How Wisconsin Does Their Old Fashioned Differently

You walk into a hotel bar, clad in a black dress or suit, and order an old fashioned. Likely, you're expecting a cocktail that has whiskey, sugar, water, Angostura bitters, and an orange peel or brandied cherry as the garnish. But in one state, if you don't specify your order, you may end up with a spin on the old fashioned that you've never tried before. While Wisconsin is typically known for its cheese and beer, you may also be surprised to learn that it is the only state with several variations on a traditional old fashioned cocktail.

In the nineteenth century, an old fashioned had a loose definition. The name was first cited around 1806 to refer to cocktails with various spirits. It became popular to order drinks with water, bitters, sugars, and whatever type of spirit customers wanted around at that time. In 1882, a bartender said that the most popular choice was rye whiskey. Today, unless you're visiting Wisconsin, the ingredients have remained relatively consistent. Before Wisconsin's variation entered the scene, bartenders in two other states were stirring up some traditional versions of the old fashioned. There is some debate over where the cocktail first originated.

What makes a Wisconsin Old Fashioned so special?

James E. Pepper, known for his whiskey distillery in Lexington, Kentucky, is credited for introducing the old fashioned to the rest of the U.S. after a bartender at the well-known Pendennis Club in Louisville created the drink in his honor in 1880. Pepper, who also frequented the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to spend time with other guests like John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, and C.V. Vanderbilt, shared the cocktail with the Waldorf crew. Today, there is some debate over whether the drink has roots in Kentucky or New York.

But it was an 1893 event that likely led to Wisconsinites drinking their old fashioned cocktails a little differently. In Wisconsin, the traditional concoction is often ditched for a brandy drink that can be ordered as "sweet, sour, or press," Wine Enthusiast reports. "'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, writer of "The United States of Cocktails" who runs Settle Down Tavern in Madison. "Most people opt for 'sweet' or 'press.'"

The brandy old fashioned usually contains soda, along with a mixed variety of oranges, cherries, sugar, and bitters.

Why Wisconsin natives drink a brandy Old Fashioned

What caused cheeseheads to break from the traditional old fashioned mold? According to author Jeanette Hurt, who wrote "Wisconsin Cocktails," in 1893, many Wisconsinites attended the World's Columbian Exposition, where Francis Korbel and his brothers introduced their Californian brandy. Wisconsinites loved the brandy so much that the state has remained Korbel's largest customer. "Once upon a time, we drank old fashioneds like everybody else. So what happened between 1894 and now?" Hurt writes.

After pouring over articles, Hurt discovered a Milwaukee Journal piece where a writer, who wondered the same thing, found someone who worked with liquor distributors in the state after Prohibition until the 1970s, WUWM 89.7 reports. The Wisconsinite said that after World War II, many distilleries closed down so grain could be shipped to Europe. Therefore, plenty of low-quality liquor was sold. According to Hurt, in contrast to other areas, "Wisconsin distributors found a cache of something, like 30,000 cases of delicious, aged Christian Brothers brandy, and they bought it up." Brandy makers began targeting Wisconsin, and from then on, brandy became a popular choice for Wisconsin citizens ordering an old fashioned. If you prefer the traditional variety, you may want to specify that on your next Wisconsin visit. But if you're looking to try something new, Wisconsin may be the next spot to visit and cross this cocktail off your beverage bucket list.