“What do you want for your birthday?” I ask my dad with a now assured anything from scratch attitude. “A cake?”
“Brandy old fashioned. Sweet.”
My dad’s suggestion, or wish, is not unknown to me, but the recipe, ingredients, proportions, history, in fact, require research. “You want that instead of a cake?”
“Don’t need a cake.”
“Okay.” Still, I am as curious about whether or not the recipe is an unrecognized metaphor for my father or simply an admission of his avoidance of an overindulgence we don’t share.
“Brandy over whiskey. If you order an old-fashioned in Wisconsin, it is likely that this is what your bartender will serve you. It's so popular, in fact, that it's thought of as the state's unofficial cocktail.”
So what’s the difference between brandy and whiskey?
“Distilled fruit vs. distilled grain.”
How can I connect this distinction to what distinguishes my father? Dad obsesses over an impeccable wax sheen on apple skin. He purchases at least one apple tree a year and gazes over the rise of his field envisioning grape vines as he digs the apple tree roots their new home. Fruit is an appropriate distilled medium for his birthday drink. Ruddy ripples, instead of flames, to dream on.
“How do you drink a brandy old-fashioned like a true Wisconsinite? Korbel brandy is almost always poured in the state, so that's a good start. Korbel Brandy's introduction to Wisconsinites during the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.”
A debut at a fair would be perfect for something my father loves. I Google “Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition”. Yet, despite note of Hershey adding chocolate to his caramel business, brandy is not mentioned on the list of edibles and potables debuted at the fair.
I Google “Korbel”. The website touts its founder as a revolutionary. My knowing smile acknowledges Dad’s sipping of that particular Kool aid, revolution, in moderation. The history blurb details a trip west for its brave founder, another possible party theme I had considered. We spend endless hours watching Rifleman, Laramie, and spaghetti westerns. In fact, cowboy posters continue to hang in the barn club house of his youth. It’s true I had not heard of the drink before even though I lived in Wisconsin all my life. But, I know my father in quiet reflection over the rim of a glass.
“Dad, did you know Brandy was developed after champagne. Doesn’t look too hard to make. I read, “Steps to Make it: 1. Place the sugar cube at the bottom of an old-fashioned glass, 2. Saturate the cube with a splash of soda and bitters, add orange slices and cherries, 3. Muddle these ingredients, 4. Add the brandy and stir well. 5. Add a single, large piece of ice, such as an ice ball.”
He pauses. “I know I’d have one every night, if I kept the stuff around.”
Confidence fading as ice in the glass, “Well, we could go out. Just order one.”
“Yeah. Let’s do that.”
“Do you want anyone else to come out to dinner with us? Or, just me.”
“Just you is fine.”
At the restaurant table I inhale chill finger to chin to nostril. I embrace the idea of the compacted sweet covered with bubbled air and bitters. My years living with my father have illustrated the slow seep of preserved candies coaxed to lips through childhood stories, also known as, lemon-lime soda.
“Dad, did you know Brandy is from distilled fruit not grain like whiskey?” I interrupt.
“Really? I had no idea.” Origin less important than the years lived after, he sips slowly. Each slice of steak knife is a story about namesakes and childhood presents. “$5 from Grandma. That was a fortune. Loved staring at Lincoln from that money holder. Do you want presents for your birthday or Christmas? You can’t have both.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s stiff. Where’s my cherry?” He probes the very bottom of a transparent glass with a straw.
I put down my pen. I allow him to add another splash of soda to sweeten a memory I had already heard over dinner on one of the other 364 days of his seventieth year. I did not write the recipe. I am not the storyteller, but I am the writer staring at the horizon, sunrise glimmer of brandy. Alcohol is a cleanser and a preservative through which the other ingredients slip in and out and between teeth and tongue.
I wait while he waits for the ice to melt and soften the bitterness to the taste he recognizes.
Dad sucks air and flavor through the straw. “It’s a good old man’s drink. I'm ready to go, when you are."
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