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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

The Wine of the Elite in Colonial America and the Early Republic

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Madeira! Jefferson toasted with it, Hancock smuggled it, and Washington greeted voters with a healthy glass of it. But how did this beverage, from a tiny island off the coast of Africa, come to be the favored wine of colonial and early America’s elite for over 100 years?

What is Madeira?

At its most basic, Madeira is a fortified wine made by adding brandy to the wine to achieve an alcohol content of around 20%. It is sold as either Dry (Seco), Medium Dry (Meio Seco), Medium Sweet (Mei Doce), or Sweet (Doce), all of which display prominent levels of acidity. This is confusing though since the minimum sugar level of “dry” Madeira is 20 grams/liter, making every single one of these wines technically sweet.

View of the Bay of Funchal on the Island of Madeira
View of the Bay of Funchal on the Island of Madeira

This marked acidity is a direct result of its location: an archipelago, just off the northwestern coast of Morocco, composed of two inhabited islands – Madeira and Porto Santo where the grapes are grown on just over 1200 acres of mountainous volcanic soil, located primarily on the north coast. To irrigate these vineyards, water, captured from the highest parts of the island (around 1800m), passed through 2150 km of man-made canals called “levadas” – many of which date back to the 16th century.

Location of the Island of Madeira
Location of the Island of Madeira

The secret of Madeira is a simple triad: oxygen, time, and heat. While these are normally the enemy of wine, Madeira is unique. Most wines in the world (in fact, all we know of except Madeira) will oxidize when left open, leaving you with a either a flavorless liquid of a wine vinegar. Madeira, on the other had doesn’t change, alter, or shift when left open. Since Madeira oxidizes during the fermentation and production process and so air does not affect the wine.

Prior to the island’s establishment of ‘estufas,’or hot houses where the wines were aged, at the close of the 18th century, the Madeira’s transatlantic voyage—the rocking motion and, more importantly, intense heat—was an integral part of the wine’s development. As interest in Madeira grew, madeira dealers planned longer voyages specifically for this purpose and many consumers began to draw connections between the quality of the wine and the route taken. The novelty of its transatlantic aging process helped establish it as a luxury among prosperous planters and merchants of the Carolina Lowcountry during a time when the upper classes were notorious for their conspicuous consumption.

Madeira in America

Madeira makes its appearance in Virginia history early in the 18th Century. William Byrd II, also known as William Byrd of Westover, writes in his memoir, “The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina”:

“March 22, 1728 - ……Since I mentioned Strong Beer, it will be just to remember Capt. Mead’s generosity to us. His Cart arriv’d here Yesterday with a very handsome Present to the Commissioners of Virginia. It brought them 2 Doz. Quart Bottles of excellent Madeira Wine, 1 Doz. Pottle Bottles of Strong Beer, & half a Dozen Quarts of Jamacia Rum.”

Westover Plantation in Virginia
Westover Plantation in Virginia

When he built Westover Plantation circa 1730, he included a labyrinth of cellars beneath the house for storage of claret and madeira, and then, in his memoir “A Journey to the land of Eden: In the Year 1733” William Westover writes:

“September 13th, 1733. . . . . I sent a runner half a mile out of the road to Col. Drury Stith's, who was so good as to come to us. We cheered our hearts with three bottles of pretty good Madeira, which made Drury talk very hopefully of his copper mine.”

Moving forward into the last half of the 18th Century, we find that New England is also partaking. John Hancock, easily one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, inherited a great shipping empire and fortune from his late uncle. Much like his uncle, John smuggled various goods into the colonies to turn a quick and steady profit – including Madeira. With taxes on the rise after the Seven Years War, Britain sought to tighten its hold on all monies coming in and out of the American ports. With tensions and taxes rising, Hancock was quick to boast about his efforts to evade collectors.

John Hancock

In 1766, when news of the Stamp Act repeal reached Boston on one of Hancock’s ships, Hancock got the news first, and announced the Stamp Act repeal at a selectman’s meeting, to the joy and celebration of all. Sensing an opportunity Hancock arranged for a fireworks celebration on a large stage in front of Hancock House and served Madeira wine to the assembled crowds.

Hancock’s leadership in the opposition to the import duties imposed by England did not go unnoticed by British authorities. In June 1768 an incident occurred, involving a sloop owned by John Hancock, the Liberty. Having just arrived with a cargo of Madeira wine, the Liberty laid anchor at Boston and visited by a customs inspector. Prior to the Townshend Acts, the usual practice had been that inspectors asked the Captain how much cargo was liable for customs duty. The Captain would declare only part of the cargo and the rest unloaded duty free. However, on this day, the Customs Inspector was having none of that and demanded the Captain pay duty on the full cargo.

Example of an 18th Century Sloop Similar to the Liberty
Example of an 18th Century Sloop Similar to the Liberty

Liberty’s captain seized the inspector and locked him in the ship’s brig while the entire cargo was unloaded. The next morning the captain went to the customs house and declared only a small amount of the wine, but word was out about what happened on board, and the Liberty ordered seized. An armed British ship was sent to escort the Liberty from Boston Harbor. The Crown charged Hancock for smuggling Madeira wine. In mid-August, the Crown declared Liberty forfeit, and Customs officials seized her. Additionally, the customs court fined Hancock £9,000 for smuggling. Hancock because of his wealth and connections, was able to hire future President John Adams as his counsel. Four months after the Crown filed charges, the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence. In an ironic turn of events, the Liberty, which the Crown did not return to Hancock, became the HMS Liberty in the Royal Navy, and patrolled off the coast of Rhode Island for customs violators.

George Washington had an affinity for Madeira. The first order for Madeira in George Washington's correspondence dates to the spring of 1759, when he asked his London agent, Robert Cary & Company to "Order from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old Wine, and let it be Securd from Pilferers." A pipe held 126 gallons of wine. Three years later, in the spring of 1763, Washington notified Cary & Company that he would be writing directly to the island firm of John and James Searles for a pipe of Madeira wine, and that they, in turn, would be contacting Cary for payment. In his letter to the Searles, Washington specifically asked for "a rich oily Wine," and asked that, "if the present vintage shoud not be good, to have it of the last, or in short of any other which you can recommend."

George Washington at Mount Vernon.  Note the Glasses of Madeira on the Table.
George Washington at Mount Vernon. Note the Glasses of Madeira on the Table.

Washington's orders for Madeira continued throughout his lifetime. He bought a second pipe from John Searles in 1764, even though he admitted that he still had not yet tapped into the first one. Two years later, Washington switched suppliers and requested similar or larger quantities from the firm of Scott, Pringle, Cheape & Company. In 1768, Washington asked that another 150 gallons be sent. In the last orders placed, prior to the American Revolution, Washington sent flour from Mount Vernon directly to Madeira instead of having his English agent pay the island firms and received wine and other products from the islands in exchange.

The Washington household continued to buy significant quantities of Madeira both after the war and during the Washington’s presidency. The Presidential household in Philadelphia received two pipes of Madeira in August of 1793 paying for them in January of the following year. Another two pipes of the same wine arrived in May of 1794 and an equal amount again in July and November of the same year.

When Washington made a trip to tour western lands in the fall of 1784, he carried along in his "equipage Trunk and the Canteens" three types of alcoholic beverages, two of which were Portuguese wines - Madeira and Port. A visiting Polish nobleman noted that when there were house guests at Mount Vernon, Washington "loves to chat after dinner with a glass of Madeira in his hand." Washington's step-granddaughter Nelly later recalled that, "After dinner Washington "drank 3 glasses of madeira." During the last year of Washington's life, an English visitor at Mount Vernon recorded Washington serving both Port and Madeira during the fruit and nut course at dinner.

In 1774, John Adams reported to his wife, Abigail, that after tedious days of contentious debate, delegates to the First Continental Congress would sit for hours drinking Madeira, Claret, and Burgundy. We can see evidence of this from the following entry in his diary:

Dined with Mr. Chew, Chief Justice of the Province, with all the Gentlemen from Virginia, Dr. Shippen, Mr. Tilghman and many others. We were shewn into a grand Entry and Stair Case, and into an elegant and most magnificent Chamber, until Dinner. About four O Clock We were called down to Dinner. The Furniture was all rich. -- Turttle, and every other Thing -- Flummery, Jellies, Sweetmeats of 20 sorts, Trifles, Whip'd Syllabubbs, floating Islands, fools -- &c., and then a Desert of Fruits, Raisins, Almonds, Pears, Peaches -- Wines most excellent and admirable. I drank Madeira at a great Rate and found no Inconvenience in it.” — John Adams Diary 1774. Thursday, September 22.

Portrait of John Adams
John Adams

Although Thomas Jefferson, following his posting to France, found unfortified wines more to his taste than the stronger wines of the Island, prior to his French years he had been a regular consumer of Madeira and used it in July 1792 to toast the decision to locate the US Capitol in Washington, DC

At a banquet marking the occasion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, there were four toasts: the first toast, to the United States and Jefferson, was drunk with Madeira; the second, to Spain and Charles IV, with Malaga and Canary; the third, to France and Napoleon, with pink and white Champagne, and the last, to the 'eternal happiness of Louisiana, with a wine of each drinker's choosing. That decision to toast France with French wine, Spain with Spanish wine, and the USA with Madeira, tells you that not only did we know that it was our wine, but the rest of the world knew it, too.

James Madison was devoted to Madeira since his youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He ordered the finest Madeira, to his specifications, and then aged them in casks for no less than five years followed by further aging in bottle in a warm place, such as his attic at Montpelier. In early 1809, Madison bought a barrel of seven-year-old Malmsey from the U.S. Consul to Madeira James Leander Cathcart. As President, Madison stocked the White House cellar with the finest vintages. He drank Bordeaux and other French wines, but he remained devoted to Madeira as a central part of his life.

Towards the end of the War of 1812, British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, as well as the President’s House, then occupied by President James Madison. The afternoon of August 24, 1814, the President’s table had been set for the afternoon meal, with a cooler of Madison’s best Madeira.

British Troops Burning the White House During the War of 1812
British Troops Burning the White House During the War of 1812

After setting fire to the Capitol (the British troops) marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House or President’s House as it was known then. The last guards of the President’s House fled just minutes before the British arrived. The British entered the house without resistance to find the President’s dining room table set for a meal with a ‘large store of super-excellent Madeira and other costly wines’ cooling on ice.

It was evening and the men were surely tired and hungry. One officer found that “never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods, than the crystal goblet of Madeira and water.” After being satisfied by the wines the British forces set the President’s House on fire. One account suggests that “about $80,000 worth of [wine]” was destroyed, although this estimate is undoubtedly rather high.

Between consumption and the burning of the wine cellar only one demijohn of ‘pure wine’ is known to have survived that night. News of the loss reached US Council Cathcart, who shipped wine to James Madison. Upon returning to Washington, DC, Cathcart brought a fresh supply of wine “upon a supposition that your stock was burn’t by the Goths.”

Drinking Madeira

Today, there are four main historical styles of Madeira you may find are:

  • Sercial: the driest Madeira, tart and nervy, with very taut acidity; pale to amber color.

  • Verdelho [vair-day-yoe]: a whisper of sweetness offset with bracing acidity; golden-hued; richer, fuller-bodied than Sercial.

  • Bual [boo-ahl]: sweeter and richer still; a favorite during the occupation of India by the British because it was less heavy than their favored port.

  • Malmsey: the sweetest and richest of Madeira, from super-ripe Malvasia grapes.

One other style that you will find is Rainwater. This style of wine is lighter than, and similar in sweetness to Verdelho, but made from Negra Mole grapes instead. While this is one of the most popular styles of Madeira in the modern United States, it is a later style (mid-19th Century and after) since the large-scale planting of the Negra Mole grapes on the Island of Madeira occurred following the mid-19th Century Phylloxera Blight that ravaged the existing vineyards.

Vintage Madeiras from the 18th Century
Vintage Madeiras from the 18th Century

Store all Madeira wines upright, away from direct sunlight and just below room temperature. Vintage Madeira's will mellow out during the first two years after bottling and they have the fascinating ability to remain in excellent condition for many years, even for centuries. Madeira should be decanted to remove any deposit that has built up over the years and should be open well in advance before drinking. A general rule is to open the wine one day for every 10 years that the wine has been in bottle.

When you drink Madeira wine, be sure to serve it at room temperature. Even Sercial should not be ice cold. The colder the wine is, the less aroma and flavor you will experience. Putting ice or water into a Madeira wine, as some people do, is out of the question. The glassware is important, and a typical port glass used to enjoy all varieties of Madeira. Once the decanter or the bottle of Madeira wine is on the table, it is an old-time custom to pass it clockwise, just like with port. Don't just let it sit there in front of you!

VintageMadeira Being Served in Port Glasses
Vintage Madeira Being Served in Port Glasses

Although used regularly for toasting in colonial and early America, Madeira was traditionally a food wine. The taste was very dry, and the wine consumed throughout the meal. The popularity of sweeter Madeira, especially in cooking, is a modern phenomenon. If you delight in recreating the experiences of pre-revolutionary and early America, pass around some drier Madeira at your next get together.


Adams, John. John Adams Diary 22, 4 September - 9 November 1774. 22 September 1774. Massachusetts Historical Society. Electronic Edition. 13 November 2019. <>.

Byrd, William and Kevin, Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture Berland. The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Byrd, William. The Westover Manuscripts: Written From 1728 to 1736, and Now First Published. Petersburg, VA: Edmund and Julian C. Ruffin, 1841. Book.

Gore, David. The House That Byrd Built. n.d. 14 November 2019. <>.

Hancock, David. Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.

Llewellyn, Jennifer and Steve Thompson. The Seizure of the Liberty. 21 January 2015. Alpha History. 13 November 2019. <>.

Lockwood, Thornton Calef. John Hancock. 2008. 13 November 2019. <>.

Thompson, Mary V. Madeira. n.d. Electronic. 13 November 2019. <>.


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