Issue Six Lincoln C Chinnery III

Time for a little respect

Why is a whiskey magazine talking about cork?

Quercus Alba and Quercus Suber Linnaeus, for those not fluent in Latin or closely engaged with the Google Translate app, American white oak and Portuguese cork oak.

Cork oak is a subspecies of white oak, meaning they’re related. The twist in this family tree, no pun intended, is that they are equally important to the Bourbon (spirits) industry, but somehow cork oak doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Granted, cork is a critical line of defense against spillage, tampering and theft used by brands like Diageo, Heaven Hill and William Grant, to name a few, but once that bottle is open, the cork becomes invisible.

Ask a serious wine lover about corks and there is a strong chance they will mention one of three places: Portugal, Spain or Morocco. After that, they will tell you
which region is best for corking red wines. After that discussion, there might be a PowerPoint presentation on why screw caps are killing the wine industry. If that happens, just nod in agreement and slowly back out of the bar.

“Like wine, cork stoppers have a history. A life cycle that begins in the cork oak forest, spans the entire technical process and ends in the bottle of wine…” – Carole André, Cheval Blanc Saint Émilion

Conversely, most spirit, and Bourbon, enthusiasts have put aside all cork knowledge in favor of memorizing mash bill ratios or fermentation temperatures. The absence of gratitude and lack of recognition is apparent in a majority of modern, and classic, books about spirits. 

Cork Punching.jpg

Check the glossary of Michael Jackson’s book Whiskey or dive into The Bourbon Bartender by Jane Danger & Alla Lapushchik, even Lucius Beebe’s The Stork Club fails to pay tribute to the cork. All the aforementioned books are detailed and well written but somehow manage to leave out the key element that ensures the safety of the very subject they are written about: the spirits.  

Thankfully, the Amorim Group has spent four generations, a few million Euros and cultivated more hectares of cork oak trees than one can shake a meter stick at to prove that Portuguese cork oak is as vital as American white oak. 

Amorim is the ‘tailor of closures’ for spirits across the globe. They are a one-stop-shop for closures with a network of specialists ready, willing and able to handle any and all high-end corking, no matter the country. 

Amorim doesn’t just work with cork or work in the now, they have designs towards the future of the cork industry, on sustainability and an eye on the stars. Its research & development and innovation division (or R & D + I) isn’t three guys in lab coats drawing on a chalkboard. They are about moving the needle forward, developing new cork products and cork-related enterprises by not only using in-house ideas but funding ground-breaking proposals involving cork through their Amorim cork ventures (or ACV) division. Think of it as Shark Tank, but for cork related products.

For Amorim, sealing bottles doesn’t begin and end with cork oak. They are about crafting closures for the vessels, no matter the base material. Custom-made sealers designed by local craftsperson backed by a globally connected team. No job too small, no bottle too big, no container uncorked. What might be a high-end cork closure for one client might not fit the bill for another. It’s bespoke work with respect to the customer, region and the end user. It’s about being as versatile as cork.

When Amorim or any other major cork company harvest cork oak, it’s not about yelling ‘TIMBER!’ or stripping hectares (2.471 acres) of forest down to the stumps. Cork is all about the bark. The skin of a cork oak tree is all that is needed to make corks and the math is simple, the average lifespan of a cork oak tree is 200 years. Cork oak trees regrow bark in roughly nine years, therefore, cork can be extracted from a single tree about 17 to 18 times during its life with near zero deforestation to roughly 2.471 acres of land. 

So, without wanting to sound a little too dramatic: sustainability, thy name is Portuguese cork oak. 

Amorim Cork Processing plant south of Portugal.jpg

Cork oak, unlike American white oak, has unique properties that make it perfect for space travel,  this was a fact unknown by several cork companies. 

That is until NASA came knocking on Amorim’s doors. As it turns out, cork oak’s honeycomb cell structure combined with its complex compression composition makes it heat resistant and shock absorbent. 

NASA needed a cheap, lightweight and renewable material that could resist the heat from atmospheric entry (about 3,000 degrees fahrenheit or 1,649 degrees celsius) and absorb the vibrations of an object weighing about 4,470,000 pounds leaving and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Cork oak proved up to the challenge, protecting the crew, the equipment and the fuel tanks. 

Cork oak proved up to the challenge, protecting the crew and the equipment 

A brief bit of cork history. Before cork was used as a sealer for bottled liquids, the choices were limited to leather or cloth, neither of which had the elastic memory of cork. Both were inefficient at best and altered the taste of the liquid inside. 

However, neither could successfully expand, seal and protect like cork. Further along, bottlers used clay or wax as a sealant with slightly better results. Ask a spirit loving world history major and they might point out that the Greeks and Romans used cork but only in a limited fashion.

It was somewhere around the 1500s when glass was used as a non-cork option, but production and distribution proved costly. There wasn’t a Foxconn to cheaply produce nor an Amazon warehouse to quickly distribute glass stoppers. 

Therefore, cork became the best solution for a young bottling industry.

In the now, the cork industry is still growing. Companies like Amorim are expanding, doubling during the last 10 years in output and client demand. But this isn’t a sales pitch for buying Amorim stock or proving that white American oak isn’t worthy of attention. It’s all about the cork, that tiny tan-colored closure. It’s about putting a spotlight on an item that most enthusiasts, distillers, and distributors have forgotten. It’s time to appreciate the cork and give it the respect it deserves. 

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