How Wisconsin Became the Buckle on the 'Brandy Belt'

This spirit has been a part of our DNA since the 19th century.

Certain states have a special relationship with a single spirit. In Wisconsin, it’s brandy. The grape spirit finds its way into our old fashioneds, our Manhattans, our yuletide Tom & Jerrys, our liquor cabinets. Korbel, Christian Brothers, E&J, Fleischmann’s, Coronet – these labels are seen behind most Wisconsin bars and take up significant shelf space in the state’s liquor stores. Wisconsin has long been the biggest market for Korbel, buying the lion’s share of the California winery and distillery’s production. And Wisconsinites order their brandy by brand, something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the nation. In every way, Wisconsin is the buckle on the “brandy belt,” an area that stretches into Minnesota to the west and northern Michigan to the northeast.

It’s been that way for a long time. But how did it get that way? The answer isn’t easy or even knowable, but there are clues. A popular origin story points to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the wine-making Korbel brothers of California, and other producers from out West, exhibited their new brandy. With Illinois being just next door, plenty of Wisconsinites made their way to the historic fair and could have returned home with a love for homegrown brandy.

There may be some truth to that tale. But let’s not forget that Germans were Wisconsin’s biggest immigrant group at the time. It’s likely that Wisconsin’s German Americans got busy making their own brandy soon after arriving in the Midwest in the mid-1800s.

Whether the state’s residents developed their brandy thirst by nature or nurture, a taste for the spirit had settled in by the end of the 19th century. This is amply illustrated by the Barkeeper’s Manual, a cocktail guide published in 1898 by a wholesale wine and liquor importer in La Crosse. The number of brandy-based cocktail recipes in the manual far exceeds the tally found in other cocktail books of the time. By the 1940s, the California brandy barons had recognized in what state their bread was buttered, and they flooded Wisconsin with advertising. The number of brandy ads in Wisco newspapers far outpaced space bought by distilleries in other states.

That ad copy may have helped steer locals toward their long-ingrained habit of mixing brandy, as opposed to sipping it straight. “Confidentially,” a man in a 1954 Christian Brothers ad says, “My drinks are better because they’re made with brandy.” Brandy highballs, brandy Manhattans and brandy old fashioneds were all suggested.

By the 1960s, Wisconsin led the country in brandy consumption. After that, it could be perversely argued that Wisconsin retained its top ranking in brandy guzzling partly because it enjoyed being No. 1. “The state has always taken a certain provincial pride in the annual standings in the national beer and brandy consumption averages,” the Appleton Post-Crescent reported in 1966. “When dealing with Wisconsin, measures are made by the gallon rather than the glass.”

The central irony of Wisconsin’s love of brandy is that, unlike beer, this drinking tradition was built on a foundation forged in another state. As classically Wisconsin as brands like Korbel, Christian Brothers, Coronet and Aristocrat sound and feel, they all originated in California. A Wisconsin old fashioned is really a California old fashioned, in a manner of thinking. That is starting to change. The craft distilling revolution that took root in the early years of this century swept through Wisconsin just as it did every other state. And a few of those enterprising distillers surveyed the landscape, put two and two together and asked themselves why Wisconsin couldn’t just make old fashioneds and Manhattans with its own damn brandy.

Since apples and other fruits are more prevalent and easily grown here than vine grapes, many of these new spirits are apple brandies, cherry brandies and the like. But the historic Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac makes the Press House Brandy, a re-creation of the juice it produced before Prohibition, using grapes native to the United States. The Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, meanwhile, uses Wisconsin grapes for its Brandy Station brand. And the old fashioneds served at Miller Park this year were made with a brandy by Milwaukee’s Central Standard.

Some bars have taken notice. Recently, when I ordered a brandy old fashioned at the famous Wisconsin Dells-area supper club Ishnala, I was asked if I’d like it made with Korbel or Wollersheim. I decided to have two and try the drink both ways. I have to admit, I preferred the Korbel. Like many others, my Wisconsin taste buds were
indoctrinated to that particular flavor long ago. But anyone who loves brandy as much as Wisconsinites do deserves choices.

This Story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s 2019 Drinking Guide. 

Click here to read more from the guide. 

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