One winter evening earlier this year, in a nondescript small town off a nondescript highway in northern Wisconsin, a male relative of mine suffered a mild heart attack while getting a fresh beer from his fridge. On his way to the hospital, the ambulance carrying him hit a deer. Another ambulance had to take everybody the rest of the way. Everybody turned out fine, except, I suppose, the deer.
Every aspect of that story screams Wisconsin. The deer. The heart attack. But mostly, the beer.
This week, 24/7 Wall St. released its list of the top 20 “drunkest” cities in America. Ten of the top 20 drunkest cities in America (and all of the top four) are in the Badger State.
Wisconsin’s prominence on this list might seem puzzling to a person who isn’t familiar with Wisconsin or its alcohol-centric culture. Maybe people drink a lot there because it’s cold, but a lot of other nearby states also have shit weather without using alcohol to cope. It could be the state’s German heritage, but German descendants live all over the U.S. Wisconsin has a lot of college towns, but so does California. What makes Wisconsin different? What’s wrong with it?
I posed the question to a random assortment of people who have lived or currently live in Wisconsin—Why so drunk?—and it seems there isn’t a single reason that drinking is so central to the culture there; there are several reasons.
I was born in Wisconsin and lived the first 18 years of my life there. My home state has produced a stunning array of historical weirdos, from zealot Joseph McCarthy to murderer Ed Gein to artist Georgia O’Keeffe to my brother, who for Mother’s Day gave our mom a coffee mug with his own (stern) face on the side of it with the word FAMILY inscrutably emblazoned over the corner. The tallest point in Wisconsin is a little over 1,000 feet above sea level, but the glacier that carved the great plains skipped a triangle of land in the southwestern part of the state, so driving from Madison toward LaCrosse takes a person through an almost eerie undersea landscape. We’ve got a whole lot of Lake Superior lakefront, in case anybody feels like swimming in water almost too cold to drink; Lake Michigan lakefront, if anyone prefers the excitement of swimming in water that may contain pee that drifted north from Chicago; and 11,000 freshwater lakes in case anybody want to smell like algae and maybe get swimmer’s itch. The town where I grew up has recently seen an influx of Amish and Mennonites snapping up cheap land and farming it with horses, so I guess you could say it’s de-gentrifying in parts.
It’s politically weird, too. The Republican Party was born in Wisconsin. The John Birch Society is based there. But also, my Norwegian great-grandfather used to have socialists over to his farm after church, to sit around and complain about “the cap’tilists,” like a modern DSA meeting except with fewer wrist tattoos. Anybody who has seen Wayne’s World can tell you that the city of Milwaukee has elected three socialist mayors. Speaker of the House and Ayn Rand fanboy Paul Ryan is from Wisconsin, but so is dyed-in-the-wool liberal Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Wisconsin contains multitudes. And, in a state with such a wide range of ideology, drinking is a neutral activity. “[Drinking] is open to everyone who is interested, requires a limited skill set, can be done any time, anywhere, is socially encouraged, and is a pastime we’ve internalized and embraced as part of our state identity,” says Rachel, a teacher in her mid-thirties who lives in Burlington.
Wisconsin was one of the last states to raise the drinking age to 21 (in 1986), and that was only because the federal government threatened to withhold highway funding. My parents met at a bar in 1978, when my mother was 18. Underage people are still allowed to drink in bars in Wisconsin, provided they are accompanied by a parent, guardian, or spouse who is of-age and their of-age companion does the ordering. (That means that somebody could order their 5-year-old a beer, theoretically, but during my summers waitressing I never saw anybody try to pull anything crazy like that.) Hunting and fishing culture contributes as well; while it’s probably ill-advised to get hammered before deer opener, the entire point of ice fishing is sitting in a small, uninsulated room that isn’t in your house and getting drunk while staring at a hole in the ice and listening to the Packer game on an FM radio.
The state’s tradition of beer brewing means that alcohol is cheap, too, as Cullen, an Eau Claire resident in his late thirties, points out. “Mixed drinks are $2.50 and beer is $1.50. Those are the real prices,” he says. A “fancy” beer might set a person back $4. You can get half-drunk for the price of a single movie ticket.
Weather and ennui certainly factor into Wisconsin’s drinking habit. Six months of the year are reliably terrible, weather-wise, driving people indoors to socialize. Breanna, a bartender, says that people feeling economic pressure often drown their sorrows in her bar. And Tyrell, who has since moved to Minneapolis, notes, “Wisconsin is boring as hell. There’s nothing to do except get drunk and play the lottery.”
There’s also the Midwestern stoicism factor. “It’s the deep pervasive culture of immigrant Scandinavians (we don’t talk with people, we talk about people and eat/drink our feelings) and stoic German farmers (don’t talk about the feeling—there is only one, right?—pissed),” writes Sarah, who has since moved to Colorado. “This results in kids and families not knowing how to reconcile, say ‘I love you,’ share real feelings, ask real questions, etc.”
Drinking is often the center of family celebrations, too. My extended family’s Christmas Eve party, traditionally held at my grandparents’ house down the road and around the corner from where I grew up, would go from wholesome fun to extremely lit party right around when it started getting dark in the mid-afternoon. My uncles would get in tipsy, borderline nonsensical debates about things like: Who is the Paul Wellstone of the Minnesota Twins outfield? My grandmother would sing the Volga Boatmen song in an opera falsetto, a demonstration of how she used to sing that way to get her six sons to settle down, because all of her sons hated that singing. Unsupervised, my cousins and I would do things like mix all of the condiments into a tall glass of water and dare my brother to drink it, and he would. We’d play extremely competitive games of Balderdash that escalated to shouting. We’d find glitter, and take it out of the cupboards. We’d play hide-and-seek, but with screaming. We’d put on our winter boots and run around in the snow, chased by our dogs, their breath rising as steam as they bounded past us. Some of my best childhood memories are from nights all of the adults were Christmas drunk.
Wisconsin’s drinking culture isn’t necessarily accompanied by the sort of aggression one might associate with a bar district. One Eau Claire resident, who has worked at a busy bar downtown in the second drunkest city in America for the last six years, says he’s never seen a fight. “We have a drinking culture,” he says. “But it’s not vomiting wackos and aggressive creeps. It’s just what we do.”
Bryan, a resident of Grantsburg, adds, “Wisconsin is the only state that can consume excess amounts of alcohol and love their neighbor at the same time. Most states would start a war.”
Wisconsinites love each other when they’re drunk, and Wisconsin performatively loves how drunk it is. The stores in airports in Madison and Milwaukee display hooded sweatshirts and beer koozies that read “DRINK WISCONSINBLY.” DRINK WISCONSINBLY is to Wisconsin what I (heart) NY is to New York. But because it’s so proud of itself, I’d take the entire drunkest cities list with a grain of salt. Wisconsin lacks the requisite shame that often accompanies intoxication and thus would lean in on any survey that would allow them to self-report their drunkenness.
“We’re just not embarrassed about it,” says Noah, who grew up in Madison. “Minnesotans have a deep sense of shame about things in general.”
So is it possible that Wisconsin isn’t as dramatically drunker than its neighbors as advertised? Sure. But as I sit here typing this on a laptop balanced on a pillow shaped like my home state, I know deep down in my heart that the bars back home are brimming with people Wisconsinbly drunk on $2 beers. And that neither the deer nor the drunks will know better than to stay off the roads.