Most of the students in my beginning wine studies class have never tasted real sherry. If they have encountered it at all, it was most likely the faux version-in-a-jug known around here as “cooking sherry” and used for deglazing sauté pans in their culinary lab classes (what a shame).
They also tend to be of the opinion, common in North America, that Sherry is a drink consumed by British old ladies who sit around sipping Sherry, pinky fingers extended, while nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and bonbons.
While this might be a mere cliché, one cannot deny the British love for Sherry. The British have long had a love for Sherry, and are the largest export market for wines from Jerez to this day. But have you ever wondered why?
The story goes back to the days of Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, the famous Spanish Armada, and Europe’s exploration of the new world.
In the 1400’s, the great capitals of Europe began sending explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus to find passage ways for trade and to discover what lie beyond the wide oceans. Christopher Columbus, despite being of Italian birth, made his most famous deal with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Cadiz, and Sanlucar – all regions well known for wine.
Wine was considered absolutely necessary for these journeys, as any water on board would quickly become unfit to drink due to long length of the journeys. The wines for the ships were fortified with alcohol to give them some preservative effect, beginning the tradition of many such fortified wines.
These voyages were spectacularly successful for Spain as explorers began to return in ships heavily laden with gold, silver, and other wealth from the new world. At the same time that Spain was profiting from the plunder of Mexico and Peru, young Queen Elizabeth of England was benefitting from the wealth brought in by her expanding colonies in North America.
However, it soon became clear that America could not begin to produce the immediate wealth arriving by the galleon load from Spain’s richer New World territories. Knowing that an island kingdom must be strong to survive, Elizabeth turned a blind eye as Sir Francis Drake and other English sea captains raided and seized the treasures from Spain’s heavily laden and slow-moving gold ships. It did not take long for the King of Spain, Philip II, to have had enough of England’s daring Queen and her “sea wolves” and he soon hatched a plan to invade England.
In 1580, King Philip ordered that a great Armada, or Navy, be built. His plan was to invade England, remove Elizabeth from the throne, and crown himself king in Westminster Cathedral. However, Elizabeth heard of the plan and made a bold preemptive strike, led by the skilled seaman Sir Francis Drake.
Drake was sent out from Plymouth, on April 12, 1587. He appeared before Cadiz on April 29th, and late in the afternoon of that day he sailed boldly into the harbor, completely surprising the defenders, and throwing the Spanish land and naval forces there into a panic.
All the remainder of the day, and all the next day, Drake plundered and burned. Thirty-seven naval and merchant vessels were destroyed with very small losses on the English side. During the raid, Drake managed to seize 2,900 casks of Sherry from the Spanish naval stores, which he soon delivered triumphantly to Queen Elizabeth.
As you might guess, it became all the rage in England to drink the captured Sherry. Spanish Sherry was suddenly the most popular drink in England. Legend even tells us that the English loved to call it “sack” because, well, Drake had sacked the Spanish supply port. (There are other explanations for the term “sack” as well.)
In the ultimate show of British praise, Shakespeare praised Sherry, or “sack,” when he had Sir John Falstaff proudly declare in Henry IV, Part 2, “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”.
At top - “Sherry, Sir?” by William Powell Firth, 1853