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 when it comes to high value bottles, these do indeed get opened every day by enthusiasts.
For most of us the best opportunity to taste fine and rare antique single malts and spirits is usually at specialist events such as the Old & Rare Whisky Show. What many of the exhibitors will tell you is that no one style of bottle opener can open every bottle. If you’ve ever been to one of these shows you may well have spotted whisky enthusiasts clutching faded plastic bags and Tupperware boxes containing the eccentric bottle-opening tools that they have accumulated over the years. These improvised tool bags contain a plethora of equipment, some of the tools, such as a good cork screw, are already familiar to fine wine drinkers. However the kits also include some more exotic items, a spoon, a corn on the cob fork, a fondue fork, a knife, a scalpel, coffee filter, a sieve, chopsticks, plastic bags (unused), a pair of tights (also unused), spare stoppers…
The problem with old bottles is that the corks are old too. 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.
So here is your step by step guide to opening an old bottle of spirits:
The first step is to check what type of closure you’re dealing with.
If your bottle is sealed with a screw cap, 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.
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 a reputation for being very secure but they can be fiddly to open.
First remove any foil then lift up the spring and use it to pull back the cap.
Both screw caps 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 in contact with high strength alcohol. However this does not mean that the liquid within the bottle has necessarily come to any harm.
Whether the bottle is sealed with a cork stopper or a driven cork the first thing worth doing is to tilt the bottle slightly to moisten the cork and reduce any friction.
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 gently lever the stopper up and away from the neck of the bottle.
It’s a corker
With any luck your cork stopper might have already might come out without a hitch. In which case just wipe away any debris from the inside neck of the bottle before pouring.
You can use a corkscrew to remove a driven cork that is in good condition, or a cork that has become separated from its plastic or wooden stopper. Do this exactly as you would remove a cork from an old bottle of wine. Use a screw with a fine thread and go in at an angle.
With any luck the cork might come out cleanly but don’t count on it. You’re as likely to end up with a cork with a big hole 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 slowly, sometimes 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 loose.
Very gently insert the two blades either side of the cork inside the neck of the bottle. Then gently the pull the handle upwards.
If your cork begins to crumble, stop. It could be that all you need is the back end of a teaspoon to lever the bits of cork out.
Sweetcorn on the cob forks are used by those who 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 pieces of broken cork out one by one.
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.
Use the coffee filter, (clean) tights, muslin or the sieve to filter off the pieces of cork.
If you give the original bottle a rinse with water you can then decant the liquid back into it.
If the whole cork dropped through in one piece it will probably get stuck inside the bottle. This is when you need to deploy the bag trick…
The bag trick?
Insert an unused plastic bag inside the bottle, tilt the bottle upwards, inflate the bag, then gently 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.