Episode 065 - The Cork Episode

Cork Episode Orig.jpg

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

This time around, we're going to take some time to look at one of the unsung heroes of the wine and spirits world: corks. These things are running around all over the place. I’ve got a drawer full of them at home, which probably says more about me than I’d like it to.

But have you ever wondered where corks come from or how they’re made? Are they fashioned by cork elves in some dark, medieval forest in Europe, or is there some sinister, industrial factory in china, billowing smoke and cranking these little nuggets out by the thousands?

As you might guess, neither of those hypotheticals are true, and we’ll get into all of that and more in this week’s episode.

  • First, we’ll look at the history of cork and how it’s produced.
  • Then we’ll consider the four main types of bottle closures you’ll encounter in wine and spirits today.
  • We’ll also give you a few tips on how to identify and avoid a common flaw called “cork taint” in your wine and spirits.
  • And we’ll round out this episode with some tips for opening corks (or rescuing broken corks) like a boss.

Featured Cocktail: The Blood and Sand

This week’s featured cocktail is the Blood and Sand, named the eponymous 1922 bullfighting movie by Rudolph Valentino. And there’s a couple little connections I’ll make here that actually tie in nicely with this week’s episode.

To make the Blood and Sand cocktail, you’ll need:

  • 3/4 oz Blood orange juice
  • 3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth
  • 3/4 oz Cherry Heering (which is a cherry liqueur)
  • 3/4 oz Blended Scotch

Since this drink has citrus juice in it, you’ll want to combine all these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake for about 20 seconds, and then strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Some recipes out there also call for a flamed orange peel garnish, so if that’s a move you’ve got in your cocktail repertoire, this is an excellent place to use it.

Now, two of the countries that produce a lot of cork and are therefore important to this episode are Spain and Portugal. The Spain connection with this cocktail is obvious with the reference to bullfighting in the name, but I also wanted to throw in a little shout-out to Portugal because cork production accounts for a sizeable chunk of that nation’s economy, along with wine and Port production.

When I visited Lisbon for the first time about a year and a half ago (and you’ll be hearing more about this trip later), I ran into a strange little liqueur called ginjinha, which is made from sour cherries. We brought some home and really couldn’t figure out what to do with it until this drink came along. So, if you ever end up with a bottle of ginjinha and don’t know how to use it in your cocktails, think about swapping it in for Cherry Heering. It does the trick.

Cork History and Production

A  Quercus Suber  acorn

A Quercus Suber acorn

Cork is made from the outer bark of the cork oak (Quercus Suber), which is native to Portugal and many regions of the western Mediterranean Basin, including North Africa. One thing that surprised me is that Quercus Suber is an evergreen oak, which kind of blows our minds here in the United States because oak trees in our world are one of those quintessential deciduous trees that shed their leaves in autumn. Growing up, I spent plenty of time raking oak leaves in my yard, so the thought of an evergreen oak tree is kinda revolutionary to me.

Archaeological accounts of cork usage date back to at least the time of the ancient Greeks, with unquestionable widespread use during the Roman empire right up through the present day. Cork was used, expectedly, to seal containers of various sizes. It was used to make buoys and flotation devices, and it was even cut and shaped into footwear because of its natural shock-absorbing characteristics.

If you look at pretty much any piece of bark with a magnifying glass, it’s filled with little pores, and at a microscopic level, it’s almost got a honeycomb appearance with all these little cavities that can be compressed and reduce shock.

And as luck would have it, the bark of the cork oak just happens to be a perfect combination of sponginess and sturdiness, which is why it was used traditionally in such a wide range of applications. It also does a really good job fitting the form of its container, which has been a huge bonus for cork makers and bottle makers, especially as manufacturing procedures for both have become more and more standardized and precise.

Another cool thing about cork is that it’s a renewable resource. A mature, healthy cork tree can have its outer bark harvested every 7-9 years. So when you’re driving through cork country, it’s not uncommon to see trees that look like they’ve had their entire trunk denuded...because they have. Don’t be concerned, though. The trees recover quite well, and the people who harvest the cork keep a close eye on the health of their “tree herd” because healthy trees are good for literally everyone.


Cork, Oxidation, and Aging

Standardization and mechanization in both the bottle and cork industries really made a powerful impact on the wine and spirits world. In the pre-industrial days, you really couldn’t make a consistently good vintage of wine because each bottle/cork pairing would do a better or worse job of keeping bad stuff out and good stuff in.

The result was that you couldn’t reliably age wine for a very long time. But once things got standardized, winemakers had access to corks that led to a more predictable rate of oxidation.

What does that mean?

Well, oxidation is what happens when air mixes with wine, and this is what accounts for some of the notes that we know and love in mature, well-aged wines. And these notes, when put in the hands of a wine critic with a pen, are what can fetch lots of money for a given bottle, relative to its peers.

Some types of wine, like Madeira and Sherry, are intentionally oxidized, but for the most part, the non-fortified wine world views oxidation as a flaw. Only in very small and gradual increments can oxygen work its magic on a bottle in a cellar and be deemed beneficial.

So, if winemakers can reliably predict how much oxygen a cork will let in over time, then they can have more confidence in and control over how they and others treat that wine. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you magnify this effect across an entire industry and a worldwide consumer base, it’s really monumental.

Cork and Composite Cork

This brings us to the first two types of closures you’ll encounter in the wine and spirits world: cork and composite cork.

Real vs composite cork.jpg

Now, if you think about it, you probably have a pretty intuitive sense of how to tell these two different materials apart. Real cork usually looks like it comes from one contiguous piece of cork bark - because it does - and composite material is a compressed, smooshed together mass of little cork bits. So each real cork is truly unique - dare I say “quirky” - and most composite corks look the same. They’ve got the look of those cork boards that you’d tack things up on in school or at work.  

Scientific accounts vary as to how much oxygen a real cork lets in per year. But the number isn’t all that important for us non-winemakers. What is important is that real cork is waaaaay better than composite cork when it comes to keeping out the bad stuff and letting in just enough oxygen.

What this means is that if you encounter a composite cork in your wine, chances are, it’s meant to be drunk young. You shouldn’t wait. Don’t age it with your elegant, Left Bank Bordeaux. Crush that bad boy with a steak.

Looking at it a different way, composite corks are fairly popular in mass-produced, bargain white wines and young, uncomplicated red wines. So, if it comes in a magnum bottle and costs less than $20, you’re probably looking at a composite cork. And in these situations, at least to me, composite makes sense.

Synthetic Corks and Screwtops

Increasingly, we’ve been seeing more synthetic corks and screw tops entering the market, and these are the other two types of closures we should discuss.

Synthetic tops and screw tops with membranes have one main advantage over real cork, and that advantage is that they prevent a common wine flaw called “cork taint.”

Regarding Cork Taint

Cork taint is another name for the presence of a compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (also known as “TCA”). And if you’ve got this bummer of a chemical in your wine, chances are it’ll smell somewhere in between moldy cardboard and wet dog. Of course, the compound can be present in different concentrations, and some people are more sensitive to it than others. But the moral of the story is, it’s bad for the wine.

This is why, at nice restaurants, if you order a bottle of wine, they’ll present you with the cork and let you smell it before accepting the bottle. If the wine has cork taint, you should be able to detect it, especially because it’s certain ammonia-based compounds from the cork that cause cork taint in the first place.

So, returning to screw tops and synthetic corks, no actual cork means no possibility of cork taint. These types of closures have also been gaining ground in recent years by attempting to provide more and better options for winemakers who want to control the oxidation process as wine ages. So, in the long-run, it’s entirely possible that synthetic will eclipse the humble cork, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This is largely due to the quality control measures put in place by cork producers during the harvesting and processing portions of cork manufacturing.

The result is that, at least anecdotally, incidences of cork taint have been on the decline for years. Pair that with the singularly pleasing sound of a real cork being removed from a bottle, and I think it’s safe to say that real cork will always have a place in the wine and spirits world.

Cork and Spirits

Well, there’s three main points to make when it comes to cork and spirits.

Can a Spirit Have Cork Taint?

The first is that spirits can absolutely be affected by cork taint. There’s nothing about increased alcohol that in some way eliminates or prevents TCA from occurring. But spirits often make this funky-smelling compound more difficult to detect due to the alcohol burn and more robust flavor profiles. So, if you do detect cork taint in your whiskey, it might be a good deed for you to inform the retailer, since such a noticeable flaw in a spirit likely impacts a number of bottles in that batch.

Storage: Spirits vs. Wine

Another point of contention is whether or not you want the liquid to be in contact with the cork when storing a wine or spirit, and this is one where the road diverges. For wines, you want to store those on their side so that the liquid can stay in contact with the cork and create a more effective seal. The oxygen will still find a way in as the bottle ages, but bacteria and other harmful stuff won’t as long as the cork stays wet.

For spirits, the opposite is true. If you’ve got a real cork and that cork spends any significant time in contact with the alcohol, there is an increased chance that it will dry out and either break off or allow harmful evaporation.

How to Avoid Evaporation

The last thing to keep in mind is that you really want a good, solid seal on your spirits bottles if you want to prevent evaporation. So, for nice spirits, look for bottles with either real cork or rubber synthetic closures that will form a solid seal with the bottle. Generally, stuff that comes with a screw top is going to be lower-end product anyway, but this is just one more little factoid to tuck away and keep in mind as you do your spirits shopping, especially for stuff you want to keep around for more than a few months.

Removing Corks

waiters corkscrew.jpg

Before we round out this episode, I want to take a few seconds here to explain how to properly remove a cork and how to rescue a cork that has been broken off.

The first thing to ask yourself is what tools you have available for opening your bottle - and here, we’re really talking about wine, but I’ve definitely had instances where the cork has broken off in my whiskey bottle, and I’ve had to resort to the ol’ corkscrew, so this does apply across genres.

The Virtues of the Waiter's Corkscrew

The classic options is probably the waiter’s corkscrew, and this is my favorite for a few reasons:

  1. It’s compact and foldable, so you can buy a couple and take them on the road when necessary. Just don’t try and bring on on the Eurostar train. Learned that the hard way.
  2. There are usually 2 lips differently-spaced for leveraging the cork, which is kind of hard to explain without a visual, but the upshot is, you can tunnel your corkscrew into the cork, get it started, then screw in a little further and re-adjust your leverage point. This makes it very unlikely that you’ll meet a cork you can’t conquer with just one hand and a stable surface.
  3. Finally, you have a lot of flexibility with your corkscrew, so if you have to rescue a partially broken or somewhat sunken cork, this is the tool you’re gonna want to use.

How to Rescue a Broken Cork

Now, let’s say you do find yourself in a situation where some unwitting acolyte has gotten themselves in a pickle and failed to extract a cork correctly, resulting in a precarious situation where your group of desperate revelers is debating between pushing the crumbling cork down into the drink or simply giving up.

This just won’t do. But here are the steps you can take to rescue your bottle in distress:

  • Step 1: rescue the bottle (gently, politely) from the clutches of the defeated de-corker-in-training.
  • Step 2: Unsheath your trusty waiter’s corkscrew and prepare your spiraled blade for combat.
  • Step 3: Carefully clear any loose cork from the opening so that you have a solid, if uneven, ground upon which to do battle.
  • Step 4: Select the thickest and least damaged section of cork, and begin screwing in the corkscrew gently, but firmly, making sure that you’re not too close to the edge of the cork.
  • Step 5: When the corkscrew is twisted completely through the cork, select your leverage setting and apply extremely even pressure while pulling, making sure to tilt the bottle slightly so that no loose cork falls into the bottle.

If you are strategic, gentle, and poised, you should be able to rescue your bottle with little-to-no consequence to the product beyond perhaps a few crumbs of cork in the most dire of circumstances. Like driving in sub-optimal conditions, this maneuver benefits from experience when all variables are normal. So be sure to practice your bottle opening skills often to be sure you’re prepared.

If you have any questions about corks, or anything else in the wine, spirits, or cocktail realm, please shoot us an email at podcast@modernbarcart.com, and if you’ve got any amazing corks or cork art you want to share, well then head on over to Facebook or Instagram and give us a little shout-out so we can check out what you’ve got!