New Twists on an Old Fashioned Debate
cocktail bars returning to pre-Prohibition-style recipes for beloved Wisconsin drink
For decades, if you sidled up to the bar at any Wisconsin establishment – whether a corner tavern or a northwoods supper club – and ordered an Old Fashioned, you were almost guaranteed to get a very specific drink. It was served on ice in an Old Fashioned glass (naturally), and it was a mixture of brandy, soda, and a muddle of cherries, orange, sugar, and bitters.
This Wisconsin-style Old Fashioned sweet and fruity, and its popularity meant Wisconsin drank (and still drinks) a hugely disproportionate share of the nation’s brandy.
“The Old Fashioned for many years was your grandpa’s drink,” says Shelly Rieckens, owner of The Red Mixer, 2526 Golf Road.
In recent years, however, a growing number of Wisconsin bars have shelved the conventional Old Fashioned in favor of drinks that are subtler in taste and rely on whiskey, not brandy, for their punch. In Eau Claire, you’ll find such Old Fashioneds among the most popular cocktails at a number of bars, including Dive, The Lakely, and The Red Mixer.
“The Old Fashioned for many years was your grandpa’s drink.” —Shelly Rieckens, The Red Mixer
Yet rather than being “new fashioned,” these Old Fashioneds are actually older than the sweet brandy drinks Wisconsinites are accustomed to. In fact, in every other state, Old Fashioned are traditionally made with whiskey, not brandy. It’s a recipe dating back to the mid-1800s. Only in Wisconsin is a brandy Old Fashioned the default Old Fashioned.
So why is the traditional Wisconsin supper club Old Fashioned so fruity and sweet? Bartenders say it’s likely because of the low quality of the booze available during Prohibition. Eighteenth amendment be damned, plenty of Wisconsinites were still going to tip a few back during the Roaring Twenties, and if it took an inordinate amount of sugar and maraschino cherries to mask the taste of the moonshine, then so be it. And after Prohibition was repealed, that’s how the recipe stayed in Wisconsin.
Take this explanation with a grain of salt, though: “All bartending is lore, and all bartenders are liars,” Jorja Vradenburg-Hall, director of food and beverage at The Lismore Hotel, says with a laugh.
At Dive, the bar inside The Lismore, the Old Fashioned you’ll find is a pre-Prohibition variety made with whiskey. It’s a relatively simple drink: Evan Williams bourbon, Angostura bitters, demerara syrup, and a flamed orange peel. The focus is on the bourbon, and it’s not much like the sweet, fruity concoction that grandpa tossed back at the supper club.
Grandpa might not recognize one of most popular drinks at The Lakely, either – even though it is called the “Great Grandpa”: It’s a variation on the Old Fashioned made with Overholt rye whiskey, a house-made syrup with brown sugar and lemon, and Angostura bitters.
“Sometimes, the simpler the better for a cocktail.” –Logan Slaght, The Lakely
Logan Slaght, The Lakely’s bar manager, says it’s helpful to look at the Old Fashioned as a basic template for a drink rather than a specific recipe, which explains the wide variety of libations bearing the same name. Order an Old Fashioned at The Lakely, for instance, and you’ll get a drink with bourbon, bitters, demerara syrup, and an orange peel. Such relative simplicity keeps too many flavors from competing with each other, Slaght says.
“Sometimes, the simpler the better for a cocktail,” he explains.
At The Red Mixer, one of the most popular drinks is the Chilynsey Old Fashioned, which is made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, bitters, maple syrup, a tart Luxardo cherry, a zest of orange, and cedar smoke – the result being a drink that is mellow and smoky yet sweet. The menu also includes peach and peanut butter Old Fashioneds (made with flavored whiskeys), but they’ll gladly mix you up a brandy Old Fashioned if you ask.
Aficionados of the brandy Old Fashioned and the cocktail’s whiskey version have been known to argue over which one is the “real” Old Fashioned. Dive’s Vradenburg-Hall tries to position herself in the middle. “They have the same name. Maybe they’re cousins,” she says of the two drinks. “But they’re both perfect and wonderful.”
There are certainly partisans on both sides of the issue, among drinkers and bartenders.
“The basic idea of the Old Fashioned is to appreciate the spirit in the drink,” says Dive bartender Alex Viana. “While the supper club Old Fashioned is great for what it is, the distant cousin of the original, it does more to mask and dilute what is at the heart of all great cocktails, the spirit.”
Dive colleague Taylor Braun sums it up this way: “At the end of the day it’s booze, sugar, water, bitters. It’s perfect the way it is, why would we mess it up?”