There aren’t many tools in the kitchen or bar that are as taken for granted as the corkscrew. Almost everyone loves wine, but very few people give second thought to the tool that allows us access to the luxurious drink hidden within the glass bottle. In actuality though, the corkscrew has a very long and interesting history.
The Need for Corkscrews
Wine has, naturally, been around much longer than corkscrews have. Early vinos, however, were stored in terracotta jugs and wooden barrels, which didn’t need such specialized tools for opening.
In the 18th century that changed, when glass-blowing developed to a level where it was useful for wine storage. Glass quickly replaced other methods of storage because of its ability to store the drink in an airtight manner. And with screw tops far off in the future, cork stops were the logical choice for topping the bottle.
Wine, however, was not the only beverage to be corked. Beer jugs and medicine bottles also often relied on cork stops.
The Corkscrew’s Unconventional Inspiration
Right around the same time as the first glass wine bottle, the first corkscrew appeared, from a rather bizarre source: guns. As corkscrew historian (yes, that’s a thing) Ron McLean said, “The first corkscrews were derived from a gun worme, a tool with a single or double spiral end fitting used to clean musket barrels or to extract an unspent charge from the barrel.”
I enjoy thinking about this while opening a bottle of wine: that the act I’m performing is derived from the act of extracting bullets from a rifle.
The First Patent
While it is unknown who invented the first corkscrew, it’s well documented that Samuel Henshall first patented it. Henshall, however, was simply the most opportunistic imbiber in society; at the time of his patent in 1795, the corkscrew was already decently well-known and commonly used (in the same design that Henshall patented, no less).
Henshall teamed with a Birmingham manufacturer, Mathew Boulton to commercially produce the corkscrew, which was simply a metal worm with a wooden handle, and a small disk to help it break any possible seals. This simple design was the go-to device for opening wine bottles for roughly a century.
The Next Step: the Wine Key
Wine keys are especially chic right now, leading many to believe that they’re a relatively new invention. In actuality, the “Waiter’s Friend” was patented in 1882 by Carl Wienke, with a design stunningly similar to what you’ll still find today at Sur La Table.
While companies have adjusted and perfected the wine key over the past century plus (most notably by adding double-hinged levers), its original patent covered all the main components of the modern iteration: a folding corkscrew similar to a pocket knife, with a handle that allows for leverage against the bottle’s neck.
The 20th Century
For much of the 1900s, the wing corkscrew was the method of choice for opening a bottle of wine. The wing – which I think resembles a snow angel in action – was patented in 1930, and quickly caught on as the easiest way to open a bottle of wine, because it didn’t require the skill, precision, or strength of the wine key.
It seems that at least once a decade someone decides to reinvent the corkscrew, in an attempt to create the best way yet to unlock the magical drink. Inventions such as the rabbit have had blips of popularity, before the public realizes that they’re more gimmick than useful.
In reality, the wine key – over 130 years old now – is not only the smallest and simplest corkscrew, but also the easiest to use, once mastered. You’ll find it in every bartender’s pocket, and in every home bar’s shelf; and if history is any indication, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.