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New Jersey Museum Discovers Stash of Madeira from 1796

Liberty Hall Museum owns the wine and will decide if anyone will be allowed to sample the Revolutionary libation

The Lenox Madeira (Liberty Hall Museum)
smithsonian.com

During a renovation project at the Liberty Hall Museum on the campus of New Jersey's Kean University, historians recently found American wine’s holy grail: almost three cases of Madeira wine, some from 1796, the year John Adams was elected president, reports David J. Del Grande from NJ.com.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” museum president John Kean tells Del Grande. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira is the founding wine of the United States. Brittany Dust at Wine.com explains that the fortified wine comes from the Portuguese island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco. Not only is the alcohol content of the wine boosted to between 17 and 21 percent, (most wine is between 12 and 15 percent) it is also heated to help preserve it, making it well-suited for the long journey across the Atlantic that would spoil more delicate wines.

During the late 1600s and 1700s it was the New World’s number one wine, drunk by gentlemen and ladies. John Hancock was famous for smuggling ships of Madeira into the colonies and evading British taxation. In fact, the seizure of his ship Liberty, full of black-market Madeira, set off riots in Boston. Dust reports that ace attorney John Adams got the charges against Hancock dropped, but such incidents helped set the stage for the Revolution.

It’s believed Jefferson toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira and George Washington celebrated the British leaving New York City with the fortified wine.

Kylee Tsuru at CNN reports that the workers at Liberty Hall discovered the historical beverage, along with 42 demijohns of wine from the 1820s, behind a plywood and plaster wall constructed during Prohibition. While most old wine will eventually turn into vinegar, the fortified Madeira can last indefinitely if stored correctly.

According to Tsuru some of the bottles included Madeira produced for the personal use of millionaire wine importer Robert Lenox. Though the museum is not willing to publicly put a price on the bottles of booze, Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Co., tells Tsuru that the Lenox bottles are incredibly rare and could be worth as much as $20,000. 

Meg Baker at CBS reports that the museum owns the wine and will decide if anyone will be allowed to sample the Revolutionary libation. Liberty Hall itself was originally built in 1772, growing over time from a 14-room house owned by New Jersey’s first elected governor to a 50-room mansion owned by the Livingston and Kean families who ultimately turned it into a museum on the campus of Kean University.

Del Grande reports that Alexander Hamilton stayed in the house in 1773, where, it can be assumed, he sampled a little Madeira (though the founding father was a bigger fan of coffee).

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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