The Curse of Cork

The Curse of Cork

Oops…. I guess I should have reported on this earlier, because it involves two fairly legendary bottles. However, I was hesitant to publish notes because I was having a VERY bad nose day and I haven’t gotten this new site to look anything like what I have in mind yet. (Let alone getting the old site completely up and running again…) What’s more, the curse of cork struck again.

Anyway – this will be another short and sweet report. I had invited just a few friends and ex-colleagues to the woods for a traditional open-air tasting. They were in for a rare surprise, although most guests are not whisky connoisseurs – so they probably didn’t realize that at least two of the whisky bottles in the picture would make many malt maniacs drool with nostalgia and/or lust. And I guess that even the more mundane bottles could be interesting for whisky nerds that discovered it some time after circa 2000 when all of these were bottled.

My position on cork has changed…

But before we get to the most droolable entries of the evening, the whiskies were sampled in the order in which they are shown in the picture. So, in order to throw my guests off-balance I started with a Canadian whisky – a Potter 15yo (54.9%, Cadenhead’s, bottled September 2000) – a gift from Davin de Kergommeaux. We share a love for whisky, but I don’t share his slightly patriotic love for Canadian whisky. Well, at least not for the stuff some of the distillers and bottlers released two decades ago. As I said, I had a very bad nose day, so I couldn’t pick up a lot beyond the strong ‘acetone’ overtones in the nose. Painty and a bit like an Irish whiskey without the sweetness. Maybe some vanilla. Perhaps not the best choice to open the session, because the guests were more impressed by the proof than the flavour.

And the fact that the cork broke didn’t help either. I’ve sold a bunch of bottles in my ‘reserve stock’ a few years ago, but these days I find that the chance that the cork will break upon opening has grown too high. I couldn’t sell a bottle to a collector in good conscience, knowing that there is probably a 50/50 chance that the cork will break upon opening. I now have to suffer for the fact that I actually expected to finish my own collection years ago, so I never took special precautions w.r.t. filling the bottles with inert gas, wrapping them in cellophane, etc. Without those precautions, the whisky itself often can stand the test of time. It’s a shame that the corks – at least many of the ones around around 2000 – often can’t. So, while I used to prefer ‘traditional’ corks over metal caps or artificial cork, they might have been better options for long term storage anyway.

And speaking of anyway: The cork of the Cragganmore 1985/2000 (40%, OB, Distillers Edition, CggD-6550) had survived the ravages of time – and so had the whisky. This port finish whisky impressed everybody greatly with a traditional ‘fruit bomb’ bouquet. For me the raisins were predominant, but one guest was proud of himself for finding pear. Well, it’s not an exact science. The palate was great too – even at just 40%. Loads of lovely tannins. I looked it up on whiskybase and it shows an average price of 53 euro’s. Given what’s out there these days, this seems like a great option if you want an affordable look into the past.

Next on the list was the Ardbeg 9yo 1991/2000 (46%, Murray McDavid). This was matured in a bourbon cask and even after almost two decades, the cork didn’t give any problems. So, two out of three ain’t bad – so far. The whisky wasn’t terribly complex though – and I would have liked some more fruits. It definitely offered an interesting alternative perspective on the distillery though – the new owners were still re-establishing their brand around that time with a new range. That initial official range with the 10yo and 17yo had some beauties in it, which all seemed smokier than this one – and the same goes for most botllings released by Douglas Laing at the time. This was much ‘farmier’ (hay, horse pee, animal feed, leather, toe cheese, etc.) than a roughly comparable 9yo “We Can’t Tell You It’s Lagavulin” bottling by Cadenhead’s that guest Martijn brought. This ‘bastard’ bottle was nice enough (and it had quite some oomph at 57,7%), but it had a more straightforward peaty profile with fewer organics. That being said, taking the ‘market price’ into consideration I probably would feel better about paying a few tenners for a ‘bastard’ than if I had shelled out the 170 euros that the Ardbeg 1991 currently seems to fetch at auctions. Not all +/- 2000 are Legendary…

Before I get to the last two even swankier bottles of the evening I should explain the ‘clutter’ in the foreground of the picture. It shows a ‘sommelier’s knife’ with a corkscrew (for if the cork breaks) and a simple tea sieve to keep out pieces of cork when you pour the whisky into glasses. The taste of cork doesn’t ruin whisky as it does wine, but drinking is easier without the little chunks of cork. And the spare corks in various sizes are there to allow me to (sort of) seal the bottles so we don’t have to finish all on the same evening. You shouldn’t keep them re-sealed for years though, but we’ll get back to that.

The next one was the ‘piece de resistance’ of the evening: an Ardbeg 30yo ‘Very Old’ (40%, OB, Allied). After some of the whiskies that had come before, the proof of 40% definitely should have been a little stronger. One had to dig a little deeper with this one, but there are many rewards to be discovered. More like the earlier independent bottling by Murray McDavid, this offers a radically different perspective on the distillery – and another era. More parsley and bicycle repair shop that I recall ever finding in Ardbeg before. Very nice, but in my book not quite worth the 1500 GBP that The Whisky Exchange wants for a bottle these days.

That ‘value’ is extra painful to report on because, you guessed it, the cork of this bottle broke as well. But at least it proved that I had made the right decision not passing the problem along to some unsuspecting buyer. Well, at least ‘morally speaking’ it was the right decision 😉 I guess I’ll need to find an excuse to finish the other half of the re-sealed bottle soon because another theory of mine was confirmed with the last bottle of this session.

That was the Caol Ila 21yo 1975/1997 (61.3% UD Rare Malts), a bottle that doesn’t count for the 50/50 broken cork score of the evening because it was actually opened exactly 2 years earlier at another session in the woods. The bottle was about 2/3 empty at the end of that night – which means that for the optimistic observer it was still 1/3 full. I decided to use the rest of this bottle to (further) test my theory about the need to finish an open bottle quickly once you’ve passed the halfway point. This bottle proved it – it had very little left of the complexity it showed just two years ago (and during many earlier sessions with other instances of this particular bottling).

So, if you ever find yourself in a similar bind, why not try to set up a sample-swap with a drinking buddy that faces a similar problem. You’ll get to experience more different whiskies and other ‘connoisseurs’ get to experience a whisky that’s still in its prime.

That’s it for now – I’ve got to hit the proverbial sack. Another tasting report with at least one more recent whisky is on its way though…

Sweet drams,


2 thoughts on “The Curse of Cork”

  1. I just had my first cork failure this week. Second drink of Son Of A Peat and the cork snapped in half – cue me running around for a solution, none of the corks I had saved aside was going to fit the bottle, and anyhow I had half a cork out of reach at the bottom of the bottle, luckily I had a saved a Port Charlotte 10 bottle to tranfer the contents too. So much to just saving corks, now I got to keep empty bottles too…oh well another excuse to drink up…slainte.

    1. If you couldn’t find a fitting spare cork, perhaps you just haven’t collected enough spare corks yet… 😉 Don’t give up, they don’t take up too much space. And I must say that a piece of cork in the bottle doesn’t seem to have a lot of effects, provided you manage to empty the bottle in a few weeks. Or invest in a few sample bottles so you can decant the big bottle and decide later if you want to drink or swap the samples.

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