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All Screwed Up

By Debra Meiburg MW

What do beer, perfume, medicine and cosmetics have in common? All have been known to use a corkscrew. Originally known as bottle-screws, corkscrews were invented in England in the mid-1600’s to wrest open bottles of beer and cider. Because bubble-pressure required a tight-seal, corks were forced deep into bottle necks and it was all but impossible to extract them without a special tool. Later, special mini-corkscrews were designed for use on small bottles storing other liquid goods and provisions.

Early corkscrews were designed based on a steel worm, or screw, used to extract unspent bullets from muskets and pistols. By the 1800’s, the firms and blacksmiths manufacturing steel worms for muzzle-loading firearms also made corkscrews.

For centuries, wine was stored in wooden barrels and consumed fairly quickly to prevent spoilage. Upon discovery that wine not only survives but evolves and improves in oxygen-tight bottles, new bottle designs emerged to allow easy, horizontal stacking for long term storage. It then became important to drive lengthy corks firmly into the bottles to ensure a leak-proof fit and corkscrews soon became a necessity.

T-shaped corkscrews, with a simple handle and a helical worm were the earliest designs and can still be found in use today. Because it takes 50-100 pounds strength to extract a cork with the T-screw unit, umpteen variations have been devised to ease extraction and – in many cases – to entertain. More than one cheeky corkscrew manufacturer has designed corkscrews capitalizing on the worm’s resemblance to a certain male part. In turn, handle shapes are frequently crafted to resemble a lady’s legs.

The ubiquitous folding, pocket-sized corkscrew seen in most restaurants is affectionately known as the “waiter’s friend” and was designed in 1883 by a German engineer who also added a conveniently concealed cutter to remove the bottle capsule. A few years later the Magic Cork Extractor was patented. Revived in the 1960’s under the name Ah-so, this opener utilizes two flat blades that are eased inside the bottle-neck alongside the cork. The cork is then pulled out of the bottle with a twisting motion. The virtue of the Ah-so is that it doesn’t actually pierce the cork, so there are no accidental cork particles floating in the wine. Its virtue is also its vice as the intact cork can be easily re-inserted into the bottle after filling it with inferior wine. For this reason it is known as the “butler’s friend” – presumably because the butler can extract a glass or two of the boss’s fine Lafite and replace it with inferior red juice made north of Lo Wu.

The levered Screwpull has been the most important advance in corkscrew design as it features a sharply pointed, Teflon-coated worm for easy insertion and extraction. The extremely long worm forces the cork to climb out of the bottle with virtually no effort by the server – an attribute not always appreciated the next morning. Still, a levered Screwpull is an excellent gift for a budding wine aficionado.

Like any device with historic evolution, corkscrews attract an avid circle of collectors as can be seen by the “Virtual Corkscrew Museum” (www.corkscrewmuseum.com) where there are more than thirty ‘rooms’ of corkscrews exhibited by themes such as Aquarium, Armory, Planetarium and Linen Closet. The site even sports a corkscrew sound studio. And if you find the idea of corkscrew sounds stimulating, then you might like to subscribe to their newsletter, “The Weekly Screw.”

Comments One Comment for “All Screwed Up”
  1. Cyril Lam on 12.01.11 at 10:51

    Ah-so is particlarly handy for old bottles with long, fragile corks

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