Wax, Blood, And Crumbling CorksJanuary 17th, 2014
Whisky makers: while we want secure whisky, whisky that can be collected or consumed with confidence, we’ve got a problem with getting at the stuff in the bottle. We need less wax, and better closures.
I’m on the warpath. It all started with this furious Tweet I sent out just after the new year, one that was retweeted and well-commented upon:
I’m COMPLETELY serious: stop putting wax on goddamned whisky bottles! I almost sliced my hand, and your dumb wax is in my toaster!
What happened was that I was opening one last sample bottle to review, and it was waxed. Thickly. With that hard, resin-like “wax” that’s really more like some kind of plastic armor plate, and no pull-tab or scoring ring or zip-strip or even a single damned clue on where to start…just a forbidding navy blue cocoon.
I attacked it with the short blade of a waiter’s friend-type corkscrew. I tried to carve a ring around the top of the glass to separate the top from the cocoon, but the wax wasn’t carving, it was spalling: chips and chunks were flying off (and yes, one did flip into the top of the toaster), and the knife slipped and skippered about on the hard, slick surface. I gripped the bottle tighter, and bore down—suddenly the bottle shifted, wax cracked, and the knife shot past the knuckle of my thumb. Cussing ensued. I finished the job with a pair of pliers, and when I finally had the thing open, I was not in a generous mood. Luckily, it was quite nice; saved the day.
Look, I have nothing against the famous red wax top on Maker’s Mark. It’s pretty, and more to the point, it’s soft and zip-stripped and easy to open. They know how to do it. And I get why distillers do it. It looks “premium” and yes, it may even keep out oxygen and other taints.
But for every easily-opened bottle of Maker’s Mark out there, there are more annoyingly bloody difficult impenetrable damnable awful son-of-a— Yes, as I was saying, there are these poorly thought-out chunks of stuff. Baker’s, for instance, love Baker’s, a favorite bourbon, but the wax they use brings me to screaming, and there’s no excuse: it’s the same parent company! Go steal the Maker’s Mark secret wax technology, guys!
Craft distillers are terrible offenders; the bottle I wrestled with was a craft distiller’s. They use the armor-coat stuff, they use ugly colors, sometimes they use what looks and feels like candle wax. Yuck. I wind up scraping it off, or scoring it and twisting with a large amount of hope, and no matter what I do, there are scraps and shreds and slivers of wax all over. It’s a mess, and not conducive to happily sitting down with a dram from a fresh bottle.
Friends have told me I need to warm the wax (a good idea), cut it “the right way” (with a bandsaw?), and—my favorite—get a champagne saber. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be easier and more consumer-friendly if we could just get rid of the wax altogether? Especially if the bottlers aren’t going to make it properly easy by using the soft wax with the nylon strip helper?
We still want to keep the cork in there with more than friction, of course. Shrink-wrap plastic works fine, and can be clear—nothing wrong there—or smartly clad in graphic style. Does it look anachronistic on a bottle of whisky? Take a look at the label; think that printing’s in 19th century style, especially that barcode? How old do you want the closure to look? Anyone want to go back to springtops? Two seconds work with a pen knife (which anyone should be carrying, in my opinion), and a plastic seal’s gone, whether it’s perforated or not.
Of course, then you’ve got the cork to deal with (unless you’ve got a screwtop, in which case, I hope it’s sturdy enough to thread back on when you’re done, and make sure it doesn’t get bent!), and that’s another sore point. We had a bottle of very expensive, very highly-anticipated whiskey that couldn’t be poured at San Francisco WhiskyFest this year because when it was opened…corked!
Cork taint from TCA is an ongoing problem, no matter what the cork producers say. We’re told by producers that tainted corks are down to 1% (or less), while people not in the industry say it’s closer to 3-5%. Even if it is 1%, that means that — statistically! — the fellow who stole 225 bottles of Van Winkle a few months ago may have gotten two corked ones! Serves him right, the jerk.
Even if the cork’s not tainted, I’ve encountered a disturbing number of crumbling corks lately, some in new bottles. Pull off the plastic wrap, twist the cork topper, and kluhbup…you’ve got the topper and about a centimeter of crumbling cork in your hand, and the rest of it is still in the neck (if you’re lucky and it’s not crumbled into the whiskey).
What to do about that? Buy better cork? Maybe, but here’s a thought. I’ve had a lot of craft whiskeys with synthcorks lately, and aside from an odd quality to the sound when they’re pulled and the odd look of them, I haven’t noticed a difference.
I’m sure there’s someone who will tell me they can taste the plastic (and the caramel, and the salt air, and the stillman’s lunch…), but I’m standing here with a $70 bottle of whisky in one hand and half a cork in the other; I’m willing to be the guinea pig for that. Otherwise, at this point, I’m left with buying replacement corks at the hardware store (quite reasonable, and I always keep five or ten in a little bag in the desk drawer), but that’s hardly the kind of thing I should have to do.
All I want is to get at that spirit, and once I have, to be able to seal it back up again for a bit till I can get around to finishing it. Wax gets in my way. Corks are apparently a fallible solution. Work on this, whisky industry, will you please?