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Laidback Lake Geneva


© by Atramos

Where in the world? Wisconsin USA.

My late great aunt Jessie always carried in her purse, next to her compact and lipstick, a bag of sugar cubes and a bottle of bitters. Sometimes she’d toss in a jar of Maraschino cherries if she thought her bartender (my dad) might be low on them. “Be prepared” was her guiding motto and the Old Fashioned was her daily drink(s).

I did not inherit a love for that cocktail — always associating it with the elderly and the eccentric — but a few glorious autumn days spent in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, had me looking for a bigger purse.

I will credit Stephanie Klett, the exuberant head of Visit Lake Geneva, for introducing me to the Old Fashioned, Wisconsin-style. We were seated beside each other in one of the lovely private dining rooms of the Grand Geneva Resort. I was about to ask for a glass of red wine, when she suggested, in a manner impossible to refuse, that I give the state cocktail a try. Not fashioned, as my great aunt would have expected, with whiskey, but with brandy.  “If it’s a Wisconsin Old Fashioned,” declared Klett, “then it has to be a brandy Old Fashioned.” What’s more… “It has to be Korbel brandy, Angostura bitters and it has to be sweet. At least it does for me: I do extra cherries, and they have to be dark cherries, and 7-Up, straight up.”

Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned I was handed was a pretty sophisticated rendition of the classic, and I nursed it long enough to discover it married mighty well with Grand Geneva chef Nelly Buleje’s lamb. Succulent chops were set on a fantastic salad of fried artichokes and marble potatoes (recipe here, thanks chef), spiked with orange zest. I figured it was that orange – both muddled in my glass and perched on its brim – that made it sing with the salad.

It certainly whet my appetite to learn more about the cocktail. As luck would have it, the Maxwell Mansion in downtown Lake Geneva holds guided classes. Our class took place in neither the 19th-century Apothecary Bar of the inn, nor its 1920s Speakeasy, but in the larger ballroom, pretty in blue and dripping in crystal. In charge of all things beverage at the Maxwell is Rene Ratchek.  Our thirsty group arrived to find she’d laid out the required fixings on the white-napped tables: sugar cubes, oranges and lemons, Angostura bitters, Italian Luxardo cherries, Korbel brandy, a tin of soda and one of 7-Up.  We were each given ice, a cocktail shaker, a strainer, a high ball and patient instructions for building the Wisconsin Old Fashioned. We ‘crafted’ the classic sweet version (all 7-Up) and learned that cutting the drink with soda is called a ‘Sour.’  After many sips of both (for comparison sake) I learned that I lean more sour than sweet. I learned as well, that a brisk hike after a Maxwell Mansion mixology class is a wise thing to do.

Cocktail class at Maxwell Mansion

As luck would have it, the resort town of Lake Geneva is perched on the northeast coast of Geneva Lake (yes, the order matters… and I managed to muddle the names of town and its lake more often than the cocktail). The lake is spring-fed and ancient, created some 10,000 years ago in the wake of a creeping glacier. With a fabulous footpath encircling it that I would end up exploring daily.

For the current pleasure of the lake’s Shore Path we can thank the Native American Potawatomi (Neshnabe) tribe — or at least for its rough beginnings, when the track would have connected every facet of their 19th-century life. Today, it remains (but for puddles) an unrestricted 21-mile public footpath passing birdhouses, gardens and treehouses, stone benches, elegant pagodas, libraries and a goodly number of great estates. The surface of the trail mutates from tidy flagstone to rutted dirt, crushed stone to trodden grass, mosaic tiles to wood siding, each created and maintained (by law) by the owners of the property it passes. To the moneyed owners may belong the lavish homes, grounds, gardens and stark white piers (almost all Geneva Lake’s piers are white); but to the people, the common folk, goes a three-foot wide swath of land along the water’s edge, a path that interrupts the otherwise uninterrupted pleasure of estate and pier.  This common person, at least, was as grateful as she was gobsmacked.


Shore Path home

Fortified with a strong coffee and an excellent pumpkin scone from the Avant Café & Cycle (its slogan: “Great Bikes, Great Coffee, Great Community”) I walked a second section of the path the next day, only this time with a deeper understanding of what I was passing. A boat tour on the 75-foot Walworth II (it replaced the original Walworth marine mail boat from the early 1900s) provided the history lesson — a running narration, both fascinating and funny, of the history, lore and gossip of these lakeside properties.  Most of the estates we passed have deep ties to Chicago’s richest families. These are, or were, the titans of industry and philanthropy (think Schwinn, Selfridge, Wrigley, Wacker…) who had discovered the charms of lake life, taken the newly operational train to Geneva Lake to get away from city life, or (as was the case for many families) were awaiting their city-home’s rebuild after The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Shore path

I managed six of the 21 miles one morning. Which meant my lunch was well earned. I can highly recommend the wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizza at the restaurant Oakfire, close to the Lake Geneva Visitor’s Centre, enjoyed with the last of the summer strawberries sliced into a spinach and Gorgonzola salad. The classic pizza margherita is always, for me, the test of a pizza joint’s mettle and this one, with its chewy-crisp, lightly charred crust, robust tomato sauce, dobs of fior de latte cheese and a scattering of basil leaves, passed big time.


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