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The Real Story Behind Why Wisconsinites Drink Brandy Old Fashioneds

Brent Hofacker
"Wisconsin Cocktails" by Jeanette Hurt goes into the stories behind Wisconsin's love of brandy, ice cream drinks and garnishes.


The brandy old fashioned, bloody mary with a beer chaser, Tom & Jerrys — Wisconsin has laid claim to many cocktails, or perhaps just made them better. In a state that continuously ranks in the top margins for alcohol consumption, Wisconsin’s drinking traditions aren’t just cherished, they’ve rarely changed.

Freelance writer Jeanette Hurt’s latest book, Wisconsin Cocktails, contains the recipes, history, and traditions surrounding most of the Dairyland’s favorite drinks. But she says perhaps the most important part of this book is setting the record straight on exactly why Wisconsinites drink brandy old fashioneds.

The common story of why Wisconsin drinks so much brandy is credited back to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It's there that Captain Pabst displayed his beer, Aunt Jemima demonstrated her pancake mix, and people tasted the Californian brandy. 

Since Chicago was only a train ride away, many Wisconsinites came to the exposition. And it's been told that German Wisconsinites, in particular, loved the Korbel brothers' brandy, which then popularized drinking brandy in the state. 

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Some of the grounds of the World's Columbian Fair in Chicago, 1893.

"Now that sounds really interesting and that's the story that I even wrote about at one time," admits Hurt. "But when I was working on this book, every time I've talked to the folks at Korbel they'd say, 'Well, we can't confirm that.' So, I'm like well what is really going on?"

This question led Hurt down a long investigative historical research road, where she looked at more than 200 years worth of newspaper microfiche for every printed reference for "brandy," "Wisconsin," and "cocktails."

Hurt discovered that in 1894 there was a cocktail revolution in Milwaukee among the young German men, and one cocktail that was popular was "the Old Fashioned," but it's not the one Wisconsin prefers.

"Once upon a time, we drank old fashioneds like everybody else [with bitters, sugar and whiskey]. So what happened between 1894 and now?" asks Hurt.  

She eventually found a Milwaukee Journal article where a reporter, who was asking the same question, discovered a man who had been in the Wisconsin liquor distribution business from post-Prohibition to the '70s, says Hurt. 

This distributor notes that there was a lot of bad booze being served during post-World War II, in part due to distilleries being shut down to send grain to Europe. "But Wisconsin distributors found a cache of something, like 30,000 cases of really good, aged Christian Brothers brandy and they bought it up," notes Hurt.

Credit Del-Bar
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 cocktails with brandy," she adds.

Once we started drinking brandy, brandy makers naturally started marketing to Wisconsin and the rest is bitter and muddled history. So while it's not as romantic as brandy getting popularized by the Wisconsin Germans who visited the Chicago Exposition, Hurt says it also gives a nod to Midwestern habits of finding a good product and sticking with it. 

"It's hard to figure our the origin of some of our cocktails, but this one I feel very solid about and I feel really good setting the record straight," Hurt admits.

Cocktails & Cheese Pairings

In addition to the stories behind Wisconsin's love of brandy, ice cream drinks, garnishes and more, Wisconsin Cocktails also offers cheese and cocktail pairings. 

"People think of cheese and wine, and cheese and beer, or maybe even cheese and cider. But spirits also have the same complexities," notes Hurt. Here a few recommendations to try:  

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
Jeanette Hurt recommends the Marieke Gouda (aged 6-9 months), Hennings Apple Cheddar and Cello Pumpkin Spice Fonta cheese for pairing with spirits.

Marieke Gouda (aged 6-9) months
This cheese smells creamy, grassy and tastes earthy with lots of butter. The Gouda pairs well with rum, bourbon, rye and whiskey-based cocktails. 

"This would be a good one for a straight brandy old fashioned," she says.

Hennings Apple Cheddar Cheese
"If you smell it, it smells like apples," says Hurt.

So, any hard cider based cocktail will go well with this cheese. Hurt also recommends making a brandy old fashioned using an apple based brandy or even top off a regular old fashioned with cider instead of soda. 

Cello Pumpkin Spice Fontal Cheese
The fontal is a riff of Italian fontina cheese, according to Hurt, and with the pumpkin spice "it tastes amazing," says Hurt.

This cheese would pair great with Great Lakes Distillery's seasonal pumpkin spirit. You could even throw this in a mug of hot cider. Hurt also suggests pairing spice fontal cheese with Twisted Path Distillery's chai liquor or coffee.

If you don't drink alcohol, Hurt says you can still enjoy great cheese pairings with many blends of coffees and teas. Cheers!

Jeanette Hurt will be doing a virtual event on Oct. 20 from Stella’s Cocktail Dive, hosted by the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books and Books and Company.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.