Renaissance Vintage: The Popularity of Sack Wine in Early Modern Europe

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sack was all the rage in Europe, particularly so in England. This fortified white wine was traded in large volumes between the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe, with the Canary Islands and Portugal being especially common sources for it. We find frequent mention of it in Tudor (1485–1603) and early Stuart England (1603–1649), so much so in fact that it was regularly discussed in plays on the London stage by William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

The consumption of sack even became a symbol of national pride in England after Sir Francis Drake raided the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1587 during the Anglo-Spanish War and made off from the Iberian city with a cargo of stolen sack. Yet sack is virtually unheard of today, a result of its demise in the second half of the seventeenth century as red port wines became fashionable. Here we tell the story of the rise and fall of sack in early modern Europe.


‘If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack’. So proclaims Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II at the end of a lengthy monologue on the virtues of drinking.

It is a significant passage, not just in encapsulating the character of Falstaff broadly, who appears in several of the bard’s plays, but also in terms of capturing something of the alcohol fashions of early modern Europe. This was a period in which many things were drunk which are rarely imbibed today, none more so than the aforementioned sack.

What was Sack?

So what was sack? At the most basic level sack was fortified white wine, in effect a species of white port or sherry. It is unclear exactly how it acquired the name which it did. One theory holds that it derives from the French word sec, which means ‘dry’, suggesting that in late medieval times when the term first emerged sack was known for being particularly dry, as well as sweet.

Because of the sweet nature of the wine, others have suggested that it cannot have been too dry and have proffered a different etymology. This holds that sack comes from the Spanish sacar, which means to draw out. In this interpretation sack acquired its name owing to the fact that it was matured in wooden caskets for up to two years.

The main centres for the production of sack during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the height of its popularity in Europe, lay in the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. In Spain the main production region was the Canary Islands off the coast of north-western Africa after the Spanish began colonizing the region in the 1400s, though Malaga and the wider Granada and Andalusia regions of southern Spain were also regions where sack was produced during the early modern period.

In Portugal sack was being produced in many different regions in the northern and central regions of mainland Portugal, but also in Portugal’s own Atlantic colonies, particularly the island of Madeira. Often sack was referred to in line with the region which it originated from. Thus, for instance, we find trade records and port entry books for Europe in the sixteenth century referring to ‘Malaga sack’, ‘Canary sack’, ‘Madeira’, or ‘Jerez’.[1]

The Sack Wine Trade

The trade in sack wine across Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was extremely extensive, particularly to the Tudor dominions in England, Wales and Ireland. This had been facilitated in the 1490s when Enrique Pérez de Guzmán y Fonseca, second duke of Medina Sidonia, removed the customs duties on the export of sack wine from the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain, in the process increasing the amount being shipped overseas.

A great proportion of this was going to England and Ireland, a trade that was facilitated from 1530 onwards by the creation of the Spanish Company, a co-operative of English merchants operating primarily between London and Andalusia in south-western Spain. So regular was this trade that some sack wines even became known as ‘bastards’, a phrase which was used for a measurement of English cloth and which indicates the manner in which merchants brought textiles from England to Spain and then returned with shiploads of sack.[2]

Remarkably this trade persisted even when England and Spain were at war with each other between 1585 and 1604, with smugglers willing to ply the routes between English and Spanish ports at a time when state authorities did not have the capacity to stop them engaging in illegal trade for the most part.[3]

Francis Drake and the Raid on Cadiz

Sack played an important part in one of the more memorable military incidents of the sixteenth century anywhere in Europe. This was as part of the raid on Cadiz, which was led by Sir Francis Drake in 1587 and which took place in the context of the wider First Anglo-Spanish War between England and Spain. [Text Box 1]

The war had been raging for two years when Drake convinced Queen Elizabeth in 1587 to finance him to lead a naval expedition to raid Spain’s ports that summer. The expedition, which has become known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’ after a phrase employed by individuals at the time, resulted in numerous successes, notably the capture of the Sao Filipe treasure ship near the Azores Islands in June 1587. This held goods worth over £100,000, a fortune equivalent to nearly fifty million dollars in today’s money.

By the time the Sao Filipe was captured Drake and his crew had already been to mainland Spain and had raided the port of Cadiz there after a ten day long siege of the city in the second half of April. During these engagements Drake and his men captured 2,900 ‘pipes’ or ‘butts’ of sack from the Spanish ships in the harbour.[4]

Each of these ‘pipes’ was a barrel capable of holding approximately 600 litres of wine. Thus, the raid conceivably resulted in the capture of well over one and a half million litres of sack from the Spanish, a nice bounty. In the aftermath of it drinking sack became a quasi-act of nationalism back in England as the war with Spain continued for many more years. Incredibly Cadiz was raided again and seized in the mid-1590s in a repeat of the wine raid of 1587.[5]

Sack and the Tudor and Stuart Literary Scene

Sack was sufficiently ubiquitous as a type of wine in England by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for it to have become a staple of the London stage. The famed playwright Ben Jonson refers to it in one of his plays, The New Inn, while in a poem of his entitled Inviting a Friend to Supper he speaks about ‘A pure rich cup of Canary wine, which is the mermaid’s now but shall be mine’, a direct reference to sack wine produced in the Canary Islands. Other writers like John Dryden later in the seventeenth century were known to take payment for their wealthy patrons in the form of sack.[6]

But sack was most central to Shakespeare’s work. Falstaff’s monologue in Henry IV, Part II extolled its virtues, but this was not the only such scene from his oeuvre where fortified wine was praised. It arises in numerous scenes in The Tempest, as well as The Taming of the Shrew.

Ultimately, though, it is Falstaff who always brings up sack in some way or another. Based on Nicholas Dawtrey, an English army captain who served in Ireland in Shakespeare’s day, Falstaff appears in several of the bard’s works, a curious repeat occurrence which happens with very few other Shakespearian characters.[7]

His asides about fortified wine are plentiful and go beyond that previously quoted. For instance, elsewhere in Henry IV we find him declaring that ‘skill in the weapon is nothing without sack’. His penchant for the beverage was also well noted by others. In the same play Ned Poins declares to Prince Hal that ‘I’ll steep this letter in sack and make him eat it’. Thus, visitors to the London theatres in the late 1590s and 1600s would have heard regular mention of sack wine.[8]

The Demise of Sack

All of this raises the question as to why we don’t hear much about sack wine anymore. The answer is relatively straightforward and lies in both a semantic evolution and a change in fashions.

Firstly, people in northern Europe began favoring red fortified wines in the second half of the seventeenth century, while in the eighteenth century, this even gave way to a penchant for stronger liquor like gin and rum. In the case of England, there was a very clear reason for why this occurred. The English government allied with Portugal in 1662 when King Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza.[9]

The Portuguese princess brought with her a substantial dowry which included possession of Bombay in India, the beginning of what would eventually become the British Raj. It also led to increasing trade connections between England and Portugal and this included the red fortified wines of northern Portugal. With this, the trade in white fortified wines out of Spain and the Canaries dwindled.

Secondly, sack disappeared because people simply began calling it something else. The red fortified wines which were arriving to England in greater volumes from the 1660s onwards became known as a port to indicate they came from the Oporto region of northern Portugal. Similarly, the almost rosé tinted sack wines of southern Spain increasingly became known as sherry to indicate that they came from the Jerez region.[10]

Hence, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the term sack gradually disappeared from the lexicon of European trade, but there was a notable shift from white fortified wines to red. So the next time you see a white port sitting on the shelves of a wine merchant, remember that it might be a rare beast today, but half a millennium ago it was widely consumed across Western Europe.

On This Day

1 May 1587 – On in this day in 1587 an English naval expedition led by Sir Francis Drake left the Spanish port of Cadiz having raided the city and the many Spanish ships in the harbor over the past two weeks since mid-April. The expedition was led by Sir Francis Drake and formed part of the English war effort against Spain in the early years of the Anglo-Spanish War between 1585 and 1604, the most famous episode of which was the failed Spanish Armada of 1588. During the raid on Cadiz Drake and his men captured 2,900 ‘pipes’ or ‘butts’ of Spanish sack, fortified white wine made in parts of Spain and Portugal in early modern times. Sack was particularly popular in England, so the seizure of what amounted to well over one and a half million litres of the vintage by Drake and his men in April 1587 was especially welcome. Thereafter drinking Spanish sacks, preferably stolen, became a patriotic act during England’s long war with the Spanish.

25 February 1598 – On this day in 1598 William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I was entered on the Stationer’s Register in London, an official register in which published works were entered in order for them to be given a license to sell copies in the capital. This marks the first appearance in print of one of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters, Sir John Falstaff. He would subsequently appear again in Henry IV, Part II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, often in a drunken state from drinking sack, the white fortified wine which was immensely popular in England in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Falstaff’s character attests to the fashionable status of the wine during Shakespeare’s time, though it was soon superseded by the popularity of red fortified wines and port from the 1660s onwards.


[1] ‘sack’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[2] [accessed 4/7/23].

[3] Pauline Croft, ‘Trading with the Enemy 1585–1604’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (June, 1989), pp. 281–302.

[4] John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (London, 2006), chapter 16.

[5] ‘sack’ in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Paul E. J. Hammer, ‘Myth-Making: Politics, Propaganda and the Capture of Cadiz in 1596’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 621–642.

[6] Glenn J. Clark, ‘Civil Conversation, Religious Controversy, and The New Inn’, in Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Fall/Autumn, 2004), pp. 33–53.

[7] John Dawtrey (ed.), The Falstaff Saga, being the life and opinions of Captain Nicholas Dawtrey (London, 1927).

[8] [accessed 4/7/23].

[9] Clyde L. Grose, ‘The Anglo-Portuguese Marriage of 1662’, in The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Aug., 1930), pp. 313–352.

[10] [accessed 4/7/23].

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: September 16, 2023Last Updated: September 21, 2023

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!