Madeira: the American connection
You may have heard of madeira cake and you might even have been to Madeira on holiday, but what do a few islands off the coast of Africa have to do with America? Well, quite a lot actually. Did you know that it was George Washington’s favourite drink? Did you know that it was used to toast the American Independence in 1776? You could say that madeira is as American as hamburgers and Dolly Parton.
Infinite Ideas recently went to the Big Fortified Tasting in London and we were lucky enough to try some very exceptional madeira (one glass was enough for Catherine as she might not have made it back to Oxford!). The history of this timeless drink is incredibly rich and embedded in many cultures, not just that of Portugal and the surrounding areas.
So, madeira and America, eh? We certainly didn’t see that one coming. Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “it is a wine which I do not drink, being entirely too powerful”, well that power was enough to spark a drinking revolution in the USA, which it is fair to say, has reverberated around the world. We’ve all been for happy hour cocktails, some of us may have even hosted our very own cocktail parties at home, well madeira parties paved the way for this popular social occasion.
In his new book, Madeira: the islands and their wines, Richard Mayson writes about the origin of madeira parties:
Until the end of the nineteenth century, madeira was the most prestigious wine in north america. collectors held madeira parties to share their knowledge and show off their wines. These were common among high society, whose members lived on the eastern seaboard in cities from Boston to New Orleans including Philadelphia, Baltimore, savannah and charleston. Madeira parties generally took place in the late afternoon with eight to a dozen men sharing and discussing perhaps half a dozen wines over a period of two or three hours. One of the most lavish madeira parties was hosted in Baltimore by David Thomas in 1899 when twenty-six madeiras ranging in date from 1805 to 1854 were served in one sitting. This is recorded in detail by Emanuel Berk in a self-published pamphlet entitled A Century Past, A Celebration of the Madeira Party in America. The madeira party died out, along with the popularity of madeira wine, as the cocktail took over in the early years of the twentieth century. It lives on in name only, with a range of wines produced by Barbeito for the US market named after the cities where the parties took place. However, since 2012 a group of international madeira aficionados have been assembling annually in New York to taste and discuss twenty rare and venerable wines, some of them from old American collections.