In most of the United States, an Old Fashioned is most often made with bourbon or whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a twist of orange and/or cherry for garnish. Wisconsin, however, does things differently.
The only real commonality in Wisconsin’s version of the Old Fashioned is the sugar and the bitters. The Sconnie version swaps the bourbon or whiskey for brandy and muddles in a slice of orange and boozy cherries. The bartender will also ask whether you want a sour (an added splash of Sprite) or sweet wash (with an added splash of soda water).
It’s a fairly large divergence from the classic cocktail, but enormously popular in Wisconsin. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bar within the state limits that isn’t able to prepare the drink that way.
There’s an oft circulated story that the brandied version came to prominence following the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Bartenders will often tell their guests that the reason Wisconsinites drink brandy is because the Korbel brothers came from California with cases of brandy to give away samples at the Fair. Because there were so many train routes from Wisconsin into Chicago, oodles of Wisconsinites, many of whom were immigrants from Germany where brandy was more popular, came and took notice.
However, according to Jeanette Hurt, author of Wisconsin Cocktails, that’s not true. Not only were there over 20 other brands displaying brandy at the World’s Columbian Exposition–so the likelihood of Wisconsinites singling out that one is slim–but Korbel had stopped making brandy during Prohibition and didn’t restart until the 1960s, long after the brandy old fashioned had been popularized.
The real reason Wisconsinites drink brandy, Hurt said, boils down to the fact that, at one point, it was the best option available to them.
During and after World War II, many bourbon and whiskey producers had voluntarily stopped production so grain could be shipped to Europe to feed people. The shortages of the distilling materials led to a lot of bad booze floating around—so much so that police were citing taverns for putting poor alcohol in good bottles.
“What happened is these distributors found 30,000 barrels of brandy and bought it all up,” Hurt said. “All this really good brandy came into Wisconsin in one big gush. When people had the option of poor whiskey or good brandy, it was an easy choice.”
Hurt said that marketing campaigns were launched to target Wisconsinites thriftiness, “‘Only a nickel more and worth it.’”
The poor-quality alcohol was also a contributing factor in why Wisconsin adds the soda and muddled fruit—people had become so accustomed to covering up the taste of sub-par alcohol that it stuck, even when they had a better alternative.
While less common, occasionally Wisconsinites will order atypical garnishes like pickled onions, mushrooms, and olives for their Old Fashioned. Hurt said that’s because at supper clubs in Wisconsin bartenders often serve a relish tray with drinks.
Why this iteration of the cocktail has endured even when there are myriad options for quality alcohol, Hurt said, is likely just because when Wisconsinites find something they like, they keep drinking it.
“A different example is the Tom and Jerry cocktail,” Hurt said, adding that the eggnog-like drink made with brandy dates back to the mid-1800s, but, “In 1905 a lot of national publications were predicting the death of the Tom and Jerry. Well, it never died here.”
Beyond the Old Fashioned, some Wisconsin drinkers will also swap brandy into their Manhattans. It’s also found in many hot coffee drinks, slushes (the Wisconsin’s version of a sangria), and ice cream drinks, like the Brandy Alexander (a brandy-based dessert cocktail with cognac, creme de cacao, and ice cream). Korbel, one of the largest suppliers of brandy in the world, states that Wisconsin drinks over half of their yearly supply.
“I think Wisconsinites love brandy because it’s part of the tradition we grew up with,” said Julie Coquard, Vice President and Marketing Director for Wollersheim Winery & Distillery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, a distillery that produces multiple varieties of brandy. “[The tradition is] going to a fish fry on Friday night during the dead of winter or outside in the summer overlooking a lake and enjoying a brandy Old Fashioned.”