Quick…when I say Wisconsin – what comes to mind for you? For me, it conjures up images of rolling hills, cheese, cows, football, supper clubs, and……booze. Yes – that might not be what Wisconsin wants to be known for, but I can’t help it, when I think of Wisconsin, I think of cocktails.
For some weird reason, Wisconsin has a lot of quirky traditions when it comes to cocktails, more than I’ve experienced in any other state. On my last trip to Madison, I went on a quest to find 4 of my favorite quintessential Wisconsin cocktails and learn more about them; specifically, how did they become so steeped in Wisconsin traditions.
My plan was to analyze (and taste!) the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, the Wisconsin Bloody Mary, the Pink Squirrel, and the Tom and Jerry Hot Toddy. It’s a rough job to have to research and taste cocktails…but this was all in the name of writing…really.
Meet Madison’s Cocktail Expert
To start my research, I sought out the expert in Madison, Brian Bartels, author of the United States of Cocktails, and The Bloody Mary. He started as a bartender and evolved into what we now call a mixologist. He’s not just pumping out typical cocktails, he’s inventing them. And he does a mighty good job of it! Now a well-known cocktail author, he also recently went back to his home state of Wisconsin and opened his own cocktail bar – Oz by Oz.
Oz by Oz is an inventive and eclectic cocktail bar near the capitol that is a treat for any cocktail lover. Brian has created some incredible drinks served alongside Wisconsin favorites like the Wisconsin Old Fashioned. He also describes it as a ‘snackeasy’ since they serve fun snacks with their cocktails such as candied walnuts and bacon. It really is the perfect pre or post-dinner stop in Madison.
Brian provided me with some background on each of the 4 drinks as well as theories as to why some of these drinks have become so popular in Wisconsin. I totally geeked out talking to him and trying some of his inventive creations on the menu.
Brian and I talked about our love of Spanish Gin & Tonics. Make sure you read my article, You’ve Been Making Gin and Tonics All Wrong to learn exactly what a Spanish Gin & Tonic is.
4 Wisconsin Cocktails You Must Try
1. Wisconsin Old Fashioned
A traditional Old Fashioned is made with Bourbon, sugar, and bitters, and garnished with an orange peel or cherry. However, a Wisconsin Old Fashioned has very little in common with this traditional version. In fact – Wisconsin went completely off the rails with this popular pre-prohibition drink.
What makes it Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, you order an Old Fashioned in one of 3 ways; sweet, sour, or press. Don’t believe me…try it and see what comes out! First – the quirkiness starts with the fact that a Wisconsin Old Fashioned is made with brandy – specifically Korbel Brandy. Next, comes the muddling of oranges, cherries, and sugar (sounds like fruit salad doesn’t it?), add a healthy amount of Angostura bitters, and the final step is the mixer which is also unique to Wisconsin. A traditional Old Fashioned never comes with a mixer, but in Wisconsin, they mix it with 7-Up (Sweet), Squirt (Sour), or both (Press).
This honestly is nothing like a traditional Old Fashioned at all. It’s much sweeter and more watered down. Plus, you have a fruit salad in it!
History of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned
How did Wisconsin go so far off the rails of the traditional Old Fashioned? It is said that during prohibition, people started making Old Fashioneds with muddled fruit to mask the taste of the bad bourbon. And for some reason, Wisconsinites never stopped after prohibition ended!
As for brandy, there are a couple of theories on how that started. One is that brandy debuted at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago and because so many Wisconsinites attended the fair they fell in love with it and took it back to Wisconsin. The other theory lies around the war and shortages of grain to make alcohol. Somehow some Wisconsin distributors ‘found’ 30,000 barrels of old brandy and bought it up. After that, there was a big brandy inventory in the state. When people in Wisconsin had the choice of bad bourbon or good brandy – they of course took the brandy.
Where to find Brandy Old Fashioneds in Madison
You’ll find it in any Wisconsin bar. Just sidle up to the bar and ask the bartender for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned Press and get the best of both worlds. But the best place to really experience a Wisconsin Old Fashioned is at a Supper Club. Supper Clubs are another piece of fun Wisconsin culture that should be experienced in Madison.
Don’t know what a supper club is? Read my article Exploring the Culture of Wisconsin Supper Clubs
Slip into the dimly lit bar in Tornado Steakhouse and order a Wisconsin Old Fashioned as you wait for your table. Located downtown near the capitol, the historic restaurant is known for its elevated supper club food specializing in steak and fish.
Toby’s Supper Club is located on the outskirts of town and is a very traditional Madison supper club. When you pull up, it’ll look like someone’s house! They serve the 3 types of Wisconsin Old Fashioneds as well as some incredible traditional meals. Don’t miss out on their signature cinnamon rolls that come as part of the relish tray!
2. Wisconsin Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary’s popularity took off when the concept of brunch became popular – in the mid to late 70s – that’s when the training wheels of the Bloody Mary came off. It was a weekend drink for people who were trying to resuscitate their senses after a long week or late at night. They are classically served with celery, olives, and lemon, but they’ve evolved into full meals at some restaurants now. But skewers of cheese and brats in a Bloody Mary aren’t what makes it Wisconsin.
What Makes it Wisconsin
It goes by many names; snit, chaser, beer back, sidekick, etc – but whatever you call it – you’ll only find it in Wisconsin. When you order a Bloody Mary in Wisconsin, you’ll not only get the Bloody Mary, but you’ll also get a little glass of beer. Strange…yes…but totally Wisconsin.
It might be confusing at first since you didn’t order the beer chaser, and the waiter just brought it out, and you are wondering…wait…but do I have to pay for this?! But never fear, it’s yours…and it’s just part of the Bloody Mary in Wisconsin – it wasn’t a mistake and there’s no extra charge.
Now the big issue is deciding how to drink the snit. Obviously, you know how to drink beer…duh…but how do you drink it with the Bloody Mary? I’ve asked a number of Wisconsinites, and I got varied responses. Some people drink it at the end (this is my preferred way) as a true chaser. However, others, like Brian, pour it into his Bloody Mary and mix it in. Then others will just alternate it with drinks of the Bloody Mary.
History of the Wisconsin Bloody Mary
The history of the cocktail is a bit fuzzy – a number of people claimed to invent it in the 1920s or 30s. The original version was simply tomato juice and vodka. However, in 1934 it is believed that Fernand Petiot invented the modern Bloody Mary adding salt, pepper, cayenne, and Worchester sauce.
Wisconsin wasn’t necessarily the first state to start ‘enhancing’ the Bloody Mary accouterments, but they sure have taken the idea and ran with it. You’ll find an entire dinner in some Bloody Marys around Madison!
But the history of the snit (the thing that makes it Wisconsin)…well…that’s even fuzzier. Much like the snit itself, there are a few different explanations out there on how it came about.
Brian’s snit theory was when bartenders started experimenting with making Bloody Marys, they were probably making them inconsistent from bar to bar. There was a spicier one, one that probably had too much citrus, there was one that didn’t have enough spice and seasoning, etc. Therefore, people in Wisconsin were more inclined to kind of have a snit to neutralize a lot of those intense flavors by diluting it and making it more complimentary for the palate.
However the manager at Sardines Restaurant recanted a story about a vodka shortage in the ’50s when beer replaced the vodka, and then it just stuck around in the form of a chaser. This was slightly similar to another story I heard about people boycotting vodka due to the rise of communism and replacing it with beer. Others thought the beer chaser in Wisconsin was due to a large number of breweries in the area as a way to promote Wisconsin beer.
I guess you can choose the story you like and go with it.
Where to find Great Bloody Marys in Madison
I was consistently told to go to Sardines Restaurant for brunch to have the best Bloody Mary in Madison. They have a classic take on the Bloody Mary; simple, refined, and delicious. I particularly liked that they didn’t overstuff it with food items, and I loved the pickled fennel they served with it. It is served with a light lager, and I suggest you try it with the raw oysters to kick off your brunch!
If you are looking for a different twist on the Bloody Mary check out Short Stack Eatery. It features 25 ingredients including garlic, beets, jalapeños, their house-made pickle brine, and a bit of sriracha salt on the rim. Plus, it’s stuffed with lots of brined spicy vegetables as garnish.
And if you want a REALLY modern twist on the Bloody Mary, stop in at Brian’s Bar – Oz by Oz – and have their Frozen Bloody Mary Martini…made with gin…yes gin. They use a tomato-infused gin and a celery-infused gin to mimic the taste of a Bloody Mary. Topped with a drop of tabasco and this gin drink tastes just like a Bloody Mary!
3. Pink Squirrel
The Pink Squirrel is a prohibition era cocktail made with crème de noyaux (a red-colored, almond-flavored liqueur), crème de cacao, and heavy cream. And yes – it’s delightfully pink in color. I have no idea where the ‘squirrel’ part of the name comes from though!
Learn all about the history of the cocktail in America and how they continued to exist throughout prohibition.
The red crème de noyaux mixed with the white crème de cacao gives the drink its iconic pink hue (think pepto bismal pink). The crème de noyaux gives it the almond flavor; however, crème de noyaux is not even made with almonds, it’s made with the kernels of apricots, peaches, or cherries.
What makes the Pink Squirrel Wisconsin
This is a cocktail that was actually invented in Wisconsin – it doesn’t get any more Wisconsin than that! In addition, make the iconic drink with ice cream instead of heavy cream thereby turning it into an adult milkshake. The Pink Squirrel blended ice cream drink can really only be found in supper club bars, and supper clubs are pretty darn unique to Wisconsin.
History of the Pink Squirrel Cocktail
The drink was invented by Bryant Sharp at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee in 1941. The original recipe called for ice cream, however as it became popular across the world, ice cream has been substituted for heavy cream since most bars don’t carry ice cream. Like most of these prohibition-era cocktails…the history is pretty murky, but everyone does agree that it was invented in Milwaukee.
Where to Get a Pink Squirrel in Madison
Once again, you’ll mainly find these in supper clubs served as a boozy dessert drink. I’m not sure that you would find them at a regular bar. For a classic Pink Squirrel try the one at Toby’s Supper Club. It’s small and delicious – perfect for after your big supper club meal!
If you want a modern twist on the Pink Squirrel, go to Harvey House Supper club. There they combine both recipes into one. They serve a dollop of ice cream in a coupe-style glass and then they pour the Pink Squirrel over the top of it so that it sort of looks like an island floating in a pink lake! The ice cream isn’t blended in, but instead, it melts as you drink it, providing a new twist to the classic Wisconsin Pink Squirrel.
4. Tom and Jerry
This cocktail is near and dear to my heart because I always have fond memories of my family when I drink it. Normally because the only time I drink it is when I’m with my family! It’s a seasonal drink in Wisconsin – only found during the winter holidays.
The drink is really a hot toddy and is often described as a warm version of egg nog. It starts with a batter (often a secret family recipe), and the batter gets mixed with hot water (some people also use hot milk), rum, and brandy. It’s a frothy drink typically served in a festive mug.
What Makes it Wisconsin
If the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is the best-loved drink in Wisconsin, Tom and Jerry is a close second. This dairy heavy drink shows off the best of the dairy state with eggs, butter, and milk. Plus, the egg-laden batter is mixed with Korbel Brandy and dark rum to give it a warm kick! I told you Wisconsinites love their brandy!
When Tom and Jerry’s popularity seemed to die out in the rest of the country in the mid-20th century, Wisconsin never let it die. Maybe it was the brandy that kept it a popular drink among Wisconsinites, or maybe it is the fact that once Wisconsinites take hold of something, they don’t let go…much like their beloved Packers. Whatever the reason, Tom and Jerry lived on in December in Wisconsin for the last 60 years while they fell into obscurity everywhere else.
History of the Tom and Jerry Hot Toddy
Let’s start with the name. It has nothing to do with the cartoon mouse and cat! The drink’s name is a reference to Pierce Egan’s book, Life in London, and the subsequent stage play Tom and Jerry. (Tom and Jerry were the names of the main characters) Egan created the drink in the 1850s in order to promote his play. Talk about good marketing!
The hot drink hit its popularity high in the mid-50s when people would make it as a punch and serve it at holiday parties. Now, you mainly see it in Wisconsin and sometimes in Minnesota and the Dakotas only during December. Right after Thanksgiving, the holiday mugs come out and the Tom and Jerry batter is made; it’s a Wisconsin holiday ritual.
Where to find Tom and Jerry Drinks in Madison
You can find the premade batter at grocery stores all over Madison in December. You may also find it at bakeries and liquor stores. In fact, these store batters are even made by Wisconsin companies; Connolly’s Tom and Jerry mix is made in Superior and Mrs. Bowen’s Tom & Jerry is made in Manitowoc.
Every holiday season Sardines Restaurant carries special holiday cocktails and you’ll always find a Tom and Jerry on their seasonal cocktail menu. They make their special batter daily in December and they serve them with rum and cognac instead of brandy.
You’ll also normally find seasonal Tom and Jerry’s at Nick’s Restaurant in Madison. They don’t make their own mix, but they do normally serve them in December. Plus Nicks (opened in 1960) has so much history and personality that it’s worth a stop!
Whenever I go to Wisconsin I order these drinks so that I can have something I know I can’t get anywhere else in the US. Next time you find yourself in Wisconsin, or Madison specifically, now you can go up to the bar and confidently order one of these quintessential Wisconsin cocktails and you’ll look like a local!
I was a guest of Destination Madison who helped me organize interviews for this article. However all opinions expressed here are my own.