From Tree to Tipple: The Unexpected Story of Your Spirit’s Cork

“Cork” is often used as a generic layman’s term for one of two most common closures used for spirits bottles (the other being a screw-top.) The term actually refers to the material used for closure’s shank—the natural and renewable bark of cork oak trees.

Cork closures for spirits bottles

Harvesting cork is an amazing process that has its roots in the Western Mediterranean and Northern African regions and stretches back thousands of years. The methods of caring for the trees and harvesting their bark are still done by hand, with meticulous methods handed down for generations.

During summer months, once the trees have experienced their healthiest growth, skilled cork harvesters use a specifically designed ax to delicately remove the outer cork bark from the tree without damaging the inner bark that carries water and nutrients the tree needs to survive.

Once the cork planks have been removed from the tree, they are cured for about six months before the material is used. Only then are the cylinders we call corks cut from the bark. The remaining cork bark is then ground into small pieces to become closures, known as agglomerated cork.

Cork oak trees have an average lifespan of over 200 years and thrive under the care of skilled harvesters. The first harvest occurs once the tree is about 25 years old and results in a tough, hard, and uneven material—not good for closures but great for flooring, wall panels, and other decorative applications.

Another nine to eleven years must pass before the second harvest. This cork is still too tough for bottle closures… but it’s getting closer.

The third harvest—yet about another nine years later—yields the pliable yet resilient cork used for spirits and wine closures.

Portugal is the world’s largest supplier of natural cork materials, and the trees are protected under their laws to prevent premature harvesting that could damage the tree’s ability to regenerate. Yes, each individual tree is marked and tracked by its caretakers to ensure no ax touches its cork until it’s been deemed old enough and healthy enough to give its outer bark.

A famous cork oak tree in Portugal, known as the Whistler Tree, has yielded its outer bark for over twenty harvests. A single harvest from this tree— over two hundred years old—can yield enough cork for over a hundred thousand individual cork closures.

So consider, when you look at that single component of your spirits packaging, it took at least forty years (and perhaps two centuries!), along with generations of passed-down knowledge and skill, for it to come into being.