The Old Fashioned in Madison, Wisconsin

Barkeep by | Feb 2016 | Issue #109
Photo by Beth Skogen

“People love Wisconsin and really love Wisconsin beer,” Tami Lax says when asked what she’s learned in the last decade.

Her response likely won’t surprise anyone who’s visited The Old Fashioned during that time. Lax designed the Madison tavern and restaurant that opened in 2005 as a tribute to delicious consumables from the Badger State, from beer to cheese and charcuterie. She wanted to create “a comfortable setting that would remind you of your grandfather’s basement bar [from] the ’60s.”

The concept worked. With reclaimed wood, vintage beer signs and photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society adorning the walls, The Old Fashioned is a cozy and inviting place. Meat and dairy dominate the menu—think burgers and brats, cheese plates and cheese soup. Complementing the comfort food is a wide-ranging beer selection, which includes everything from New Glarus Brewing’s Spotted Cow and Hinterland Brewery’s Packerland Pilsner to Midwestern legacy brands like Pabst and Old Milwaukee. Aside from quality, there’s only one requirement to make it onto the menu.

“The most important thing is that all the beer we purchase is produced in the state of Wisconsin,” general manager Jennifer DeBolt says. “We carry nothing but Wisconsin beers. Next is making sure we have a good mix of breweries from around the state. We still drive to a couple breweries a few hours away to make sure we’re covering a wide portion.”

When The Old Fashioned opened, it only had six tap lines. In the 10 years since, the selection has expanded to 52 taps and 150 bottles. That growth can be attributed to a booming beer scene in Wisconsin and across the country, but it also has to do with the kind of people walking in the door. DeBolt says the dinner crowd includes a lot of beer newbies and tourists, while the beer geeks often show up during happy hour. Those geeks include regulars like Douglas Griffin, an admirer of the local selection. A graphic designer who works just blocks away from The Old Fashioned, Griffin remembers his first visit, shortly after opening day.

“I wandered in on a weekday afternoon and ordered a Brandy Old Fashioned sweet, as one does in Wisconsin,” he says. “It was a comfortable, friendly joint, and I figured I might make it a regular visit. Ten years later, I wonder what I’ve done with my life.”

What makes the spot special, Griffin says, is its steadfast dedication to local beer. “The Old Fashioned has provided [patrons] access to a lot of small breweries from different parts of the state,” Griffin says. “They have beers from Madison- and Milwaukee-area breweries that you would expect, but they also have taps from smaller places that are harder to find,” he adds, referencing O’so Brewing in Plover, Red Eye Brewing in Wausau and Black Husky Brewing in Pembine. “You can basically take a beer tour of Wisconsin just through the taps.”