So Many Possibilities

We just received in the new James E. Pepper 1776 Rye Whiskey $23.99, another inexpensive LDI variation that should please fans of Bulleit looking for more punch (at 100 proof). However, when I popped open a bottle for our staff to try I immediately noticed a funky, moldy-Bay-Area-closet aroma coming from the bottle. The cork was simply brimming with TCA upon nosing. I tasted the whiskey, which still tasted like the rye I remembered from a previous appointment. Within a minute of air exposure, however, it had turned completely neutral. Just to make sure I wasn't out of my mind, I went to the shelf, grabbed a second bottle and opened it side-by-side with the original. The difference was night and day. I had encountered the rare, but very possible, "corked" bottle of rye whiskey.

What the heck does "corked" mean, you ask? We've tackled this subject before on the blog, but I think I could write about this every single day and never achieve the impact I wish an educational article like this could have. TCA, otherwise known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, is the result of airborne fungi coming into contact with the chlorophenols taken up by cork trees, normally due to the industrial pollutant found in many pesticides and wood preservatives. Basically, the fungus gets into the wood, the wood gets turned into cork, the cork goes into the bottle, and the wine or whiskey in that bottle gets totally ruined. Sometimes cork taint is totally unnoticeable other than the fact that the wine or whiskey simply tastes neutral or "off." Sometimes it can smell like a wet dog wrapped in old newspaper. Or anywhere in between!

There's nothing you can do to avoid cork taint other than by not buying anymore wine or whiskey. Any producer that uses cork is vulnerable. Nevertheless, I'll always see one or two people a year lifting a bottle upside-down, trying to see if they can spot any floating cork in the bottle. We regularly get people bringing back wine that was "bad" due to a crumbling cork. However, pieces or floating cork in the bottle or a crumbling cork when you open the bottle have nothing to do with TCA (or bad wine). A bottle is referred to as "corked" because the fungus in the cork resulted in the wine or whiskey tasting like complete ass, not because the quality of the cork was bad or came into contact with the wine. It has nothing to do with leakage. It has nothing to do with oxidation.

Unfortunately for consumers, cork taint or TCA is only one of many possible flaws that may result in your bottle tasting like total crap. Your wine could have heat damage. Your wine could be "reduced," meaning the bottler added too much sulfur to prevent oxidation (usually putting a copper penny in the wine will help this). Screw caps and synthetic corks are ways to prevent TCA taint, however, as Wikipedia writes, "screw caps and synthetic corks, however, can be prone to another aroma taint: sulphidisation, which arises from the reduced oxygen supply which concentrates sulphurous smells arising from universal preservatives." The reason that cork works so well with wine is that its porousness allow the liquid to breath. A small amount of oxygen helps to release some of the sulphur added to prevent too much oxidation. Yet, the statistics say that about one out of every ten bottles of wine is corked.

If it's true that almost 10% of wine bottles are corked, the chances are that you've come across one of these in your drinking experience. The problem with not understanding cork taint or spoilage is that it leads to false associations with either the producer or retailer as pertains to quality. "Yuck! This wine tastes terrible! I'll never buy from that winery again!" or, even worse for me, "Yuck, that whiskey tastes like a moldy paper towel! I'll never take that David guy's recommendation again!" That scenario could have happened had I not decided to open that bottle of James E. Pepper 1776 Rye Whiskey today. Someone would have bought it, taken it home, and possibly blamed the terrible flavor on either the producer's product or the retailer's judgment.

What do you do when a bottle is corked? Simple - you take it back to where you bought it. Put the cork back in the bottle, DO NOT dump it out (you might need proof), and bring it back to the retailer. If the retailer doesn't believe you or makes no attempt to access the quality, then the retailer is a chump and that's the first sign that you should stop shopping at that establishment. A retailer can always get credited back for corked or spoiled bottles. It just means they have to do a little work to get it. If they roll their eyes it means they're lazy and they don't feel like doing the paperwork on your behalf - another sign that you should stop giving them your money. Even if you're wrong (and a lot of people are) about the wine being corked, the retailer should still exchange the bottle out and give you a fresh one.

As someone who has spent many years fighting the pedantry of the wine and liquor industry, I can tell you that few subjects are more controversial than TCA cork taint. "Hmmm....I don't know. Do you think it's corked?" We get in fights about this all the time at K&L. If someone even mentions the word corked at a Bordeaux tasting the wine is finished - even if there's nothing wrong with it. Once the idea is even proposed there's always a few people who won't be able to see past the possibility. The problem with Bordeaux is that there is sometimes an earthy, farmy characteristic to the wine naturally, confusing the taster between the possible inherent quality of the wine and the presence of actual TCA.

The point, however, is this: TCA cork taint is one of many reasons a wine or whiskey can taste bad. The more you know about it, the more you can identify it. I'm going to keep this one at the Redwood City store if anyone wants to come by and smell it. Legally, I can't let you actually taste it, but you won't need to (and wouldn't want to) anyway. One whiff should be more than enough.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll