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Independence Day Celebrations: Madeira and the Founding Fathers

As the US celebrates Independence Day, Decanter takes an in-depth look at Madeira – the tipple used to toast the Declaration of Independence among other revolutionary dates of note.

While beer, hard seltzers and fresh summer sippers from US wineries tend to be the drink of choice for backyard barbecues and firework shows to celebrate America’s Independence on July 4th, Madeira was the drink of choice that the signers sipped after boldly placing their signatures on the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Madeira was the drink for toasting many of the country’s major revolutionary milestones.

Madeira’s legacy is both rich and timeless, much like the fortified wine itself. Situated as part of an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, the island of Madeira may be closer in proximity to Africa than Portugal, but it’s been a Portuguese province since 1425. Madeira functioned as a strategic port for ships traveling to America, Africa, and the Indies from the 15th-18th centuries, thanks to its stellar location along the Gulf Stream and significant trade winds.

Conveniently, the wine casks (called ‘pipes’) were used as a ballast in the hot and humid hold of cargo ships en route to their ports of call. Prior to shipping, the Madeira wines were fortified with brandy in an effort to preserve them on the extended journey. However, the constant exposure to excessive heat, humidity, and the rolling and tossing of ships on the transatlantic voyage essentially ‘cooked’ the fortified wine, unexpectedly converting it into complex, concentrated renditions now sporting amber colours and nutty, caramelised flavours. As time, heat and distance continued to oxidise the wines of Madeira, trends emerged and the ships that went the longest distances bore the most prestigious names branded on the bottles. In fact, for a time, Madeira was required to be shipped around the globe twice before being sold. The new wine was a hit with the colonies, who consumed the majority of Madeira’s exports, not only because of the novel flavour profile but also because it wasn’t taxed.

According to Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO of Broadbent Selections, ‘Madeira received a big boost in 1765 when King George III ratified his Parliament’s Stamp Act which effectively caused taxation without representation. The King inadvertently failed to include the European territory of Madeira.’ Broadbent adds, ‘Essentially, Madeira became the very first American tax loophole because it was excluded from Europe’s Taxation Without Representation region despite being part of a European country.’ Not insignificantly, Portugal, and specifically Madeira, was the very first place in the world to officially recognise and accept America’s independence.

A selection of Madeira styles. Credit: Broadbent Selections

It wasn’t long before famed signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock was hassled about paying duties for a shipment of Madeira on his aptly-named ship, Liberty, in June 1768. The dispute involved accusations of evading taxes, smuggling suspicions, a search without warrant, and ultimately a suit was filed against Hancock by British customs officials. Ironically, Hancock’s young attorney was John Adams, the man who would eventually serve as the second president of the United States. The suit was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

Madeira was not only the preferred drink of colonists, but also began to symbolise the struggle for freedom. Willingly signing their names to a document that would simultaneously declare the advent of a new nation and treason to England, the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence chose Madeira to toast the occasion in 1776, at the insistence of Thomas Jefferson.

Next up, just two days before the signing of the Constitution of the United States, a historic bar tab dated September 15, 1787, from Philadelphia’s City Tavern, reveals that 55 patrons, mostly attendees of the Constitutional Convention (including George Washington), ordered 54 bottles of Madeira, along with 60 bottles of claret, 8 bottles of whisky, 8 bottles of cider, 12 bottles of beer and seven bowls of ‘punch’. Clearly the pressure was high, the days were hot, and the drinks were flowing. Two days later the newly forged Constitution of the United States would be ratified and signed on September 17, 1787, by 39 delegates. Again, Madeira toasted the historical event.

George Washington was inaugurated as the first president on April 30, 1789, in New York, the nation’s first capital. The spectacular occasion was commemorated with glasses of Madeira. In fact, Washington was a personal fan of Madeira, known to have consumed a pint daily with dinner and reportedly to help with his infamous tooth pain.

Madeira was ubiquitous in Colonial America. Other famous patriots that were said to have enjoyed a glass of Madeira on momentous occasions include Betsy Ross, who was rumoured to have had a side table with a glass of Madeira on it while sewing the nation’s first flag. During the War of 1812 Francis Scott Key watched the American flag fly triumphantly through the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Inspired that the flag was still flying by ‘dawn’s early light’, he later wrote the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, purportedly over a glass of Madeira, which became the nation’s official anthem in 1931. The Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States – yep, you guessed it. Madeira was there to mark that historical purchase of 828,000 square miles in 1803. Actually, it debuted as a series of toasts to mark the occasion, Champagne was raised to honour France, Malaga sipped for Spain, and Madeira, ‘America’s wine’ to honour the US.

So, what happened to Madeira? Once the hottest selling drink in America, and now a novelty. Prohibition. It was not until 1988 that Broadbent championed Madeira and brought significant importation and Madeira education back to the shores of the United States. Today, glorious selections of Madeira can be found with specialty importers like Broadbent Selections and The Rare Wine Co. Incidentally, Madeira is not just a patriotic ‘holiday’ wine. With so many styles from decidedly dry to sweet, all with remarkable acidity, Madeira can be a phenomenal food wine. And the best part? It lasts literally forever because it’s already oxidised.

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