State history isn’t just a list of dates and names of explorers and pioneers who staked their claim in our hometowns, but it is also about the little details. These little details make up who we are as Wisconsinites, and you can’t avoid the scoop on how and what we drink. After all, Wisconsin repeatedly ranks up in the top numbers for alcohol consumption in the nation.
No doubt about it — we are serious about our drinks and the history of some of these drinks is an important part of our history. This brings us to the topic of one of Wisconsin’s favorite old fashioned cocktails, the Brandy Old Fashioned. You can find these cocktails at the Hotel Seymour Supperclub as well as many other Wisconsin locations. But how did this twist on the Old Fashioned even get started? Why brandy and not sugar, whiskey, and bitters like you’ll find in most other regions of the country?
Freelance writer Jeanette Hurt unravels the mystery for us.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893
You can’t talk about Wisconsinite drink preferences without talking about brandy. In part, Brandy Old Fashioneds are credited with the impression that Korbel Brother Brandy made on German Wisconsinites who visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The California brandy made such an impact on those visiting from Wisconsin that many took it back to their home state and started selling it on the regular. This popularized brandy drinking throughout the state. But there is more to the story. As Ms. Hurt dove deeper into the drinking history of Wisconsin, she found that Brandy Old Fashioned was deeply intertwined with American history and WW2!
WW2 and Good Booze!
The author uncovered a connection between Wisconsin brandy and WW2. According to old articles published in the Milwaukee Journal, post World War 2 was not a great time for liquor distributors. Many distilleries had shut down as grain and men were being sent overseas for the war effort. With the legitimate distilleries stalled, bad booze was produced on the down-low. Americans didn’t have much to choose from at the time when it came to their spirits. But Wisconsinites were in for a bit of good luck when a group of Wisconsin liquor distributors came across a cache of 30,000 cases of well-aged, Christian Brothers Brandy. What a find when the rest of the country was settling for bad booze. The brandy was quickly bought up for distribution in Wisconsin.
This windfall of good booze changed the way cocktails were made for a while. If you had to choose between good brandy and rotgut rum, well, that’s a no-brainer. Brandy was incorporated into many cocktails that had never been used before, including Old Fashioneds.
While many of these hybrid cocktails did not make a lasting impression, The Brandy Old Fashioned certainly did. It has endured as a staple among Wisconsinite drink preferrences.