Colonial Americans drank roughly three times as much as modern Americans, primarily in the form of beer, cider, and whiskey. Apple trees were planted upon arrival in Plymouth and hard cider was being made by 1620. Commercial brewing began in New York (called New Amsterdam at the time) in 1632. Whiskey was being distilled on Staten Island by 1640. Water quality was poor at the time, and these drinks were construed as the healthier alternative. Even children drank a diluted form.
Our Founding Fathers had even more expensive tastes than the early colonists and enjoyed imported alcoholic libations as well. Giving us insight into how these freedom fighters celebrated is a tavern bill that has been preserved. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention had finished drafting the famous text and were waiting to sign the new Constitution of the United States of America.
With only a couple of days left before they signed off on the historic document, 55 gentlemen went out and celebrated at a local tavern. According to the bill preserved from the evening, found in a box in Independence Hall in 2018, they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 containers of porter, 8 large bottles of hard cider, 12 large bottles of beer and 7 bowls of alcoholic punch - in total more than 45 gallons of booze. Food and cigars were also ordered, and some broken glasses had to be paid for as well.
While no one is suggesting that anyone should drink as much as the Founding Fathers apparently did, it might be fun to include some of their top picks at a modern 4th of July party. In 21st century America, local beer, wine, cider, and spirits are easy to find and often consumed at celebrations leading up to the fireworks finale. In Texas, all of the above are now made in the state including interpretations of Madeira from local winery, Haak.
Although it is hard to know exactly what was local and what was imported when considering the beer, cider, and whiskey, the wines were definitely imported. France was not only our ally in our fight against England, the country was the colonies’ top choice for imported wines.
Claret was the English name for the red wines of Bordeaux during this time, so if a menu of barbecued or grilled meat is part of the celebration plan, consider adding a red from what is believed to be the oldest active appellation for wine production in Bordeaux - Saint-Émilion. The reds from the region are Merlot-based blends that will work with either grilled steaks or smoked brisket or pork.
For something equally delicious and more affordable, look at wines from the Côtes de Bordeaux. Some wineries have histories that predate the Revolutionary War. Château de Pitray in the Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux appellation has been owned by the same family for 600 years, and several family members immigrated to America specifically to aid in the fight for independence from the British.
If partying with George Washington’s favorite tipple Madeira is on the agenda, it is important to know what the designations on the Madeira bottle mean. Sercial and Verdelho are dry versions that work well as aperitifs (consumed prior to a meal) while Bual and Malmsey are sweet and work better as digestifs or dessert wines. Madeira also has a long lifespan and will keep for an extended time in a cool, dry pantry and even longer in a wine fridge.
The Spec’s here in Galveston usually has Blandy’s and the Sandeman brands in this style, as well as the Rainwater version which is a fantastic choice for the beginner Madeira drinker. Rainwater Madeira falls in the middle range between dry and sweet and can work with an entire meal. It is smooth with nutty aromas and flavors and good acidity that makes it very food friendly. It pairs well with savory dishes, cheese, salad with vinaigrette, and caramel-flavored desserts like apple pie.
George Washington was also a known seafood lover; he owned fisheries on the shore of the Potomac. Preserved menus from his home show dinners that included favorites like oyster gumbo and crabmeat casseroles. If the local catch is on the menu, Madeira would work with these and other salty and/or spicy seafood dishes, too.
In addition to Madeira being a favorite drink of the Founding Fathers, Portugal (the country that makes Madeira) was also the first neutral nation to establish diplomatic relations with the newly formed United States of America after the war, which adds to its allure as a wine perfect for the month dedicated to Independence Day.
While it is not listed on the famous bar tab above, it is well-documented that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed celebrating with Champagne. Some Houses that were founded before 1776 include Gosset, Ruinart, Taittinger, Moet et Chandon, and Veuve Cliquot. It has been said that he helped popularize both Champagne and frites, known here as French fries, in Colonial America.
Even though it is likely that America’s Founding Fathers were otherwise preoccupied and did not engage in any grilling and chilling as they prepared the Declaration of Independence, we do have proof that they enjoyed a good party when the work was done. Whether going local or partying like the original patriots with some of these imported choices, raise a glass and give a toast to the Founding Fathers on this historic day.