The next time you sit to sip an old fashioned, know that in this state, you’re in good company.
Wisconsin residents, who regularly shell out for their microbrews and aged cheeses, do the same for brandy, as sales of the spirit here are the second highest in the nation.
While most of those bottles are likely big names like Korbel (Wisconsin’s been the company’s No. 1 market for the past 30 years), at least two area businesses are bringing some local options to the bar.
Old Sugar Distillery, located on Madison’s Near East Side and best known for its rum, bottled its first brandy in 2011. Owner and distiller Nathan Greenawalt originally envisioned it as a niche product, but “we’re already not making enough for demand locally.”
Wollersheim Winery, about 28 miles northwest of Madison in Prairie du Sac, will release its first brandy April 13. The winery, long known for its award-wining White Riesling and Prairie Fumé, started distilling thanks to a 2009 change in state law that allows wineries to sell and offer samples of distilled products and to distill under the same business structure as the winery.
“We actually wanted to make brandy for several years,” said Julie Coquard, the winery’s co-owner and marketing director. “As a product from wine, it just seemed to make a lot of sense,” she said. Plus, “it is something that is popular in Wisconsin.”
Thanks to Prohibition
Popular is putting it mildly.
According to the Beverage Information Group’s Liquor Handbook, brandy/cognac sales in Wisconsin were at 161.2 cases per 1,000 adults in 2010, the latest information available. This was surpassed only by Washington, D.C., which sold 189.9 cases per 1,000 adults. Minnesota came in third with 145.2 cases.
The popularity of brandy in Wisconsin largely is attributed to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was there that the struggling Korbel brothers bought a booth to try to boost sales of their sluggish domestic brandy, said Jim Draeger, co-author of “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries,” published last year by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
“It just caught on there with all the Germanic people from Wisconsin who were visiting the fair and has been popular ever since,” he said.
A recipe for a “brandy cocktail” can be found in cocktail books as early as 1862. But the old fashioned sweet, as Wisconsinites commonly drink them now, didn’t become popular until the early 20th century as a “stepchild of Prohibition,” Draeger said.
During Prohibition breweries turned to brewing soda, which often was mixed with moonshine to make it more palatable, he said. “The way we drink brandy old fashioneds today (usually sweetened with 7Up) really is a result of the popularity of soda-based cocktails.”
At The Old Fashioned in Downtown Madison, the restaurant’s namesake drink is easily its most popular.
Bartenders will mix around 300 brandy old fashioneds on an average Friday night and 400 on an average Saturday night, said Jennifer DeBolt, Old Fashioned general manager. “We’re the biggest account in Wisconsin with Korbel,” she said, referring to the 30 to 40 cases of brandy it orders monthly.
Brandy is made by distilling fermented grape juice then aging that liquid.
Old Sugar distills two brandies: Brandy Station, a traditional brandy made from four types of local grapes; and Marc Brandy, which also can be called an aged grappa because it’s made from the skins and stems of grapes already pressed for wine.
Greenawalt describes Brandy Station as a little fruity but said he doesn’t sweeten it at all. It’s aged anywhere between 5 months to 1 year depending on the barrel size. First in medium toast oak barrels for some vanilla flavor, then in a used rum barrel where it picks up some caramel flavor.
For the Marc Brandy, the fermented and distilled grape skins and stems result in a brandy with an “earthier taste.”
“We kind of think of it as a full-flavored brandy,” Greenawalt said. “A nice sipping brandy.”
In 2012 Old Sugar distilled about 100 cases of brandy, which is in line with what Greenawalt expects to produce in the future.
The Wollersheim brandy will reach the end of its two years of aging in toasted oak barrels at the end of the month.
The winery has distilled six barrels’ worth, which should translate about 5,000 375 ml bottles. It will be sold at the winery and have “very limited distribution,” Coquard said.
Wollersheim used for the brandy the Saint Pepin and La Crosse white wine grape, also used in its ice wine and Eagle White wine.
Coquard describes the brandy as having “a lot of complexity” but said the winery hasn’t yet developed an official description.