While the brandy old fashioned might be Wisconsin’s unofficial state cocktail—it even has its own month of celebration, September—the brandy slush is the state’s year-round party drink. However, to this day it remains somewhat of a local secret, and—unlike Wisconsin’s brandy-spiked old fashioned—is basically unrecognized outside America’s Dairyland.
“I love hearing it called ‘Wisconsin sangria,’ and I say that as a Wisconsinite who owns a canned sangria company,” says Daniel Beres, co-owner of the Lost Whale bar in Milwaukee and Odyssea canned sangria. “It’s now become a thing where you can find Wisconsin old fashioneds on cocktail menus in New York, but you’re not going to find the brandy slush anywhere but Wisconsin.”
The slush itself is made with brandy, sugar, water and usually tea, and then a combination of juice concentrates, usually orange juice and lemonade. Bitters are sometimes tossed in. The whole mixture is then dumped into a freezer-proof container and frozen overnight. “It’s like having your freezer do the work of a frozen drink machine,” Beres says.
To serve, the slush is scooped out and then, like the Wisconsin old fashioned, topped with soda, usually 7-Up or Sprite. Those without a sweet tooth can opt for seltzer water or club soda.
“It’s a pretty forgiving cocktail recipe,” says Brendan Cleary, bar manager of Great Lakes Distillery in Milwaukee. “You kind of add what you want, and then you’re ready to rock and roll… It’s truly a drink for the masses.”
But Cleary is one of the few bartenders with a brandy slush on his menu. Slush has always been more of a home entertaining phenomenon. It likely dates to the late 1960s or ‘70s, when the first mention of brandy slushes showed up in Wisconsin newspapers. Certainly, they couldn’t have existed before 1945, when orange juice concentrate was invented. Plus, frozen lemonade concentrate first emerged only in the 1950s.
“I could see the brandy slush as an evolution of the punch bowls of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” surmises Mary Bergin, author of Small Town Wisconsin and Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook. What’s certain is that nearly every summer in the 1970s and ‘80s, recipe request columns in the food sections of America’s Dairyland newspapers were flooded with pleas for slush recipes. To this day, the frozen concoction is frequently served in backyard barbecues, tailgating at Brewers’ games and even holiday parties.
Whether the slush is a summer cocktail or a holiday cocktail, however, is up for debate. The answer largely depends on your social circle. “To me, I associate the brandy slush with Christmas parties, and in fact, that’s about the only time of year, I drink it,” Bergin says.
Cleary, on the other hand, drinks brandy slushes “beginning of April to the end of October.”
“I know people who drink it around Christmas, but that’s when I bust out the Tom and Jerry,” he divulges. “That said, I’m surprised at how many slushes we sell in winter. This March, we went through 35 gallons in two weeks.”
No matter when you drink it, there are some tricks and tips to making a better slush. The first is to add bitters. Beres opts for a blend of locally-made bitters, but Angostura and orange bitters work, too. Traditionally, the tea used is the sort in either black or green tea bags, but if you use artisanal, loose-leaf tea, it tastes even better, he says.
Instead of brandy, some people use vodka or whiskey, while others add fruit liqueurs. Cleary also suggests substituting the juice concentrates with things like limeade or cranberry juice. “Walking down the frozen concentrate aisle in your grocery store should give you inspiration,” he says. “It’s a very interchangeable recipe. You’re not going to have a bad time with it any way you make it.”
In fact, the first time Beres tasted brandy slush, he was in his 20s and at a friend’s house. The friend made it in an ice cream bucket.
“As a mixologist, I’m used to measuring brix content and using formulas, but my friend made this without even using a measuring cup—he used a Solo cup—and I was mind-blown because it actually worked,” he recalls. “This hand-me-down, handwritten recipe for slush just works so perfectly in a freezer. I wonder if it was created on purpose or if it was a happy accident—a ‘Bob Ross’ type of thing.”
Brandy Slush Recipe
Recipe by Brendan Cleary of Great Lakes Distillery
- 2 1/2 cups sugar
- 6 cups of your favorite tea (make weak)
- 3 cups brandy or bourbon*
- 12 oz. frozen lemonade concentrate
- 12 oz. frozen orange juice concentrate
- Lemon-lime soda, such as 7 Up or Sprite, to top
- 15 dashes bitters
- 1 to 5 oz. cherry liqueur**, optional
*At Great Lakes Distillery, bartender Brendan Cleary likes to use a mix of Brightonwoods Apple Brandy or Kirschwasser for a brandy-based slush or Still & Oak Bourbon when he’s in the mood for whiskey.
**The distillery recommends Good Land Cherry Liqueur.
Last Updated: July 10, 2023