Book review: Strong, Sweet & Dry by Becky Sue Epstein

Becky Sue Epstein explores the styles and stories of Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala in her latest book, Strong, Sweet & Dry, as Amanda Barnes discovers while reading and reviewing her book during lockdown.


Quarantini hour has been the highlight of most of my lockdown days and while I am a big drinker of martini, I have never really given much thought to the Vermouth that goes into it. It might be rather en vogue at the moment but the subject still needed a bit of demystifying to me, and that’s exactly what Becky Sue Epstein’s new book, Strong, Sweet & Dry, does.

Tackling the fortified greats of Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala and Vin Doux Natural, as well as a quick tour of other fortified wines of the world, Epstein details their history and explores their development in culture too, while also looking how the major companies and brands have cornered certain categories. She delves into the vineyard and grape varieties, as well as the production methods and tracks how the wines vary by region, producer or history.

Although Epstein packs a lot of information into the book, it never feels like a textbook for wine students but rather a biography of each fortified wine, with all the characters and experiences involved. Strong, Sweet & Dry does, of course, cover all the bases that any WSET Diploma-level student would require (for example, all the major styles of Port and Sherry) but is also approachable and written in an inviting manner in order to appease non-professional drinks lovers.

There’s plenty of information about the current revival and new appreciation of fortified wines, which seems to be happening in the trendiest of bars, but I found the historical anecdotes of warriors and kings most interesting. Epstein weaves in appetising titbits about the wines – such as Shakespeare referencing Sherry (which he called ‘sack’) in his plays, or the Duke of Clarence choosing to drown in Madeira when he was executed for treason in 1478.

Throughout Strong, Sweet & Dry, Epstein proves just why these fortified wines have survived quite so long in our wine culture and the important role they have had in international trade and relations throughout. The very fact that fortification makes these wines more seaworthy and able to survive the rigours of long-distance travel is why they have accompanied so many key historical moments and found themselves on the table in poignant celebrations over the last millennium. It was, after all, Madeira that was used to toast America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776.

I have to confess that reading this book on strong fortified wines during a period when you don’t have much else to do, apart from experiment with your cocktail cupboard, was ideal timing. I found myself delving into Epstein’s selection of cocktail recipes at the back of the book with a certain gusto I don’t often reserve for mixology. Despite the complex stories that characterise the main chapters, the cocktail recipes are all stripped back, which was ideal for the limited Covid-19 supermarket dash.

After a couple weeks stewing with Strong, Sweet & Dry, I now feel equipped to step out into the brave new world, armed with the knowledge of how to prepare great classics and a handful of interesting anecdotes up my sleeve. Sherry Cobbler, anyone?



For more details on how to purchas a copy, visit Becky’s website.