WARNING. The following paragraph contains descriptions which might be unsettling for experienced whisky drinkers. Reader discretion is advised.
It’s your (insert very special occasion here). You decide to crack open a whisky, not just any whisky, but a very special whisky you’ve been saving for a long, long time. You take a look at the label, and fondly think back to the day you bought it those many, many years ago. It’s now time to open it. Your excitement turns to unease. You know how corks and time aren’t the best of friends. You tip the bottle slowly, count to 5, and take a deep breath. Here we go. You give the cork a slight twist, then another, then…rip.
Cork is bark. It comes from a type of oak tree (Quercus suber) commonly found in Portugal and Spain. There are people out there who think natural spaces should never, ever be tampered with. Our planet should only be enjoyed with our eyes, and never with our hands. Cork harvesting is actually a win-win. It’s good for the tree (as long as it’s done at the right time), and good for us (sometimes). Regular harvesting improves the health and vitality of a cork tree. Cork trees usually get harvested every 9-12 years. With each cycle, the quality of the cork improves. One last thing. Cork trees aren’t endangered. In fact, there’s more supply than demand. I know the news would have you believe everything is going horribly right now, but cork trees are doing just fine.
Despite cork being around for thousands of years, it didn’t gain prominence as a bottle closure until the 17th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire, everything became localized. If you weren’t near a cork tree, you didn’t use corks. That all changed in the 1630s when Kenelm Digby invented the super-strength bottle. Corks could now be standardized and made to fit. This is also when wine shifted from something that had to be consumed quickly (wine turns to vinegar if not sealed properly), to something that could be matured over time. Interesting fact. Back then, you’d never put a cork all the way into a bottle. The first “official” corkscrew was still over a century away.
Whisky doesn’t age in the bottle. Like Peter Pan, a 12-year-old will always be a 12-year-old. Premium wine is meant to be cellared, and should always be sealed with a cork. A cork allows oxygen to enter the bottle in tiny increments. This helps the wine mature and gain complexity. A screw cap would inhibit this process. Most of the wines on liquor store shelves today are designed for immediate consumption. They don’t need to use corks. So why use them if they’re not necessary? People tend to buy with their eyes. Corks are synonymous with quality. Screw caps are synonymous with hobos.
Very special occasion whiskies are usually rare and irreplaceable. The older the whisky, the more likely your cork is going to rip. Whisky isn’t wine, it can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be polished off in one night. For those of you who’ve yet to experience a rip, hopefully this’ll help:
1.) Find a replacement cork or closure.
I always keep a bunch of spare corks for this very reason. Make sure you keep a variety of sizes too.
2.) Gently remove the cork stuck in the bottle with a corkscrew.
This has never gone well for me. Expect breakaway bits.
3.) Filter your whisky through some cheesecloth.
Lest we forget, all of this is being done in the midst of a very special occasion. Don’t be surprised if your guests start looking at you strangely after step #3. Now let’s pretend your very special occasion whisky was sealed with a screw cap. You open the bottle without incident. The fill line hasn’t changed since the day you bought it because the seal is airtight. Your guests aren’t desperately trying to find your cheesecloth drawer. To (very loosely) borrow a line from Ocean’s Eleven, “Screw caps may not make me laugh, but they also don’t make me cry.”