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The Drinks of Our Forefathers

Presidents’ Day is just around the corner, and your day off is a great time to look to some of the Founding Fathers’ favorite tipples. While I’d recommend against trying to keep up with the thirst of wine drinkers of the time — it’s a wonder anyone managed to get anything done — you can still enjoy the types of fortified wines that were wildly popular.

Port: This is the fortified wine you’re likely most familiar with, and it’s become somewhat fashionable for California winemakers to create their own takes on the style. But make no mistake: If it’s not from Portugal’s Douro Valley, it’s not Port. Thanks to frequent conflicts with France that led to less available French wine, Port has historically been extremely popular in England. And therefore, wealthier colonists came to the Americas with a thirst for this wine.

Port comes in a broad range of styles that are either bottle-aged, like Ruby Ports, or barrel-aged, like Tawny Ports, and better lots are bottled as Vintage or LBV (Late Bottle Vintage).

Sherry: Sherry’s popularity, like Port’s and Madeira’s, was at least in part a holdover from British roots. Sherry also had an important place in early cocktails, with drinks like the Sherry Cobbler — a simple concoction of Sherry, sugar, muddled orange and ice — serving as global ambassadors for this new and distinctly American class of drinks. And America played a very special role in shaping this wine’s future: The phylloxera infestation that was brought back from the New World reduced the number of grape varieties that go into Sherry from nearly 100 to a mere 3.

Sherry hails from Spain’s Jerez region. Believe it or not, it is produced in a range of styles wide enough to suit virtually any palate, from the light, bone-dry Manzanilla to the rich, intensely sweet Pedro Ximénez.

Madeira: This was the Pinot Noir of the time in terms of popularity. Jefferson and Washington bought it by the cask. And in all likelihood it’s what they would have toasted with at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Hailing from the archipelago of Madeira off the coast of Portugal, this is one of the friendliest wines for collectors. Why? For one, it lasts virtually forever. The unique winemaking style actually requires oxidization — it would get plenty of air exposure on the ships headed to the New World — so it’s impervious to this as a fault. This, along with its relatively high alcohol level, means you can pop open a special bottle and enjoy it over months or years, not days. It’s ability to hold up in a cellar is pretty much unmatched — I once had the remarkable opportunity to try a Madeira from 1894, and shockingly, it was still very lively. And perhaps best of all, because this wine has grown more obscure, incredible vintage bottles at retail and at auction can be surprisingly affordable.

Madeira is made in four basic styles. Sercial (light, off-dry) and Verdelho (darker, medium-dry) both make delicious aperitifs, while Bual (dark, sweet) and Malmsey (very dark, very sweet) are bold dessert wines.