In Wisconsin, A Distinctive Take on an Old Fashioned co*cktail (2024)

If you order an Old Fashioned in 49 out of 50 states, you can expect a whiskey co*cktail made with sugar, water and bitters, typically Angostura.

In Wisconsin, however, the Old Fashioned ditches convention. Wisconsinites swap their whiskey for a brandy-based mixture served one of three ways: sweet, sour or press.

“ ‘Sweet’ is with 7-Up, ‘sour’ is with Squirt soda or pre-packaged sour mix, and ‘press’ is half 7-Up, half club soda,” says Brian Bartels, author of The United States of co*cktails, and owner of Settle Down Tavern in Madison. “Most people opt for ‘sweet’ or ‘press.’ ”

Regardless of which option you choose, unlike the spirit-forward original, Wisconsin’s brandy Old Fashioned contains approximately four ounces of soda. It also features a muddled mixture of maraschino cherries, orange slice, sugar and bitters, among other possible garnishes.

“Some people in Wisconsin like to serve the Old Fashioneds with some truly unique garnishes as well, such as with olives, brussels sprouts and pickled veggies,” says Bartels. “We had someone order an Old Fashioned sour with olives the other night at Settle Down Tavern. I’ve also seen some garnished with a hard-boiled egg. We get weird and wonderful in Wisconsin.”

“The brandy Old Fashioned wasn’t broken, so they never fixed it.”—Robert Simonson, co*cktail writer and Wisconsin native

As with most origin stories, details about how the brandy Old Fashioned came to be are unclear. The popularization of domestic brandy can be traced to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a fair held in nearby Chicago.

More than 25 million Americans attended the fair. There, they witnessed three California lumbermen, brothers Joseph, Anton and Francis Korbel, showcase their namesake brandy. It became popular in Wisconsin, where many with German and Polish ancestry were eager for a domestic take on an old country spirit. As legend has it, it was even more affordable to drink it in a co*cktail.

A few decades later came Prohibition and the introduction of all of the co*cktail’s fixings: the cherries, orange slice, soda, olives and so on. Prohibition made it illegal to produce, transport, import and sell alcohol, so bootlegging and bathtub gins were at their peak. Shoddy alcohol was bought and sold on the black market.

Prohibition was especially disliked in Wisconsin, where those of German descent regarded drinking as part of their culture. Resourceful Wisconsinites sourced whatever spirits they could find and muddled various fruits and sugar to make them more palatable.

Korbel stopped brandy production for a few decades after Prohibition, but that component of the Old Fashioned stuck in locals’ minds. Today, Wisconsin consumes 50% of the brandy that Korbel produces, making state residents the top consumers of brandy in the U.S.

Adding fruits to an Old Fashioned remains popular, too.

“Wisconsinites are conservative people, skeptical of trends and unimpressed by the worldly ways of the rest of the country,” says Robert Simonson, a co*cktail and spirits writer for The New York Times, author of The Old-Fashioned, and a Wisconsin native.

“Once they find something they like, they stick to it and see no reason to change,” he says. “The brandy Old Fashioned wasn’t broken, so they never fixed it.”

John Dye is owner of Milwaukee’s oldest co*cktail bar, Bryant’s co*cktail Lounge, founded in 1938. He says that he isn’t sure why soda was added to the brandy Old Fashioned.

“It does take the drink from a boozy special-occasion co*cktail to a drink that can be enjoyed socially for a longer period of time,” he says.

Simonson says that he always orders brandy Old Fashioneds at supper clubs, a vital cultural dining experience in Wisconsin. Each one makes the drink slightly differently, he says.

“Supper clubs are ideal because of the overall atmosphere,” he says. “But any bar can make you a decent one. They are like Sazeracs in New Orleans, one of those co*cktails that are so common in a certain part of the nation that every bartender knows the recipe.”

The co*cktail is inextricably linked to Wisconsin.

“As soon as you cross the state lines into Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa or Michigan, it’s unreal to see how less [brandy Old Fashioneds] are ordered and made,” says Bartels. “[They’re] truly unique to Wisconsin and this part of the United States.

“Like [bar owner] Troy Rost says in my book, ‘You can always spot a Wisconsin bartender by looking at their red-stained fingers from grabbing cherries in the cherry juice.’ ”

A brandy Old Fashioned is one of the top-selling drinks at Bryant’s co*cktail Lounge, says Dye. He recalls a story about how the bar’s second owner chartered planes to Las Vegas in the 1960s and ’70s. Vegas bars didn’t all stock brandy regularly, so Bryant’s owner took matters into his own hands.

“He would load several cases of brandy on the plane for the enjoyment of him and his friends while in Las Vegas,” says Dye. “That story always makes me smile. I can’t imagine a more Wisconsin thing to do.”

Get the recipe for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned co*cktail

Last Updated: May 8, 2023

In Wisconsin, A Distinctive Take on an Old Fashioned co*cktail (2024)


What is the difference between an Old Fashioned and an Old Fashioned in Wisconsin? ›

For the unfamiliar, the old fashioned co*cktail in just about every place other than Wisconsin is traditionally made with a whiskey, like bourbon, sugar and bitters. But in Wisconsin, brandy usually replaces whiskey — and it's most often poured over a mixture of muddled cherries, orange slices, sugar and bitters.

What is the official co*cktail of Wisconsin? ›

Lawmakers in Wisconsin have passed a resolution declaring the state's official co*cktail: the brandy old fashioned.

Why does Wisconsin drink brandy old fashioned? ›

Starting as country road speakeasies during Prohibition, the dance halls turned restaurants are a staple of Wisconsin family life. “Everyone grew up going to supper clubs, and you always drink an Old Fashioned,” says Rob Peterson, marketing director of Door County Distillery.

Did Old Fashioned originate in Wisconsin? ›

The co*cktail itself goes back to the early 1800s, though the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky., claims it originated at least a version of it in the latter half of the century. Brandy old-fashioneds have a long history in Wisconsin, the resolution notes.

What state drinks the most Old Fashioned? ›

Wisconsin drinks more brandy than any other state, and most of our brandy consumption goes into the Wisconsin old fashioned – a muddle of sugar, bitters, orange and maraschino cherries topped with brandy and then sweet or sour soda and a bevy of garnishes.

What city in Wisconsin drinks the most? ›

The state has seven of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest alcohol consumption per capita ("for each person"). InsiderMonkey concludes Milwaukee.. "with its sprawling beer gardens.." is the drunkest city in America in 2023. Milwaukee topped lists for excessive drinking in 2022 and 2021, too.

What drink is Milwaukee known for? ›

Whether it's on tap, in bottles, cans or kegs, beer is what "Made Milwaukee Famous." From legendary German brewers Blatz, Pabst, Schlitz and Miller to modern craft brew masters, Milwaukee's beer heritage and culture continues.

Why is alcohol so cheap in Wisconsin? ›

Wisconsin has one of the lowest alcohol tax rates in the country, which lowers retail and wholesale prices; Busalacchi says the tax rate for beer hasn't increased since 1969.

What are the different types of old fashioneds in Wisconsin? ›

One of the main things that makes a Wisconsin Old Fashioned different is the fact that it's made with a mixer. While traditional old fashioneds are a combination of whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters, Wisconsinites serve them one of three ways: sweet, sour, or press.

Why is drinking so big in Wisconsin? ›

One common theory about why Wisconsin's drinking culture is so extreme is linked to the state's German heritage. About 43 percent of the state's population claims German roots, which explains Wisconsin's drinking culture — so the theory goes — since medieval Germans are the ones who invented hopped beer.

What is Wisconsin's state beverage? ›

The Wisconsin Legislature designated milk as the official state beverage in 1987. This action recognized Wisconsin's position as the nation's leading milk-producing state and the contribution of milk to the state's economy.

What is Wisconsin's favorite soda? ›

Today, Jolly Good Soda remains a Wisconsin favorite with more delicious flavors than ever before.

What is the most ordered co*cktail in America? ›


The classic Margarita co*cktail has been one of the most popular co*cktails in America for years and still remains on top. While there are many variations, the traditional recipe consists of tequila, Triple Sec and lime juice.

What is the state drink of Wisconsin Old Fashioned? ›

For the unfamiliar, the old fashioned co*cktail in just about every place other than Wisconsin is traditionally made with a whiskey, like bourbon, sugar and bitters. But in Wisconsin, brandy usually replaces whiskey — and it's most often poured over a mixture of muddled cherries, orange slices, sugar and bitters.

Is it an Old Fashioned or an Old Fashioned? ›

As a noun, an old-fashioned refers to an alcoholic beverage which contains whiskey, sugar, bitters and pieces of fruit. Occasionally one sees old fashioned without the hyphen, but dictionaries list old-fashioned with a hyphen. Old fashion is a corruption of the term old-fashioned.

What are the types of Old Fashioned? ›

  • Elderflower and Peach Old Fashioned. Put a sweet, spring twist on an old classic with the peach old fashioned. ...
  • Honey Old Fashioned. ...
  • Winter Spiced Old Fashioned. ...
  • Chocolate Orange Old Fashioned. ...
  • New Fashioned. ...
  • Sazerac. ...
  • Old Fashioned Godfather. ...
  • Marmalade Fashioned.

Why do wisconsinites drink brandy? ›

Brandy's popularity in Wisconsin started when a large number of German immigrants moved here in the 19th century and couldn't find their favorite drink, brandewijn. This prompted Korbel to start distilling for the public in 1889. Small-batch local distilleries produce – or have produced – brandy, too.

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