In the shadowy depths of the infamous Lunatic Asylum in Columbia, SC, a Charleston secret remained walled up for over three years. It was there, unknown to the patients and then to the Union prisoners during the destruction of the Civil War, that an invaluable collection of madeira stayed hidden.
“Charleston has a lot of history,”says Jimmy Chmielewski, up-and-coming bartender at Little Jack’s Tavern, “but I want to talk about the booze, specifically, Charleston’s history with madeira.”
Madeira is a largely forgotten thread in US history. The 20th century saw its popularity decline, until the last decade or so ushered in a nostalgic rediscovery. A fortified wine produced in the Madeira Islands south of Portugal, it was the choice drink of Charlestonians in the 1800’s. In fact, more of it was consumed here than anywhere else in the US. So much so that a direct exchange of Carolina gold rice, indigo and cotton became common between Charleston and Portugal. It didn’t hurt that it was exempt from Britain’s tax on other European wines, and as such, a nice symbolic “shove off” to the reigning king – liquid patriotism. It’s even reported that Francis Scott Key sipped at it while writing The Star Spangled Banner.
Madeira was the water that nourished the high society of Charleston and surrounding areas. A respectable madeira collection was necessary for any young man with pretensions to lowcountry gentility, and the best houses were built with unique wine cellars designed for madeira’s specific needs – as opposed to other wines, madeira is often stored in heated rooms to mimic the conditions of transport in the dark, warm hold of a ship. Clubs sprung up around the drinking and collection of the spirit, the most well known being The Jockey Club. The richest and most influential men in the region belonged to this horse racing society, and their madeira collection became the stuff of legends.
“So in 1863,” continues Jimmy, “when Sherman was charging up the coastline with his army, these guys panicked. They had roughly 9,000 bottles of the world’s best madeira in their possession and Sherman’s army was headed straight for Charleston, raining shells down on everything.” Terrified, the leaders of The Jockey Club smuggled out their vast stores and headed up to Columbia in desperate search for an indestructible hiding place. The stalwart, brick and mortar asylum on Bull St. seemed to be the answer. In a frenzy, they stowed the madeira behind a hastily made wall in the basement of the asylum, and for the next three years it sat while the war raged. Unfortunately the men had grossly miscalculated. The bulk of destruction skipped past Charleston, crippling much of Columbia instead, and the asylum itself came under grievous attack. Shortly thereafter it was made into a prison for union soldiers until the war ended. When Henry Gourdin, then president of the Jockey Club, went to recover the wine, only 3600 of the 9000 bottles had survived unscathed. These were sold off through the years to help an ailing southern economy and to help found the Charleston Library Society.
Madeira remained hugely popular in the US, especially in the deep south until Prohibition brought the thriving market to a standstill in 1920. Even after the repeal, madeira had lost much of its standing, and for decades it fell into obscurity until recent movements in the culinary world have started fanning those flames once again. Several of Charleston’s best bars and restaurants now have distinguished selections of madeira, and Jimmy has learned from some of the best. As a bartender at both Proof – a long standing Charleston institution, and Little Jack’s Tavern -recently mentioned in Bon Apetit’s 50 Best New US Restaurants, the recent newcomer to the scene has been mentored by some of the best bartenders in town. Jimmy moved to the area five years ago and has been crafting cocktails up and down King for the last three. His cocktails show a creative flair with an eye to detail, and the Masked Malady is no exception. “It had to be about the madeira. I wanted something that stood up to its caramel and fig overtones, but didn’t overpower it.” The result is a drink, more of the after dinner variety, with a strong oakiness from Plantation Three Star Rum, smoke from a hint of mezcal, nice balancing herbal notes from yellow Chartreuse and a dash of blackstrap bitters, because it’s Charleston.
The asylum in Columbia was abandoned more than a century ago, and stands in ruins. Though other types of spirits may still linger among the crumbling walls, any trace of the vast madeira collection is now scattered and lost through decades of private sales, leaving only its legend and a rediscovered curiosity about the wine that once defined Charleston Society.