February 1, 2021

Amy Cavanaugh

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Build Your Own Wisconsin Old-Fashioned

Brandy or bourbon? Sweet, sour, soda, or press?

So you’ve never ordered an old-fashioned in Wisconsin.

Here’s how it goes. You won’t automatically get what most of the country calls an old-fashioned: whiskey, sugar, and bitters. You may get questions. Brandy or bourbon? Sweet, sour, soda, or press? It’ll probably come with a skewered orange slice and a maraschino cherry unless you specify alternate garnishes, like cheese curds or green olives. With that decision, you’re set. You can sit back and enjoy your old-fashioned, which, if you’re new to the tradition, may be unlike any you’ve had before.

The Wisconsin old-fashioned, with its many variations, may seem a bit fussy. Really, it’s anything but. You can get one at any tavern, supper club, restaurant, or high-end bar in the state. It’s a cocktail that’s flexible enough to accommodate everyone’s tastes. Sure, the brandy old-fashioned is the most popular variation, but if brandy doesn’t do it for you, you can get whiskey. Like it less sweet? Opt for soda. Can’t stand cherries? Go for pickled mushrooms. (Really!) And it’s still evolving.

How did Wisconsin get so invested in the old-fashioned? The story goes that German immigrants took a liking to the California-made Korbel brandy they tried at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The spirit worked its way into cocktails, including the old-fashioned, where it endured. Since then, the old-fashioned has become a major part of Wisconsin culture. An old-fashioned is the way to kick off a Friday night fish fry. O&H Danish Bakery in Racine even makes a Wisconsin old-fashioned Kringle. (It’s pretty tasty.) In March, On Milwaukee reported that Wisconsinites buy half of Korbel’s entire production. That’s a lot of old-fashioneds.

A typical Wisconsin old-fashioned begins with a cherry, an orange slice, a sugar cube, and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, all muddled in a glass. Next comes the spirit, which is probably Korbel brandy. Some bars use a pricier brandy, like Bertoux (I particularly like that one), or a Cognac. Some drinkers prefer whiskey, most often bourbon or rye. After the liquor comes the “wash,” a spritz of soda that distinguishes the major styles. You can order “sweet” (Sprite or 7Up), “sour” (sour mix or Squirt, a grapefruit soda), “soda” (just bubbly water), or “press.” While my first experience with press netted just soda, it’s supposed to be half-Sprite (or 7Up) and half-soda.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, press was about saving calories,” says Mike Holmes, the owner of Ellison Bay’s Wickman House. “But I like press, because I like a little bit of sweet, but not over-the-top sweetness.”

The standard garnish is a skewer with an orange slice and a cherry. But what’s up with the green olives? “Oh, it’s a thing,” Holmes says. “So are mushrooms and cocktail onions.” There’s no conventional wisdom about savory garnishes. It’s truly up to you. “A lot of people who order sweets get olives, too,” Holmes says. “If I go to [Sister Bay supper club] Sister Bay Bowl, I get an old-fashioned, bourbon, sour, with olives.”

Build Your Own Wisconsin Old-Fashioned - Quote

How did Wisconsin get so invested in the old-fashioned? The story goes that German immigrants took a liking to the California-made Korbel brandy they tried at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The spirit worked its way into cocktails, including the old-fashioned, where it endured.

Brian Bartels gets those orders in Madison, where he’s a co-owner of the Settle Down Tavern. “In Reedsburg, my hometown, there’s a bar called the Black Squirrel Lounge that automatically uses olives as the garnish,” he says. “At the Settle Down, we have Castelvetrano and pitted olives, and we’re happy to provide those. There are people who want a funkier, brinier flavor in their old-fashioned.”

He has a theory about how that started. “I don’t think we always took garnishes seriously, and some places probably didn’t have a wide selection. So you’d just grab the closest thing to the glass, and most bars had olives.”

Last fall, Bartels, who tended bar in New York before moving home to the Midwest, published a book about state-by-state drinking, The United States of Cocktails. “It’s fascinating to me how the Wisconsin old-fashioned definitively sets us apart from the rest of the country,” he says. “It was what inspired me to write the book in the first place.”

He serves plenty of Wisconsin old-fashioneds, along with a popular twist on the drink.

“The Red Squirrel Old-Fashioned is a hybrid of the Wisconsin and pre-Prohibition old-fashioneds,” he says. “As a sweetener, instead of sugar or a cube, we use maple syrup. Instead of just Angostura, we also use Peychaud’s. We add not only brandy but bourbon as well. As an extra curveball, I pour in a little Campari. Instead of muddling fruit, I zest the orange and express the citrus oils over the drink, and garnish with two kinds of cherries, classic maraschino and Luxardo.”

Back at the Wickman House, a modern supper club in Door County, the serious cocktail program includes the Fashionable, a drink made with brandy, orange curaçao, orange, Lazzaroni maraschino, bitters, and grenadine.

“We use booze and juice to give you the same idea as the original flavors,” Holmes says. “It’s more of a punch than a classic sipping old-fashioned. It’s one of our most popular drinks and is never on the cutting block when we’re changing the menu.”

At Madison’s Tornado Steak House, the Main Street Old-Fashioned is fancied up with Christian Brothers Sacred Bond brandy, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, brandied cherries, Angostura bitters, orange peel, and demerara sugar. Milwaukee’s Burnhearts uses local Bittercube bitters in place of Angostura and ages the drink in barrels from Wisconsin’s Central Waters Brewing. They serve a frozen version in the summer. Driftless Glen, a distillery in Baraboo, adds black cherry balsamic vinegar for depth of flavor.

But on Friday nights, one drink still reigns supreme.

“In Wisconsin, Friday nights and old-fashioneds go hand-in-hand,” Holmes says. “On summer Fridays, Wisconsin old-fashioneds, sweet, will be twenty-to-twenty-five-percent of our orders, and that’s with us having a list of fifty cocktails—none of which are the classic Wisconsin old-fashioned.”

Holmes showers his classic old-fashioned with bitters. “We muddle an orange and a housemade or Luxardo cherry with sugar and eight to ten shakes of bitters,” he says. “I really like the bitter aspect to it. If you use an old-fashioned mix, which plenty of bars do, it’s really sugary. But when you make it from scratch, all those extra steps are the authentic Wisconsin style of making the drink that’s so special to us here.”

Boone & Crockett is well-known in Milwaukee for its old-fashioned. For years, they offered both brandy and bourbon versions aged in barrels. But director of operations Emily Dell Revord says they haven’t been able been able to keep up with demand for the barrel-aged cocktails since moving into a new space two years ago.

The demand is real. On the March Saturday before Boone & Crockett closed due to COVID, Dell Revord says they sold 265 old-fashioneds, of which 136 were brandy and 129 were bourbon. Boone & Crockett’s take on the drink is a streamlined twist, omitting the muddling and opting for turbinado sugar for a deeper flavor. Like Holmes, Dell Revord likes to adds extra Angostura. “Our recipe technically calls for five dashes, but I think ten tastes a little better,” she says.

That’s one way to make it.

Boone & Crockett Wisconsin Old-Fashioned

Boone & Crockett Wisconsin Old-Fashioned

Makes 1 drink

2 oz. Korbel brandy
½ oz. turbinado sugar simple syrup (heat 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves)
10 shakes Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, then pour over a glass of ice. Top with preferred soda, and garnish with an orange slice and brandied cherry.


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