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Fortify Your Cocktails with Madeira

Bottles of Madeira.
Madeira ranges in flavor from sweet to spicy, and it's known for its well-balanced acidity. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Sebastian Wallroth.

Late last year, we asked a few well-respected bartenders around the globe for their thoughts on what 2016 might bring in our cocktail world. Kyle Reutner, a Honolulu barkeep, predicted Madeira would “get some shine.”

Just before the New Year, I sat at Hodges Bend cocktail bar in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sipping Madeira for the first time. Their bartender, Jamie Jennings, echoed the Madeira prediction. Intrigued, I spoke with him and, later, bartender Jade Brown-Godfrey of Wassail bar in NYC, about their thoughts on why Madeira is becoming a popular ingredient and why they love it.

For those of you not totally familiar with this fortified wine, a little history. Hailing from the Portuguese island of Madeira, the wine is produced using six varieties of grapes from different regions — some planted in below-sea-level locations, others on steep mountains in the North, which are affected by cooler weather and winds from the Atlantic. The diverse terroir of the mountainous island, along with its mild subtropical climate, makes for grapes that deliver wines described as rich, dry, off-dry, full-bodied, medium-bodied, light-bodied tropical, exotic, round, spicy, and sweet. In other words, something for everyone.

One trademark to all Madeira wines is their acidity, which comes from the mineral, iron, and phosphor-rich soil. “I love that it’s sweet,” says Brown-Godfrey, “but it has nice acidity that not all booze has. It’s well balanced.” The balance of acidity and sweetness comes from a heating process unique to Madeira. The process exposes the wine to oxidation, which was discovered after wine traveled the globe by ship without being opened, until it was returned to the shipper and he discovered it was much better than before.

In the States, Madeira has been a favored beverage since before Independence. Later, both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s inauguration were toasted to with the drink. With historical weight behind it, Madeira lends itself to bartenders who like to garnish their drinks with a story.

The wine is noted for often having wood, vanilla, bread, coffee, honey, date, yeast, mushroom, nut, and spice flavors. When asked to generally describe the taste, both Brown-Godfrey and Jennings hit on those and others. “It’s high-acid, nutty and funky, with hints of maple syrup,” says Brown-Godfrey, before she paused to try some. “It’s also briny, kind of like the sea.” Jennings mentioned citric apple notes, almond skin, a roundness from residual sugar and the addition of alcohol, and chocolate.

Both bartenders are excited about using Madeira in their cocktails this year. At Wassail, their cocktail of the same name uses Madeira, pear brandy, mulled hard cider made with coriander and anis. “Because it’s well-balanced, it’s easy to mix with,” says Brown-Godfrey. At Hodges Bend, the Machico Cocktail includes a Sercial Madeira — the driest variety — sweet vermouth, orange bitters, aromatic bitters, and a lemon twist. “I’ve also been making The Queen of the Night,” says Jennings, “which is a drink from 1891. The original recipe uses Madeira, Port, Cognac, gum syrup, and rose liqueur. We can’t get rose liqueur in Oklahoma, so I use rose flower water and make it more Madeira-heavy.”

Jennings thinks one reason for Madeira’s increasing popularity is its relatively low alcohol content. “Low alcohol cocktails, or shims, are popular right now, just like session beers. You can drink more than two and not feel that your night’s over.”

Beyond that, the price point for Madeira is right. “There’s no other wine product you can get with the same kind of vintages at the price of Madeira,” says Brown-Godfrey. And, because it can take years to go bad, if you do purchase a pricier bottle for your bar, you can work with it for a long time. As a recommendation for bottles to try, both Jennings and Brown-Godfrey agree you can’t go wrong with Rare Wine Company’s Historic series, or Blandy’s if you’re looking for something a bit older and more high-end.

From its unique history to interesting production techniques, its flavor profile to price point, acidity to sweetness, Madeira is a drink that is sure to please your patrons, whether as a stand-alone beverage — and it has the legs to be just that — or as a featured ingredient in your own creations.

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