Posts Tagged ‘History of Madeira’

“Rich and Rare Wines”: The 19th c. Madeira advertisements of Higham Fife & Co. of Charleston

Southern Patriot, 1830, 12, 09. Charleston, SC. [1]

The firm of Higham, Fife & Co. was founded by Thomas Higham and James Fife in January 1820.[2]  They were first located at 43 East Bay in Charleston, South Carolina where they traded in a variety of goods including Madeira.  By the fall of 1820, Higham & Fife was selling old London Particular, Malmsey, and “very fine Tinto”.[3]  They soon established an agency with the Madeira house of Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, & Scott in 1822, by which time they have moved their store to 75 East Bay.[4]  They advertised as the “only authorized Agents” of Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Scott Madeira wines in South Carolina.[1]  Through the early 1830s, their advertisements often list not only new, old, and “extra old” Madeira but also the undoubtedly more expensive offerings of Malmsey, Sercial, and Tinto.

Charleston Courier Friday, Sep 12, 1834 Charleston, SC. [5]

The Madeira listings begin to change in 1834 with an offer of 4 pipes of an 1827 reserve which was sent on an East Indian voyage. [5]  This wine was noted “for its richness, fine flavor, and full body.”  The following year an even more detailed offering was made. [6]  This was comprised of 1825 “very OLD MADEIRA”, 1824 “rich old SERCIAL”, 1824 “old and finely flavored MALMSEY”, and 1834 “very superior BURGUNDY”.  Given the rarity of these wines, they were sold in small 13 gallon casks.  Note how the Burgundy Madeira, given that it was the current released vintage, was recommended both new and old.

Charleston Courier Thursday, Sep 10, 1835 Charleston, SC. [6]

The firm continued to operate and sell Madeira under Higham, Fife & Co. until the death of James Fife in 1846. [7]  During this period they spent more than two decades at 75 East Bay Street.

75 East Bay St, Charleston, SC.

Today, 75 East Bay is located one building south of the intersection of Tradd Street and East Bay Street.  It is not clear to me when the building was constructed, though Zillow lists it as 1816.  The address has been in use since at least 1790.  It is a two-storey stucco building with a flat roof.  When it was surveyed in 1972, the front door did not have a transom.  On the second floor, there was no central door nor porch. Instead there were three symmetrical, shuttered windows.  In a postcard image from the 1920s, the street level had the appearance of a store-front with large, plate-glass windows.  Barring the plate-glass, I imagine this is similar to the configuration when Higham and Fife were operating.

[1] Southern Patriot Dec 09, 1830 Charleston, SC. Genealogy Bank.
[2] Southern Patriot Friday, Jan 07, 1820 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[3] Charleston Courier Monday, Oct 30, 1820 Charleston, SC Vol: XVIII Issue: 6476 Page: 1. Genealogy Bank.
[4] Charleston Courier Tuesday, Dec 31, 1822 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[5] Charleston Courier Friday, Sep 12, 1834 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[6] Charleston Courier Thursday, Sep 10, 1835 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[7] Southern Patriot Tuesday, Jan 06, 1846 Charleston, SC Vol: LV Issue: 8249 Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.

18th century views of Madeira from the sea

Borda, Jean-Charles. “CARTE DES ILES CANARIES et d’une Partie DES COTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE : ” 1780. [1]

The island of Madeira is accompanied by that of Porto Santo to the north-east and the Desertas to the south-east.  A few days sailing to the south are the seven main islands of the Canaries.  A number of 18th charts include views of the various islands, noting the heading and distance from which they were taken.  I am no cartographer but with the inaccuracies of calculating longitude, published views of the islands no doubt helped ensure you were sailing towards the correct island.

Borda, Jean-Charles. “CARTE DES ILES CANARIES et d’une Partie DES COTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE : ” 1780. [1]

For views of Madeira, it is often the island of Porto Santo that is featured.  I assume the more northern position and route followed, meant it was sighted first.  In Borda’s CARTE DES ILES CANARIES et d’une Partie DES COTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE (1780) the island of Madeira or “Grande Isle” appears towering behind Porto Santo.

Fleurieu, Charles-Pierre Claret de. “A CHART of the COAST of AFRICA From the STREIGHTS of GIBRALTAR to CAPE BLANCO, with MADERA & the CANARY ISLANDS” 1781. [2]

The view in Charles-Pierre Claret de Fleurieu’s A CHART of the COAST of AFRICA From the STREIGHTS of GIBRALTAR to CAPE BLANCO, with MADERA & the CANARY ISLANDS (1781) includes two views of Madeira along with one of Porto Santo.  The details are rounded compared to the jagged, rocky nature of Borda’s view.

Porquet.  “Côtes des isles de Porto Santo et Madère”. 18th century. [3]

My favorite view is the undated 18th century piece by J. Porquet Côtes des isles de Porto Santo et Madère. I do not see a large corpus of work for Porquet, just a few pieces.  This view was made for Le service hydrographique et océanographique de la Marine so I can only imagine there are other maps or views.  I particularly like it because Porquet includes the brumes or mist that can cling to the peaks of Madeira.  It is these heavy clouds which early explorers mistook for “vapours rising from the mouth of hell”.

Porquet.  “Côtes des isles de Porto Santo et Madère”. 18th century. [3]

[1] Borda, Jean-Charles. “CARTE DES ILES CANARIES et d’une Partie DES COTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE : ” 1780. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, CPL GE SH 18 PF110 DIV 2 P 15. URL:

[2] Fleurieu, Charles-Pierre Claret de. “A CHART of the COAST of AFRICA From the STREIGHTS of GIBRALTAR to CAPE BLANCO, with MADERA & the CANARY ISLANDS” 1781. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, CPL GE SH 18 PF110 DIV 2 P 16. URL:

[3] Porquet.  “Côtes des isles de Porto Santo et Madère”. 18th century.  Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE SH 18 PF 120 DIV 1 P 16. URL:

“wee…put to sea, setting our course for the Ilands of Madera”: A few charts of Madeira

Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library. [1]

The exact latitude of Madeira was not settled until 1822 with early accounts reflecting the uncertainty of even reaching it. John Huyghen van Linshoten, the Dutch merchant who published detailed nautical maps which opened up trade to the East Indies, departed Lisbon on April 8, 1583, writing that they “put to sea, setting our course for the Ilands of Madera, and so putting our trust in God, without whose favour and help we can doe nothing, and all our actions are but vaine, we sayled forwards.”[2]  Seven days later he sighted land.

Over the next few centuries ships were still able to reach Madeira in approximately the same time.  Vice Admiral William Fitzwilliam Owen made the same journey in the admittedly quick period of six days.[3]  Despite the ability to find Madeira by ship, the uncertainty of its longitude is exhibited in maps of the period.  This, of course, was caused by the limitations of chronometers. While the rates of the chronometers were measured in order to improve latitude calculations, the changing behavior of the rates, though often recognized, could not be.

Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas. 1753. CARTE REDUITE DES COSTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE. Bibliothèque nationale de France. [4]

In maps of the period, the island of Madeira appears at slightly different locations.  Two maps that highlight this issue include Jacque-Nicolas Bellin’s Carte Reduite des Costes Occidentales d’Afrique (1753) which puts Funchal east of 17° London meridian and William Heather’s A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands (1801) which puts it just west.

Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library. [1]

These limitations in calculating longitude were known so chronometers and sightings were taken at reference locations.  In Europe, the arsenal in Lisbon might be the first reference point in calculating the location of Madeira.  The consul’s garden in Funchal would be a reference in Madeira.  Just a few days sail away, the various islands and peaks of the Canary islands were used.  As a result, longitudinal reference lines often appear running through Madeira down to El  Hierro and Teneriffe.

Plusieurs routes d’Ouessant a Madere. 18th century. Bibliothèque nationale de France. [5]

Depending upon the mapmaker, maps of the period might reference the meridian to Rome, Paris, or London.  I have included a final, unattributed French map from the 18th century.  This detail shows numerous routes taken from the French island of Ushant in the English Channel down to Madeira.  There appear to be slightly different locations for Funchal between the pencil and pen versions.

[1] Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library.  Call #:
G9150 1801 .H43 URL:

[2] Burnell, Arthur Coke.  “The Voyage of John Huygen Van Linschoten to the East Indies. Vol 1”.  The Hakluyt Society.1885. URL:

[3] Owen, William Fitzwilliam. “Table of latitudes and longitudes by chronometer of places in the Atlantic”. 1827. URL:

[4] Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas. 1753. CARTE REDUITE DES COSTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, CPL GE SH 18 PF110 DIV 2 P13/1. URL:

[5] Plusieurs routes d’Ouessant a Madere. 18th century. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE SH 18 PF 118 P 54 D. URL:

“Madeira, the town of Funchal, and the eastern end of the island” 1842

“Madeira, the town of Funchal, and the eastern end of the island”. Porcher, Edwin Augustus. April 1842. National Library of Australia. [1]

Commander Edwin Augustus Porcher (1824-1878) was a naval officer and draughtsmen.[2]  He was a member of the four year voyage of the H.M.S. Fly (1842-1846), commanded by Captain F. P. Blackwood, which made a hydrographic survey of the north-east coast of Australia and other islands.  Throughout this survey, Porcher made a number of watercolor views of places they visited, including the picture of Madeira featured in this post.

The H.M.S. Fly was to make a specific survey of the Great Barrier Reef to discover gaps through which ships could pass.  Without accurate charts, ships would continue to be lost.  Before the survey could begin, the H.M.S Fly was to visit Madeira to verify the rates of her chronometers.[3]

Chronometers were required to calculate longitude.  Chronometers did not keep perfect time so it was important to measure how much time they lost or gained per day.  This rate would then be used for a more accurate calculation.  Madeira was the island of choice for the British Board of Longitude determined the longitude of Madeira in 1822.  Thus the H.M.S. Fly with her tender the Bramble schooner, arrived at Madeira on April 18, 1842 where they spent the next few days calibrating their chronometers.  We do not know of Porcher drank any Madeira, presumably he did.  His journals survive in the National Library of Australia so perhaps someone can take a look!

[1] Porcher, Edwin Augustus. “Madeira, the town of Funchal, and the eastern end of the island”. Porcher, Edwin Augustus. April 1842. PIC Drawer 3531 #R5723. National Library of Australia. URL:

[2] Porcher, Edwin Augustus (-1878). Biographies.  Trove, National Library of Australia. URL:

[3] Jukes, Joseph Beete. “Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H. M. S. Fly, Commanded by Captain F. P. Blackwood in Torres Strait, New Guinea, and Other Islands of the Eastern Archipelago, During the Years 1842 – 46”.   1847. URL:

Madeira in Early America, Part 4

This is the final of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

India Madeira in America

During the Revolutionary War, the British blockaded the major ports of Boston and Charleston. In response the Continental Congress economically boycotted Great Britain which included a ban on the import of Madeira wine. Madeira shipments to America plummeted so 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 nearly half of the entire trade. During the ocean voyages the holds of these ships, with the pipes of Madeira inside of them, could reach temperatures as high as 120F. It was soon found that this India Madeira was favorably improved.

The American India trade began in 1783, when the ship United States of Philadelphia set sail for China but first stopped at Madeira. Pintard boarded the ship within half an hour of it weighing anchor. He invited the Captain, Supercargo, and Surgeon to stay at the house of Searle where he resided. He was also a relative and employed at the house. The director of the house convinced the captain that a better price would be obtained for any Madeira sold in India rather than China. Some two weeks later the United States left Madeira for India with a cargo of 125 pipes of Madeira from John Searle & Co.

The journey of the United States to Pondicherry and back to Philadelphia took an extraordinary long time with many lives lost to scurvy. The majority owner was in financial difficulties as a result, causing the ship and cargo to be auctioned off just to pay the wages. There was then the question of the debt to John Searle & Co. With only one-fifth of the Madeira bill paid the matter was turned over to attorneys, the results of which are unknown. This was not the last issue for the Searles.

Pintard wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784 that the house of John Searle & Co. had “Vast connections in the India trade”. In 1786, 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 soon extensively involved in the India Madeira trade.

The trade with India and China could yield immense profits but the early Madeira trade was not without its risks both for the owners of the ships with their cargoes and the Madeira shippers. Across several documents we learn the fate of the John Jay and General Washington, two ships, under different owners, which both set sail for the Far East in December 1788. The General Washington was to carry a cargo valued between of £10,000 to £12,000 worth of which 1/8 would be Madeira taken on board en route. Both ships loaded up with Madeira from John Searle & Co of which more than 120 casks of various sizes were on the General Washington alone.

Upon arriving in India, the supercargo of the General Washington found that they had “the misfortune to find a great imposition in the quality of our wines which has proved a ruinous affair to the whole Voyage”. There was a series of small and unexceptional vintages from 1785-1788 which appear to have caused the Searle’s to overextend themselves. The General Washington was forced to sell the first portion at “a very low cost” for goods instead of money then the rest were sold off in China. It did not help that the market was glutted with wine. The cargo of the John Jay was mostly Madeira which they were forced to sell off in Madras, Batavia, and Bombay. Both ships wrote letters of protest to support their legal cases against Searle whose failure was announced in American newspapers in 1793 and 1794.

Pintard had left Madeira in 1786 only to return in 1790 as Consul. Experienced in the India Madeira trade under the Searle’s, he created his own business and it is he who shipped four pipes of Knox’s Madeira via India. There were accompanied by two pipes for Washington. This was in fact the second order of India wine being sent to Washington. Both of which arrived within months of each other. This new type of Madeira was no doubt rare. Neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison ever received India wine. Pintard acknowledged this unusual order suggesting “Should you not think proper to take the pipe that is gone to India” then it could be sold to someone else.

The timing of these orders is not by accident for in 1793, France declared war against Great Britain. The British tolerated this American trade because they did not want the Americans to reactivate their alliance with France. The Jay Treaty avoided war between Great Britain and America by recognizing American neutrality in the wars with France. It also allowed formalized American trade to both the West and East Indies. The treaty was passed in 1795, the same year that the new ship Ganges picked up the pipes of Madeira destined for Washington and Knox.

The cost of the London Particular Madeira was the same but it is the freight which made these wines expensive. The freight charges for the first India pipe was £15 compared to the £3 3s direct from Madeira. That made one pipe of India wine £55 compared to £39 13s for London Particular direct. The freight for the second two pipes came to just over £33 each. These pipes of India Madeira cost a staggering £71 each, not regarding duties and drayage.

The freight for Knox’s pipes was £20 each compared to £33 each for Washington. The former were simply “cased” whereas the later were in “dble cases”. In order to prevent the theft of such expensive wine, the pipes or casks themselves were often placed inside a larger wooden case. Washington once had a pipe of Madeira entirely replaced with water so he subsequently cased his wines. For this shipment he was exceedingly cautious as he placed his Madeira inside two increasingly larger cases. Madeira typically shipped in 110 gallon pipes. Knox’s single case raised the volume to approximately 196 gallons each. Washington’s double cases would have occupied over 320 gallons each.

George Washington was willing to pay such extraordinary prices not only because Madeira “one of the most expensive liquors” but that old Madeira “is not to be had upon any terms”. Keenly aware of the scarcity of his India wine he instructed that the duties be paid “for the whole quantity” of the double cases rather “than have them uncased for the purpose of measuring the” present contents. He did not want to risk the wines stolen or adulterated.

The India Madeira for Knox and Washington arrived during the summer of 1796. Knox was notified of the arrival of his wine and that it would be stored until directed otherwise. Seven months later he received another letter explaining that the bill remained unpaid. He was given just five days to pay the outstanding $922, a huge bill given that he made $3000 per year as Secretary of War. We do not know what happened with the wine. Knox had moved back to Maine, where several of children passed away and he had engaged in failing business enterprises.

George Washington wanted his old India Madeira “reserved..for my own use when I get home” as it was “not easy to be replaced”. It was in March of 1797 that George Washington retired from his Presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. According to his Household Account books, that very same month he paid the duties on the two pipes of Madeira as well as the drayage. George Washington’s personal goods were shipped from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon so there is a bill of lading. It is noted in the margin, ”No. 21.22. Two pipes Meda. Wine not mentioned in the No. of Casks-“. George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon where he drank the last glass just months before passing away in 1799. Pintard became disgraced by consular affairs that year and departed the Island. In doing so he closed this early trade in India Madeira with America.

[1] Arrowsmith, Aaron. Composite: Map of India. 1804. David Rumsey Map Collection.  URL:–Map-of-India-?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No#

Madeira in Early America, Part 3

This is the third of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

Descriptions of Madeira

Color is the first aspect one notices of wine in a glass. A desirable color was of such importance that a wine merchant wrote to George Washington in 1760 that his cask of Madeira had a “Color we have endeavored Carefully to please you.” Merchants were not simply picking casks of a particular color, they were coloring the wines. Benjamin Franklin received a case of wine split between “high coloured or Madeira Wine” and “pale Wine”. It was even recommended that cyder be colored for “It will add Greatly to its beauty to have it a little coloured”. Contemporary to James Madison’s orders was Thomas Jefferson’s receipt of a “half Pipe Natural Sherry” and a half pipe “Sherry with Color”. The “Natural Sherry” was without “color or any additives”.

There is but one example of the actual color of Madeira from this period. George Washington received three year old “very choice Particulr Madeira Wine” that was “of a fine Amber Colour”. This description matches an advertisement in New York City for similarly aged Madeira and is distinct from “old pale” Madeira. The implication is that the Amber wine was more colorful. James Madison preferred Madeira that was “rather of the deeper colour”. A later order of Madeira was also described as “of a very deep colour”.

I can find no descriptions of body in the James Madison’s papers. We know that George Washington requested a “rich oily Wine” for one of his Madeira orders. Thomas Jefferson later wrote of “silky Madeira” that was made by “putting a small portion of Malmsey into the dry Madeira.”

Though this mixture was made famous by Jefferson we also find it in a letter from John Drayton written several decades earlier. Drayton was a chief Justice of South Carolina and a wealthy planter who built the Palladian mansion Drayton Hall which still exists on the Ashley River near Charleston. He wrote to his merchant Newton-Gordon in 1771 that he wanted “a couple of pipes of the best madeira for my use, of the finest flavor. Silkey-soft & smooth upon the palate — no ways ruff, sweetish & a little more Malmsey in it than usual.” Drayton regarded the silky character as highly important. His 28 Pound Sterling Madeira is described as “a silky fine flavoured wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” I take that to mean 10 points, hopefully out of 10. That Drayton scored his wine may not be so unusual for he made his fortune from rice which was rated according to the quality of its milling.

I mentioned before how Madison liked to finish aging his Madeira in his garret. The term “mellow” appears in the 1780s to describe the Madeira stored by Americans in “the tops of the houses”. At the same time it was acknowledged in a committee meeting about providing the best investment for returning British East India ships, that Madeira mellowed from the long journey in the hot holds. Despite this early acknowledgement, it was not until after the end of the War of 1812, when it became more common for wine to travel from Madeira to India or China before returning to America, did the term become more frequent. In fact it became synonymous with wine from that trade route.

Up Next: India Madeira in America

[1]  Mallet, Allain Manesson.  Description de l’univers. 1683. URL:

Madeira in Early America, Part 2

This is the second of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746). (1)

How It Was Aged

James Madison was very specific when it came to the handling of Madeira for he desired to achieve a particular flavor. He preferred to age his Madeira in cask for at least five years. When he received an order of Madeira he was sure to let the cask remain stationery for quite some time. This allowed all of the lees or dead yeast cells to settle on the bottom. As an alternative to waiting, many people would fine their wines to remove the lees. This usually involved putting an ingredient into the cask to help bind the lees together so they would settle down on the bottom.

One correspondent noted his wines were frequently spoiled in finning. His preferred method was to pour a pint of milk into the cask. After agitating the cask the top third of the cask would be clear in one week and the bottom would be clear in two weeks. The correspondent drank his wine from the cask for it was “milder than when bottled” and that bottled wine “has a sediment which often fouls the wine.”

Madison did not drink his Madeira straight from cask. After letting the cask age and settle he preferred to bottle the Madeira for further aging. He felt that this was the ideal “mode of compleating its flavour.” He wrote that “wine is said to attain its perfection best by lying 5 or 6 years in Cask, and then going into bottles and kept throughout in warm situations.” Madison found that a particular parcel of Madeira which he had bottled then stored in the garret or attic for 18 months had become “exquisite”.

It is curious as to when people first started storing their Madeira, not in the cellar, but in the attic or garret. I thought, at first, that this tradition might have come from such Madeira loving cities as Charleston. Located on the water, many existing 18th century houses do not have basements due to the high water level. However, the earliest reference I can find comes from Sir Hans Sloane, the famous naturalist whose immense collection formed the backbone of The British Museum. Sir Sloane wrote in 1707, “Madera Wines have this particular to them, different from French Wines, and all others coming hither, that it keeps better in a hot Place, and expos’d to the Sun, than in a cool Cellar”.

Philadelphia was a great Madeira city where houses contained both cellars and garrets. We know from probate inventories that during our period of interest, of houses with cellars, ¼ kept liquor and beer down below. Over the same period, of houses with garrets, 1/8 kept liquor and beer in the garret. Elizabeth Drinker, the wife of wealthy merchant Henry Drinker, noted that one fall day in 1804, her husband and his coachmen “have been busy this Afternoon moving a Cask of wine from the Cellar up 2 pr. Stairs, obliged to nearly empty the cask before they could get it up, and then fill it again.” We know from his 1809 inventory that there were “4 demijohns containing wine” up two pairs of stairs. The wine mentioned would be Madeira stored in his garret and I wonder if that’s where he filled the demijohns.

George Washington always stored his Madeira in the cellar of his home at Mount Vernon. However, for one particular order of India Madeira, near the end of his second term as President, he was advised that his recently arrived pipes of Madeira would improve better if left in the counting house above ground than in any cellar. This was a change for Washington for most of his life he had his Madeira drawn from the pipe on a daily basis. By this point you must now wonder what these wines were like.

Up Next: Descriptions of Madeira

[1] Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746).  Wikicommons. URL:

Madeira in Early America, Part 1

During April of this year I flew to San Francisco to attend the latest annual Madeira tasting organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port).  These tastings draw an international group of Madeira experts whose presence was leveraged by The Stanford Wine Society.  Together with The Rare Wine Company, a series of talks and a tasting was organized for both Wine Society members and Stanford university alumni.  At this event, Mannie Berk delivered an introductory talk on the history of Madeira.  This was followed by three breakout sessions: Collecting Madeira with David Boobbyer (Reid Wines of Bath, England) and Paul Day (Madeira collector and expert), Madeira Blending with Ricardo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito of Madeira), and Madeira in Early America with myself.  These sessions were then followed by a walk around tasting. I will present the core of my talk over the course of four posts this week.

Madeira in Early America

When Henry Knox, the Boston book seller turned Secretary of War under General George Washington, was notified that his four pipes of Madeira wine had arrived into Philadelphia during the summer of 1796, more than one year had elapsed since his order was placed. This was a long time even given the standards of 18th century shipping but these were no ordinary pipes of wine for they arrived from Madeira via India.

Madeira was long the favorite wine in America and more specifically, the only wine of choice amongst the wealthy and powerful. It is true that they ordered bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margux by the dozen but the main expenditure was on top-quality Madeira acquired by the hundreds of gallons. Madeira was available from merchants up and down the coast of America but the choicest parcels could only be secured by ordering straight from the Island.

The period marked by the Revolutionary War, from 1775-1783, and the War of 1812 (1812-1815), both between Great Britain and America, are particularly rich with regards to the history of Madeira. No longer could one count on orders arriving with regularity for blockades, seizures at sea, and embargos were constantly interrupting the supply of Madeira. Though inconvenient, this was not disastrous for with the development of American independence came new trade routes. Thus in the time of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Madeira came not only straight from the Island but also the East Indies, China, the West Indies, and even Brazil.

It is this period that I will focus on today. I will describe how Madeira was ordered, how it was aged, provide descriptions of the wine, and finally look at the introduction of India Madeira in America.


In the 18th century Madeira was sold based on quality with such increasing designations as New York Market, London Market, and London Particular. The top London Particular is what the Founding Fathers would order or as a young Washington wrote, “from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old wine”. These wines were ordered by the pipe, containing 110 gallons each. While these wines were blended, there were also unblended varieties such as Sercial and Malvasia. These were quite rare, expensive, and typically available only by the quarter-cask.

As London Particular was a blend, shippers would listen to their customers’ requests for color, body, and flavor. Thus the best Madeira for one’s taste was obtained by ordering straight from the island. The shippers kept track of their annual orders to cultivate the relationship; making sure to set aside good pipes such as what one firm did for Governor Penn.

Orders could take place in several ways. In some instances the shipping house reached out directly to the customer as when Martha Custis, future wife of George Washington, received a letter stating the house would like to send her a pipe yearly and that she could “depend on being supplied with the best.” In other instances orders were direct as with Madison.

John Marsden Pintard, US Commercial Agent and later Consul at Madeira, tried a patriotic approach. In the 1780s and 1790s, the Barbary pirates sailing out of North Africa, began to capture American vessels and enslave the crews. In 1794, the same year that the American Navy was commissioned to fight this threat, Pintard sent a letter to Knox, Washington, and others. He proposed to ship wines “superior to any House on the Island” and pay $4 per pipe, which cost $250 with freight, towards a fund for the relief of any American captured now or in the future. He also guaranteed that the wine would match the superior quality or he would not charge for it.

With Independence came the development of commercial relationships and diplomatic agreements between countries. American agents in foreign lands often took the initiative. When James Leander Cathcart, US Consul General in Spain, learned of the destruction of the President’s House with the Madeira contained within, during the War of 1812, he immediately had one house send several pipes of “excellent quality” supposing “that your stock was burnt by the Goths”. Cathcart himself was held captive in Algiers for 11 years but we do not know if he benefited from Pintard’s fund.

Up Next: Madeira in Early American, How it was Aged

[1] William Speiden journals: Vol. 1, Mar. 9, 1852-July 2, 1854. Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress.  URL:

Busy with research

Madeira. Funchal from the East. c. 1860. ONB [1]

I apologize for the long silence but I have spent the last few weeks deep in Madeira research.  I hope to return to my regular posting within a week.  Until this enjoy this image of Funchal, Madeira from the east.

[1] Madeira. Funchal from the east. c 1860. ÖNB Map Collection and Globe Museum. URL:

William Coombe’s “The manner of drawing pipes of wine on a sledge” from 1821

February 2, 2018 Leave a comment

“The manner of drawing pipes of wine on a sledge” [1]

The image in this post is one of 27 from William Coombe’s book A history of Madeira (1821).  I selected the image because the pipe is branded “N G M” for Newton, Gordon, and Murdoch.  William Coombe (1741-1823) is a writer famous for his Dr. Syntax series of verse illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson.  This familiarity with satire perhaps explains the soft, somewhat jovial facial expressions common in the Madeira illustrations and certainly explains the accompanying verse.

Coombe first comments that the oxen pulling the sledges are “a very beautiful race of animals” with the additional  benefit that “the meat is excellent”.  Or from his own verse:

And now it is the oxen’s task,
To drag along the liquid cask,
Filled with the juice that aids the treat
When they’re cut up, and turned to meat.

[1] “The manner of drawing pipes on a sledge” from William Coombe’s A history of Madeira (1821). Bayerische Staatsbibliothek URL: