I am uniquely qualified to write about this very singular drink, since I grew up in the Milwaukee area. In almost every other place in the thinking world, if you order an Old Fashioned, you will get something made with a base of rye or bourbon. In Wisconsin, if you don't specify your poison, you will get an Old Fashioned made with brandy.
This has been the case as long as anyone can remember. The sweet, fruity drink (oranges, cherries and either Club Soda or Seven-Up are involved) may be Wisconsin's most popular cocktail. It's certainly popular. Wisconsinites also drink Manhattans made with brandy, and something called "Brandy and Seven." All, usually made with Korbel brandy. For many years, more brandy was drunk in the Badger State than in the rest of the other 49 United States combined.
People have puzzled for years over the origin of the sui generis mixture and been unable to come up with a plausible theory as to its history and popularity. My parents and relatives fell dumb when asked to explain the drink.
I was left wondering until I stumbled upon a 2006 article in the Isthmus, a Madison, Wisconsin, alternative newspaper, in which the author, one Jerry Minnich, makes a convincing case for unlocking the mystery. The money paragraphs are these:
I came upon the answer to this mystery in a most serendipitous way. I had
just finished reading The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. It is the story of
the building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, a book enlivened by
the concurrent story of a psychopathic serial killer. (A real page-turner, if you're
looking for some good summer reading.) Several new products were introduced at
this fair, including Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat. But the book says nothing
Then, in surfing the Internet, I came upon the single clue that broke the mystery
wide open. The California Korbel brothers—Francis, Josef and Antone—were lumbermen
who started making brandy in 1889. Business was slow until, four years later,
they introduced their brandy to the popular Columbian Expo. Popular? It drew 27
million visitors -- one quarter of the nation's population. According to the
Chicago-area Northwest Herald, June 8, 2004:
"Korbel's big break came in Chicago with his wine and brandy being featured at
the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The many Germans who saw the world's fair in
Chicago became Korbel's best brandy customers. Word certainly spread. Even
today, because of its large German population, neighboring Wisconsin buys the
most Korbel brandy of any state. The battleship Wisconsin was christened in 1899
with a bottle of Korbel Viking Champagne."
Eureka! This explains everything! The German population, which was much higher
in 1893 than it is today. The popularity of brandy. And the brand dominance of
Korbel. It might also be a marketing lesson in the importance of brand
As a Wisconsinite might say, "Well, thar you go." Strange as it may seem, until recently, I had never tasted this flagship drink from my native state. So, on my recent sojourn to the Midwest, I made a point of ordering up a Brandy Old Fashioned. The place was venerable old Nelson's Hall on remote Washington Island. I didn't think I could get more ur-Wisconsin than that. I asked the young waitress if the bartender knew how to make a Brandy Old Fashioned. She didn't bat an eye. "Of course," she said.
It came. It was colorful, sweet and topped with an orange slice and two maraschino cherries. And it wasn't a trashy, slop drink. It was actually quite delicious. Sure, too sweet. Sure, too eager to please. Sure, a drink for people unsure whether they want to taste the alcohol. But a tasty drink. I understood suddenly why they were drunk in such numbers. This cocktail should not be sneered at. It works, for what it is. It does have the class or sophistication of a Manhattan or the depth of a Sazerac. But it's a local delicacy, and in our time of increase homogenization, such things should not be sneezed at.
Here's the recipe recommended in the Isthmus article:
Brandy Old-Fashioned (From the Avenue Bar)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 dashes bitters
1-1/2 ounces brandy
Spoon sugar into one 6-ounce
cocktail glass. Add bitters. Dissolve
quickly with a splash of 7-Up, then
add brandy, followed by ice cubes.
Top off with 7-Up, and garnish with
an orange slice and a maraschino
on a toothpick. (Good bartenders
skewer the orange slice from
bottom to top with the cherry in
the middle, which they call a
See more here.
Read more about Brandy Old Fashioneds here.