Monday, October 8, 2007

The Brandy Old Fashioned

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
about brandy.

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.


erik.ellestad said...

Make it two ounces of Korbel, don't stint on the bitters, and leave out the 7-up, for me!

Cheers Robert, I grew up near Madison, WI!

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

With a name like that, Erik, of course you're from Wisconsin. My middle name is Odin, dontcha know? Cheers!

zenhikers said...

Thanks for the post. I'm married to a Wisconsinite and can't watch a Packer game without a brandy old fashioned in honor of my hubby's grandmother. You'll never find nicer people than those from the Badger State. Great blog!

Anonymous said...

Honestly I came on here looking for the recipe to my favorite drink. I was unaware of the history the drink holds with the state of Wisconsin. - Tim, Milwaukee

Brian Klein said...

Been drinking old fashioneds for years. My fav is Crown canadian whisky and 50/50 [citrus/grapefruit soda]. But recently researched this and now discovered why all my friends dads drank Korbel [and my dads fav is J Bavet] as I grew up in WI.

Interestingly, I ordered an old fashioned in Vegas when I was 21 and got the awful tasting all liquor drink. At that time, I thought, 'Vegas is clueless, they don't know how to make an old fashioned'. I find out almost 20 years later, that the real old fashioned is indeed what they served. I just knew the drink as what it is in WI. My version is really a whisky sour with bitters and cherry juice. Everyone I know drinks some version of it!

barfly007 said...

It seems that the Old fashioned made the switch from Rye to Brandy in Janesville, Wisconsin.It was at the "Dew Drop Inn" that a bartender substituted Brandy after running out of Rye. It was around 1908, about ten years after the Chicago world fair.

Unknown said...

my recipe is similar, drop the sugar, use squirt instead of 7-up and add a tablespoon of maraschino cherry juice .. from my father who grew up in sturgeon bay, wi.

Anonymous said...

I like your article, but come on man, why so hard on Wisconsin? I'm sitting in my Wisconsin home right now as I type this and you've left a bad aftertaste. "A native of interest in fine wine and spirits was naturally hampered for years." Why the hate? What happened during your childhood to turn into such a Wisconsin-loathing cocktail elitist? I don't care who says what about New York City or where it's trendy to drink or what's trendy and hip and distinguished to drink, I care about one thing and one thing only, quality. For one thing, Wisconsin has plenty of wonderful beers and we enjoy a wide variety of damn fine cocktails. Maybe we're not sitting around some fancy pants lounge in NYC reading Salon, but if that's your idea of good time, keep it.

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

It's not hate, Anonymous. Just a truthful expression of my experience growing up in Wisconsin. I love the state, but I view it's drinking traditions with open eyes. I still believe that if I hadn't left and come to New York, I would have never learned there were better things to drink than Gallo and Bud. I know that the selection of Wisconsin made beers is much better now. I like New Glarus very much. Perhaps you can tell me were good cocktails are made. I have not discovered such places.

Anonymous said...

I write this as a Wisconsinite, sipping a brandy old fashioned sour on my 28th birthday. I was curious of the origin of my favorite cocktail. I like the fact your giving props to the local flair. I was born in Va but have lived in Sconnie for 12 year. Brandy was always the drink of choice here, especially during the holidays (who knows a good brandy slushy recipe?)

As a fan of a brandy old fashioned sour... I prefer a splash of soda, a splash of sweet and sour mix, a "good" amount of J Bavet brandy ( Brian, your dad is a good man, my wife got me a bottle today) You have to muddle the cherry and orange with some sugar first. Top it all off with the dash of bitters for that warm aroma ;)

I Do think the brandy makes the drink. J Bavet has a great flavor, with a nice bite similar to a rye, and the sweet, mellow finish of brandy. I usually only drink it on the rocks. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have popularity it had even 15 years ago.

Well thats the 2 cents I got for my birthday. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

When I was growing up in the Oshkosh, Wi., area, the Holiday season just wasn't the Holiday season without a Brandy Old Fashioned (according to my parents). Tonight (and each and every year) we decorate the Christmas Tree and listen to Christmas music and honor my father by toasting with a Wisconsin classic.

Anonymous said...

The safest city to order a Brandy Old Fashioned and have it made properly is in Green Bay, where it is the Number one cocktail. I prefer mine sour, with vegetables. In central WI I stick to Manhattans, which I have learned to make myself, much to the detriment of my brain cells. As a native New Yorker, I prefer Wi where the people are honest and the drinks are cheap.

Anonymous said...

Olives! The Old-Fashioned needs two olives. The addition of fruit makes it a girlie drink. ;-)
I would have to agree with "Anonymous". Just because one hasn't experienced something, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Wisconsin is not as backwards as this blog author tries to lead readers to believe. Boxed wine hasn't been around that long, and we have relatives from Napa,CA who used to visit WI over 30 years ago, and marvel at the wide offering of wines that the tiny liquor store in our tiny northwoods Wisconsin town. I'm always suspect of those who have to knock one thing, in order to provide merit to something else. Makes you wonder whether it really is as good as one claims. ;-)

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Jim, I'm not knocking the Brandy Old-Fashioned. I think it's clear I have a great affection for it. You have to admit it's a peculiar drink, though, if only because it's drunk only in one place in the whole country.

Craig said...

I find the Brandy Old Fashioned to work very well with 2 mushrooms. As another way to distinguish it as not a girlie drink, I ask for the Brandy Old Fashioned Sour (certainly not sweet). Squirt rather than 7 Up is used. I would never incorporate any fruit or sugar to this either. This is how it is best know many bars in Appleton, WI to my knowledge.

Matthew O'Rourke said...

hi there, i'm a bartender in madison and you've got the recipe spot on. nice job.

Tracy said...

i am not a Wisconsinite, but a transplant, and I tasted my first old fashioned at Quivey's Grove in Madison, WI.

I have since tried this drink numerous times and nothing compares to the Korbel old fashioned at Quivey's. apparently they muddle the sugar and cherries or somesuch and it's delish!

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised a Sheboyganite, and honestly, Sheboygan's treatment of Old Fashioneds seems to be atypical.

Old Fashioneds were always big with my family, but we never really were a Korbel family (we were also a Dutch family amidst a sea of Deutschlanders, so we always were a bit weird). In fact, if my family has any Brandy around, it's liable to be Aristocrat*. The only time I ever had a Korbel-based OF was when my uncle proudly came home from a Lion's Club raffle with a bottle. Personally, I'm about as likely to use Korbel as a mixing liquor as I am to use Jameson as a mixing liquor (and, as I say, Jameson is great for mixing with ice). I just think Korbel has too much character for mixing, but that's a bit beside the point.

My family's more into whiskey old fashioneds (usually Kessler, Early Times, or JD), but Southern Comfort is popular too (delicious, delicious apostasy!).

In most of the places I've ordered OFs in Sheboygan County, it's customary not only to specify your poison, but the soda as well (we say soda, not pop, in Sheboygan County). If you don't specify, you're usually asked to be more specific. So, you would order something like "Whiskey Old Fashioned, Sweet [specify garnish if picky]." A sour old fashioned is usually done with only Whiskey and 50/50, and it's basically a whiskey-sour with bitters and garnish. Some folks add a sugar cube to sours, too, but I figure that defeats the purpose.

* This is perhaps a familial tradition derived from a great-grandfather who would keep a bottle of Aristocrat in the cupboard as "cold medicine." Or just good old Dutch cheapness.

WxMom2 said...

When you tire of the Brandy... try a Southern Comfort Old Fashioned Sweet. When you need an even sweeter concoction, make it with Apricot Brandy.

Anonymous said...

Just made a Korbel OF.
2 shots of Korbel
A liberal amount of bitters
A dash of cherry juice from the jar
top with 50/50
add olives.


Anonymous said...

7up has no business in a brandy old fashioned what the fock

Anonymous said...

This is AWESOME! I came to your site while putting together a "Brandy Old Fashioned Gift Set" for a friend of mine. I thought that I would just find a nice, printable recipe, but found a bit more. You see, I live in the Badger State as well. My husband and I thought that "Old Fashions" were only made with Brandy- worldwide... go figure! Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

Greetings, an Merry Christmas !! A brandy old fashion has been my drink for many years, it's easy on the stomach. I like the cherries an orange peel smashed up with the sugar, then add the bitters. I have found leaving Wisc. to any other state, bartenders do not know how to make them. I feel it is wisc. drink for us older young at heart. 60 years old been drinking them for 30 years after giving up Southern Comfort. Fran

Zel said...

I'm 26 years old and I've lived in Wisconsin my whole life. I do know the history of brandy in this State and have enjoyed a Brandy slush or two in my day, but I prefer Bourbon Old Fashioneds and always will. Cheers