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Wisconsinites' love affair with brandy


It's rumored that our state is not only populated with beer swillers, but brandy slammers, as well. A few Web sites even reported that Wisconsin is responsible for 90 percent of the world's brandy consumption, so we decided to go straight to the source: Korbel, the top brandy maker in the United States.

"Wisconsin is our number one state," says Margie Healy, director of public relations for the California-based Korbel. "We export 385,000 cases a year, and 139,000 go directly to Wisconsin. That's one-third of our total production."

According to DISCUS (the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) based in Washington D.C., Wisconsinites spend the most money on brandy, but are not the top consumers per capita. The District of Columbia and Minnesota both outdrink us, according to Peggy Partenfelder-Moede of Essie Consulting Group that represents DISCUS.

However, neither Healy nor Partenfelder-Moede are sure why.

It's easy to speculate that the long winters are partially responsible. Hot drinks like the brandy alexander (also served cold as an after-dinner drink) and the hot toddy are not only popular winter cocktails, but also believed by some to reduce the effects of colds and flus. Plus, brandy old fashions, both sweet and sour, are a Wisconsin holiday tradition, and coffee with a shot of brandy is also quite common in these parts.

"There is absolutely nothing historically that explains brandy's popularity in Wisconsin," says Healy, whose Web site reports that brandy was accidentally invented during the 16th century by Dutch traders who found they could ship more wine by removing (distilling) the water from the wine first.

Almost all of the world's grape brandy is distilled in California, but it's made from other fruits in almost every region of France, Spain, Portugal, Peru, Germany and Hungary.

Brandy is also a coveted liqueur in California, but most West Coast drinkers enjoy it straight up in a snifter, whereas Wisconsinites usually mix it into a cocktail. The Manhattan, poured with whiskey in any other state, is a favorite among local brandy drinkers.

Keith Marquardt, manager of Gilbert's liquor store, says he doesn't sell a lot of brandy in his East Side spirit shop, but brandy sales soar in specific areas in the city and state. "Brandy is popular in pockets around the city, like the far South Side and the North Side, but it's most popular Up North," he says.

According to "Up Northerner" Graydon Axtell, a longtime Manhattan consumer from Green Bay who travels frequently, it is more difficult to wet his brandy whistle in other places. "I bring lots of Korbel to Arizona when we come in the winter, but that has to do with the price, not the availability," says Axtell. "When we lived in England we could get brandy, but not Korbel. Also when I ordered a Manhattan, even with directions, it often cost a hefty pound since they made it with Cognac."

Other sources have reported that our state is not the brandy-consuming state we think it is, making Wisconsin's consumption still somewhat of a mystery. According to a 2001 study done by Wines & Vines magazine, California consumes the most brandy, followed by New York and Illinois.

In any case, chances are that if you wander into any supper club north of Sheboygan, you'll see at least one brandy drink per table, right next to the jar of tartar sauce.

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