For generations a ritual has governed a not un-casual night out for diners and drinkers across the state of Wisconsin: head out to the local supper club—described as a “a two- or three-hour dining event,” by one local—put in for a table, order a drink at the bar. That drink will probably be an Old-Fashioned, the base spirit will probably be brandy, and unless something’s gone terribly awry, it’ll taste nothing like an Old-Fashioned served in any other part of the country.
“Whenever I left the state and ordered an Old-Fashioned it was… you just can’t do it,” said Timothy Pappin, who co-founded Arty’s Legendary Cocktails, a Wisconsin-based producer of pre-bottled cocktails, whose line includes a Brandy-based “Old Fashioned Sweet” in the traditional Badger State style.
Unlike the Old-Fashioned of classic cocktail fame—boozy, bitter and comparatively dry—the Old-Fashioned in Wisconsin is a lighter, sweeter affair. It keeps the standard’s trifecta of brown spirit, sugar and bitters, and adds to it muddled orange and cherry. It’s then finished with soda, typically 7Up if its ordered “sweet,” something like Squirt if it’s ordered “sour” or a combination of 7Up and seltzer if it’s ordered as a “press,” which some claim is short for Presbyterian, a classic cocktail that calls for mixing seltzer and ginger ale. Some drinkers will also ask for an olive to be plopped in as a garnish.
It’s largely thanks to the prominence of this one cocktail that Wisconsin has remained a brandy-drinking stronghold. As of 2015, the state boasted the second-highest per-capita consumption of brandy in the United States, according to the Beverage Information Group’s Liquor Handbook for 2016 (neighboring Minnesota is No. 3).
“Most of the time, when I go to our favorite local supper clubs, I would say that half the people at the bar are drinking some sort of brandy, or some sort of brandy cocktail,” said Tom Lenerz, a local distiller. He himself had his first Brandy Old-Fashioned, he said, at a supper-club wedding nearly two decades ago, when he was in his pre-teens.
Despite the deepness of this tradition, the brandy that’s gone into the state’s Old-Fashioneds has conspicuously been from elsewhere. In fact, in the state’s bars, the brandy offerings have run a truncated gamut from Mr. Boston Five Star and E&J for the rail to Korbel for the high-end, even as wine production in Wisconsin has grown several fold in the last two decades. (According to Korbel’s vice president for communications, Margie Healy, the California-based brand sold nearly 155,000 cases of brandy in Wisconsin, accounting for just over 50 percent of its business.)
But in the last few years—helped in part by a 2009 change in state law that allowed Wisconsin’s wineries to also operate distilleries—a few local producers have edged their way into the market, keen to show drinkers that the brandy they drink can be as uniquely Wisconsin as the cocktail they drink it in.
Today, one of the main producers of Wisconsin brandy is Wollersheim Winery, where Lenerz works, which is located on the Wisconsin River near the small town of Prairie du Sac. In 2013, the winery released its higher-end Coquard sipping brandy, made entirely from Wisconsin wine grapes and aged in Wisconsin oak. It followed with a cocktail brandy last year called 1876 Press House, made from grapes grown in upstate New York and aged in American oak.
Lenerz said the brandies, in addition to being locally made products for a local obsession, were also a chance to explore the winery’s heritage. Its current winemaker, Philippe Coquard, suspects that brandy production in the winery (which can trace its legacy back to the 1840s) was originally intended as a way to fortify the wines, which were made from native grapes that yielded lower sugars than traditional European vitis vinifera varieties.
The backbone of the Coquard brandy is wine from La Crosse and St. Pepin grapes, which were created in Wisconsin in the middle of the 20th century by Elmer Swenson, a legendary grape breeder, whose work developing cold-hardy wine grapes has been crucial to Upper Midwest viticulture. The 1876 Press House, meanwhile, is made from Catawba and Delaware grapes, much older American varieties, which were grown on the estate prior to Prohibition.
Thirty miles to the southeast, in Madison, Nathan Greenawalt, the founder of and distiller at Old Sugar Distillery, has also embraced the state’s cold-climate grapes as way to make unique brandy for both sipping and cocktails. Greenawalt’s standard brandy release, Brandy Station, contains an evolving mix of grape varieties, including Concord, Prairie Star and La Crescent, each of which produces very different expressions—something he discovered when he started producing single-variety grappas.
“With the Concord grappa, we found it to be a little bit fruitier,” he says. “The Prairie Star tended to be a little bit spicy. The La Crescent was almost a little bit buttery and kind of nutty.”
Provided there is sufficient fruit, Greenawalt has even found reason to embrace the problem that earlier producers on Wollersheim’s land discovered—that Wisconsin grapes lack in enough fermentable sugar to create a wine of typical proof.
“People think of Concord as being a very sugary grape. Compared to wine grapes, it’s really not. It only ferments out to six or seven percent alcohol, maybe eight percent, whereas some wine grapes will ferment out to fourteen percent,” he says. “There is an upside to that, too, and that’s that you know the more grapes you use per bottle, the more flavor you are going to have.”
The result, Greenawalt and Lenerz hope, is a home-grown brandy industry that not only embodies innovation, but puts a new spin on that fiercely Wisconsin—if perhaps somewhat peculiar—cocktail.