soda” (carbonated water).
In other words, if you want your Wisconsin Old-Fashioned sweet, ask for “old-fashioned sweet brandy.” Or an “Old-Fashioned Sour brandy” if you like it sour. Or so on.
Too complicated ? Maybe, but there’s a story behind this most Wisconsin cocktail — though not everyone agrees on the origin story.
The most popular version holds that the drink originated from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where California’s Korbel brothers introduced their namesake brandy, which quickly became a hit with residents of nearby Wisconsin. Sipping brandy straight was fine until Prohibition, when domestic alcohol production was banned and drinkers turned to illegal substitutes that required lots of mixers to cover their cheap taste. In the case of Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, that meant adding soft drinks and mixed orange and cherries to the bitters.
Prohibition ended almost 90 years ago, but the recipe for the drink remained. Wisconsin residents still drink half of the brandy produced by Korbel each year, most of it in Old-Fashioneds. And while the dairy industry may have had milk declared the state drink in the ’80s, Wisconsin has the third-most bars per capita in the country, and you bet no one is ordering a glass of low in bold in any of these countries. places.
“There are two things every bar in Wisconsin should have: Miller beer and Korbel brandy,” Berman says. “Your regular bar might not even know how to do what people elsewhere consider old-fashioned.”
The Tin Widow doesn’t list a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned on its drink menu; the bar’s version of the classic cocktail is a hybrid of the local and “normal” styles – an old-fashioned bourbon brewed with a homemade sour mix. It’s the bar’s most popular drink, but Berman knows better than to deny patrons the chance to order the cocktail that, for Wisconsin residents, “feels like home.”
“We stock 250 whiskies, over 200 gins and one brandy – Korbel,” he says.
Wisconsin Old-Fashioned made with Central Standard brandy — Photo courtesy of Jon Wolf – The Rally Co.
Outside of Badger State, mixologists may wonder which bourbon is better old-fashioned, and whether the authenticity even allows for an orange peel in the glass. But the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned is endlessly adaptable. Evan Hughes, CEO and co-founder of Wisconsin’s Central Standard Craft Distillery, likes to order his candy with a garnish of olives; at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, Old-Fashioneds are blended with the brewery’s own maple beer.
In a minor act of heresy, Central Standard made a bid to find a home in local liquor cellars for its own northern Wisconsin brandy as the base liquor to make a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned.
“People want to support local products,” says Hughes, describing the northern Wisconsin distilled wine liquor as a “traditional Wisconsin brandy with a little extra flavor profile,” thanks to aging in bourbon casks.
Replacing Korbel in the hearts and glasses of Wisconsinans could be a tall order, but Hughes says some of his neighbors are willing to pay a small premium to “experience something a little elevated” in their Old Fashioned.
Whether mixed with the latest brandy or not, Old-Fashioned is “a drink that brings Wisconsin people together,” says Hughes.
“That’s what my dad ordered when we went to a supper club,” he says. “It’s so ingrained in our culture that it doesn’t feel weird at all.”