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If You Think You Know How to Make a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, You’re Wrong

Wisconsin’s favorite cocktail, the Old-Fashioned, is made with brandy, not whiskey.

Most job descriptions don’t entail drinking hard booze in the morning, but it can happen when you’re a travel journalist. During a media trip to Janesville, the itinerary included a 9 a.m. mixology class, “How to Make a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned.” Good thing I’d had a hearty breakfast.

Old-Fashioneds are the most popular cocktail in the Dairy State, but they are made with brandy, not whiskey. (The classic recipe calls for whiskey, sugar, bitters and citrus.) Wisconsinites are well-known for their collective sweet tooth. According to industry statistics, they consume more brandy than residents of other states.

“If you walk into any bar in the country and ask for a brandy Old-Fashioned, they know you are from Wisconsin,” said Billy Burg, bar manager at Janesville’s Lark restaurant. That may or may not be an exaggeration.

Our class in how to make a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned is about to begin.

Lark is a chic-casual eatery featuring locally sourced ingredients and craft cocktails. Billy, an adult-beverage consultant and historian, was our instructor. For an hour, he regaled us with his expertise and snarky side comments.  He’s no fan of the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, which he calls a “bastardized cocktail,” but as long as his customers request them, he complies.   

We sat at the Lark bar, where an assortment of tools awaited at each place setting: Shaker set, knife, muddler, long-handled spoon, strainer, jigger and a short, squatty Old-Fashioned glass.

Tools of the Old-Fashioned trade.

Billy detailed the implementation of our tools. Take, for example, shakers, which are used to toss cocktail ingredients back and forth. A Boston shaker is a two-piece set consisting of a metal tin (also called a mixing cup) and a plastic glass. A Parisienne shaker consists of two metal vessels. Boston shakers are generally preferred unless you are James Bond 007.

“If you shake metal on metal with ice, it gets really cold, and it’s a pain in your butt to get them apart,” he said. “They freeze up.”

Muddlers are like small baseball bats made from wood, steel or plastic. You use them to mash ingredients in the mixing cup. Claw-bottom muddlers have teeth or grooves on the mashing end, and soft-bottom muddlers are smooth. 

“Soft-bottom muddlers can’t tear up anything,” Billy said. “They are best for when you have mint or other herbs, and you just want to release the oils.”

Why brandy rather than whiskey? Brandy is actually a distilled wine, not a grain alcohol like whiskey and gin. Billy explained that, too. 

For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, California vintner Korbel concocted an Old-Fashioned featuring its brandy as a marketing tactic. The beverage was a big hit among visiting Wisconsinites, many of them German brandy-loving immigrants. They took the recipe home with them along with a thirst for Korbel. Later mixologists experimented with additional sweeteners like cherry juice and 7-up.

Barmeister Billy Burg demonstrates how to cut an orange peel.

On to our lesson. First, carve a hunk of peeling from an orange. It should be about the size of a half-dollar coin. Include the pith but no meat of the fruit. Drop it into your mixing cup. Add a maraschino cherry.

Billy went off on a mini-rant about why he uses maraschino cherries rather than the more flavorful and fashionable Italian Luxardo cherries. He hates maraschino cherries because they are bleached and then dyed lipstick red. Luxardo cherries are cooked in their own juices and cherry liqueur. Their color is naturally deep purple, and the cost is around a hefty 35 cents a piece.

“I refuse to put them in a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned because it is a bastardized cocktail, and I’m not going to waste my good cherries on that,” he proclaimed.

Back to our drink. Douse your orange peel with two hearty shakes of Angostura bitters. (Billy makes his own, of course, but it’s a time-consuming, unpredictable process. Don’t bother.) Add half an ounce of demerara syrup, which you make with a one-to-one ratio of demerara sugar–a large-grained raw cane sugar–and water.

Time to get muddling.

Press your muddler into the mixing cup, tearing up the cherry and releasing the citrus oils from the orange peel. Squish it all together. Inhale the lovely aroma of fruit and herbals.

Now you add brandy. Two ounces, Billy instructed as he passed along a bottle of Korbel, “But I’m not looking, so feel free to pour your own damn drink.”

Wisconsinites make their Old-Fashioneds with brandy, not whiskey.

Top it off with a splash of Grand Marnier for greater orange intensity. Fill the mixing cup with ice and stir with the long-handled spoon for about 60 seconds. Any more than that and the ice will start to melt and dilute your drink.

Place one large ice cube in the Old-Fashioned glass. Strain the cocktail over the ice cube. Discard the mashed-up maraschino cherry and ice from the mixing cup. Pop the orange peel and a new, intact cherry in the glass.

A single large ice cube keeps your drink cold without watering it down, Billy said.

My finished Wisconsin Old-Fashioned.

Common variations are Wisconsin Old-Fashioned Sweet, which is topped with an ounce or so of 7-up or Sprite or ginger ale. A Wisconsin Old-Fashioned Press is topped equally with sweet soda and club soda. A Wisconsin Old-Fashioned Sour is topped with Squirt or sour mix.

If you’re still uncertain, experiment. Substitute a different brandy. Eliminate the orange or cherry. Add carbonation. 

I loved my Wisconsin Old-Fashioned just the way it was. Sweet-ish but sturdy, fruity but not tropical. I would definitely order it again. Next time I’m In Wisconsin.

“It takes some trial and error to discover the right cocktail for yourself,” Billy said. “Find what you like and enjoy it.” 

Our instructor, Billy Burg, bar manager at the Lark in Janesville, Wisconsin.

(For comparison, here is the Chicago Chop House recipe for “Al’s Old-Fashioned.” It was named after notorious gangster Al Capone.) 

2 oz. rye whiskey

½ oz. Grand Marnier

½ oz. sweet vermouth

2-3 dashes bitters

Orange swath

Read my post about the historic Chicago Chop House.

(Many thanks to Lark and Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for sponsoring my media trip to Rock County.)

5 thoughts on “If You Think You Know How to Make a Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, You’re Wrong

  1. Very interesting perspective on a classic drink. I have only sampled a couple of these and never a Wisconsin Old-fashion. It looks like we need to plan a road trip to check one out.

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