The old fashioned is as enigmatic as it is familiar. Travel across the country—or sometimes just across the street to the next bar—and you will be confronted with so many iterations of the cocktail that it can send you tail spinning into an existential crisis. Bourbon, rye, or brandy? Orange or lemon twist? Water or soda? Start a discussion on the penultimate recipe, and it can end abruptly in silent detestation or escalate into a full-on shouting match.
An examination of the drink’s origin, though, opens the door to interpretation. In a letter from the editor to a reader in the May 13, 1806, edition of The Balance, and Columbian Repository, the editor defines a cocktail as a drink “composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” As cocktails evolved and began to incorporate other ingredients, this early definition became known as an “old fashioned” cocktail.
Many southerners are deeply entrenched in the bourbon camp, scoffing at the very thought of any other liquor in an old fashioned glass. In most other regions, rye whiskey is preferred. If you order an old fashioned and receive brandy, however, there’s no doubt as to where you are in the country—Wisconsin.
The brandy old fashioned is a cornerstone of Wisconsin’s beverage culture. It’s also sacrilege to non-Wisconsites, who disconcertedly shake their heads as the bartender muddles an orange slice and cherry, before finishing the drink with—gasp—7Up. Sure, it’s not true to the original definition of the old fashioned, but Wisconsin’s version is a statement of independence, sloughing off the cultural mandates of the coasts in favor of something eminently tasty.
The regional panache of the brandy old fashioned is embodied in my favorite restaurant in Madison, The Old Fashioned, where in true Midwestern spirit, I spent many an evening with friends, clinking old fashioneds glasses over baskets of perfectly breaded cheese curds, with the white glow of the capitol building in the background. With a head full of nostalgia for the good old times, here is a recipe for a truly “capitol” old fashioned.
The Capitol Old Fashioned
2 ounces brandy (Asbach Uralt)
2 maraschino cherries
2 orange slices
½ teaspoon simple syrup (or ¾ teaspoon of sugar)
Splash of sweet vermouth
3 dashes of aromatic bitters
In an old fashioned glass, muddle one cherry and one orange slice with the syrup/sugar, a splash of vermouth, and three dashes of bitters. Add fresh, clean ice cubes to the top of the glass, and pour two ounces of brandy over. Top with soda—7Up is the go-to in Wisconsin—and garnish with the second cherry, orange slice, and a mixing straw.