During this week’s ongoing Milwaukee Cocktail Week festivities, local bartenders, mixologists, and spirit experts will craft elegant, unique, and altogether delicious liquor combinations that will showcase the tremendous growth and evolution of local cocktails. Though many of the drinks served at the 30-plus participating locations will help Milwaukee push the boundaries to new and exciting places, the city (and Wisconsin as a whole) always was and always will be in love with the Old Fashioned.
The drink takes many forms, but Wisconsin’s preferred version is unlike any you’ll be served anywhere else in the world. Really, this reddish brown cocktail with its array of garnish options and wealth of aromatic bitters is as much a part of the state’s identity as its ever-changing weather, its love for the Packers, and an unmatched enjoyment of bratwursts. But what’s behind our Old Fashioned obsession? What do people from other states think of the drink? What’s in the “official” Wisconsin Old Fashioned? To help us get to the bottom of that, and more, we called upon a varied and skilled cast of Milwaukee bartenders, mixologists, and restaurant owners to tell us their thoughts on Wisconsin’s favorite beverage.
Biju Zimmerman, Sabbatic
Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet is definitely the up north standard. Probably because they’re delicious.
Casey Rataczak, Camino
I think people are obsessed with the Old Fashioned because of our [state’s] unique twist on the drink. Our obsession with Brandy in this state is well documented. The brandy Old Fashioned is something we consider “ours.”
We have a house Ol’ Fashioned that we make with Bulleit Bourbon or Rye. Everything else is classic Wisco, muddled orange, cherry, and sugar, bitters, and topped with sweet soda. When I worked at the Hi Hat eons ago, I had a couple come in from Boston. They’d never had a Wisconsin Old Fashioned before. They loved them so much that I sent them back to the hotel in a cab.
Lynn Nilles, 42 Lounge
I don’t know if we’re obsessed with the Old Fashioned. To me it’s more of a fascination. When I go out of state, I like to order it at new bars, to see what their take on it is. Everywhere I go, it’s slightly different. Most places, you’re not given a choice between brandy and whiskey, and much of the time it’s not made with muddled fruit. I don’t have an official version. I really enjoy the variety.
Lyssa, one of my bartenders, learned how to bartend in New York. During her interview, she asked me, “What did Wisconsin do to the Old Fashioned?” When I asked her what she meant, she explained that she was taught the traditional whiskey, bitters, simple syrup recipe, and she couldn’t understand why she was receiving a whiskey sour with fruit in the bottom when she ordered it here. I hired her on the spot.
I don’t order Old Fashioneds if the bartenders are overwhelmed, or if it’s not the kind of bar to do it. I’d rather get one made with a bit of love than one that was rushed because they are in a hurry. That said, you never, ever leave a supper club without ordering one.
When I think of Old Fashioned I think of everything that is Wisconsin supper club. Steaks, olive trays, prime rib, and the fish fry are all things that come to mind. The Old Fashioned has two very different identities: the Wisconsin version and the traditional version. The traditional version is spirit, sugar, water, bitters, where the Wisconsin is all those ingredients plus cherry, orange, and soda mixer.
Jordan Burich, DanDan
To me, the Old Fashioned sits somewhere between revered Wisconsin pastime and a fallback choice for indecisive bar patrons. Some of my earliest memories are of making Old Fashioneds for my grandparents up north. There is always a lot of consternation when people start talking about the proper, or “official” way to make the drink. To me, that just takes the enjoyment of creation out of the equation, and that is ultimately repellent. I’ve made many versions of the Old Fashioned over the years and I think they’ve all got their time and place. At DanDan, our current Old Fashioned is completely deconstructed and, well, refashioned. We turned it into a Bubble Tea and we serve it in a plastic cup with a domed lid and big colorful boba straw. Some love it, some loathe it, but it makes me smile every time I make one.
On the whole, though, I rarely drink Old Fashioneds. I order them at supper clubs and when I’m watching a Packer game at the Moose Lodge in Green Bay. I think that they’re over-ordered. In a sense, they’ve become the Spotted Cow of craft cocktails here in Wisconsin. Don’t know what you want? Order an Old Fashioned! It would be nice if people took a few more seconds to ponder our other offerings. Here’s some tips for ordering a really nice Old Fashioned: 1. Make sure the bar is using good cherries. Luxardo or Amarena are preferrable; 2. Order it to be strained over a large cube—why chew on your drink?; 3. Try a “press” rather than “sweet” as it allows more complex flavors to emerge; 4. You don’t have to be so Sconnie all the time. Deep in our hearts, we all know that they’re better with whiskey, as are most things in life.
Mic Mikalinao, Burnhearts
As someone who’s not a Wisconsin native, I quickly learned that Wisconsinites hate a badly made Old Fashioned. They will remember that shitty one and tell you who did it when they find out you make a good one. I like to think it’s one of the most accessible cocktails for people who don’t think they like booze. For me, a lot of bitters is the key to a good one. Nothing like having that big family come in and have three generations tell you you made the best one they’ve had in a long time.
Also, the only thing more Wisconsin than a brandy Old Fashioned sweet, is a double tall one. I’d like to add that Angostura is the bitters to use. There was a short period where we used another brand—it was cheaper—and it just doesn’t end up right, or good.
Olivia Salazar, Vanguard
Why is Wisconsin obsessed with the Old Fashioned? Because it is delicious! They are good any time of day, any time of year. Seriously, you could be enjoying one around a campfire on a late, cool, summer evening, or during a cold sparkly snowstorm in a Christmas tree-lit cocktail lounge like Bryant’s. Or could get completely annihilated on carafe after carafe of draft Old Fashioned at Vanguard.
If you order an Old Fashioned somewhere else they don’t know what it is or know you are indeed from Wisconsin. The Old fashioned is exactly that. It has been around since the 1800s, so it’s hard to say what the official way is. It started simple, with just some whiskey, some bitters, and some citrus. Somewhere down the county road in Wisconsin, someone tried to make it taste better with a maraschino cherry, realized that made it worse, so they smashed it up and threw in an orange.
I’ve seen many variations of the Old Fashioned in my five years in Wisconsin. I prefer a bourbon or rye Old Fashioned sour on the rocks. When I first started as a cocktail waitress, I learned quickly that the brandy Old Fashioned sweet was Milwaukee’s preferred. The only time it’s too late to order an old fashioned is when you’re dead.
Ricky Ramirez, Vanguard
The Wisconsin Old Fashioned is really hilarious to me in an endearing way. Everything from how it’s sold in pre-mixes, how people order multiple of them—”I’ll have three Old Fashioneds,” “I’ll have three Old Fashions,” “I’ll have three Old Fashioned cocktails”…bingo!—to the different garnishes people want, like pickled mushrooms, olives, bleu cheese-stuffed olives.
It’s also one of those cocktails that if you work behind the bar in Wisconsin and someone orders it and you get bummed out about making one, you should probably move into another profession. Its popularity isn’t going anywhere. At Vanguard, we tried to meet the Wisconsin Old Fashioned with the Old Fashioned that the rest of the country is drinking. We are giving you the brandy Old Fashioned, though it’s traditionally whiskey. You’re getting the muddled orange and cherry in the form of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and Gran Gala orange liqueur. We’re giving you some Fee Brothers bitters along with your Angostura. We won’t top it with Sprite but you’re still getting a fine variation cocktail. With every new cocktail menu, I try to outdo the Vanguard Old Fashioned, but that thing is as a part of the restaurant as sausages and bourbon, and, apparently, flannel.
When I first moved to Milwaukee, I was 20 and had never tended bar in my life. On a recommendation from a friend who wanted his shifts covered during Summerfest, I was hired at a little gin mill on 17th and State called Lenny’s Tap. The old timers in the joint would mainly order shots of Corby’s and taps of Old Style, but their lady friends seemed to favor the Old Fashioned. I had no clue what I was doing, but Lenny was kind enough to explain to me through gritted, cigar-stained teeth that the instructions on how to create this magical Midwest elixir were right on the back label of the bottle of Jero Old Fashioned mix located on the speed rail directly between the blackberry brandy and the billy club that he kept handy in case there was a “dust up.”
I, being of Irish descent and with a great thirst for knowledge, felt it was my duty to understand the tastes and appreciations of my guests, so one day I took the liberty of sampling one myself. I’m not one to take the Lord’s name in vain but Jesus, Mary and Joseph it was awful. I mean really repulsive. What kind of people would order such a drink? Not only order it but praise it as “The beloved drink of Wisconsin”? Was it a mistake to move here? Was it too late to break my lease? So many thoughts raced through my mind as I poured the vile liquid down the drain. I immediately began plotting how I was going to give Lenny my notice. The life of a Wisconsin bartender and their signature drink was not for me.
Later that night, as I pedaled my bike home, my nerves subsided and I realized that every job comes with some negative aspect and that no matter how noxious the Old Fashioned was, it was only one of a half dozen drinks I learned to make my first week on the job. The others were quite tasty, were they not? Maybe moving away was an overreaction? I can still stay on the job. All I need to do is avoid or ignore the Old Fashioned drinker. Easy enough. My problem solved, I relaxed on my couch and my thoughts turned to meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time the following day. They had invited me to dine at their favorite supper club, and I needed to be ready to leave promptly because they wanted to have a few drinks at the bar before we were seated. On the drive to the restaurant we were making the basic small talk when I was asked what I did for a living. I explained that I was a bartender, but was pretty wet behind the ears and wasn’t sure if it was for me. That comment immediately shifted the conversation to why they choose this particular supper club for that evening’s feast and why we were going to arrive an hour before our reservation. Their favorite bartender worked there and the entire family lived for his Old Fashioned. Panic began to set in. I squirmed in the backseat while painting the mental picture of me regurgitating on my date’s mother.
As the three of them chatted excitedly about what type they were going to order—Brandy! Bourbon! Whiskey! Sweet! Sour! Press!—all I could think about was jumping from the vehicle at the next red light and racing home to get high with my roommates. I thought twice about that plan, as it would be perceived as being rude. I decided to cast my fears aside and take one for the team. These people were so nice and had invited me to their favorite spot. The least I could do is act appreciative.
As we found seats at the corner of a busy bar, I noticed the black and white uniformed bartenders moving with style and grace as the Boston shakers gleamed and the muddlers were driven like pistons. The pace was fast and introductions were short. When I was asked what type of Old Fashioned I wanted I blurted “BOURBON SOUR!” Two words I had retained from my training at Lenny’s. As I watched this maestro prepare our cocktails, I noticed he wasn’t reaching for his trusty bottle of Jero. He was concocting some sort of cornucopia of delights using cherries, oranges, sugar and bitters. As he set the drink in front of me, I was enthralled by its amber-orange hue and inviting presentation. All thoughts of getting high with my roommates were put on the back burner. My first sip led to my first gulp. What was this potion? This is not the same Old Fashioned that I battled before. This was delicious! I better order another! They’re seating us in 20 minutes so I’ll probably have just enough time for a third. At that moment I felt like I was becoming a true Badger. Looking back that was my first step in being adopted by the great state of Wisconsin.