Brandy: Badger State in a Bottle

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Door County liquor cabinet or hunting cabin that doesn’t contain a bottle of brandy. As the primary ingredient in our unofficial state cocktail, the old-fashioned, brandy is everywhere. In fact, one third of Korbel brandy, produced in California, is exported to Wisconsin.

In the liquor business, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are known as the “brandy belt.” And a preference for old-fashioneds just might identify one as a cheesehead. When I ordered a brandy old-fashioned in Houston, the bartender looked at me and drawled, “You’re from Wisconsin, huh?”

(Clockwise, left to right) Stone Fence, Brandy Old-Fashioned, Sidecar and Brandy Milk Punch. Photos by Len Villano.

(Clockwise, left to right) Stone Fence, Brandy Old-Fashioned, Sidecar and Brandy Milk Punch. Photos by Len Villano.

Brandy, by broad definition, is distilled from fruit, setting it apart from other brown liquors such as bourbon and scotch created from a grain mash. Brandies like Korbel and Christian Brothers, barroom staples up and down the peninsula, are distilled from grape wine. Nearly every country and culture has its own version of the drink — Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados in France, Stravecchio and Grappa in Italy, and Pisco in Chile and Peru.

Madison food journalist Jerry Minnich claims Wisconsin’s love affair with brandy began at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the Korbel brothers introduced their eponymous brandy. With nearly a quarter of the U.S. population in attendance, there was no doubt plenty of Wisconsin Germans, accustomed to a culture of spirits, who tasted their wares. Add a brandy surplus following WWII, when much of the store was dumped in Wisconsin, and you’ve got the perfect storm for brandy preference in our state. The brandy old-fashioned, a riff on the classic whiskey cocktail, has been legend ever since.

Whatever concoction you choose, brandy is perfect for taking the chill off a winter’s night. Try a classic old-fashioned, a creamy milk punch or a bracing sidecar (think Martini, with brandy). Add a plate of Wisconsin cheddar and braunschweiger and you know you couldn’t be anywhere else. Bottoms up!

Brandy Old-Fashioned

20161006_brandy_lvp4940Mad Men’s Don Draper helped make this cocktail all the rage in New York and L.A. a few years ago, while we Wisconsinites rolled our eyes, having long ago discovered its charms.

1 sugar cube

several dashes Angostura bitters

club soda or lemon-lime soda

1 orange slice

maraschino cherries


2 oz brandy

Place sugar cube in a glass and splash with bitters. Add a splash of club soda, top with orange slice and a cherry. Gently muddle with a wooden spoon or cocktail muddler to crush the fruit. Fill glass with ice and add brandy. Top with soda, and garnish with another cherry or two.

Brandy Milk Punch

20161006_brandy_lvp5127Combining two of Wisconsin’s specialties — brandy and dairy — seems like an excellent idea, especially when vanilla and nutmeg play a part.

2 oz brandy

1½ oz half and half or heavy cream

1 oz simple syrup

½ tsp vanilla extract


fresh grated nutmeg

Combine brandy, cream, simple syrup and vanilla in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until shaker is frosty. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with grated nutmeg.


20161006_brandy_lvp4826This classic cocktail is tangy, tasty and pleasing to the eye. One bit of advice:  don’t drink too many.

1 oz Cointreau, Grand Marnier or other triple sec

1 oz brandy

juice of one half of a lemon


In a mixing glass or cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine Cointreau, brandy and lemon juice. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass rimmed with sugar.

Stone Fence

20161006_brandy_lvp4775 Legend has it American soldiers downed a few of these before successfully seizing the British officers’ quarters at Fort Ticonderoga. Even if you’re not feeling bellicose, fresh-pressed local cider will make this a go-to drink.

2 oz brandy

dash of Angostura bitters (optional)

5 oz fresh-pressed apple cider

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add all ingredients, and garnish with a lemon twist.

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