A corkscrew might not seem the most exciting or revolutionary product ever invented by mankind but when you have a fine bottle of wine in hand then its value is immediately apparent!
A corkscrew is a tool for drawing corks from wine bottles and usually consists of a pointed metallic helix, often called the ‘worm’, attached to a handle. The user grips the handle and screws the metal point through the cork which entwines the cork and corkscrew so that moving one moves the other. Simple but ingenious! Corkscrews are necessary simply because corks, being small and smooth, can be very difficult to grip and remove when inserted fully into an inflexible glass bottle. The handle of the corkscrew enables a firm grip that is needed to ease removal of the stopper. More sophisticated corkscrew handles may incorporate levers that further increase the amount of force that can be applied outwards upon the cork.
The history of the corkscrew is not known for certain. Some believe its design may have derived from the gun worm which was a device used on muskets to remove unspent charges from a musket’s barrel in a similar fashion to drawing a cork, from at least the early 1630’s.
The corkscrew is thought to be an English invention, the earliest reference being from 1681 where a corkscrew was described as a ‘steel worm used for the drawing of corks out of bottles.’ In 1795, the first corkscrew patent was granted to Reverend Samuel Henshall, in England. The clergyman affixed a simple disk, known as the Henshall Button, between the worm and the shank. The disk prevented the worm from going too deep into the cork and forced the cork to turn with the turning of the crosspiece thus breaking the adhesion between the cork and the neck of the bottle.
Over the years corkscrews started to be made in all shapes and sizes. A wing corkscrew sometimes known as a ‘butterfly corkscrew’ has two levers, one on either side of the worm. As the worm is twisted into the cork, the levers are raised. Then, by pushing down the levers the cork is drawn from the bottle in one smooth motion. The most common design has a rack and pinion connecting the levers to the body. Very often the head of the central shaft is modified to form a bottle opener, increasing the utility of the device.
A ‘sommelier knife’, sometimes referred to as a ‘waiter’s friend’ is a corkscrew in a folding body similar to a pocket knife. It was invented by a German, Karl Wienke, in 1882 and patented in Germany, England, and America. Some sommelier knives have two steps on the lever, and often also a bottle opener. A small hinged knife blade is also housed in the handle end for removing the foil wrapping around the neck of many wine bottles.
A ‘twin-prong’ cork puller, sometimes known as a ‘butler’s friend’ can also be used to put the cork back into the bottle, allowing wine to be sampled without damaging the cork. To remove the cork, the prongs are pushed in-between the cork and the neck of the bottle. The cork can then be twisted out of the bottle. Replacing the stopper involves taking it between the two prongs, then twisting it into the bottle and pulling out the prongs.
The growing popularity of screw tops might soon see the sad demise of the traditional cork and corkscrew however, and many older corkscrews have now become collector’s items or museum pieces.