Brandy, An Enduring Milwaukee Tradition
Ordering an Old Fashioned with brandy is as much of a Wisconsin “tell” as asking for a bubbler, reminiscing about the career of Don Majkowski or bragging about your mom’s hot dish. But the reasons behind the Badger State’s love of brandy is as shrouded in mystery as Haunchyville or the ghosts at the Pfister.
Brandy, which is actually a spirit distilled from a kind of grape wine, has traditionally been treated as an after-dinner drink, served in snifters in homes of the upper crust. But at some point after the repeal of Prohibition, the sweet spirit became a staple of the Wisconsin corner tavern. While the Brandy Old Fashioned was the cocktail of choice, brandy was also popular on the rocks, in boilermakers, or mixed straight with sour or sweet soda. It was enjoyed in nearly every way, both at home and out on the town, except in the traditional post-meal snifter.
The present-day leading local producer of brandy, Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery, cites the demographic makeup of Wisconsin as the reason behind brandy mania. “The tradition of drinking brandy in Wisconsin was initially because of the large settlement of western Europeans in the state who were seeking to enjoy a bit of the homeland in their new county,” says Guy Rehorst, Lakefront’s founder and owner.
But other states with similar European settlement patterns drink only a portion of the brandy Wisconsin does. Other explanations given for the spirit’s popularity—the cold climate, wartime liquor taxes or an affinity for sweet drinks—give hints as to the state’s favor for brandy, but cannot explain why similar areas sip it while Wisconsin guzzles. Perhaps the Milwaukee Journal got it right way back in 1966 when they investigated why Wisconsinites so loved their brandy. “Alas,” the paper concluded after talking to various liquor distributors, bartenders and drinkers, “every real expert knows the truth: Nobody knows.”