Home > History of Wine, Image > “The last bottle had been broached”: George Washington’s Efforts to Secure Choice Old Madeira During the Revolutionary War and Afterwards

“The last bottle had been broached”: George Washington’s Efforts to Secure Choice Old Madeira During the Revolutionary War and Afterwards


Yesterday, on November 17, 2016, the George Washington Special Reserve Madeira was debuted at George Washington’s home Mount Vernon.  This collaborative project between Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Company, and Mount Vernon, celebrates George Washington’s life long love for the best Madeira.  The Madeira itself was blended by Ricardo Freitas, Vinhos Barbeito, based on research I conducted.  The Madeira recreates the rich, old flavor that George Washington sought.

To give context to the Madeira three talks were delivered.  Mannie Berk spoke about the general history of Madeira, Mount Vernon Historian Mary Thompson detailed accounts of George Washington’s table which of course involved bottles and glasses of Madeira, and I spoke about the difficulties George Washington experienced in obtaining choice old Madeira.

Since Mannie Berk’s purchase of a large stock of ancient Madeira in 1987 and the subsequent formation of The Rare Wine Co. in 1989, he has sought to not only re-introduce Madeira to a wide audience but also to uniquely educate on how Madeira was intertwined amongst daily lives.  Mannie Berk has done this to particular effect through The Historic Series of Madeira.  With projects that highlight a single city or person, he continues to foster new research into what was for centuries America’s favorite drink.  I am proud to participate in these projects and hope you enjoy my talk below.

During George Washington’s second term as President, he wrote from Philadelphia to his farm manager at Mount Vernon to stop giving out his Madeira to visitors. Martha Washington echoed the concern that there would be no Madeira left for them to drink upon their return home. She wrote to her niece “not give out another Bottle out of the vault”.

Madeira was always expensive but over the previous five years it became even more so. In 1789, the United States government, under the recently ratified Constitution, assumed all state debt. To pay the debt national duties were created including those on wine. Madeira bore the highest rate which continued to increase from 18 cents per gallon, to 35 cents, and finally 56 cents per gallon for the top-quality London Particular that George Washington favored. When compounded with the scarcity of aged stocks it influenced George Washington to save his old Madeira “unless it be on very extraordinary occasions.” He was no stranger to the difficulties of procuring fine old Madeira given that he frequently ran out of it during the Revolutionary War.

George Washington wrote very little about his impressions of the Madeira he drank. We do know of his life-long appreciation of Madeira largely through correspondence, receipts, and ledger entries. It is clear that there were difficulties in obtaining fine Madeira during and after the war years. Despite the effort required, he was determined to drink the best Madeira until his death. I will talk about these efforts from his introduction to fine Madeira, the challenges he faced during the Revolutionary War and afterwards which led to his unique orders of “India wine”.

Introduction to Fine Madeira

Thomas Jefferson placed his first known order for a pipe of Madeira at the age of 32. The overlooked Madeira connoisseur James Madison was 49 when he first placed his. George Washington was the young age of 27.

This is not to say these are the first instances of these men purchasing or even drinking Madeira, rather it is their first known orders by the pipe. Madeira was typically the most expensive wine available during this period. To buy it by the 110 gallon pipe required a significant expenditure.

Bill for George Washington's first pipe of Madeira from Lamar, Hill, & Lamar. March 28, 1760. LOC.

Bill for George Washington’s first pipe of Madeira from Lamar, Hill, & Lamar. March 28, 1760. LOC.

George Washington did not mix his words when he placed his first order in 1759. He wanted “from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old wine”. George Washington’s order was sent to a London firm who used the Madeira house Lamar, Hill, & Lamar to fulfill the order. In America, this house was represented by Henry Hill who was located in Philadelphia. Henry Hill was one of the most prominent Madeira merchants who catered to the wealthiest and most powerful families. This included Martha Custis.

The Custis family used the same London firm and before Martha Custis married George Washington, her Madeira came from the Hills. She was young, very wealthy, and desirable as a client. Before the House was aware of her marriage, they wrote how they would like to send her a pipe yearly and that she could “depend on being supplied with the best.”

Martha Custis placed her last order for a pipe of Madeira in 1758 when she was courted by George Washington. It seems likely then that this is when George Washington developed a taste for “the best” Madeira for he began to order from the Hills.

There is indeed some evidence to suggest that Martha Custis introduced George Washington to fine Madeira. Or rather, there is a lack of evidence that George Washington was purchasing it as a single man. In reviewing his expenses from the 1750s we can see he purchased such items as silver buckles, gloves, and milk. He certainly played billiards, lost money at cards, won some money at cards, and even gave money to his mother. While there are entries for supping and dinning I can only find a handful of entries for the purchase of alcohol. This includes “punch and cards” and a hogshead of beer. There are no pipes or even bottles of old Madeira.

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment. Charles Wilson Peale. 1772. Wikipedia.

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment. Charles Wilson Peale. 1772. Wikipedia.

That is, perhaps, not surprising for George Washington began his military service in 1753 and only resigned his commission in 1758. It is likely that he drank Madeira while he was involved in the French & Indian War as commander of the Virginia companies under the British.

Merchants followed the army to establish trading posts at the new forts. These merchants or “suttlers” were required to sign a contract in order to conduct trade. To prevent price-gouging a schedule was established. This set price limits for such drinks as West India Rum, Shrub Punch, and of course Madeira.

There was, however, an additional requirement that all suttlers provide dinner, supers and liquors to the officers of the corps to which they belong to. George Washington most likely drank a basic quality Madeira.

After George Washington resigned his commission and married Martha Custis, he began to regularly order Madeira for Mount Vernon. He ordered his pipes taking care to request the best vintages and pay the bills using a bank or merchant. George Washington, no doubt excited by the completion of his gristmill near Mount Vernon, once ordered “four Pipes of best Madeira Wine” during the summer 1773. Unlike his prior orders he wanted to pay for this one with 80 barrels of flour. Henry Hill explained that “it’s not usual to ship fine wine but for bills of Excha[nge]”. The solution was that Washington could have any grade of Madeira except for their best, which was the London Particular he had requested. These were to be the last pipes of Madeira George Washington ordered before the Revolutionary War.

The Challenges in Securing Old Madeira

In June 1774, the British closed the major ports of Boston and Charlestown with a blockade. George Washington’s four pipes of Madeira appear to have made it safely to Virginia that very same month. The First Continental Congress soon met to address the blockade and other issues. It was decided to economically boycott Great Britain through a non-importation declaration. The import of Madeira wine was banned as well.

Any Madeira that did make it to the colonies in American ships was liable to be seized and sold off. One ship that arrived in December 1774, just two weeks after the importation declaration was enacted, was carrying 23 pipes of Madeira. All of the Madeira was sold off with the owners compensated for their expense but all of the profit went towards the relief of the poor in Boston who were suffering from the blockade.

Down in Charleston, the merchant Levinus Clarkson safely landed his pipes of Madeira on January 2, 1775. He found one pipe “very Indifferent” and threatening to turn to Vinegar. Several others were “so thick”. Perhaps discouraged by his pipes he wrote his partner in New York that “the Determinations of Congress have Effectually Blasted my Prospects for the Insuing Year.” Most colonists largely obeyed the order to not import Madeira. The volume of Madeira shipped from the island to the colonies plummeted.

We know for a fact that George Washington drank Madeira during the Revolutionary War. At Mount Vernon he purchased Madeira by the pipe. But during the war, when he was at headquarters, he typically purchased it by the bottle. Within a week of establishing his headquarters in Cambridge, MA, arrangements were made for his first Madeira order in July 1775. His Madeira quickly became one of his largest expenses.

At first there were enough stocks of Madeira in America that George Washington could purchase it as it was consumed. His first orders came from the nearby port city of Salem, Massachusetts. The orders were for quarter casks of “choice” Madeira. Instead of receiving the casks of Madeira, his was fined then bottled three weeks later to provide wine that was clear and ready to drink. These bottles were then placed in hampers and transported to headquarters in carts. He was sent at least 10 dozen bottles at a time, roughly providing two bottles per day.

In advance of the New York Campaign, Washington’s Madeira eventually came from New York. The first small parcel of three dozen was bought the very same month that the Continental Congress opened all American ports to international trade in April 1776. Madeira did not come flooding in but it was still available.

Receipt for 163 bottles of "old Madeira wine". Oct 18, 1776. LOC.

Receipt for 163 bottles of “old Madeira wine”. Oct 18, 1776. LOC.

Levinus Clarkson managed to hold onto his business down in Charleston. One month after he sold 163 bottles of “old Madeira wine” to George Washington, he was appointed as Continental Agent in the state of South Carolina. Congress told him he was “in short do all things in this department that you think will serve the Continent and promote the service of the Navy”. Perhaps this included supplying Madeira.

George Washington had used his troops to cut of land access for the British so they could only be supplied with Madeira by ship. The Continental Navy had just been formed and the capture of British ships for profit was approved. For a time this was the only way to obtain or “import” new pipes of Madeira so prize ships were much discussed. Disposal of the prize cargo initially required the approval of George Washington.

One ship wrecked in a gale on its way to Boston. It was carrying 120 pipes of Madeira and all but two pipes were saved. It was assumed they were intended for the British. George Washington immediately decided the Madeira should be sent to headquarters in Cambridge to be sold off for public use. Perhaps he did not take any for he was consistently stocked at the time. It was soon determined the Madeira belonged to a gentleman of Philadelphia.

A few weeks later a sloop laden with supplies met with bad weather en route to Boston becoming stranded on a beach. In the cargo was three quarter-casks of Madeira belonging to General William Howe, Commander in Chief of the British Army in America, who oversaw the siege of Boston. It is not clear who drank them.

Madeira wine was amongst the cargo auction off of the prize ship Reynolds. August 06, 1776.

Madeira wine was amongst the cargo auctioned off of the prize ship Reynolds. August 06, 1776.

In the June 1776, the Portuguese monarchy aligned with the British and forbade any American colonial ships from calling on Portuguese ports. With the colonists’ direct Madeira supply cut off, it became imperative to capture any ships carrying Madeira. There were other prize ships but it wasn’t until years later, when George Washington was repeatedly out of Madeira that he was sent the best pipe out of a captured cargo of 300 pipes which were intended for “our Enemies officers in New York”.

George Washington’s last supply of Madeira before the brutal winter at Valley Forge came in summer of 1777. By the following spring Washington had been unsupplied for some time and the stocks of wine in the area were depleted. The Commissary of Stores was directed to send wine up to Washington’s headquarters. The next month he was sent just 12 bottles of Madeira. Eventually that fall another pipe was procured. Unfortunately, it was mistaken as destined for the commissary so most of it was drunk before it came to Washington. He was able to drink a small portion and was appreciative none the less.

George Washington ran out of wine again by the spring of 1779. By that fall he was “destitute” of supplies including wine. This was not lost upon James Madison when he became Commissioner of the Board of Admiralty. During May 1780, he wrote a letter to the Committee of Congress, which was sent to investigate the army at George Washington’s headquarters, about the lack of wine.

“As for our illustrious general, if it were in our choice, for him the rich Madeira should flow in copious streams;—and as for the gallant officers, and faithful brave soldiers under his command, if we had the powers of conversion, we would turn water into wine, the camp should overflow with that exhilarating and invigorating liquor.”

George Washington was soon sent Madeira which he found “very fine”. This was a turning point in that he was now in general supply of Madeira for the rest of his life. After peace negotiations began with the British, George Washington returned to his habit of personally managing his Madeira orders. John Searle wrote from Madeira that he was “inform’d that choice Old Madeira Wines are exceedingly Scarce & Dear in the United States”. Thus he took the liberty of sending him “the choicest Old Madeira Wine of a most excellent Quality and fine Amber Colour”. George Washington immediately ordered another two pipes.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission. John Trumbull. 1817. Wikipedia.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission. John Trumbull. 1817. Wikipedia.

There were several celebrations during George Washington’s final year as Commander in 1783. For the celebration of the news of peace, a dinner and ball was held. There was some 32 gallons of Madeira wine served with some 43 glasses broken during the ball. At a dinner shortly before George Washington resigned his commission, 120 diners drank some 135 bottles. There were 60 wine glasses broken. On the eve of his resignation, a celebratory super was held. There were 98 bottles of wine and no Madeira was served. Curiously, no glasses were broken either.

India Wine

There were different grades of Madeira and George Washington largely ordered the best and most expensive. He was rather blunt often requesting “your very choicest (old) Madeira wine”. What he was sent was the highest grade known as London Particular. To ensure the quality of his wine the pipes were sent directly to him from Madeira.

On two occasions President George Washington received Madeira which was first sent to India. The first order was set in motion during his second term, when John Pintard, US Consul in Madeira, wrote George Washington that he had shipped him one pipe of “very choice old wine” by way of India. The Madeira destined to India was priced at £40 Sterling which made it more expensive than the “choice old wine” at £38 sent at the same time direct from the Island. George Washington accepted another order for two more pipes of “India wine” before this first pipe ever arrived.

That George Washington was sent “India wine” has to do with the changing nature of the Madeira trade as a result of the Revolutionary War. During this period, when Madeira shipments to America plummeted, the Madeira houses sought to make up this deficit in part by expanding trade to India and China. The share of Madeira sent to this eastern market rose to 40%.

George Washington's Madeira went to Calcutta. View of Calcutta from Ft William. Samuel Davis. 1783.

George Washington’s Madeira went to Calcutta. View of Calcutta from Ft William. Samuel Davis. 1783.

The first American ship to visit India was the United States of Philadelphia. When she stopped at Madeira, it was John Pintard who issued the visa for the ship to depart. Amongst the cargo were pipes of Madeira from the house of John Searle & Co. Both the Pintard’s and the Searle’s imported wine in Philadelphia and maintained a connection in Madeira. When the British East India Company looked for a Madeira supplier for their colonies in India, the house of John Searle & Co won the very first bid. The Searle’s were extensively involved in the India Madeira trade by the time George Washington’s pipes were sent.

Advertisement for Madeira by James Searle. May 03, 1770. Pennsylvania Journal.

Advertisement for Madeira by James Searle. May 03, 1770. Pennsylvania Journal.

The freight charges for the first India pipe was £15 compared to the £3 3s direct from Madeira. That made the one pipe of India wine £55 compared to £39 13s. The freight for the second two pipes came to just over £33 each. Thus the last two pipes cost a staggering £71 each not including duties and drayage. To be clear George Washington was paying for top quality Madeira and not the mid-level “India market” developed for the east.

We can hazard a guess as to why George Washington was willing to pay such extraordinary prices. During his second term, George Washington wrote that not only was Madeira “one of the most expensive liquors” but that old Madeira “is not to be had upon any terms”. He wanted his small stock of old Madeira “reserved..for my own use when I get home” as it was “not easy to be replaced”. He was looking for Madeira to drink during retirement.

Detail from the Bill of Lading detailing two pipes of Madeira wine amongst George Washington's possessions shipped from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. March 20, 1797. LOC.

Detail from the Bill of Lading detailing two pipes of Madeira wine amongst George Washington’s possessions shipped from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. March 20, 1797. LOC.

George Washington had kept the two India pipes at the shipping firm’s counting house under the advisement that they would improve better there than in a cellar. He settled his bill with the firm the month he left office. His personal goods were sent by ship to Mount Vernon. In the bill of lading it is noted in the margin that two pipes of Madeira wine were included. George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon.

We know he drank this wine during his last years of life and that there were still difficulties in securing old Madeira. In June 1799 he wrote his “stock was getting low”. By that fall it was noted “his stock is now so nearly exhausted that he must get a supply from one quarter or another in very short time”. After much correspondence and confusion, a new shipment eventually left Madeira for Philadelphia from which it was shipped down to the Potomac. We know he received this wine for amongst his very last correspondence we learn the wine arrived just two days before George Washington passed away.

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