What Makes A Wisconsin Old Fashioned So Special?

Drink preferences tend to vary from region to region and state to state. But only in the Badger State is the number-one cocktail something that's actually been customized to a very specific set of local preferences. The rest of the world tends to see an Old Fashioned as a whiskey drink, and some purists insist that it include nothing more than whiskey, bitters, and sugar. But Wisconsinites have an entirely different drink (and far less plain) drink in mind when they're ordering an Old Fashioned.

As cocktail historian Jeanette Hurt tells WUWM, the roots of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned stretch back to Prohibition, a time when bathtub booze was generally not of the highest quality, so the drink tends to include an entire "fruit salad" of garnishes as well as some soda to help dilute the taste. Bartenders back in those less-enlightened days also used to blame the drink's embellishments on "the ladies," with one 1935 Milwaukee Journal article saying, "If lady customers insisted on veritable banana splits with every shot it was quite all right to give it to 'em" and a septuagenarian bartender grumbling about "silly concoctions with a lot of fruit." 

Still, what sets the Wisconsin Old Fashioned apart from, well, more old-fashioned Old Fashioneds, isn't just the fruit and the soda, but the fact that it isn't made with whiskey at all.

A Wisconsin Old Fashioned is made with brandy

Another name for the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is the brandy Old Fashioned, as this spirit is its signature characteristic. (Brandy is also the #1 booze in Wisconsin, and only Wisconsin.) As to why brandy should have such localized popularity, this may be due to Wisconsin's high German population at the time it was introduced in the 19th-century. The immigrants, it seems, felt that domestic brandy was a fair approximation of spirits they'd enjoyed back home.

While brandy (Korbel, for preference) is de rigueur for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, there's some wiggle room with the soda and the garnishes. Brian Bartels, who owns the Settle Down Tavern in state capital Madison, tells Wine Enthusiast there are three main types of Old Fashioneds: "'Sweet' is with 7-Up, 'sour' is with Squirt soda or pre-packaged sour mix, and 'press' is half 7-Up, half club soda." 

Garnishes typically include an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, frequently muddled with the sugar and bitters, though Bartels relates that some Wisconsonites prefer what he calls "truly unique" embellishments. As he tells it, "We had someone order an Old Fashioned sour with olives the other night at Settle Down Tavern. I've also seen some garnished with a hard-boiled egg." That sounds like Wisconsin, all right — the only way to one-up that would be to add cheese curds, bratwurst, and a Spotted Cow chaser.