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Monday, August 07, 2017

Falstaff's Sack (p. 4)

But why buy a dry wine only to put sugar in it afterwards?  This was done because there is a final step to making sherry.  Brandy is added in order to increase the alcohol content.  It is the potency of sack that Falstaff praises.  In time, sack drinkers learned that one could boil sugar into it and both increase the alcohol content still further and get rid of the bitter taste of the tannin.  Thus “burnt sack”.

As Hart makes clear, straining wine through a sack tends to reduce the potency of a wine.  This is just the opposite of what Falstaff and his ilk sought.  No doubt there was plenty of straining out dregs in the wine industry.  Perhaps the result was even called a “sacked wine” in certain circles.  But it is a misapprehension to think that this gives the name to sack wines.  In the same line, the entry in the Dictionnaire de l’Academie stating that “sec” referred to wines without liquor added is not to our point.  Again, Falstaff wanted potency and sherry is fortified with brandy thus supplying his want.  But it is “sack” by virtue of the fact that all of the sugar is fermented away (the traditional definition of a “dry” wine) leaving the astringent (dry) taste of tannin. 

This leaves us with just one further question to answer.  Why were so many other wines than sherry called sack?  The likely answers are: 1) there are other dry wines than sherry; 2) other wines both wet and dry may have been fortified with alcohol in order to better compete for customers and in this manner “sack” began to be used for “fortified wine” in general parlance; 3) many other wines were advertised as “sack” regardless that they had none of the qualities of fortified dry wine because they could be more easily sold for more money until customers realized that they lacked the expected potency.

Finally, Mr. Hart’s conclusion that “sacked” or strained wines were the origin of the wine “sack” cannot be absolutely dismissed.  It was, after all, 500 years ago.  Some people may have meant that when they said “sack” or have thought that was what it meant when they spoke the word.  There is no final arbiter to issue a decision.  Like nearly all matters at the distance of time, we can only show that one derivation is very substantially more likely than another.  That said, his footnote remains a rich and finely detailed learning experience regardless that its conclusion is wrong.

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