I remember once reading another writer’s description of the sensory thrill in the opening of a new whiskey, the anticipation generated by the weight of the bottle in your hand, the sparkling play of light on the bubbles in the neck, the crisp snap of the seal...
Just as I was getting thirsty, my train of thought suddenly lurched angrily onto another track. I was suddenly watching a short video of myself on a loop. And not a happy one. There I am twisting the cap to loosen its grip, and start to pull it out, but suddenly without warning I’m left standing there with a $70 bottle of whiskey in one hand and half a cork in the other. It’s enough to make you cry.
It’s 2019, why are we still using this Renaissance-era bottle closure? Our great-grandparents used corks to keep the tonic in the jug, and they started their cars with a crank and kept food in a literal “icebox,” with ice in it. We’ve gotten beyond that and embraced new technologies, so why are we still using cork caps?
It’s a debate winemakers and wine drinkers have been engaging in for years. At least with wine, you can make the argument that the cork allows the slow passage of air and volatiles that are beneficial to the aging of wine. In a small number of wines, that is certainly true. But for the rest of them, it’s just something to seal the bottle with, which is why a growing number of “drink it today” wines are going to screw caps and synthetic corks.
But whiskey doesn’t work that way. When it’s in the barrel, sure, that slow exchange of air and alcohol is vital to the proper maturation of the spirit. But once it goes in the bottle, it is done, and you want as little of that exchange going on as possible. Weld the thing shut if you want, but putting a cork cap in there is just asking for trouble.
If a cork breaks then you have a possibly full bottle of whiskey that has to be finished in a single evening—to be fair, that’s not always a total disaster. But if you simply can’t or don’t want to finish it, the bottle has to be plugged with some kind of stopgap like a hardware store cork, or some plastic wrap. (Paraffin film is actually great for this, and I keep squares of it and corks in various sizes on hand.)
But what’s even worse is when a cork crumbles into the whiskey. This can especially happen when some well-meaning collector stores a bottle on its sides to keep the cork wet. That’s fine for wine, but the higher proof of whiskey will tear into the cork and chew it up. Then again, stand them up, and the cork may dry out and no longer seal the bottle, letting the whiskey evaporate and go stale and nasty and cloudy.
Don’t just take my word for it, Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, has had plenty of experience with bad corks.
“When we first did Gentleman Jack in 1988, it was closed with a cork,” Arnett recalls. “When I got here in 2001, I was quality control manager, and investigated any complaints we got. We don’t get many. But if I ever got a bottle of Gentleman Jack back from a consumer, the problem was the cork. The whiskey smelled like wet cardboard, musty. Take the cork out and you might even see some mold. Or the cork broke off in the bottle. When we decided to re-do the package, I suggested not using a cork. It was the only thing that ever created an issue.”
The musty smell is caused by TCA (trichloroanisole), the same naturally occurring chemical that causes “corked” wine. Cork is harvested in large sheets from cork oaks. If the sheets are left in the damp forest before being collected, they can develop TCA from microflora that will grow on the cork. It’s a known issue, and it can be mediated with steam and hydrogen peroxide. But if the process is pursued too aggressively, the cork can become less pliable, leading to a cork that’s going to break.
Given these problems, and the preference for a tighter seal than cork provides, I asked Arnett if whiskey really needed cork closures.
“No,” he said, plainly. “The maturation and the improving of the whiskey ends when it leaves the barrel. When it goes in the bottle, you’re just hoping to preserve it. It’s not going to get better. The cork is for look, feel, image, a historical feel. With modern liners, screw caps give you a better assurance of a seal than a cork.”
Well, hallelujah! I’m all in with the screw cap idea. Maybe a synthetic cork, even. But Arnett doesn’t see the point to that. “If you’re going with a synthetic cork, why not just use a screw top?,” he points out. There’s even a small Facebook group dedicated to this proposition, called “I Wish Screw Caps Were More Posh Than Corks.” It’s just pictures of broken corks, crumbling corks, shriveled corks, and the whiskies they’ve ruined.
I remember talking to Julian Van Winkle (yes, he’s Pappy Van Winkle’s grandson) about this once, and he said that in days gone by, the good whiskey was always the one with the cork. It was all about creating a specific image.
While we’re talking about things that add image to a whiskey without improving it, we might as well mention wax seals. Maker’s Mark is the iconic example, and also the best-executed one: the wax is glossy and attractive, it’s relatively soft, and there’s a nylon filament strip under it that makes it easy to open. Some of the others are downright intimidating. I once sliced my thumb knuckle and nearly set my toaster on fire in the process of breaking through a bottle’s waxy armor.
All I want is to get at that spirit, and once I have poured myself a sensible glass be able to seal it back up again. Wax gets in the way. Corks are a flawed solution. Maybe it’s time to build a better screw top, and then get folks to realize that’s the real indicator of quality.