Brandy makers have good reason to smile at the mention of Wisconsin, where mixologists pour brandy into a bevy of iconic Badger State cocktails.
Brandy slush. Brandy Alexander. Brandy Old-Fashioned.
Wisconsin imbibers consume half of Korbel’s brandy supply annually.
Going big on brandy here isn’t a recent trend. It’s a tradition. But its popularity might not be for the reasons you think.
As part of our What the Wisconsin? series that explores readers’ questions large and small about our state, we looked into the history of the Badger State’s taste for brandy.
Until recently, we were all enjoying a Wisconsin-loves-brandy origin story dating to 1893. But it might not hold water.
Contrary to long-held lore, brandy love affair didn’t start at the World’s Fair
For decades, Wisconsin’s brandy-loving ways were pinned to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (aka World’s Fair) in Chicago. The story went something like this: hard-working and equally hard-drinking Wisconsinites of German stock ventured to the Columbian Exposition where they sampled Korbel brandy (heavily) and were smitten. Brandy’s sweetness reminded the German folk of cordials from back home. After that, Wisconsin and brandy lived (and drank) happily ever after.
But that story’s credibility took a shot when “Wisconsin Cocktails” — a book of recipes and a history of the state’s favored drinks — published in September 2020.
Milwaukee-based author Jeannette Hurt pored through more than 200 years worth of newspaper microfiche searching for articles with the words “brandy,” “Wisconsin” and “cocktails” while researching the book’s section on Old-Fashioneds.
The year after Chicago’s World Fair opened, Hurt found reports that the young German men of Milwaukee took their Old-Fashioneds with bitters, sugar and — whiskey. No brandy. No muddling of fruit. No splash of soda.
Turns out, oranges, cherries and soda were added to the Wisconsin Old-Fashioneds years before bartenders regularly asked: whiskey or brandy?
Make my Old Fashioned a fruit salad
Old-Fashioneds with muddled fruit and soda most likely arose during Prohibition to drown out the taste of bad booze. Unlike other places after Prohibition, Hurt said, Wisconsin drinkers kept muddling and splashing soda in their Old-Fashioneds even if bartenders referred to it as “fruit salad.”
Not even a traveling bartending “school” could break Wisconsinites of the habit.
A bartending “professor” visited Milwaukee two years after Prohibition ended to teach tavern owners the art of making a good cocktail, Hurt said. Tavern keepers and bartenders from around the state flocked to Milwaukee to learn from “Professor A. I. Stone” who made a few key points that were reported in a Milwaukee Journal article:
- First, owners should continue the speakeasy tradition of welcoming women. Keep them “coming our way and the rest is a cinch.”
- Second, the influence of “ladies” upon the drinks of the day “was not always happy.” Stone cited the lamentable case of the Old-Fashioned cocktail which has become a “combination of fruit salad and snuff, where as the only garnishment should be a twist of lemon peel.”
- Bartenders should make cocktails the way that their patrons desire, even if it goes against their better instincts.
Hurt rejects the assertion that women were the only drinkers ordering Wisconsin’s fruit-forward, sweeter version of the Old-Fashioned.
“If only women drank them that way, they would have been labeled as a girly drink, and men wouldn’t drink them,” Hurt said. “But, men and women (in Wisconsin) drink Old-Fashioneds pretty much the same way, across the board.”
The Old-Fashioned “isn’t labeled as the unofficial women’s state drink of Wisconsin,” Hurt said. “It’s the unofficial state cocktail.”
Regardless of “professor” Stone’s insights and the availability of better liquor after Prohibition, Wisconsinites of all genders happily sipped their fruit salads. Brandy wouldn’t enter the glass until decades later, when liquor quality took another sour turn.
Wisconsin drinkers got lucky with aged brandy find
Post-World War II, Hurt said, there was a lot of bad booze going around due to shutdowns and the shipping of grain to feed Europe instead of making liquor in the United States.
Wisconsin liquor distributors got word that Christian Brothers Brandy had an aged cache of brandy. About 30,000 cases. Wisconsin distributors did the only sensible thing. They bought all of it.
It didn’t take Wisconsinites long to eschew other spirits of questionable quality.
What would you order, bad bourbon or superb brandy?
Brandy makers noticed Wisconsin’s sudden taste for their liquor, Hurt said. By the late 1950s brandy makers were advertising the Milwaukee Manhattan made with brandy instead of whiskey. Korbel advertisements tapped into Wisconsin’s fondness for thriftiness by promising “for a nickel get 20 cents of quality.”
Even though all liquor quality improved after World War II, just as it did after Prohibition, Wisconsinites remained loyal to brandy and the “fruit salad” version of the Old-Fashioned.