Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? (2024)

It may surprise some to learn that the Badger State consumes more brandy than anywhere else in the United States. In 2019, Wisconsinites accounted for more than half of the worldwide sales of Korbel brandy. Here, brandy transcends liquor trends and accompanies life’s milestones, whether in the state’s variation on the Old Fashioned, the local brandy slush or one of the state’s new and innovative concoctions.

“Brandy brings people together up here in Wisconsin,” says Evan Hughes, co-founder and CEO of Milwaukee’sCentral Standard Craft Distillery, by way of explanation.

The distilled spirit is such a big deal in America’s Dairyland that, last month, state lawmakers passed a bipartisan resolution to designate its ubiquitous brandy-based Old Fashioned as its official state co*cktail—the first adult beverage to receive such classification in the entire nation. (That is, if you don’t count Washington, D.C.—a federal district, not a U.S. state—which as its official co*cktail has the rickey.)

This intense adoration may seem random to outsiders, but Wisconsinites’ connection to the distilled spirit goes way back and has become an important part of the state’s cultural heritage. But how, exactly, did this happen? Here’s everything you need to know about Wisconsin’s obsession with brandy—and the surprising new ways it’s being served.

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Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? (1)

A Brief History of Brandy in Wisconsin

Like all enduring traditions, lore surrounds Wisconsin’s love of brandy. In the most popular version of the story, a bunch of residents boarded trains to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, sampled Korbel, and couldn’t get enough.

Jeanette Hurt, author of Wisconsin co*cktails, says the story is more complicated. After reading through more than 200 local newspapers, Hurt found that Wisconsinites were drinking a variety of co*cktails after the Expo, but not specifically with brandy.In fact, brandy didn’t take off in the state until the decades after Prohibition and World War II.

Here’s how that happened: To help Europe recover from the war, in 1947, President Harry Truman shut down the nation’s distilleries for 60 days to conserve grains and ship them to food-starved nations. This reduced the availability of spirits. According to Hurt’s research, tavern owners and bartenders poured questionable liquor into bottles with renowned labels, eroding the public’s trust in the industry.The state wanted good booze, so during the late 1940s, Wisconsin distributors snatched up an aging cache of brandy in California—all 30,000 cases.

“That’s enough brandy to fill two-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says Hurt. “We were swimming in good brandy.”

In less than a decade, everything changed. When the choice was lousy rum and whiskey or good brandy, Wisconsinites ordered wisely. “Suddenly, our kids are drinking brandy and then our grandkids are drinking brandy,” says Hurt. “Once we like something, we stick with it.”

Hurt credits Wisconsin’s supper clubs with cementing the spirit’s legacy. 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.

The company’s creative director, Beth Levendusky, adds, “Your family gets together and twelve people line up [at the supper club] and give their unique orders for an Old Fashioned.”

Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? (2)

The Birth of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned in Wisconsin requires three decisions. First, you choose your liquor, which is almost always brandy or, sometimes, whiskey. Then a soda: sweet, sour or a press (equal parts lemon-lime soda and club soda). Then it’s time to pick a garnish; cherries and orange slices are the leading choices. Yet everyone has a relative who gets a bit wild, like Levendusky’s aunt, who goes for Southern Comfort, press and mushrooms.

Though locals tend to have signature combinations, distillers and bartenders educate out-of-staters to help shape expectations and share the culture. “It’s fun because they get to customize,” says Hughes. “If you order a sidecar, you get a sidecar. But with a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, you get to choose your own adventure.”

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Even in what Hurt describes as “the dark days of co*cktails, the 70s and 80s,” Wisconsites could order a well-prepared, brandy-based Old Fashioned at nearly every neighborhood drinking den, tavern and even dive bar. The widespread availability of the co*cktail has made it a deeply personal tradition for most Wisconsinites, often evoking deep-seated memories.

“A brandy Old Fashioned was my first co*cktail with my dad,” says Hughes. “I definitely have had plenty of them, but every time you taste one, it brings you back.”

Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? (3)

Brandy’s Craft Evolution

While the brandy Old Fashioned is the most common and celebrated use of the beloved spirit, the liquor’s footprint extends far further into the state’s co*cktail culture. Traditional brandy Alexanders, brandy sours and sidecars are longtime favorites. So are icybrandy slushes, a boozy blend of brandy, frozen orange juice concentrate, lemon-lime soda and tea with whatever personal touches one enjoys. It’s typically homemade and brought in a bucket to any event. In winter, the brandy Hot Toddy is another staple.

But the state’s distillers and bartenders have also embraced modern mixology trends, highlighting brandy’s vast range in creative mixed drinks. This has only added to the spirit’s popularity in the state.

“Brandy culture a while back felt a bit like grandma and grandpa’s, but that definitely changed with the resurgence of co*cktail culture and the boom in craft distillers,” says Bobby Tanzilo, drinks writer and senior editor at OnMilwaukee. “[Bartenders and distillers] breathed new life into what might’ve felt like a fading tradition.”

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In Carlsville, Door County Distillery offers a handful of brandies, some of which have won awards. The one infused with the area’s famous local cherries serves as the main ingredient of the Cherry Blossom co*cktail—essentially a regional twist on a Tequila Sunrise—that’s served at its onsite co*cktail garden. Central Standard Craft Distillery in Milwaukee also makes multiple brandies, including the wildly popular North Chocolate Brandy and an innovative beer brandy collaboration with the brewmasters at Hofbräu München. At the distillery’s popular bar, locals can often be seen sipping its brandy-based Midwest Margarita or its riff on the official state co*cktail, the roasted marshmallow-topped Campfire Old Fashioned. For those seeking an on-the-go version of the classic, Drink Wisconsinbly released an award-winning canned Old Fashioned in 2022. And Hurt herself is a big fan of the barrel-aged pear brandy from Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee. “Gorgeous,” she says. “It tastes amazing in a sidecar.”

Though local love of the spirit hasn’t wavered in decades, Wisconsin beverage industry insiders are eager to share their appreciation of brandy with visitors or anyone interested in learning more about their unique co*cktail culture.

“Come with an open mind and learn about what we do here in the state [with brandy],” says Levendusky. “You will find something you love that you never knew existed.”

Published: December 29, 2023

Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? (2024)


Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy? ›

The state wanted good booze, so during the late 1940s, Wisconsin distributors snatched up an aging cache of brandy in California—all 30,000 cases. “That's enough brandy to fill two-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says Hurt. “We were swimming in good brandy.” In less than a decade, everything changed.

Why is brandy so popular in Wisconsin? ›

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.

Why does Wisconsin use brandy in Old Fashioned? ›

An Old Fashioned at the Del-Bar supper club in Lake Delton, Wis. "So in Wisconsin, if you could get bad whiskey or good brandy, rotgut rum or good brandy — what were you going to drink? You were going to drink brandy. So, people started drinking their co*cktails with brandy," she adds.

What is the most popular drink in Wisconsin? ›

1. Wisconsin's Twist on a Classic — The Brandy Old Fashioned. Did you know Wisconsin consumes the most brandy per capita in the country? Part of the reason is due to our official state co*cktail, the Brandy Old Fashioned.

How much brandy is drank in Wisconsin? ›

Brandy and cognac per capita consumption in the United States in 2022, by state. For every 1,000 adults in the District of Columbia, approximately 262.9 9-liter cases of brandy and cognac were consumed in 2022. The second highest consumption was found in Wisconsin at 219.9 cases.

What state buys the most brandy? ›

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.

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 was the legal drinking age in Wisconsin in the 70's? ›

In the early 70s the sale of alcohol was reduced to the age of 18. The 1983 Wisconsin Act 74, effective July 1, 1984, created a drinking age of 19.

What brandy is best for Wisconsin old fashioned? ›

brandy: It's traditional to use Korbel (Core-bell) brandy in a Wisconsin old fashioned, but at the end of the day, any decent brandy will do. If you really can't stand to use brandy, just swap for bourbon. 7-up, sprite, squirt, or club soda: Totally your choice here based on whether you want it sweet, sour, or press.

What is the main alcohol in Old Fashioned? ›

The Old Fashioned is arguably the most well-known whiskey co*cktail in the world. Essentially just a slug of bourbon that's been lightly sweetened with sugar and modified with a couple dashes of bitters, it's dead simple to make, but within this basic template is a world of opinions and flavor.

What alcohol is only sold in Wisconsin? ›

Let's take a look at the history, and why the beer is only sold in Wisconsin. The origin story: First released in 1993, Edel Pils and Wisconsin Belgian Red were the original beers of New Glarus Brewing. The brewery didn't start to gain its iconic status until the 1997 launch of Spotted Cow.

What city in Wisconsin drinks the most? ›

According to a survey by InsiderMonkey, Milwaukee has an excessive drinking rate of 24.6 percent, the highest among cities in the U.S.A. This Wisconsin city was ranked the drunkest in America... again.

Who drinks the most brandy? ›

It may surprise some to learn that the Badger State consumes more brandy than anywhere else in the United States. In 2019, Wisconsinites accounted for more than half of the worldwide sales of Korbel brandy.

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.

What is the history of brandy in Wisconsin? ›

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

The California brandy made such an impact on those visiting from Wisconsin that many took it back to their home state and started selling it on the regular. This popularized brandy drinking throughout the state.

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.

Is brandy made in Wisconsin? ›

Crafted to finish off the perfect Old Fashioned or sipped straight up, enjoy North WI Brandy – made in the true Wisconsin tradition.

What is USA's number 1 brandy? ›

Leading brandy & cognac brands in the U.S. 2022, based on volume sales. In 2022, Hennessy was the leading brandy and cognac brand in the United States with about 4.1 million 9 liter cases sold. E&J ranked second with 3.5 million cases sold.

Where does the most famous brandies come from? ›

Outstanding French brandies include cognac, from the Charente and Charente-Maritime départements of France, usually considered the finest of all brandies, and Armagnac, from the Gers region. The sherry-producing centres of Spain and the port-producing centres of Portugal are also known for brandy.

Where is the birthplace of brandy? ›

Cognac brandy in a typical snifter
TypeDistilled beverage
Country of originFrance
Introduced15th century
Alcohol by volume35–60%
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