We get letters v.31: Booze and Corks

Christine sends me a note through the Internets tube:

Kate,

I enjoy your site very much!!!

Here’s a question I’ve been trying to find an answer for but no luck so far.

Why to most spirits and aperitifs come in screw top bottles rather than corked bottles, no matter if it’s swill or pricey?

Thanks very much,

Christine

To answer this question properly, it’s best to visit corks biggest fan – the wine bottle. Wine uses cork for two primary purposes.

One, cork seals the bottle quite nicely, preventing leakage and allowing the bottles to travel great distances.

Second, and more importantly, it restricts the amount air/oxygen into the bottle. As any wine obsessive can tell you, when you expose wine to air, weird and strange things happen to the wine, sometimes not for the better. The cork then becomes a way to control the flavor and characteristics of the wine.

Very few spirits are as affected by air as much as wine can be. Part of this has to do with the nature of alcohol. Alcohol is far more resistant to oxidation than, say, sugar compounds. Thus, a glass of 80 proof vodka is unlikely to taste differently after being exposed to air for several days than say a glass of wine that has far less alcohol content and far more sugar compounds.

Now let’s move over to booze. My choice of vodka in the above example was quite intentional, as vodka is essentially alcohol and water. That’s it. Any flavor discerned in a vodka is due to impurities in the water. As such, when vodka is bottled , it simply does not need to to concern itself with oxidation, as an unopened bottle will change very little in taste and other characteristics, even after several years. Sealing a bottle with cork would be an extravagance, adding nothing to the vodka save for a bit of aesthetic.

Of my current collection of 45+ bottles of booze I have around the house, only five or so have corks. Two are bottles of whiskey (one Scotch and one Bourbon) and the other three are higher end bottles of liqueur. The whiskeys, I suspect really don’t need the cork, because any degradation of the spirit will more likely come from exposure to light rather than exposure to air.

The liqueurs I am less sure about. They have far higher sugar content than your whiskeys and vodkas, and far lower alcohol content. So they are technically less stable against oxidation than a vodka or a whiskey. However, they are still far more stable than a wine, whose characteristics can change within an hour or two after being exposed to copious amounts of air.

So the short answer to your question is that booze simply does not need cork. Spirits are far more stable of a beverage than wine. And a bottle of vodka, whiskey or even a schnapps is far more likely to be consumed before it has the chance to go bad. Cork would be an unneeded luxury to be added to the final price of the spirit.

Finally, do keep in mind that what I wrote above is a generalization. There are folks out there who could paint a far clearer picture than the one I painted above.