Bearing witness to History

There was the toast to Independence and then there were military meetings and great political decisions. Madeira Wine bore witness to the birth of United States of America.


The setting is New York City, the year 1776. A tavern is crowded with British soldiers occupying almost every table. Their drink of choice…. Madeira Wine. On that very same day, and almost at the same time, far beyond the woods of Pennsylvania, at George Washington’s camp, the beverage is the same.

These are scenes from the Turn TV series, produced by AMC, which portrays the lives of a group of spies for Washington, the Culper ring, fighting for the independence of the United States of America. The story is based on real facts and the reference to Madeira Wine is frequent in the series as a way of portraying the period. It comes to show just how much of a reach this product already had back in the day.

In this piece of historical fiction there is constant reference to the wine produced on the island in newspapers, magazines and even music. This is helped by the longevity of this fortified wine and the geographical positioning of Madeira in the Atlantic routes.

Madeira is exported to the United States ever since the early 18th century. The earliest references to this product being on the other side of the Atlantic date back to the 1730s, back when independence was far away from anyone’s minds.

Its popularity grew throughout the century. It was the favourite wine of nobles, specially, English ones, in the American colonies. Given that it was everywhere, it comes as no surprise that it bore witness to some of the greatest moments in History.

The story that after signing the Declaration of the Independence, the Founding Fathers toasted with a glass of Madeira is one of the most cited anecdotes in which Madeira Wine is connected to the United States of America (USA). The Founding Fathers were consumers. But the wine survived through the USA’s war of independence (1775-1783) and was at the table in the nation’s early stages. In 1789, the first North American President, George Washington, also had a glass of Madeira at his inauguration. The wine was constantly there during the 19th century and not even the American Civil War deterred its import.

Still today it is enjoyed. Until September 2016, this export surpassed 15.5 million euros. The USA remain one of the largest markets to which Madeira Wine is exported.

This relationship is deeply rooted in American culture. An example of this is the set of over 130 bottles in display since October at the Liberty Hall Museum, in the town of Elizabeth, northeast US. It most likely is the oldest collection of Madeira Wine in the country, according to museum director Bill Schroh.

The bottles were actually unearthed in that structure, built back in 1772 by the first governor of New Jersey, Wiliam Livingston. Several presidents such as George Washington, Herbert Hoover, or Gerald Ford were there at some point and even the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, lived there as a student.

The bottles of Madeira, and a few of port, were found in 1995 but efforts towards their identification started only two years after that. ‘Many of the bottles were in bad shape, some with no label, making dating them very difficult, almost impossible. The oldest ones we could verify were Lennox Madeira, imported by tradesman and lawyer Robert Lenox in 1796 and bottle din 1798’, says the director of the museum.

The Liberty Hall Museum’s bottles are one example among many of how Madeira is connected by wine to the United States. This search had a diplomatic consequence. Madeira was the first place in Portugal to have a North American consulate, open in 1791. This was meant to ease the whole process of exporting.