Tuesday 29 November 2011

How to remove a screwcap

I have been disturbed by some research which claims that screwcaps on wine bottles are now the norm. 85% of regular wine drinkers in the UK, it seems, now accept screwcaps. Which leaves me, not for the first time in my life, among the minority.

There has been a lot of claim and counter-claim about corks vs screwcaps. But what no-one seems to have addressed is the aesthetics of their removal.

You may think this is ridiculous. The whole idea of a screwcap is the ease of removing it. Sadly, for someone like me, ease is an alien concept. Effort equals reward. And style is all.

Removing a cork can be an act of elegance and flair. It is a beautiful thing to see a capsule cut and a cork professionally pulled, with little flourishes and smooth, effortless grace concluding with a gentle pop. It is a skill some of us struggle, over years of practice, to master.

And a skill some never learn. I am reminded of CJ’s wrestling match with a cork, when “the cork started to split, and by the time I’d dragged the thing out into the open (like pulling a sack of sand across a ploughed field) there was cork everywhere, over the table, an acne of cork bits floating in my bell-shaped glass.” CJ has always expressed a preference for the screwcap. This does not surprise.

So is there a manner of removing a screwcap which even begins to echo the grace and elegance of a skilful cork removal? Let us consider the methods:

1) Making a fist of it. Effective, but brutal and ugly. If statistics are correct, 99% of men will be familiar with this grip (and the other 1% are lying). Both activities can be enhanced, I understand, by a flamboyant twist of the wrist at la moment critique. Nevertheless, both are but crude and less satisfying imitations of superior activities.

2) The inverse fist – more polite (because less onanistic), but clumsy and awkward to the opener themselves. It often fails to provide sufficient grip to separate cap from sleeve. See 5).

3) The flick. The ne plus ultra of screwcap removal. The cap is snapped free with a sharp movement of second finger and thumb, the same as a click of the fingers. I was once greatly impressed by an usher separating tickets from their stubs like this. The only cool way to remove a screwcap, but demanding immense finger strength.

3a) The inverse flick. Given the direction of the screw thread, this is only for the left-handed, but could be even more challenging than finding left-handed corkscrews.

4) The optimist. The cap is held delicately but firmly betwixt first and second fingers and thumb and, as with opening champagne, the bottle is rotated and the cap held still. Called the optimist because it assumes that the cap will simply and cleanly, with only a little effort, separate from its sleeve. It will probably not. Once again, see 5).

5) The tools. Am I alone in finding that a troubling number of screwcaps simply refuse to open? What I think of as Thatcher caps – simply not for turning. Or, worse still, the cap clings to the sleeve, the sleeve fails to cling to the glass, and the whole thing simply revolves around the bottle neck. Unlike the single, efficient corkscrew, you may then require any of three tools to get the thing open; monkey wrench to hold the sleeve, pliers to grasp the cap, and a knife to sever those irritating little stubs of metal which hold the cap to the sleeve. (The knife will almost certainly be blunted and ruined. It may also slip, and cut one’s left thumb, in that fleshy bit on the side just below the nail. Trust me.)

And then there’s the sound. I was taught that a champagne cork should be removed, not with a vulgar explosion, but with a gentle pfft, described to me as the sound of a duchess farting. There must be a similar analogy for the lovely sound that accompanies the removal of a standard cork – suggestions welcome in Comments. That resonant, optimistic pop of a cork being pulled, as anticipative as the tap of a conductor’s baton, can never be replaced by the harsh clack of a screwcap being removed.

Nothing, of course, can alter that clack sound, with all its nasty connotations. You can only smother it, with a well-timed cough or stamp of the foot. This technique is judiciously accompanied for some with an appropriately-placed Tena pad.

So, you have succeeded. What to do with the cap? You need not sniff it. Experts have long argued the value of being presented with a cork to sniff; no-one has ever suggested the benefits of sniffing a screwcap. (Which is just as well, because another thing in favour of corks is that you never run the risk of lacerating your nose on any aforementioned little stubs of metal.)

A screwcap does not look nice on the table next to the decanter. It does not tell you the vintage. It is rarely a souvenir. There is nothing you can do with it other than throw it away. 

(I’m sure there is someone out there who is recycling metal screwcaps in some ostensibly creative manner, but do not tell me about it, unless you have an accompanying image of Bryan Ferry possessing the resulting item.)

What about some wine tasting? What indeed. I’m afraid I simply had to put my intended bottle aside. I was told that its screwcap could be twisted off by just a short, sharp jerk.

Not me, then.


Monday 21 November 2011

Suntory Whisky - The Unbreakable Drink

One of the great things about Suntory Japanese Whisky is that it comes in a really strong bottle. I can attest to this because as I was doing my best to smuggle a (full) bottle of Suntory into our chi-chi ryokan so that we could have a quiet sundowner in our room, the thing fell out of my bag and fell quite a long way to the ground without breaking. I was standing next to our comedy rentacar at the time and the bottle didn't shatter on the hard stone at all, but instead bounced once and skidded under the car, where it lay, glinting in the shadows.

So I got down on my hands and knees and started grovelling underneath the comedy car, at which point our exquisitely charming and formal Japanese hostess came pattering out behind me to ask if everything was all right. I grabbed the bottle with an audible grunt, leaped to my feet, cramming the unbroken Suntory back into my bag in one seamless movement and said that everything was wonderful and what a lovely day we'd had, before slamming my coat negligently in the car door, from where I then had to remove it as if I'd meant to slam it in a car door all along. There was a look of frank alarm in the eyes of our hostess, but she nonetheless continued to smile graciously at me as I flapped and banged away in front of her, trying not to tear my coat or drop the Suntory again.

That's what you do if you're basically a bum on a budget and you can't afford to have a brimming whisky and soda brought to your elegant eight-tatami-mat room by a kimono-wearing servant and set respectfully on the table in front of you. In fact, I've lost count of the times we've had to smuggle drink in under the noses of different hotel managements, all over the world, our pockets bulging with contraband cashew nuts, our tote bags burdened by liquids, followed by the degradation of having to drink cheap whisky or gin or red wine out of a toothmug with the door locked.

Still. If that's where you're coming from, Suntory (the regular Kakubin variety, not one of the swankier versions) not only comes in a fantastically strong and grippable (square cross-sectioned) bottle, it tastes good, too, toothmug or not: rounder, smoother and with a sweeter finish than your mainstream Scotch, but uniformly satisfying and with a nice amber colour. They've been making the stuff since 1924 and it's good in a hotel room in the nervous dark and it's good when drunk without undue embarassment as a highball in a bar/eaterie, where there's a fair chance you'll get Suntory with Wilkinson Tansan soda, a column of crushed ice and possibly a twist of lemon peel to finish. Tokyo salarymen knock this stuff back as if every night were New Year's Eve. The consumption is prodigious.

How do I know? I came across a party of them, shitfaced, hitting each other over the head with bags of satsumas at half-past eleven at night, one friday. That's how I know.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

Saké – the rice wine of Japan

So, having come back from Japan, I am first of all obliged to express my deep gratitude to

a) The Japanese themselves, whose charm, friendliness, helpfulness and courtesy, were limitless, and

b) The Japanese railway system. This is so good - startlingly punctual, clean and efficient - there were moments when, in an unhinged and jet-lagged kind of way, I wondered if I hadn't died and been put on the Heavenly Afterlife Train along with a surprising number of Japanese commuters and my own wife.

Booze? I made a discovery: Sake, with or without the terminal é, is delicious. Previously, if I had any opinion at all about Sake, it was that it was a kind of comedy drink, warm and sweet and made from rice and tupped from a thimble-sized porcelain cup: altogether meaningless in any Western context.

Then we found ourselves a couple of hours north of Tokyo, in one of those hole-in-the-wall bar/eateries the Japanese seem to have a genius for, and the sake was everywhere and being drunk in prodigious quantities, cold, out of glassware. What to do? I thought about hanging on to my comedy drink prejudices, but the chance was too good to pass up; not least because the sake itself was being served from these wonderfully shapely, nearly two-litre-sized bottles (see bleary photo) with elegant Japanese characters cascading down the front, simply demanding to be taken seriously.

So I gibbered and squeaked a bit, and found out that, yes, you could have your sake sweet (and elsewhere I did see it served sweet and warm and out of a diminutive teapot plus tiny porcelain drinking vessel) but you were more likely, given the relative clemency of the weather, to have it dry and chilled. And in a little box. A playful refinement: the little box is emblematic of the crate in which the rice would originally have been stored. You can have your sake poured directly into this baby crate (makes it bit tricky to swallow, especially around the corners), or you can have it in a glass (see other bleary photo) which then sits in the crate and, indeed, is filled to overflowing so that some of the sake ends up on the floor of the microcrate, betokening generosity.

It is not, in other words, like having a quick beer. Sake, made of the rice which sustains Japan and the rest of south-east Asia, is a drink pregnant with significance. You can find sake presented at temples, in bottle form or in barrels, a sanctified wine. You will toast the happy couple at a wedding with sake. You can find it on sale in sleek drink shops and in supermarkets. You can find it in gilt gift packages and you can find it in resealable waxed cartons. It affirms a culture.

So I raised it apprehensively to my lips, not wanting to find it disgusting in any way and as a consequence start coughing and spitting and wiping my nose and doing other such impermissible things, but no: all was good, a whiff of some kind of very dry white wine (what PK would doubtless call a flinty Bordeaux), maybe a gesture towards a vermouth, Noilly Prat, and then a follow-through a bit like a Dry Martini, but without that nail-varnish shimmer you sometimes get from the gin. Frankly, it was terrific, light and a bit astringent, but subtly warming, too, leading to a sense of complete genial clarity and refreshment.

Also, within ten minutes, I was pretty well lit up. On the strength of one large schooner of sake on top of a couple of beers. Sake isn't that powerful (somewhere around 15%) but my ears were ringing, in a good way, and I had some difficulty leaving my seat. 'This is a fantastic drink,' I kept saying, and it is - subtly crafted, beguiling, silently anaesthetic. It would make a perfect pre-meal drink over here, the only problem being the inevitable one of excessive novelty, and looking a bit of a twat, offering sake instead of a glass of cheap Tesco cava. Why didn't I bring a bottle back with me? Damn.