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?
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.
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 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.
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.)