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A fresh take on an age-old cocktail


October 2015

Order an old-fashioned in every part of the country except Wisconsin, and what youíll get is a variation of what was once called "the whiskey cocktail." Back in the 19th century, bartenders mixed this simple drink with whiskey, bitters, sugar and water, and maybe added a lemon peel as garnish. Over time, cocktails evolved, and bartenders started adding fancier liqueurs and changing things up ó suddenly, it really wasnít a whiskey cocktail anymore. Drinkers began longing for cocktails of old so theyíd ask bartenders to make a cocktail the old-fashioned way, and thus, the name, old-fashioned, was born.

But in Wisconsin, an old-fashioned is traditionally made with brandy, and forget a lemon peel ó itís orange and maraschino cherries muddled together. But how did our old-fashioned cocktail evolve differently than the rest of the country?

The brandy component likely started with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Whatís important about the Columbian Exposition is that three Czech brothers ó Josef, Antone and Francis Korbel ó debuted their namesake brandy at the fair, and they began to promote it in the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin, as our fine German folk tended to prefer brandy to whiskey.

The fruity muddle is believed to be due to Prohibition. Good spirits were hard to come by, so bartenders had to make due with what they had to cover the taste of bad booze, using sugary syrups and fruits.

While this is a spirited history, the Wisconsin old-fashioned has continued to evolve, especially here in Milwaukee where bartenders are updating the old-fashioned with chili syrups, French cognac and even wine reductions. Here are some great places to sip a new-fangled old-fashioned.

Camp Bar

On the menu, there are 10 different versions of the old-fashioned. Off the menu, bartenders make more than a dozen, and they change seasonally. In the summer, try a sangria-old-fashioned, but come fall, try the pumpkin. It starts out with Great Lakes pumpkin seasonal spirit, then a sugar cube gets muddled with a cherry and orange wedge, and itís topped with either sweet or sour, just the way old-fashioneds should be. 4044 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood and 6600 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, (414) 763-3793 and (414) 962-5182,



The Vasco Old-Fashion, Wisco Style is both very Spanish and very Wisconsin at the same time. Made with 10-year-old Lustau Reserva Spanish brandy, this old-fashioned blends chili-infused sugar syrup with Bittercube Trinity bitters and Angostura bitters, and instead of muddling oranges and cherries, strawberries and lemons are combined. "Itís a nice riff on the old-fashioned," says owner Aaron Gersonde. 524 S. 2nd St., (414) 224-5300,


Dream Dance Steak House

Good brandy is just the start of this great cocktail. Instead of the traditional Angostura bitters, blood orange bitters are used, and instead of cherries, blueberries are muddled. Plus, itís served with a cinnamon stick. 1721 W. Canal St., (414) 847-7883,


Tin Widow

This cozy Walkerís Point bar boasts a lot of kitschy owls on the walls, but itís small but highly curated cocktail list features an innovative twist on this Wisconsin classic: itís made with whiskey, but it tastes like brandy, as bartenders here mix in a pinot noir and Coca-Cola reduction that adds a sassy bit of sweetness. The inventive cocktail is then garnished with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. 703 S. 2nd St., (414) 367-8461,


The Cheel

Instead of American brandy, French cognac is the liquor of choice in this well-made, upscale old-fashioned, and Luxardo cherries garnish the elegant sipper. 105 S. Main St., Thiensville, (262) 236-9463,



At Finks, the Wisconsin old-fashioned is made the traditional way, with Korbel brandy, a rich house-made simple syrup and a few dashes of Angostura, but it is topped with a Luxardo cherry. This East Side establishment also mixes up the old-fashioneds the classic way. "We do them both ways, and we take pride in both styles," says bartender Brandon Reyes. 1875 N. Humboldt Ave., (414) 226-5882,


This story ran in the October 2015 issue of: