A Revolution Partly Fueled By Madeira Wine

The quote “in wine there is romance, in beer there is freedom and in water, there is only bacteria” is reputed to come from Benjamin Franklin. While one can smile at his wisdom, the fact is that wine, Madeira to be exact, was the favorite of many of our Founding Fathers.

Madeira wine was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was the preferred beverage of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. The day before he died, Washington asked Martha about his last order for Madeira. Adams often referenced the fortified wine in his letters to his wife Abigail while a member of the Continental Congress and then later, the Constitution Convention. Franklin mentioned his preferences for Madeira several times in his biography.

Our first Chief Justice John Marshall drank it and encouraged his fellow justices to imbibe the wine from Portuguese island. And, it has a distinctly Navy connection in that when the U.S.S. Constitution was launched in 1797, a bottle of Madeira was used to christen the new ship.

For those of you who don’t know, Madeira wines come from an archipelago about 320 miles west of Morocco and 250 north of the Canary Islands. Today, as it was in the 18th Century, the islands are a Portuguese colony.

Madeira is considered a fortified wine. Initially sugar was used but by the mid-18th Century, brandy was the preferred ingredient. The wine filled casks are put on racks called estufugas and allowed to be warned by the sun. Why? Early Madeiran winemakers) found quite by accident that the heating of the wine in the wooden casks during the weeks needed to sail from the Madeira Islands to destinations all over the world, the taste improved. In fact, unlike other non-fortified wines, Madeira can stay in a cask or bottle for years, even centuries and not lose its taste.

So back to the American Revolution. In 1766, when John Hancock learned the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, he put two pipes of Madeira in front of his place of business for Bostonians to sample. A pipe is a wooden cask containing 112 gallons of the wine.

However, two years later, Hancock’s ship Liberty was seized by the British after it unloaded 25 pipes of Madeira or 3,150 gallons. The merchant ship was taken because Hancock had not paid the new and higher customs duties. Bostonians rioted at the sudden shortage of one of their favorite beverages.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington purchased the wine for his own consumption as well as his officers. In the early days of the war, he purchased enough pipes so he could share over 1,900 bottles with his staff.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, different “flavors” of Madeira emerged to cater to demand from the Thirteen Colonies who were consuming 95% of the island’s production. Madeiran vintners responded by “tailoring” their product to the tastes of New Yorkers who preferred sweeter red wines versus the drier flavor desired by those living in South Carolina.

Despite being allied with England during the American Revolution, the Portuguese government encouraged the exportation of Madeira to the Thirteen Colonies. However, after the war ended, the tax shoe was now on the other foot. Both the Continental Congress and then later, the Federal government, under the new Constitution saw alcoholic beverages as a source of tax revenue.

Those taxes, plus opening the U.S. market to French and Spanish wines, which prior to the American Revolution, were expensive due to British import duties, eroded Madeira’s market share. By the early 19th Century, Madeira had lost its position as the favorite wine in the new United States.

Image is a receipt given to General Henry Knox for his purchase of pipes of Madeira.A

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