The brandy old-fashioned was a drink I hadn't recognized as classically Wisconsin until I started serving at a restaurant in Middleton some years ago. The cocktail was ubiquitous in its many forms: sweet, sour, press and soda, standard with bitters, muddled orange and maraschino cherries.
New York Times spirits columnist (and UW-Madison alum) Toby Cecchini has written that "Growing up in Wisconsin, I had an ingrained awareness - and disgust - of the state's insular signature drink, the brandy old-fashioned. It was what people drank before and after football games or ice fishing. I considered it insipidly sweet and townie lowbrow, and I left before I was enough of a drinker to be proven otherwise.
He continues: "On a swing through the southern part of the state on bike last week, however, I've had to confront this cocktail demon over and over. I found it not only exactly all of those things, but hearteningly so. It's a Wisconsin artifact that still holds pride of place in old-time timberline culture, alongside muskie fishing, deer hunting and the Friday-night fish fry at the supper club."
For Thanksgiving, why not push the Wisconsin tribute with a cranberry sauce derived from the components of a brandy old-fashioned?
Cranberry sauce is deceptively easy and extremely versatile. Using a simple syrup (more or less equal parts sugar and water), some cranberries and any number of flavors (citrus zest, liqueurs, crystallized ginger, lemongrass, dried fruit), you can complement your feast with a naturally zingy chutney-like side. It stands on its own but can also be saved for a few weeks and used on leftover sandwiches, with cheese and crackers or, as is the tradition in my partner's family, heaped high on a glory pile of all the fixings in one fat bowl.
Besides, cranberries too are so very Wisconsin, and we have them so readily at our disposal. So here's a recipe with all the things I love - a little citrus, a little dried fruit and a little booze. And if Wisconsin's reputation for having the nation's highest per capita consumption of brandy is true, most of you probably have a little brandy on hand anyway.
'Old-Fashioned' Cranberry Sauce
Yield: 3 cups
- 1 quart fresh cranberries
- 1/2 cup dried cherries
- 1/2 cup brandy
- 1 tablespoon blood orange bitters (available at Willy Street Co-op, or substitute regular bitters)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cherry juice
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
- zest of one orange
Combine cranberries, dried cherries, brandy and bitters in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer until liquid is almost completely evaporated.
Add remaining ingredients and bring to boil, then simmer on low until thickened, about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.