Wisconsin’s signature drink puts a modern twist on a classic cocktail

Joe Rickles

A maraschino cherry and a slice of orange sit skewered on top an old fashioned made with traditional Korbel brandy. Photography by Kalli Anderson

It was a dreary Monday afternoon in Madison. I sat on a metal bench outside the Capitol building with headphones in and tears welling up in my eyes. It was one of those days where no amount of good news could lighten it — there was nothing inside my mind but darkness. After a few minutes, my friend and photographer Kalli came by. I took a deep breath to hide the soulless look behind my eyes and walked behind her into The Old Fashioned, the classic Wisconsin supper club on Madison’s Capitol square.

As I slouched over the bar, a bartender, whose name I would later find out to be J.R., asked for our orders. I asked for a classic old fashioned. When he asked if I wanted it sweet or sour, I hesitated and said sour for no other reason than the fact that I was having a sour day.

Kalli went on to take pictures while I slumped over my yellow legal pad, completely silent. I glanced up occasionally to watch Kalli work her magic behind the lens, but otherwise I looked like Tom Brady after losing to the Giants in Super Bowl 42. 

Kalli finally finished taking pictures, and I was able to take my first sip out of the paper straw. I’ll never forget the thoughts that ran through my head after that first sip.

Jesus Christ. Oh, God. That sucks.

Then I took a second sip. There was less brandy in that one, so it was more doable. I took one more sip, sighed and put the drink down.

Something strange happened right then. After a day full of silence where I wouldn’t even speak to myself, I just started talking. About the pressure of school, about the fear of letting down my teammates with a crappy story. It had been years since Kalli and I had spoken about that kind of thing.

Kalli patted me on the back and helped me start talking to J.R. before heading out. We had a nice conversation as I happily sucked down the rest of my cocktail, but it was what happened before that stuck with me. Was it just the few sips of booze that opened me up? Or was there really something special about this drink and the polished wooden bar that we sat at? 

The Korbel brandy old fashioned has been a Wisconsin tradition for as long as most people can remember. Its story is one of mistaken origins, countless variations and above all else the idea of “gemütlichkeit”an undefinable German word that still perfectly describes the quietly hypnotic feeling of sipping a cocktail with close confidantes.

bTo understand how the classic Korbel old fashioned came to be one of Wisconsin’s most iconic traditions, we have to explore two pieces. First, where the old fashioned itself came from, and second, how Korbel made it to Wisconsin.

The old fashioned cocktail itself is centuries old. In a 2005 piece for Isthmus, the late Jerry Minnich wrote that the original drink dates back to the 1890s when Louisville clubs made a drink honoring whiskey maker Col. James E. Pepper. It eventually made its way to the famous Waldorf Astoria Bar in New York, where it became the drink we know today. 

Since it was made to honor a Kentucky whiskey distiller, the original cocktail understandably used whiskey or bourbon as its base. The rest of the drink consists of simple syrup (a mixture of sugar and water) and bitters. As it evolved, some mixologists and bartenders made some changes to the original recipe, but that’s the gist of it.

The story of Wisconsin’s brandy obsession is a little more complicated. For years, it was widely accepted that Korbel’s presence at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the main reason for the state’s fixation on brandy. That was the story told to kids at supper clubs when their parents ordered the iconic cocktail when they asked, “Where does brandy come from?”

But in a recent piece by Jeannette Hurt of The Alcohol Professor blog digs up some information that refutes that story. In the piece, titled “Uncovering the True Origin of the Wisconsin Brandy Obsession,” Hurt explains that Wisconsin’s love for brandy stems more from necessity than choice. It wasn’t the exposition or the deep German roots of the state, wrote Hurt, but rather a shortage of high-quality liquor during World War II. 

Whiskey distilleries were converted to torpedo fuel producers and most crops were diverted away from distilleries to feed soldiers. So when Wisconsin’s liquor distributors found out that brandy maker Christian Brothers had tens of thousands of barrels of brandy sitting around, it was a no-brainer to buy them up and spread them around the state. 

Once it was clear that Wisconsin had a fervent taste for the fruity liquor, brandy distillers started advertising heavily to Badgers. 

“I really think marketing had a huge [effect] once there was enough brandy for many people to have it,” says Terese Allen, Wisconsin foodways authority and cookbook author. “Then the time the distilleries started to reopen, they said, ‘hey, wait a second. You know, Wisconsin, they seem to be buying a lot of brandy. So let’s go. Let’s go market in Wisconsin.’ And they did, [the] Christian Brothers. And other distilleries started to market Brandy specifically to Wisconsinites.”

The rest is history. Nowadays, Korbel — the Badger state’s brandy of choice — ships 35% of its yearly output of 400,000 barrels here.

It seems like such an uneventful beginning to the half-century of complete dominance this liquor would have over the entire state of Wisconsin. But the state never went back to whiskey. It was brandy en masse, and it still is to this day.

Once it was clear that Wisconsin had a fervent taste for the fruity liquor, brandy distillers started advertising heavily to Badgers.

Where did the rest of the drink come from? The bitters seemed to be the only piece of the drink that has been consistent throughout time. But the maraschino cherries, the multiple sugar packets in the “sweet” variety of the drink, the presence of 7-Up or Sprite in place of simple syrup? It’s not as clear-cut.

Jim Draeger, co-author-Author of “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries” and member of the Wisconsin Historical Society, says much like how brandy infiltrated the state, the rest of the cocktail’s components sprouted from necessity and convenience over actual taste. 

“The advent of Prohibition created a boom in soda making as an alternative revenue for former brewers,” Draeger said in a message. “So soda came to replace the simple syrup.”

Sodas became the go-to mixer for the sour varieties of the drink, which countless Wisconsinites swear by to this day. Sweet old fashioneds, the sour version’s goody-two-shoes cousin, usually consist of the basic recipe with extra sugar packets or cubes depending on your choice.

As the drink evolved, fruits like cherries and oranges began to adorn the pudgy glasses that held these drinks. Sometimes, they’ll be Wisconsin-made, like Door County cherries. Other times, it’s just a simple maraschino cherry from a jar and a slice of orange on a toothpick. Not everyone was so keen on this break from tradition, though. Draeger offered a quote from cocktail book writer Crosby Gage, who wrote, “Serious-minded persons omit fruit salad from ‘Old Fashioneds’ while the frivolous window-dress the brew with slices of orange, sticks of pineapple, and a couple of turnips.”

The tangible components of the old fashioned cocktail in Wisconsin have their own tales and history worth exploring, but that’s only part of the story. The brandy old fashioned is inseparable from Wisconsin’s supper club culture and everything associated with it.

Supper clubs, a strange but charming amalgamation of a restaurant, a bar and a family’s dining room, are scattered across Wisconsin. The key components of a supper club are a set menu for each night of the week, a cozy atmosphere and, most of the time, a generations-old family tradition of running the place. 

Supper clubs aren’t just integral to Wisconsin’s culture; in a lot of ways, they defined it.

The strong sense of sociability, camaraderie, getting together, and eating and drinking together is what makes the Wisconsin supper club tradition, Allen says.

“In the old days, it used to be more of an adult kind of thing. But these days, it’s really the whole family or whole circles of friends or a whole reunion-type situation,” Allen says.

The fact that Wisconsin’s brandy obsession only reaches back a few decades takes some people by surprise; it seems like something that’s been around forever. Even supper clubs didn’t reach their peak of popularity until the 1950s and 60s. Perhaps it feels like the tradition has been around forever because it has been. 

The Korbel old fashioned is a humble vehicle for Wisconsin’s deep tradition of sitting around a fire or table with family and friends, winding down the day with a stiff drink and a hearty meal. That isn’t something specific to Wisconsin compared to other states and regions, but it is one that defines its culture nonetheless.

 When I was sitting at the bar on that drab October evening, it’s not like I was visited by some kind of ancient German being that imbued my Korbel old fashioned with the spirit of generations of Wisconsinites who sat at their favorite supper clubs every week for a Friday night fish fry. But there’s definitely something there. Something homey and familiar, even for those to whom this tradition is wholly unfamiliar. You don’t need to understand the complex mythology behind the drink and where it came from to feel the comfort of sitting at a cozy bar with a stiff, classic drink in hand. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

Editor’s Note: This story was corrected on Dec. 15 to reflect the first name and title for Terese Allen, Wisconsin foodways authority and cookbook author.

DUSK page photo credit: A brandy old fashioned fittingly sits on the bar of The Old Fashioned on Pinckney Street. This drink was prepared “sweet” with 7-Up. Photography by Kalli Anderson