The old fashioned knows how to wring the most flavor out of the simplest ingredients. The bourbon-based drink is bolstered with bitters, sugar, and orange—garnish with a cherry and you’ve got a bar classic. At least, that’s the classic in 49 states. Ask for an old fashioned in Wisconsin at nearly any drinking establishment and you’ll be handed something sweeter. A few key substitutions not only change the entire personality of the drink, but transform it into the Midwest state’s pride and joy.
The Wisconsin old fashioned favors brandy over bourbon. Brandy’s got a much fruitier profile (which should come as no surprise, considering brandy is made out of grapes). There are a few specifications that can make the drink even sweeter: order it “sweet” if you want it finished with soda such as Sprite. Order it “press” and you’ll get a half-and-half mixture of lemon-lime soda and seltzer water, which’ll give the drink a crisp finish. And if you order it “sour,” the whole thing is topped off with sour mix for a tart and sweet sip.
When I ordered a brandy old fashioned at Schwarz Supper Club in New Holstein, Wisconsin, I thought I had provided every necessary detail, but then they asked what type of garnish I wanted. Turns out you can get all sorts of stuff as a capper, including olives and pickled mushrooms. I picked what felt like the oddest option of the bunch: a pickled Brussels sprout. This mixed drink inspires mixed feelings in me to this day.
Of course, you can order the whiskey version that’s more standard across the rest of the country, but then you’ll probably be identified as a tourist. Indeed, the brandy old fashioned seems to be a hyperlocal variant, only catering to Wisconsin palates. I once witnessed a bar patron in Chicago order a brandy old fashioned, and the bartender looked at them like they were some sort of space alien.
This was surprising to me, considering the Wisconsin border is only about an hour away from Chicago by car. You’d think there would be a little more general awareness of the brandy old fashioned along I-94. But nope, it’s a hard stop past Wisconsin. Maybe for the rest of us, pickled mushrooms and Sprite just don’t mix.