Whisky Advocate

Wax, Blood, And Crumbling Corks

January 17th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhisky 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.

The whisky, the wax, the toaster

The whisky, the wax, and there in the back, the toaster

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.

Wax done right

Wax done right

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?

23 Responses to “Wax, Blood, And Crumbling Corks”

  1. Rick Duff says:

    Glad you said it Lew… because I agree 100%!!

  2. Luke says:

    Lew, Suntory Screw-Caps – the acme!

  3. Mark says:

    I think Chuck Cowdery even briefly documented his battle with the seal on Knob Creek in Bourbon, Straight (I think it was a bit less frustrating than yours). And that came out damn near a decade ago, so…not optimistic about the Baker’s, even though the solution is practically next door.

    I haven’t come across the problem too much, but there was a bottle of armagnac I got a while back where I had to use a serrated knife to saw through the wax.

  4. Neil Fusillo says:

    I hosted a Scotch tasting last weekend, actually, and a bottle of Balvenie was put by the wayside when the cork just shattered into a million pieces on opening. I’ve no time during an event like that to really find a filter and filter it all out. And even if I did, the sheer act of filtering it properly will make the product different enough from the way it started to not even bother with.

    I’m all for plastic corks. Or rubber stoppers. Or well-designed screw caps. Corks in wine make some sense… you store them on their side and it keeps the cork from drying out entirely. Whisk(e)y, not so much. It’s a waste of cork and an homage used incorrectly.

  5. Dan Z. says:

    I love angry Lew! And I agree. I don’t like wax and with cork, even if it’s not strictly tainted, I have come across some that smelled “musty.” But for the toaster, it looks like there’s a handy toaster cover next to it that could have shielded it from the shrapnel.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Good eye, Dan, but that’s actually the cover on the KitchenAid stand mixer. I need my toaster ready for quick access any time the urge for hot toast hits me; good thing it’s not sealed with wax!

  6. Mark Goss says:

    I have a friend who is a member of a very well known wine family in Napa who told me “we have embraced the screw top” because of cork problems and the effectiveness of the latest screw top technology. I greatly admire the Makers Mark wax and would be disappointed if it were to disappear. However, I have had the same problem with other brands and don’t understand why they can’t get it right.

  7. Josh Peters says:

    Funny, I was having this exact conversation with a friend after we discovered chunks of cork in whiskey that had been opened for no more than 4 months and fought through the rock hard wax on a newly purchased Armagnac. Between excellent screw tops, airtight synthetic corks, and the amazing glass corks that wines like Zweigelt use there are plenty of attractive options and no excuse for using something that has out-lived it’s usefulness and is continually being more of a hazard. I hope the industry starts to take more notice with folks like you making a ruckus!

  8. sku says:

    Great post Lew! The problem I’ve had with synthetic corks is the caps often come off the cork. So you have to shove the cork back in the bottle without a cap and then next time you pop it, you need a pair of pliers. I agree with those who say high quality screw tops are the way to go.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Haven’t had THAT problem — as you can probably guess, or you’d have heard about it — but I would think tech could easily solve it. Of course, tech could solve the wax issue, too. It has, it’s just that some companies refuse to use. High-quality screw tops are okay with me…I just don’t like the flimsy ones, on whisky, or on olive oil!

    • Josh Peters says:

      I have this problem with natural cork too. I currently have a bottle of Talisker and a bottle of High West that are capless.

  9. Danny Maguire says:

    I agree with Sku, screw caps are the way to go. They’re already used on blended Scotch, I haven’t heard of anyone complaining about it. That is probably the biggest segment of the World whisky market, so of it works there why not elsewhere?

  10. Richard Turner says:

    SCREW CAPS!!!!
    What’s the big problem? How many pharmaceuticals, perishables, etc. (not to mention spirits) have been using ‘em for decades without a problem. The technology isn’t new, nor unproven, nor untested, nor unperfected (if that’s a word) nor any other ‘negative’.
    Go To the S C R E W C A P S !!! (Pleeeeeze?)

  11. Tadas A says:

    Looks like I am a minority still liking corks here :D I like them because they are natural, seal well, no plastic taste and make great sound when opening ;)
    Most of the screwcaps I have seen are horrible.
    Metal ones are stamped and if you are not careful enough, you damage the threads and cannot close the bottle air tight and whiskey slowly evaporates. If you bend the top edge (and they are very thin and easy to do that) it cannot seal the bottle and leaves a gap where the air can circulates and liquid evaporates.
    I have unopened bottles of 100 year old whiskey with stamped screwcaps. They have a problem keeping the seal over time and half of those bottles have significant evaporation, which is pretty much the same to the cork sealed bottles from 100 years ago.
    Why not use screwcaps that are forged and machined metal instead of stamped ones? Something like this: http://www.roundcaps.com/ASC%20on%20W.htm
    Why such crappy plastic screwcaps are being used on booze? I do not want to see that on a $100 bottle. They as so hideous, cheap and poor quality, that even Coke bottle’s plastic screwcap looks luxurious. Only Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek have decent plastic screwcaps. There are so many plastics available that can be done nicely and have a nice feel to the cap’s surface. Look how car interiors improved and they are using stuff made from the same crude oil, just paying attention to detail and using slightly more expensive plastic materials.
    Synthcorks are also not all dandy and great. They have some usability problems that regular corks don’t. I just opened a bottle of Koval’s Lions Pride Organic Rye Whiskey. To remove the cork was easy enough. But to put it back I needed a hammer. When pressing the cork in, the rubbery cork’s material squeezes, becomes wider than bottle’s opening and refuses to go in.

    • Dan Z. says:

      I read through several of the Wine Spectator articles that follow Lew’s link above about TCA cork taint, plus the following http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_wine_closures, which is on the internet, so it must be true. In summary, it sounds like non-cork closures have their own issues. For example plastic-based or similar closures may also dry out or decompose over many years, allowing air into the bottle, and their long-term behavior has not been observed as much as “natural” cork. All of these different types of closures will vary widely based on the amount of quality control they undergo, and quality whiskies certainly deserve careful packaging, so let’s see more of that, please.

      I still am not a fan of the wax.

  12. lawschooldrunk says:

    Just last week I had a Bowmore 17 cork break upon initial opening, leaving the bottom half in the neck of the bottle.

    What’s worse is when customer service does not get back to you about the issue. *Ahem*

    (This is also why it’s a good idea to save your corks when you finish bottles.)

    Can anyone also say Aberlour A’bunadh? That wax is tough but here’s my method: feel with your fingernail where the cork ends and the glass begins, slip a knife against/between that line, and cut softly along (and not into) the wax around the bottle. The cap with the wax then removes well and without a mess.

  13. jburlowski says:

    I’ve reached the (somewhat) advanced age where it is not cork vs screwtop…. I want velcro!

  14. Danny Maguire says:

    I’ve got quite a few corks lined up on the windowsill.

  15. Ol' Jas says:

    Can you recycle those bottles that have been dipped in wax? I would guess not.

    Another reason to nix the wax.

  16. Zac says:

    Agree wholeheartedly. Haven’t had as much experience with wax, but had corks that broke off (Amrut) and corks that don’t even seem to fit in the bottle correctly (Jefferson’s). For high-quality whisky screwcaps, check out bottles from Nikka (Japan) and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia). The bottles I have from these distillers are very securely screw-capped. I love not having to worry about storing them on their sides.

  17. Danny Maguire says:

    Could also lead to the cork rotting and the bottle contents on the floor. Should never store spirits sideways.

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