The tradition of sealing whiskey bottles in wax goes back hundreds of years. It helps keep bottles of spirits, wine, or beer fresh, and it ensures what's inside hasn’t been doctored or tampered with.
Nowadays, distilleries use wax seals primarily for branding. Arguably, the most iconic example of wax use within the American whiskey industry is Maker’s Mark’s trademarked dripping red wax.
It’s also part of their origin story. After Bill Samuels Sr. bought the distillery in Loretto, KY and began distilling in 1958, his wife Marjorie started experimenting on the product’s appearance. According to Bill Samuels Jr., Marjorie wanted the wax to drip. “The look came out of her experiments with our deep fryer,” says Samuels. “She experimented with pigment and viscosity until it was just right.”
Using wax is largely an aesthetic choice. Much of the time, it’s used to create an ultra-premium look for the spirit while changing little else about the whiskey and the bottle. Other sealing methods such as plastic or tin capsules are also available to distilleries, and although these choices might not be as visually pleasing, they can be less time and labor-intensive choices.
With other options available, some distilleries are moving away from using wax seals. Since wax hardens over time, bottles can become more difficult to open. If the pull-tab is incorrectly applied before it’s dipped in wax, it may be difficult to open without using a knife, says Britt Chavonne, VP Admin of Willett Distillery.
For bartenders, wax seals can be difficult to remove quickly and safely during service. “Our family has discussed for several years now about converting from wax to tin capsules for many of these reasons,” says Chavonne. “Our use of wax prior to converting to the tin capsule was an aesthetic choice. One is not necessarily superior to the other as far as securing the cap/cork in the bottle.”