Present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, Madeira boasts a storied pedigree in American history. But among the myriad styles, which run the gamut from fairly dry to sweet, it’s rainwater Madeira that—for a brief moment—held the highest level of prestige.
While production of Madeira can be traced to at least the 16th century, it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that the lighter-bodied, medium-dry rainwater variety (which today, is primarily used in cocktails or drunk as an aperitif) came to prominence. Like so many origin stories, accounts conflict as to how exactly this style developed.
Make It Rain
The most popular—albeit not entirely plausible—theory contends that rainwater was mistakenly created in the 1700s when a shipment of verdelho Madeira destined for the American colonies was inadvertently diluted with rainwater after being left un-bunged on a beach. Rather than cut their losses, the merchants supposedly passed the wine off as a new style.
Rainwater Madeira was quick to find favor in America. By the end of the 19th century, the style had become the most prestigious in the category; in fact, in 1902, Baltimore’s premier Madeira expert, Douglas H. Thomas, declared rainwater to be the highest standard for the wine, according to The Rare Wine Co. But that fame would be short-lived: Not only did Prohibition cause the category of Madeira as a whole to fall out of favor in the U.S., the name “rainwater” became attached to low-quality, often semi-sweet wines.
Today’s rainwater Madeiras are aged for a minimum of three years—the youngest in the category—and many examples (including a bartender favorite from Henriques & Henriques) are made from the island’s versatile and abundant tinta negra mole grape. There are still some bottlings, however, like that from The Rare Wine Co., that call on a base of verdelho in an effort to stay true to the wine’s 19th-century roots.
For bartenders, rainwater Madeira is attractive not only for its relatively low price point, but for its subtlety; it is, in Death & Co. bartender Tyson Buhler’s words, “a very agreeable ingredient,” capable of pairing equally well with a range of spirits from rum to tequila and mezcal. In his Savage Islands, Buhler even goes so far as to use rainwater as the base ingredient: shaken with pineapple juice and lemon, plus dashes of saline and Angostura bitters, the drink is topped with Stillwater’s fruited Nu-Tropic IPA to round out its tropical notes.
According to Morgan Schick, who calls on rainwater for his rye-driven Mel Waters, the fortified wine is also a natural companion for whiskey. Riffing on the bourbon, bitter and fortified wine construction of a Boulevardier, Schick incorporates a housemade blueberry bitter aperitivo, but subs in rainwater for sweet vermouth. “Sweet vermouth is a little too flabby [in the drink],” he explains, adding that rainwater Madeira’s dry, naturally woody edge helps to keep the spiritous drink in balance.
Similarly, Ulysses Vidal of Employee’s Only combines rainwater with whiskey—this time, bourbon—in his Yankee Notions. Echoing Schick’s sentiments, he explains that “the medium-dry quality [of rainwater] is just right to balance the sweetness of the chamomile cordial and the bourbon.” Versatile and complex, he concludes: “It’s truly an elegant ingredient.”