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Culture: Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy?

Culture: Why Is Wisconsin So Obsessed With Brandy?

It may surprise some to learn that the Badger State consumes more brandy than anywhere else in the United States. In 2019, Wisconsinites accounted for more than half of the worldwide sales of Korbel brandy. Here, brandy transcends liquor trends and accompanies life’s milestones, whether in the state’s variation on the Old Fashioned, the local brandy slush or one of the state’s new and innovative concoctions.

“Brandy brings people together up here in Wisconsin,” says Evan Hughes, co-founder and CEO of Milwaukee’s Central Standard Craft Distillery, by way of explanation.

The distilled spirit is such a big deal in America’s Dairyland that, last month, state lawmakers passed a bipartisan resolution to designate its ubiquitous brandy-based Old Fashioned as its official state cocktail—the first adult beverage to receive such classification in the entire nation. (That is, if you don’t count Washington, D.C.—a federal district, not a U.S. state—which as its official cocktail has the rickey.)

This intense adoration may seem random to outsiders, but Wisconsinites’ connection to the distilled spirit goes way back and has become an important part of the state’s cultural heritage. But how, exactly, did this happen? Here’s everything you need to know about Wisconsin’s obsession with brandy—and the surprising new ways it’s being served.

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Central Standard Distillery / Image Courtesy of Central Standard

A Brief History of Brandy in Wisconsin

Like all enduring traditions, lore surrounds Wisconsin’s love of brandy. In the most popular version of the story, a bunch of residents boarded trains to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, sampled Korbel, and couldn’t get enough.

Jeanette Hurt, author of Wisconsin Cocktails, says the story is more complicated. After reading through more than 200 local newspapers, Hurt found that Wisconsinites were drinking a variety of cocktails after the Expo, but not specifically with brandy. In fact, brandy didn’t take off in the state until the decades after Prohibition and World War II.

Here’s how that happened: To help Europe recover from the war, in 1947, President Harry Truman shut down the nation’s distilleries for 60 days to conserve grains and ship them to food-starved nations. This reduced the availability of spirits. According to Hurt’s research, tavern owners and bartenders poured questionable liquor into bottles with renowned labels, eroding the public’s trust in the industry. The state wanted good booze, so during the late 1940s, Wisconsin distributors snatched up an aging cache of brandy in California—all 30,000 cases.

“That’s enough brandy to fill two-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says Hurt. “We were swimming in good brandy.”

In less than a decade, everything changed. When the choice was lousy rum and whiskey or good brandy, Wisconsinites ordered wisely. “Suddenly, our kids are drinking brandy and then our grandkids are drinking brandy,” says Hurt. “Once we like something, we stick with it.”

Hurt credits Wisconsin’s supper clubs with cementing the spirit’s legacy. Starting as country road speakeasies during Prohibition, the dance halls turned restaurants are a staple of Wisconsin family life. “Everyone grew up going to supper clubs, and you always drink an Old Fashioned,” says Rob Peterson, marketing director of Door County Distillery.

The company’s creative director, Beth Levendusky, adds, “Your family gets together and twelve people line up [at the supper club] and give their unique orders for an Old Fashioned.”

Door County Old Fashioned
Door County Old Fashioned / Image Courtesy of Door County Distillery

The Birth of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned in Wisconsin requires three decisions. First, you choose your liquor, which is almost always brandy or, sometimes, whiskey. Then a soda: sweet, sour or a press (equal parts lemon-lime soda and club soda). Then it’s time to pick a garnish; cherries and orange slices are the leading choices. Yet everyone has a relative who gets a bit wild, like Levendusky’s aunt, who goes for Southern Comfort, press and mushrooms.

Though locals tend to have signature combinations, distillers and bartenders educate out-of-staters to help shape expectations and share the culture. “It’s fun because they get to customize,” says Hughes. “If you order a sidecar, you get a sidecar. But with a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, you get to choose your own adventure.”

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Even in what Hurt describes as “the dark days of cocktails, the 70s and 80s,” Wisconsites could order a well-prepared, brandy-based Old Fashioned at nearly every neighborhood drinking den, tavern and even dive bar. The widespread availability of the cocktail has made it a deeply personal tradition for most Wisconsinites, often evoking deep-seated memories.

“A brandy Old Fashioned was my first cocktail with my dad,” says Hughes. “I definitely have had plenty of them, but every time you taste one, it brings you back.”

Central Standard
Image Courtesy of Central Standard

Brandy’s Craft Evolution

While the brandy Old Fashioned is the most common and celebrated use of the beloved spirit, the liquor’s footprint extends far further into the state’s cocktail culture. Traditional brandy Alexanders, brandy sours and sidecars are longtime favorites. So are icy brandy slushes, a boozy blend of brandy, frozen orange juice concentrate, lemon-lime soda and tea with whatever personal touches one enjoys. It’s typically homemade and brought in a bucket to any event. In winter, the brandy Hot Toddy is another staple.

But the state’s distillers and bartenders have also embraced modern mixology trends, highlighting brandy’s vast range in creative mixed drinks. This has only added to the spirit’s popularity in the state.

“Brandy culture a while back felt a bit like grandma and grandpa’s, but that definitely changed with the resurgence of cocktail culture and the boom in craft distillers,” says Bobby Tanzilo, drinks writer and senior editor at OnMilwaukee. “[Bartenders and distillers] breathed new life into what might’ve felt like a fading tradition.”

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In Carlsville, Door County Distillery offers a handful of brandies, some of which have won awards. The one infused with the area’s famous local cherries serves as the main ingredient of the Cherry Blossom cocktail—essentially a regional twist on a Tequila Sunrise—that’s served at its onsite cocktail garden. Central Standard Craft Distillery in Milwaukee also makes multiple brandies, including the wildly popular North Chocolate Brandy and an innovative beer brandy collaboration with the brewmasters at Hofbräu München. At the distillery’s popular bar, locals can often be seen sipping its brandy-based Midwest Margarita or its riff on the official state cocktail, the roasted marshmallow-topped Campfire Old Fashioned. For those seeking an on-the-go version of the classic, Drink Wisconsinbly released an award-winning canned Old Fashioned in 2022. And Hurt herself is a big fan of the barrel-aged pear brandy from Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee. “Gorgeous,” she says. “It tastes amazing in a sidecar.”

Though local love of the spirit hasn’t wavered in decades, Wisconsin beverage industry insiders are eager to share their appreciation of brandy with visitors or anyone interested in learning more about their unique cocktail culture.

“Come with an open mind and learn about what we do here in the state [with brandy],” says Levendusky. “You will find something you love that you never knew existed.”

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