Madeira: The Founding Fathers’ drink of choice

The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., boasts the oldest Madeira collection in the country, with a bottle dating back to 1790. / Photo by Carol Hallowell

The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., boasts the oldest Madeira collection in the country. / Photo for AFR by Carol Hallowell

Thomas Jefferson was the country’s first oenophile, with a deep passion for all things French. So when you imagine him celebrating his 270th birthday – which arrives April 13 – you might think Champagne.

You’d be wrong.

Like all the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson was partial to a Portuguese fortified wine called Madeira. A thick, often sweet, caramel-colored wine that can taste of smoky apricots, toffee, vanilla or even cooked berries, Madeira was there at dances, parties and birthdays. It was poured into eggnog. It was even raised to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Madeira was the most popular wine throughout the British Empire, including the American colonies, for 400 years. Though today it occupies a minor spot on most wine lists – if it appears at all – Jefferson and his cronies drank the stuff like water.

“All of our Founding Fathers loved Madeira,” says Michael Scaffidi, wine director at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C.

But here’s the insanely groovy part: You can still drink Madeira that was made when the Founding Fathers lived. The Jefferson boasts the oldest collection in the country, with a bottle dating back to 1790 (its bottles from 1780 recently sold out). You can get a glass of the 1790 vintage for $440. (We’re using the word “glass” figuratively. There’s only an ounce and a half of Madeira in it.) The 1795, thought to be one of the most extraordinary vintages ever made, will set you back even more, $600 for the 1 1/2-ounce pour. Scaffidi thinks they’re a good value.

“Think about what’s going on in 1790,” he says. “That’s our first presidential address.”

You might think: “Eww. Why would I want to drink a wine that’s been lying around for 223 years?” But Madeira is the only wine in the world that never goes bad. The addition of spirits stops fermentation and a cooking process adds stability. The best Madeiras are cooked in the sun and slowly aged in glass barrels stowed in attics, sometimes for 50 years.

“I always think of it as the Incredible Hulk,” Scaffidi says. “It’s indestructible.”

In the 18th century, the finished wine would be put into casks and loaded onto ships, sent around the world to mellow in the light and air of the sea. It would collect a stamp in each port. Scaffidi says that Jefferson, who as secretary of state for George Washington stocked the presidential wine cellar, would reject barrels with a deficit of stamps.

Ancient Madeira can be found here and there around the United States. Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Fla., has around 300 varieties of the wine, including many from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., also has an extensive collection.

If you can’t find an old Madeira – or can’t afford one – to celebrate the third president’s birthday, there’s always apple cider, another early American favorite.

The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., has a bottle of Madeira dating back to 1790. / Photo for AFR by Caroll Hallowell

The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., has a bottle of Madeira dating back to 1790. / Photo for AFR by Carol Hallowell

Madeira Timeline

Following is a short history of what was going on in the world when some of the Madeiras at The Jefferson Hotel were made, courtesy of Michael Scaffidi, wine director (for a more personal take on the great wine, check out Scaffidi’s video at the end):

Fernando Henriques Araújo, Sercial 1790

January 9: George Washington gives the first State of the Union Address

Borges, Sercial 1810

April 27: Beethoven composes “Fur Elise”

Borges, Verdelho 1800

John Adams becomes the first president of the United States to live in the Executive Mansion, later renamed the White House.

D’ Oliveira, Boal 1908

September 27: Henry Ford produces his first Model T.

D’Oliveira, Verdelho 1912

April 14: The RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg in the northern Atlantic and sinks, losing 1,517 lives.

Leacock’s, Bual 1934

May 23:  Police officers ambush bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, killing them both and propelling them into legend.

Barbeito, Bual 1960

January 2: U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy announces his candidacy for president.

D’Oliveira, Verdelho 1973

April 3: The first handheld cellular phone call is made in New York City.

Blandy’s, Terrantez 1976

April 1: Apple Computer Co. is formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Cossart Gordon, Terrantez 1977

August 16: Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, dies at his Memphis home, Graceland, at age 42.

–AFR video by Carol Hallowell

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4 Responses to Madeira: The Founding Fathers’ drink of choice

  1. Profile photo of Denise Clifton
    Denise Clifton April 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    Love this story. I think the Portuguese impact on food and wine around the world is fascinating — a legacy of Portugal’s explorers and empire — and it’s so interesting to see the colonial American references.

    And I had no idea that the Herbfarm (near me in Seattle) had an extensive ancient Madeira collection. Thanks for the tip!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal April 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      Denise, I completely agree. When I lived in Hawaii we had Portuguese malasadas (sp?) and my friend Sonny Silva (yes, Portuguese) used to make his famous Portuguese potato bread every Christmas. In India, my husband’s cousins live in “a Portuguese building,” meaning that most of the residents are Catholic. And yes, they’re Indian, but they have names like Silva and Fernandez. How cool is that??!! Still waiting to find the Portuguese influence on the food. I was briefly in Goa, the main center of India’s Portuguese culture, but nothing struck me as expressly Portuguese.
      And finally, yes, The Herbfarm (where I’m dying to go.) On New Year’s Eve 2012 they were offering their 1795. No idea whether they have any of it left….

      • josef granwehr September 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

        Portugal had colonies in India for a long time, since Vasco da Gama, called Goa, Damao and Dio. They spoked and speak Portuguese, and if you know somebody indian with a portuguese name, probably from that area.

  2. Profile photo of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb April 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    I absolutely loved this Michele; I knew of the British enjoyment of Madeira but never that it was so ingrained in American culture.

    I visited Funchal in Madeira once, lovely city, and enjoyed quite a few varieties along with Madeira cake. Ever tried that?

    Next time I got to The Jefferson I’m going to have a glass of the Bonnie And Clyde.

    (On a side note on the Portuguese influence of Indian food, there is a legend that the etymology term “vindaloo” had Portuguese origins, coming from the Portuguese words for wine and garlic, or the melding of the Portuguese word for wine and the Indian word for potato. Might be just an old wives tale though)