History Wine

Wine in Shakespeare’s Time

Today marks the opening day of Shakespeare in the Park, a beloved and time-honored tradition in New York City. People love it because a) it’s free, b) it’s outdoors, and c) nothing says Shakespeare like lining up at sunrise to get your hands on a pair of tickets at the box office, like people did in the Elizabethan times (and pre-2000).

When Will was writing plays, it was a celebrated time around Europe. The Baroque was brimming, dripping with brocade, velvet and damask, gilded accents, grandeur, and outsized drama. Celebrated artists like Handel, Bach, Rembrandt, and, of course, The Bard of Avon were creating masterpieces. And they liked to put back a few, as did their patrons.

Wine was plentiful in Shakespeare’s England for a person of privilege, but since the English weather couldn’t grow grapes, they had to import their wines from France, Spain and Greece. Sack, port and malmsey were their out and out faves.


Sack, basically sherry, was very popular amongst Elizabethans. Shakespeare agrees (thanks for the research, Shakespeare Online), as he scribes about sack in this passage from 2 Henry IV in which Falstaff, who went on to become one of the most famous drinking men in literature:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme: it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. 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. (4.3.100)

wine.jpgPort was also extremely popular in this time. But it only found its way to the white shores of Dover because members of the Whig party felt it was unpatriotic to buy French wine because that meant giving money to the French. This all sounds vaguely modern (Freedom Fries anyone?), and according to Lili Loofbourow of The Awl:

By the end of the [17th]century, the line between beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers had blurred, but this did not signal peace. New faultlines emerged, this time among the wine-drinking contingent. Thanks to deteriorating trade relations between England and France, the feeling was that importing French wines, no matter how delicious, meant pouring English gold into French coffers. As a counter-measure, the English — especially the Whigs — made policies designed to increase Portuguese imports. That, in case you wondered, is how port got its name and became the ubiquitous English table wine.


Malmsey was also extremely popular during Shakespeare’s time. Back then it was known as “Canary” after the island on which this sweet wine was harvested. The history of this beverage, according to The Independent was popular but short-lived:

The wine is thought to have reached British shores in the late 15th century. By legend, George of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478 after plotting to overthrow the king.

An accident of geography gave towns on Tenerife such as Lanzarote the perfect micro-climate to produce the wine and then export it via trade routes to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1570, London was importing 20 million litres of Malmsey each year, making the rich dark liquor a favourite in drinking houses and the royal court.

The flourishing Anglo-Spanish trade was brought to an abrupt end in 1666 when islanders rebelled against the dominance of the London-based Canary Island Company, which had a monopoly on exports. When producers expressed their discontent by smashing barrels so that Malmsey flowed in the streets, Britain retaliated by banning the wine and swapped to the Portuguese rival, Madeira.

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