If you owned the most expensive whisky in the world would you sell it or open it? Most of us might cash in on a £1 million bottle, but what if it’s worth £5000 or even £200? What if it’s a very special whisky? When it comes to high value bottles, the truth is that they do indeed get opened and tasted every day, by dedicated whisky enthusiasts.
For most of us the best opportunity to taste old, fine and rare single malts and spirits is usually at specialist events such as the Old & Rare Whisky Show and this is the best place to compare notes, not just on the whiskies themselves, but also on opening fragile bottles without causing damage to the liquid. What many of the exhibitors will tell you, is that there is no one style of bottle opener that can open every bottle.
The problem with rare old bottles is that the corks are also old
Cork stoppers and driven corks are excellent in many ways. The problem is they do tend to disintegrate over extended time and contact with high strength alcohol.
If you’ve ever been to one of the niche interest whisky shows you may well have spotted whisky enthusiasts clutching faded plastic bags and worn Tupperware boxes. Each container conceals the eclectic bottle-opening instruments that have been accumulated over many years of tastings, experience, and disappointments.
The must-have essentials for your bottle-opening tool kit
In fact these improvised tool bags can contain a staggering selection of equipment. Some of the utensils in these kits, such as a good quality corkscrew, and even a simple cork puller, are everyday essentials and will already be familiar to fine wine drinkers. However the best bottle opening kits also include certain, let’s say, more exotic implements: a long-handled teaspoon, a pair of corn-on-the-cob holders, a fondue fork, a basic penknife, a scalpel, a single chopstick, a small sieve, stoppers (various sizes), a clean plastic bag (without vent holes), muslin, an unbleached coffee filter (unused), a pair of tights (also unused)…
If each of their applications in a whisky tasting context are not immediately obvious, then all will be explained in our step by step guide to opening an old bottle of spirits:
The first step is to check what type of bottle closure you’re dealing with.
If your bottle is sealed with one of the many types of screwcap, opening the bottle should be perfectly simple. After checking that the bottle has its original tamper-evident closure intact just unscrew the cap by turning it anti clockwise. Then pour. Note that if you are unscrewing a spirit or liqueur bottle that has leaked in the distant past you might find that sugars from the liquid have dried and encrusted on the inside of the cap and stuck the lid fast. If this is the case you can either soak the lid for a few seconds or ask someone stronger than yourself to open the bottle.
Spring caps were used around the early-mid 20th century on some bottles such as brands owned by The Distillers Company as well as Martell Cognac. Spring caps have an excellent reputation for being impressively secure over many decades, but they can be fiddly to open.
First remove any foil then locate the metal wire that is holding the cap securely in place. It will be facing downwards. Lift the wire and use it to pull back the spring cap.
For all metal caps, check for signs of rust on the inside. If there is no rust then screwcaps and spring caps can usually be reused to reseal the bottle.
Cork Stopper or Driven Cork
Cork stoppers and driven corks are prone to deterioration over extended time, particularly when they are in contact with high strength alcohol. However this does not mean that the liquid within the bottle has necessarily come to any harm. Your whisky has probably survived intact for decades under that cork, the trick now is to remove the cork without causing damage to the liquid.
Whether the bottle is sealed with a cork stopper or a driven cork the first thing to do is tilt the bottle to moisten the cork and reduce any friction between the glass and the cork.
Playing With Knives
Use a knife or scalpel to cleanly cut away any external foil, wax or capsule.
If the bottle has a wooden or plastic stopper, lever the stopper up and away from the neck of the bottle. Take your time and work your way around the bottle.
It’s A Corker
If you have been able to remove the cork stopper without a hitch then well done. Now just wipe away any debris from the inside neck of the bottle before pouring it into your glass to taste.
If the plastic or wooden part of the stopper came away cleanly but has become separated from its cork – or if you are dealing with a driven cork – you can use a corkscrew to remove it. This works particularly well if the cork is in good condition.
Use the corkscrew exactly as you would to remove a cork from an old bottle of wine. Use a good quality corkscrew with a fine thread and go in at a slight angle.
With any luck the cork might come out cleanly but don’t count on it. You’re as likely to end up with most of the cork still lingering in the neck of the bottle, but now it has a big hole going through it.
If the cork is secure and airtight but feels fragile then you can pump the cork up with an air pressure wine opener.
This is quite fun.
Inject the needle into the bottle through the cork then pump air into the bottle until the cork pops out, sometimes it rises up slowly, sometimes jumps out quite suddenly. If you can hear the hiss of air leaking out as you pump, give up.
On The Pull
A cork puller or ‘butlers thief’ is a neat alternative if the cork feels soft or loose.
Very cautiously insert the two blades either side of the cork inside the neck of the bottle. Then slowly the pull the handle upwards while turning it so it spirals up.
Don’t be afraid of combining multiple tools. The cork puller can work particularly well in conjunction with a corkscrew if the conditions are right. Apply lateral pressure to the two blades while pulling the cork out with the corkscrew.
If your cork begins to crumble, stop. It could be that all you need at this stage is the back end of a teaspoon to lever the bits of cork out. Tilt the bottle and carefully excavate the crumbs of cork. Fling the crumbs of cork away from the bottle as each one becomes loose.
Sweetcorn-on-the-cob holders can be used if you prefer the classic double handed pincer action.
Chopsticks on the other hand have the advantage of length for dexterous leverage.
Not Too Cheesy
Alternatively, try well proportioned fondue forks to pick out small pieces of broken cork one by one before they fall back into the bottle.
Ever Wondered What The Tights Are For?
If, despite all your efforts, the cork ends up in tiny pieces inside the bottle, all is not lost. You just need more tools.
First decant the liquid from the bottle into a clean jug or decanter.
Depending on the condition of the liquid and the size of the debris, use either the coffee filter, muslin, sieve or the (clean) tights to filter off the pieces of cork.
If you give the original bottle a rinse with clean water you can then decant the liquid back into it.
If the whole cork, or a large part of it, dropped into the bottle in one piece it will probably get stuck inside the bottle. This is when you need to deploy the bag trick…
The Bag Trick?
This is simpler and more effective than it looks.
First insert an unused plastic bag inside the bottle (keeping the opening of the bag out of the bottle), tilt the bottle upwards so the piece of cork falls close to the neck of the bottle, inflate the bag by blowing into it, then steadily remove the inflated bag to extract the cork.
This works every time.
Finally, replace the cork with a new stopper.
Remember to keep some spare cork stoppers of different sizes for when you need to reseal your bottle.