Named for the Portuguese island from which it hails, fine Madeira wine is rich in flavor, history, and tradition. The distinctive, long-lasting fortified wine helped fuel the American Revolution.
It became the tipple of choice in the Colonies, Madeira was used to toast the country’s earliest milestones, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to George Washington’s inauguration and beyond. Today, Madeira is undergoing a renaissance. Celebrate its legacy with The Revolutionary Cocktail.
Tropical and lush, the Portuguese island of Madeira has long been a port of call for ships traversing the Atlantic sea routes. We asked award-winning Madeira wine producer Bartholomew Broadbent to explain. “Madeira is in the trade winds between Europe and America,” he says, “so all the ships stopped there to pick up wine in barrels, which they used as ballast in their holds.”
The pioneering wines were unstable and would spoil when transported, so the vintners learned to fortify the wines with alcohol to act as a preservative before the long ocean trips, which exposed the wine to fluctuating heat as it rolled around in the barrel of the ship.
During the ships’ months-long journey to the New World, the wine was subjected to searing temperatures and sloshing seas that would have rendered most vintages undrinkable. But with Madeira, that wasn’t the case. “Surprisingly, the journey improved the wine,” says Broadbent. The heat transformed Madeira into an ageless, lithe wine expressive of an era remembered for its fierceness and patriotism.
It emerged after its cross-Atlantic journey as a succulent, complex, and rich elixir and quickly became a favorite among American colonists.
Madeira is a singular wine, meaning it is the only wine produced in this unique way. “To this day, the wine is replicated by heating for a minimum of three months.” Sipping the historic libation is a heady experience.
A Revolutionary Spirit
This Fourth of July, raise a glass of Madeira to toast our Founding Fathers and the patriotism that won our freedom in 1776. Legend has it that ordering a glass of Madeira in a public house or bar sent a coded message signifying alignment with the revolutionary sentiments and movement.
History further reveals that our Founding Fathers had an obsessive fascination with Madeira wine. It was a favorite of American Revolutionary figures like Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock. In fact, Hancock loved it so much that he imported a shipload of Madeira and then shorted the British government on the taxes, directly leading to the 1770 Boston Massacre.
“Not only did George Washington drink a pint of Madeira every day for dinner, not only were The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence both toasted by the Founding Fathers with Madeira, not only was a glass of Madeira on the table while Betsy Ross sewed the flag, but it was also the first American tax loophole,” explains Broadbent. “During the era of taxation without representation, King George announced that all shipments had to be taxed if they were shipped from Europe to America and he drew a circle on a map around the region that he declared as Europe. He forgot to extend the circle around Madeira which is European but off the coast of Africa. It became a tax-free zone.” As a result, Madeira holds an important place in the birth and history of the United States. In fact, Portugal was the first country in the world to recognize America’s independence. On June 17, 1790, President George Washington appointed John Marsden Pintard as consul for the island of Madeira, the second diplomatic appointment under the Constitution of the United States. Less than a year later, Portugal decided that the two countries should establish reciprocal embassies. Washington created embassies in Lisbon and Madeira and Portugal established an embassy in our nation’s capital. In doing so, Portugal also signed diplomatic papers on May 13, 1791, and became the first neutral nation to recognize the United States’ sovereignty. Portugal and the United States have maintained a friendly relationship ever since.
The Dynamic Ranges of Madeira
With a glittering topaz-hued core and citrine amber glints illuminated by light, Madeira enchants all of our senses. On the palate, Madeira has a viscous honeyed texture with a tight acerbic throughline of acidity and aromas including pungent lime zest, neroli blossom, dried orange, and lemon peel. Sercial and Verdelho have briny Castelvetrano olive, Meyer lemon, and herbaceous flavors, with white pepper, a bitter herbal amaro liqueur note, and a prominent black-mineral salinity on the finish. Bual and Malmsey are richer with aromas and flavors of Amarena Fabbri cherries, dates, figs, raisins, dried currants, black walnuts, hazelnuts, and a hint of smokiness, finished with a dusting of baking spice and cocoa.
Grape Varietals Determine Style
Sercial is a versatile style with its bone-dry finish with briny herbal, zesty lime, floral, and saline notes.
Verdelho is medium-dry and off-dry with honeyed and aromatic Meyer lemon and tangerine notes.
Boal is medium-rich and medium-sweet with Ginja liqueur, vanilla, graham cracker, and cinnamon notes.
Malmsey is the richest and sweetest style with crème brulée caramel, baking spice, and dried fruit notes.
Quality Levels: Simple to Serious
Non-Vintage Designated Wines
Finest is aged for three years and is perfect for cooking.
Rainwater is light in style and aged for three years.
Reserve is aged for a minimum of five years.
Special Reserve is often a single-variety wine aged for ten or more years.
Extra Reserve is always a single-variety wine aged for fifteen or more years.
Vintage Designated Wines
Colheita is often a single variety wine aged for five or more years.
Frasqueira is aged for twenty years or more and is rare.
Solera is a multi-vintage wine with the oldest vintage listed on the bottle. It is extremely rare and no longer produced by most wineries.
Madeira is Eternal
“One other thing to mention about Madeira from a practical point of view is that once a bottle is opened, it does not go bad,” says Broadbent. “It can be kept open for years. It has a very high acidity that enables it to be paired with the most acidic of desserts and, even the sweet ones. The wine has a dry finish so that it does not clash with any sweetness in foods.”
Sercial, featured in The Revolutionary Cocktail below, pairs well with salty aged cheeses such as Roman Pecorino Romano or aged Manchego, tangy olives, cured meats like prosciutto or salami, and freshly cracked walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. It is equally luscious with flourless walnut torte laced with chocolate, apple pie topped with a slice of sharp cheddar, or a bar of Lindt Les Grandes white chocolate.
Madeira pairs perfectly with seawater-scented oysters on the half shell, grilled sardines, white anchovy laced with garlic and olive oil, and succulent prawns, lobster, and crab. Try dry Madeiras with street tacos, spicy-sweet Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, curries, and sushi for a surprising explosion of complementary flavors. There is a style of Madeira to complement a variety of cuisines but it lends itself best to shared plates, tapas, charcuterie, nibbles, and restrained sweet treats.
“Inspired by the classic Prince of Wales cocktail. Rye whiskey’s spicier notes play well with the nutty, citrusy, dried-fruit tones of a crisp Sercial Madeira. Topped with a good glug of dry sparkling wine, this complex cocktail offers a refreshing finish and a lingering taste of spiced peach crumble, with just the right amount of heat.”—Jayme Marie Henderson, award-winning winemaker and mixologist; co-owner, The Storm Cellar
The Revolutionary Cocktail
- ¾ oz. Denver Distillery Applewood Smoked Rye Whiskey
- ¾ oz. Broadbent 10 Year Sercial Madeira
- ¼ oz. Leopold Bros. Rocky Mountain Peach Whiskey
- dash orange bitters
- splash Gusbourne Brut Reserve or dry sparkling wine
- mint sprig (for garnish)
- viola flowers (for garnish)
- Fill a cocktail glass with crushed ice.
- Add the rye whiskey, Sercial Madeira, peach whiskey, and orange bitters. Stir to incorporate, and add sparkling wine.
- Top with additional crushed ice. Garnish with fresh mint and edible viola flowers.
Ask the Experts: Jayme Marie Henderson of The Storm Cellar and Bartholomew Broadbent of Broadbent Selections
What is the inspiration for The Revolutionary Cocktail?
“Nothing honors our country’s birthday like a patriotic wine symbolizing our quest for freedom. Favored by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin, sipping Madeira quietly signified membership in the Revolution.”—Bartholomew
Any tips for making the drink?
“I chose Sercial Madeira because it is refreshing; it is bone dry, highly acidic, and aromatic. Quality Madeira is challenging to find. Seek out fine-wine stores or online shops. The best Madeira wines are succulent sippers with notes of blossoms, lemons, and spices, and some have elements of roasted hazelnuts and walnuts, orange peel, and caramel toffee.”—Jayme
Why drink Madeira wine?
“Madeira styles range from pale, bone dry, puckery, aromatic wines to lush, amber-hued, raisinated, pleasantly sweet wines. Bright acidity is the throughline, making Madeira incredibly food-friendly. It pairs well with tapas, salumi, nuts, fruit, salty cheeses, and briny oysters. It has a dry finish so it won’t clash with any sweetness in foods. Once opened, Madeira lasts for years.”—Jayme
A collaboration of taste
Second-generation wine trade phenom and twice-awarded Importer of the Year, Bartholomew Broadbent, of Broadbent Selections, reintroduced post-Prohibition Madeira to the USA in 1989 with a complete range of eponymous Madeira wines. Available locally at The Vineyard Wine Shop.
Jayme Marie Henderson is an award-winning mixologist and recipe creator for Holly & Flora, Colorado winemaker, photographer, and co-owner of The Storm Cellar in Hotchkiss. A wine history buff, Jayme snapped to attention when asked to craft a specialty Madeira cocktail to celebrate this nation’s birthday.