After Hours

Brandy: A Wisconsin Tradition

Each Christmas Eve before the night’s exchange of gifts, Joe Plouff brings out his father’s special leaf-patterned glass—these days, there is only one left. He spoons sugar into the bottom and shakes bitters on top. He pours a splash of sweet soda into the glass. With a spoon, he combines the saccharine mixture. Next he adds ice. The cubes clink against the sides. The key is always to be generous with the ice, the way his father made it. He adds just the right amount of brandy, no shot glass or measurement necessary. With the main ingredients added, the drink is topped off with more sweet soda and perhaps a slice of orange for a garnish. The results are passed off into eager hands. Barney Plouff may have passed away, but his holiday Brandy Old Fashioned remains a tradition for his family members.

Just as the Brandy Old Fashioned is a Christmas custom for the Plouff family, brandy plays a part in the family traditions of many other Wisconsinites. While the Old Fashioned is often considered the quintessential Wisconsin cocktail, brandy itself is a spirit that has permeated the state’s history and culture. Whether it comes in the form of a Slush, Sidecar or simply on the rocks, brandy and brandy drinking holds a unique place in America’s Dairyland–but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.

What is brandy?

Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine or fermented fruit—typically acidic grapes. According to Peter D’Souza, an associate professor in the Hospitality and Tourism Department at the UW-Stout, Wisconsin’s climate is not ideal for brandy production, making the state an unusual candidate for a top brandy consumer.

“The grapes in Wisconsin are usually sweet and there [are] not enough to make brandy,” D’Souza says.

Most of the brandy found in ­Wisconsin is shipped in from distilleries in climates suitable to grape growing—namely, California and Oregon.

Though brandy distilled from wine and grapes is the most ubiquitous form, it can be distilled from a variety of fruits, such as plums and peaches. Yahara Bay Distillers of Madison produces a version distilled from apples that provides a unique alternative for brandy drinkers.


Unlike other spirits such as vodka and rum, brandy is not widely consumed across the nation. According to The Bar and Beverage Book, brandy’s popularity is confined to three main markets: adults over the age of 50, African Americans, and three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northern Michigan—an area the authors label the “brandy belt.”

Drinks made with brandy are less common across the nation. Outside of the Great Lakes region, the spirit is typically taken on the rocks, Old Fashioneds are made with whiskey and the Brandy Slush is virtually unknown.

When Ray Hayes, a native of Louisiana and Indiana, moved to Menomonie, Wis., he was completely unfamiliar with brandy as a mixer.

“Before moving to Wisconsin in the early ‘70s, I equated brandy with cognac,” Hayes says. “I never saw it served in local bars or taverns, only in upscale restaurants and lounges—and only then sipped from snifters. The idea of brandy and coke was as foreign as chocolate sauce on cauliflower.”

Depending on who you’re asking, Wisconsin consumes either the most brandy in the nation, more brandy than all other 49 states combined, or 90 percent of brandy distilled worldwide.

Though each of these claims proves more hearsay than fact, Wisconsin does consume disproportionate amounts of the liquor. For Korbel, a northern California brandy manufacturer, the state is an invaluable market.

Wisconsin is Korbel’s biggest state for sales, purchasing roughly 133,000 crates of Korbel brandy in 2008, accounting for more than one third of the Korbel’s total brandy sales, Korbel’s Midwest Area Manager Mark Winkels says. Wisconsinhas been a major market for Korbel over the past 15 to 20 years.

A classic brandy drink from Madison's The Old Fashioned.

A classic brandy drink from Madison's The Old Fashioned.

Brandy epicenter

With Wisconsin a national leader in brandy consumption, Madison’s The Old Fashioned restaurant could arguably be considered the epicenter of brandy drinking nationwide. Named after the cocktail Wisconsin residents know and love, The Old Fashioned is Korbel’s biggest customer in the state.

With an extensive drink menu, everything from the Brandy Old Fashioned to the Cherry Blossom–a martini created with brandy, simple syrup and cherry juice–is served up at a long wooden bar. The drinks at The Old Fashioned are chosen carefully to reflect the restaurant’s philosophy of upholding Wisconsin tradition in food and drink.

Each year, general manager Jen De Bolt travels to Door County to pick cherries that are left to soak in crates with brandy and sugar for six months, creating a drink called Cherry Bounce.

“It’s kind of a tradition for us and it is all over the state,” De Bolt says, “especially up in the north and the cherry area.”

Despite the variety of offerings, the Brandy Old Fashioned remains the restaurant’s most popular drink. An average of 242 Old Fashioned drinks are sold on Friday nights, De Bolt says, and on the restaurant’s most recent “Dollar Old Fashioned Night,” De Bolt and her staff moved 769 of the iconic cocktails in two-and-a-half hours. The president of Korbel flew in to attend the event.

“I think [brandy is] starting to come full circle for our customer base,” De Bolt says. “They’re remembering what their parents had when they went out to supper clubs and bars.”

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