Continuing our look at the cork and its place in Scotch…
I also got in touch with a representative from Amorim one of the largest manufacturers in the world, based in Portugal. Deborah Guimaraens is the sales manager for Bar Top Corks also called "T-Corks."
My job is to sell a particular type of cork called bar top corks. These corks have a cork body/shank attached to some type of top that can be made of plastic, wood, metal and other materials.
What I can say, is that the main reason corks are used in whisky or spirits is because, in theory, no-one drinks a whole bottle at once. Hence, you need a special cork that can be easily reinserted into the bottle. Bar top corks are not compressed during bottling as in wine corks. Their diameter should be 1 to 1.5 mm wider than the bottle neck in order to fulfill it’s purpose as a closure, to ensure a good fit. This means that the consumer can easily open and close the bottle using the same cork, without having to use a cork screw and without running the risk of falling particles into the spirit. Cork as a raw material also has the wonderful ability to deal with small bottle irregularities, very common in spirits – particularly in small producers who buy small bottle runs. For an irregular bottle a cork closure is by far the most efficient.
The other big reason for using a cork in a spirit is for consumer differentiation. If you look at the whisky market as a whole, the premium whiskies are all in cork, and the standard blends are all in screw cap. It’s an image thing. I am sure the marketing experts from any large whisky company can give you precise reasons, they probably have market studies to prove this I am sure.
TCA does affect whisky of course the same way it affects all beverages. The difference in whisky is that the TCA level has to be a lot higher – in it’s 20’s at least – before it’s detected by the human nose.
This is because the fumes of the whisky overpower the TCA on the nose, it is more easily detectable on the palate. The TCA threshold varies enormously with the flavour profile of the whisky, for example you would probably detect it more readily in a Dewar’s than you would in a Talisker.
We don’t have specific studies concerning the affect of TCA on whisky as our corks go into many many types of spirits and fortifieds and, as you know, the variety in enormous.
At Whisky Live New York, I talked about corks in some detail with Ian Millar, Distillery Manager and Chief Ambassador for Glenfiddich.
KE - Let’s talk corks. The Glenfiddich 12 uses a screw top while the rest of your expressions use cork.
IM - The perception of the consumer is that cork is quality…so we’ve been thinking about moving the 12 year old to cork as well. But cork brings with it some issues.
If you look at the wine trade right now a lot of the new world wines are actually going away from corks to synthetics – the seal is good and you don’t get so many returns or consumer issues in relation to a spoiled cork.
The Balvenie 10 year old, which is our biggest seller with a cork, gets a lot of complaints about spoiled corks.
KE - IS this a real problem, or just baseless complaints?
IM - No, We take the whisky back, and you can smell it. So we’ve been looking at bottling with a synthetic cork. But the problem with synthetic cork is that they haven’t been through a trial. You’d have to test the product in the bottle and how do you simulate that for 40 years?
So, though we’d like to move the 12 to cork, keep in mind – Glenfiddich 12 outsells Balvenie 10, eight bottles to one. And we are already having lots issues with the corks in the 10, so we want to be sure, before we make such a move. Remember, we are a big company and we bottle a lot of product. The Glenfiddich 12 is a high speed line, and we’d have to make massive changes to the line to incorporate cork.
But we are getting a lot of mixed messages – the wine trade and a few others are looking at moving away from cork to synthetics and screw tops. At the same time we know we can’t move away from cork to synthetic because of a lack of data showing how well they’ll work long-term. So we’d be taking a big chance. So for now, we will wait and see how things settle, before we make our next move.
If synthetics are proven, or screw caps become more socially
acceptable, and it blows any quality perception issues out of the
water, we could more more products to screw caps.
KE – Well tell me, how long have you been with a screw cap on the 12?
IM – Forever.
KE – Exactly. So a screw top is obviously not cutting into your sales, so why even think about going to a cork on the 12?
IM - It’s easy to settle for what you’ve got, but we want more. And the only way to get more, is to keep on improving. And to show the consumer that you’re making every effort to improve the quality of what you produce, both inside the bottle and how attractive it looks, and how it is packaged are all factors in the perception.
KE – But do you think there is a problem with the perception of the quality of the 12? And if there IS a problem with the perception, will a cork change that?
IM – If I look at a wine bottle, and I see it has a screw top on it, it almost puts me off buying it.
KE – I agree with you.
IM – So that perception is already there. Two products sitting on a shelf, one with a screw-top, one with a cork, that might push a consumer to buy one over the other. And that affects their perception of quality. The packaging is all about selling that first bottle. That taste is what sells the second, the third bottle. So you’ve got to get that first impression right. It’s all in the packaging.
I must admit, I like pulling out a cork, it really is quite
satisfying…but apparently, aside from my own satisfaction, the cork
isn’t bringing anything to the party.
I must also admit, that recently I was served an Australian wine that, while pretty
damn good, I was irked to pay $60 for
something with a screw cap.
Obviously, there are cost savings to the industry. I wonder, though,
if moving to screw tops would result in any discernible reduction in
the price to my favorite malts. I wonder if the cost differential is
big enough to pass on, or this would be pure profit to the distillers?
We will see where the industry goes – and how consumers respond to the (inevitable??) move.
Hope that answers your question Jody…
Thanks to Jimmy Robertson (Morrison-Bowmore), Jim McEwan &
(Bruichladdich), John Glaser (Compass Box), Marty Duffy (Diageo), Dave
Robertson (JMR), Graham Eunson, (Glenmorangie), Ian Millar (Glenfiddich), Deborah Guimaraens (Amorim) and Neil
Macdonald (Chivas Brothers) for their input.