Good Eats

George Washington's Drink of Choice

By Jed PortmanFebruary 22, 2013

How would the father of our country commemorate an occasion? With a drink, no doubt. But while Washington distilled whiskey on his property, punches and wines were far more common at eighteenth-century get-togethers.

Particularly popular with Washington and his peers was Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the Portuguese island of the same name. The Founding Fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with glasses of Madeira, and Washington kept his personal stores stocked with hundreds of gallons of the stuff. Washington’s step-granddaughter, in a letter shared by researchers at his Mt. Vernon estate, reported that he enjoyed three glasses after dinner each night.

The inhabitants of Southern port cities such as Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans were equally enamored with the rich libation, which they drank before, during, and after their meals. “Prior to the 1820s or ’30s,” says Madeira importer and historian Mannie Berk, “if you were wealthy, the greater part of your wine cellar was Madeira.” It was the ultimate indicator of class and good taste.

In the mid-1800s, however, a number of factors contributed to Madeira’s decline. An influx of French wines arrived in the United States just before aggressive blights hit the island of Madeira and the Civil War impoverished the thirsty port cities of the South. Madeira all but disappeared from American homes, with some low-quality varieties resurfacing as cooking wines over the next century and a half.

Today, the Connecticut-based Berk is working to restore Madeira to respectability. “As far as taste is concerned,” he says, “there really is nothing else like Madeira. It has a strong acidity that gives it focus, lift, freshness, and balance. You don’t see that in port or in any other fortified wines.” To give Madeira its trademark flavor, winemakers age it in heated rooms that mimic conditions on the ships that once conveyed it around the world. Cooked by the heat, Madeira is a hardy wine that can survive for years after being opened and still tastes bright and full-flavored after centuries sealed in storage.

Berk’s Rare Wine Co. is a prominent source for vintage Madeiras, including bottles that date back to the days of George Washington. But if you don’t want to shell out thousands of dollars for a two-hundred-year-old bottle of wine, consider the company’s Historic Series. Each of the blends in the series showcases a major style of Madeira, and is named for the American port city where that style was most popular. Charleston, for example, takes dry-as-a-bone Sercial, while Savannah, a city where palates were just a hair sweeter, is assigned to the mild Verdelho. New York and Boston lend their names to the sweetest wines in the series.

At less than $50 a bottle for all but a couple of limited-edition releases, the wines of the Historic Series are affordable introductions to high-quality Madeira. Just don’t forget to raise your glass to George Washington before you take your first sip.

Buy Rare Wine Co.’s Historic Series Madeiras on their website or at many well-stocked liquor stores.