As with many prodigal sons, my appreciation for my birthplace did not begin until years after I’d uprooted myself. In 1988, I left Wisconsin for New York City to make my mark as a journalist, first writing about theater and then settling into my current role on the drinks and spirits beat at The New York Times.
I noticed that most of the bars, bartenders and cocktails that have been my focus hail from enduring drinking capitals like London, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. Wisconsin, whose tippling habits I thought I understood, wasn’t much on my mind.
That changed as I dug further into America’s drinking history. (One of my favorite questions when traveling is, “What do you drink here that they don’t drink anywhere else?”) This research led me to conclude that my home state has more cocktail character and tavern traditions than any other five states put together. Now, following years of foolishly trying to seek out the best Sazerac in Milwaukee, I begin each visit to Wisconsin by making a beeline to the most timeworn saloon I can find and reveling in the age-old tradition of a pre-dinner brandy old fashioned (“sour,” orange and cherry garnish).
I’m not alone. According to an article in the December 2016 Playboy forecasting 2017 drinking trends, the “Wisconsin Old Fashioned” – known to you and me simply as the brandy old fashioned – is poised to sweep the nation. The reporter noted sightings of the drink in bars as far away as Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’ve seen a few Badger-style old fashioneds beyond state lines myself. So, too, have I caught glimpses of Tom & Jerrys – my first cocktail experience, ladled out by my parents during the holidays – being sipped beyond the Snowbelt.
With this new column, Notes from Brandyland, I will monthly explore in greater depth the tippling traditions that make Wisconsin the greatest drinking state in the republic. Grab your bar dice and join me. ◆