How to open a wax-topped Armagnac bottle (and not lose your mind)

Yes, apparently a primer on how to open Armagnac bottles actually is needed.

I’ve been working on a review column for Wine Enthusiast magazine focused on Armagnac, the famed French brandy (yet, not as famed as Cognac). Usually, I’m pretty well focused on what’s IN the bottle, not the bottle itself. But the (quite substantial) review pile included eight bottles firmly capped with hard wax. No string or other pull cord to help start a strip to remove the wax, and even sharp scissors and hardscrabble fingernails removed only the tiniest portion of wax. How the heck was I going to evaluate the goods if it was like Fort Knox to get in?

Photo: End of Day 1

I vented my frustration on Twitter, and received some helpful suggestions:

@DeliaCabe: Thin wire, like the kind used to slice cheese. How about a wine foil cutter? X-acto knife?

@Virginia_Made: Corkscrew through the wax. When you pull up the wax will tear open.

@Ponchartrain_Pete: Hulk smash? Try butter knife to chip it off.

The corkscrew seemed like a viable idea – it works with wax-topped wines all the time. So I brought my corkscrew to the office and tried. Turns out, there’s a plastic cap under the wax, so I made a couple of gouges, but no further headway.

Photo: end of Day 2 (corkscrew gouge)

I vented on Twitter again. Replies this time veered from sympathetic to sublimely ridiculous (which I welcomed — at this point I needed a laugh!)

@NeilKopplin: Samurai Sword?

@boozedancing: How about a Sabre then? You know. Like they do with champagne. :)

At this point, I also emailed my editors back at Wine Enthusiast. That tells you how desperate I truly was:  I’d like my employers to believe that I am competent enough to open a bottle (surely that’s the absolute bare minimum for doing my job, yes?). Luckily, Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Director Lauren Buzzeo was cool-headed enough to suggest that I reach out to one of the Armagnac producers and ask how to open the bottles without damaging them. Christine Cooley of Heavenly Spirits, an importer of  various Armagnac brands, provided this helpful reply:

Honestly, depending where I find myself, I just gently bang the top of the bottle against a metal table foot or on a cement floor, or I also take a metal corkscrew and hit the wax gently until it breaks and chips, then I clean the wax and blow on it to ensure that no wax or wax dust can enter the bottle. In the bars, they usually put the top of the bottle under the espresso steamer and the wax softens enough so the bartender can cut it with a knife.

While I don’t have an espresso steamer handy at my office, I tried the “bang-it” method on Day 3 - and it worked! Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Score the edge of the wax with a sharp knife.

Step 2: Gently bang the wax-covered bottle against a metal object (here, the edge of a stainless steel sink).

Step 3: Use a knife to loosen any remaining pieces of wax.

Success!

Now – what really baffled me was the bottles with SCREW CAPS beneath the wax – see below. WTF?????

So – was it worth all the effort to break through the hard wax coverings? For the most part, yes — many of these turned out to be some of the best Armagnacs I had the opportunity to sample. However, I would have enjoyed the brandy just as much with an ordinary cork or other closure that didn’t require crowd-sourcing to open. 

(P.S., the Wine Enthusiast issue with the Armagnac ratings drops at the end of December.)

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25 Comments

Filed under How to, Uncategorized

25 responses to “How to open a wax-topped Armagnac bottle (and not lose your mind)

  1. Bruce Clarke

    Nice story about the screw caps, when will we be able to read your views on the Armagnac?

    • karanewman

      Thanks, Bruce! Yes, all the reviews will be available on winemag.com, under the “Reviews” section.

    • karanewman

      sorry, missed the “when” – answer is end of December/early January.

    • PM Ocane

      Thank you for this. It was valuable to know I was not alone in this. After struggling for a couple of days with what seemed to be cement cap, and wanting very badly to try my new ‘find’ but not damage it [or me], I warmed a paper towel, held it to the wax cap to soften the wax enough to score, scored the wax cap, and knocked the cap lightly on the counter. This was enough to loosen and remove the wax.

      The warming process was key in my case, as the wax was exceedingly hard. However, the warming was mild and done quickly. I simply warmed a paper towel and held it around the cap for a few seconds, scored a portion of he cap, and repeated the process a few timed until made it all the way around the cap.

      • karanewman

        So clever of you to figure that out! Thanks for sharing that -i think i’m going to try warming up the wax next time.

  2. Yo Kara!

    Ha! That was good fun. Glad to see that you were finally able to crack those puppies open.

    Just one question: Am I one of the “sublimely ridiculous” ones? If so, I’m flattered! Though I am rarely sublime, I am usually quite ridiculous.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

  3. Amanda Garnham

    Pleased it was worth it Kara! See you soon in Armagnac!
    Cheers,
    Amanda

  4. I usually also wrap the wax top with a thin cotton towel first then gently tap it against a firm surface. That usually collects the fall-out.

  5. Calling that plasticky resin a wax is absurd. Wax shouldn’t be that frustrating or that artificial.

    • Bruce Clarke

      I have to agree, a little warmth fro a micro waved moistened bar towel might expedite things a little? I have had similar tops from St.John, only the innards in question was the Demon Rhum!
      Maybe needs to be more wax, less artificial?

  6. This both answered my question and cracked me up beyond belief. Thanks for sharing the WHOLE story (especially the part about the screw tops…).

    • karanewman

      Thanks for the feedback! Happy I was able to educate and amuse. That was definitely a bit of adventure.

      There’s a bit of addendum, too: after this was posted, I had the opportunity to meet one of the producers who uses wax tops (Delord), and put in my plea to make some changes, please! No dice. They are committed to the old tradition, even if it baffles American drinkers.

  7. bardintune

    Advice much very appreciated. Think the “wax” is traditional sealing wax–used exactly as intended: a seal made with it cannot be broken without the tampering being obvious. Now I must sweep up the rest of the red crumbs. ;-)

  8. OB Juan

    Just bought my first bottle of Delord Napoleon, and thought you might like to know that this page is the top result after desperately googling “delord armagnac how to open bottle”. There are fine blue chips all over my sink after trying almost everything on my multitool. Warming the wax sounds smart.

  9. Maria

    THANK YOU for the great tip!! My husband brought home this 25 yrs. old Delord and we were dying to taste. I have opened hundreds of wine bottles with wax seal and have never encountered such problem. This one was a serious pain in the behind. I did score the wax first but applying heat did not help at all. Finally turned to the web and found your post. The light tapping on the edge of my kitchen sink did the job. The scored area started chipping off easily.

  10. Rugmonkey

    An electric hair dryer on high for a minute or so will soften the “wax” and permit you to cut right through it all ’round. Then the top portion peals off easily. May need to do a second round to clean up the edges for a clean pour. No banging necessary.

  11. Reblogged this on karmaQuinta and commented:
    We were left a wee bottle of Armagnac by some lovely friends from France. Melted wax on the wood-burning stove, and Karl’s fingers. Ouch. And yes, a screw top underneath ;)

  12. Rick H

    Ok, granted my method herein takes a steady hand, but I wound-up with a cleanly opened bottle with little mess (no heat required). I did this with a bottle of Bas Armagnac Napoleon DeLord. Lay the bottle on its side on a folded dish towel, on top of a flat, very steady table top. Have the neck facing your dominant hand (i.e., to the right if you’re right handed). Hold the bottle firmly with your non-dominant hand. Take a very sharp serrated knife (must be serrated and quite sharp) and score the wax at the break-line between the bottle and the cork cap (about 1/4 inch from the top). Use a sawing motion with the blade and medium pressure (not too hard). Watch your fingers!! You’re not trying to cut all the way through – just score the wax about 1/32 inch deep. Rotate the bottle slowly as you saw the wax to make the score line go all the way around the cap. Lots of blue wax chips will fall away. Wipe off any remaining blue chips then stand the bottle upright. Take the dish towel and wrap a single layer around the cap. Grab the bare bottle and grabbing the cap through the dish towel, give the cap a mighty twist. The wax will break along the score line and the cap will come cleanly out. Be sure to wipe off all the blue chips before fully removing the cork cap or they might fall in the bottle. Enjoy!

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