Build-A-Bar: Madeira, An Anachronistic Spirit

Categories: Booze
MacGyver Down in Dixie.JPG
Photos by Nicholas L. Hall
Best consumed while sporting a mullet. Bonus points for duct-tape-coupe.
Tackling a subject like Madeira can be a tall order; it's a broad category more than it is a specific tipple, with examples ranging wildly in flavor and consistency. From the slightly brisk, semi-dry Sercial to the dark (in color and in flavor), viscous Bual and beyond, picking up a bottle of Madeira and blindly expecting it to be one thing is a fool's errand. I've just begun investigating the world of Madeira, and am somewhat overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the category.

Once you begin to explore Madeira, though, you'll be captivated by the expressive nuance inherent in the form. Even within a single bottle, the range of flavors and characteristics can be quite impressive. Smoke and dark fruit, almonds and acid, citrus and coffee; these are just a handful of the tasting notes that run through the gamut of Madeira styles, shifting and changing with grape varietal and age.

Madeira is, in many ways, an anachronistic spirit. Essentially oxidized, heat-treated wine with a bit of grape spirits thrown in, Madeira breaks most of the rules of proper wine treatment, with delicious results. As history has it, the origin of Madeira is kissing cousins to that of India Pale Ale, an artifact of colonialism and the perilous necessity of shipping booze to far flung outposts. The addition of spirits helped stabilize the wine for its sea journey, while tossing and turning in the steamy hold of a ship lent heat and oxidation - a happy accident.

Those happy accidents lend Madeira its characteristic flavors, as well as its characteristic hardiness. With its high alcohol content and oxidative nature, Madeira holds well in a range of temperatures (its flavors even survive cooking primarily unscathed), as well as offering shelf stability after opening. I've held onto and slowly enjoyed a bottle for many months without any significant detrimental effects on flavor.

In the world of drinks, there are a handful of classical applications for Madeira, most of which mirror those of other fortified wines (as distinct from aromatized wines, like vermouth). Most of them reach back to the earliest days of American drinking. Take the Cobbler and the Sangaree, for example. Two branches of the same beverage tree (functionally, at least), both pair fortified wine simply with water, sugar and some fruit. The primary differences are presentation (Cobblers are heavily garnished, Sangarees not so much) and spice. Given the voluminous nature of Madeira, itself, I think the Sangaree might be gilding the lily a bit, with its brazen dusting of nutmeg.

Some might take the Cobbler (or the Sangaree, for that matter) for simplistic. In a sense, that's certainly the case. Especially with as enigmatic a beverage as Madeira, I like the Cobbler's nod to restraint. Historically, it made sense too. Not all drinks are supposed to bowl you over. Sometimes, you just want something nice to sip on a hot day. Given the Cobbler's inventive proximity to that of the straw, I think the intention is clear. As a refreshing beverage nonetheless possessed of a hearty spirit and a bit of boozy bounce, few things beat a Cobbler.

Cobblers follow a fairly loose format of fortified wine shaken with sugar (dissolved in a touch of water -- feel free to use simple syrup), citrus, and fresh seasonal berries. The traditional preparation is a bit muddy for my liking, with the whole thing dumped in a glass and garnished with additional fruit. I like neither the look nor the texture of a drink made thusly, and prefer to shake, strain, and garnish. With citrus season settling in and cranberries on the brain, I offer you a Thanksgiving-appropriate version.

Gobbler Cobbler.JPG
Horrible name, delicious drink.
Gobbler Cobbler (or less ridiculous name)
  • 4 oz. Haak Madeira (Akin to a Bual)
  • Sugar to taste (the sweeter your Madeira, the less sugar you want. I used about a teaspoon, dissolved in a bit of water)
  • 4 half-moon slices of Texas Ruby Grapefruit
  • 1 T. Prepared Cranberry Sauce*
  • Frozen Cranberries and additional citrus slices for garnish

Combine all ingredients but garnish in shaker with ice. Shake hard until well chilled. Strain into glass packed with ice and frozen cranberries. Garnish with additional berries and sliced citrus.

(*A note: I didn't have cranberry sauce made yet, so I actually used a puree of hibiscus, ginger, and tangerine juice I had from another project. The flavor of hibiscus is strikingly similar to cranberries, so I'm sure the drink will perform as written)

For something a bit more overtly complex, I settled on a riff on a cocktail I'd never tasted. Via twitter, I'd gotten wind of a drink called the Dixieland, an original from the brilliantly boozy minds at Anvil. Combining Sherry, Rye, Absinthe and Maraschino, it sounded utterly delicious. The source's claim that it was his favorite Anvil concoction upped the ante in my desire to drink it. I didn't have Sherry or a recipe. I did have Madeira and desire, and thus the MacGyver Down in Dixie was born.

MacGyver Down in Dixie

  • 1.5 oz Rye
  • .5 oz Haak Madeira (akin to a Bual)
  • .25 oz Maraschino
  • 1 T. Absinthe

Stir, strain, enjoy, save the world with a paperclip and a pack of gum.

Interestingly, I finally had the chance to try this drink's theoretical inspiration a few nights back, and it's almost the polar opposite. Where the Absinthe mostly provides aroma and just a hint of anise in my creation, it's quite forward in the Dixieland, and the combined sweetness/funkiness of Madeira (Sherry, in the case of the Dixieland) and Maraschino in the Mac are mere detail in the Dixieland. Both are delicious drinks, and now I want to start experimenting with Sherry. Stay tuned.



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