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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Why Wisconsinites Put Soda In Their Old Fashioneds

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Taylor Jackson
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stock.adobe.com
Unlike any other state, Wisconsinites have been putting soda in their Old Fashioneds since Prohibition.

This week’s Bubbler Talk clears up some muddled history of one of our favorite drinks — the Old Fashioned. In a question from listener Lea, she asked: 

Why is Wisconsin the only place that puts soda in their Old Fashioneds?

To answer Lea’s question, I found exactly the right person: Jeanette Hurt. She’s the author of 15 books, including most recently, Wisconsin Cocktails.

“I guess you could say I am a cocktail historian as a result of the work I did on this book,” says Hurt.

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Credit Photo by Martin Moore / Lost Whale and PufferFish Tiki
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Lost Whale and PufferFish Tiki
The main difference in a Wisconsin Old Fashioned is brandy versus whiskey. But it's also the muddling of cherries and oranges with bitters, often some sugar, and topping it with sweet or sour soda.

The main thing that sets Wisconsin Old Fashioneds apart from others is, of course, brandy instead of whiskey. But it’s also the muddling of cherries and oranges with bitters, often some sugar, and topping it with sweet or sour soda.

“If you order an Old Fashioned anyplace else in the world, it's going to be whiskey, usually rye, bitters, sugar, maybe a little water. That's it. It's garnished with a lemon peel or an orange peel. It doesn't have fruit, it does not have soda at all,” Hurt explains.

LISTEN: The Real Story Behind Why Wisconsinites Drink Brandy Old Fashioneds

She says the tradition of adding soda and fruit to an Old Fashioned goes back to Prohibition. Since the only alcohol anyone could get at the time was homemade, much of it didn’t taste great, so people began adding extra ingredients to drinks to mask the taste.

This practice continued even after Prohibition as bars relearned how to make cocktails once they opened again, according to Hurt. Plus, since women started going to speakeasies during Prohibition, they continued going to bars in earnest after its repeal.

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Credit Russell Lee / Farm Security Administration/WPA
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Farm Security Administration/WPA
Drinking beer at the bar in Raceland, Louisiana on September 1938.

But what do more women in bars have to do with soda in Old Fashioneds? And why did it continue if the booze weren’t bad anymore?

“There was this A.I. Stone, professor of cocktails and pick-me-ups, who travelled around the country and he taught bartending classes. And his theory of the Old Fashioned is he preferred making it the traditional way. But he said, if customers wanted a different way, you make it the way they want. And he also blamed it on women having a sweeter taste,” explains Hurt.

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Credit University of Wisconsin Press
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An excerpt from Jeanette Hurt's book, Wisconsin Cocktails.

In a Milwaukee Journal article from Dec. 5, 1935, a section entitled “Must Yield To Ladies” says, “If lady customers insisted on veritable banana splits with every shot it was quite all right to give it to ‘em.”

Bartending slang of the time even referred to an Old Fashioned cocktail as a “fruit salad,” says Hurt.

So while you can thank the ladies of the 1930s for the taste of our classic Wisconsin Old Fashioned, not all bartenders were as interested in welcoming women and complained about learning how to make new drinks.

“What is also interesting is [the Milwaukee Journal] also included an interview with a 70-year-old bartender who began mixing drinks in 1893 and thought the fine art of bartending was, ‘Ruined by both Prohibition and women. In those days, I knew how to mix only 12 drinks. Now I must know how to mix more than 100 mostly silly concoctions with a lot of fruit. It's an outgrowth of Prohibition and woman. We old timers don't like to see women at bars.’ Isn't that funny?” says Hurt.

Daniel Beres is an owner of Lost Whale and PufferFish Tiki in Milwaukee. He says men’s distaste for fruitier drinks is an outdated stereotype.

Why Wisconsinites Put Soda In Their Old Fashioneds
WUWM's Audrey Nowakowski speaks with Daniel Beres, owner of Lost Whale and PufferFish Tiki, about their special Old Fashioned recipe on tap, and what he thinks about the stereotype of women preferring sweeter drinks.

“I can't speak for everyone. But you know, I think anyone that plays the gender idea that women tend to drink sweeter things than men like — it's just not true,” he says. “There are no rules and that kind of way of thinking, like that’s just not a thing anymore.”

Beres also sees no problem with soda in Old Fashioneds, either.

“I mean, Wisconsinites have been doing it this way for a very long time … who are we to shy away from tradition? You know, I love being from Wisconsin. I love that I kind of grew up in my drinking years, you know, with that brandy Old Fashioned sweetness kind of stuck with me. But at the same rate, I can understand how, you know, you go to 49 other states and you get a completely different cocktail.” he says.

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Credit Courtesy of Daniel Beres
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Daniel Beres is an owner of Lost Whale and Puffer Fish Tiki in Milwaukee and thinks soda Old Fashioneds are great part of Wisconsin culture.

At the Lost Whale, they actually serve their own Old Fashioned on tap in what Beres calls a “nerdy” recipe — but there’s still a soda component.

“We actually get a soda syrup from Brew City Soda here. We get their concentrated [lemon lime soda] syrup mix and then we do a specific blend of the syrup to water ratio, add that to the cocktail and the keg and then carbonate the entire thing. So we are definitely doing our own ridiculous, techie version of a Wisconsin Old Fashioned,” he says.

Contrary to the stereotype of women only wanting sweeter drinks, Bubbler Talk questioner Lea prefers a brandy Old Fashioned sour. “Something that my mom always said was 'Put olives in it',” she notes. “So I like a brandy Old Fashioned sour with olives … If I make it myself, I put just maybe like a teaspoon of olive juice in the Old Fashioned itself as well, which is a little different, but I think it tastes good.”

So while we can remember the ladies when we make a Wisconsin Old Fashioned with Sprite or Squirt, or Jolly Good, everyone has done their part to keep the tradition going on as strong as our drinks. Cheers!

Make your own Wisconsin Old Fashioned at home:

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Credit University of Wisconsin Press
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An Old Fashioned recipe from Jeanette Hurt's book, Wisconsin Cocktails.

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