Port tongs were invented in the 18th century as a way to cleanly decapitate bottles of vintage port whose old corks might otherwise break or disintegrate with the use of a corkscrew.
The process involves red-hot iron tongs, which are placed on the neck of a bottle below the cork. Then, a cloth or brush dipped in ice water is applied, and thanks to the drastic change in temperature, the glass breaks cleanly where the tongs were applied. The bottle is then decanted and hot wax is added to the break points to ensure that guests or spectators aren’t impaled.
While this sounds entirely practical, in the world of wine accessories the port tong is a bit like the velvet choker: out of style. This is partly because vintage port isn’t exactly flying off the shelves these days.
But with the rise of sabering—wherein a large knife is used to hack off the top of a champagne bottle—the port tong may rise again.
At Eleven Madison Park in New York City, wine director Dustin Wilson has resurrected tonging on a nightly basis. And it doesn’t just apply to port: Wilson uses tongs to open regular bottles of vintage wine as well. It’s all conducted tableside with subtle spectacle on a deco service cart tricked out with an open flame, hot silver wax, an ice bath and big metal tongs. What’s not to like? Have a look.