History of the Wisconsin old fashioned

Close up of a Wisconsin old-fashioned.
Technically the Wisco cocktail came after Louisville's version — making it a brandy new old-fashioned. | Photo by @wollersheimdistillery

Late summer makes for the perfect patio moments. Settle into your favorite chair, invite some friends, fix up a fish fry, and savor an old fashioned.

Hold that thought — when you imagine the scene, what’s in your old fashioned? We bet it’s not whiskey. Everyone knows a good Wisco old fashioned is made with brandy. Let’s talk about why.

Home sweet home

The original whiskey old fashioned rose to prominence in the 19th century — but we’ll let LOUtoday Editor Sarah Shadburne say it better than we could:

“We lay claim to the old fashioned here in Louisville — it is Derby City’s official cocktail after all — which was first crafted by a bartender at the Pendennis Club in 1880. He’s credited with introducing the cocktail to the world when he took it with him to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Bonus: the Pendennis Club also invented Henry Bain Sauce — a rich and tangy meat sauce best enjoyed on steak.”

Then, a key ingredient hit the scene. Three German brothers attended the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and they brought a taste of home: European brandy.

Wisconsinites, near Chicago and mostly immigrants themselves, attended the fair and bought the brothers’ brandy en masse. To this day, Wisconsin still drinks the most brandy of any state in the US.

Rough times, smooth brandy

Prohibition denied distillers quality equipment to pursue their craft. That had two knock-on effects on Madison’s preference for cocktails:

  1. The need to mask astringent flavors gave drinkers a taste for sweets + unique garnishes. Brandy, generally, is sweeter than whiskey.
  2. According to one account, Wisconsin distributors still reeling from World War 2 discovered 30,000 cases of cached, pre-war brandy. “So in Wisconsin, if you could get bad whiskey or good brandy, rotgut rum or good brandy — what were you going to drink?,” said writer Jeanette Hurt. “You were going to drink brandy. So, people started drinking their cocktails with brandy.

Thirsty?

Visit our recipe + guide to Madison’s cocktail of choice.