Does Liquor Ever Expire?

Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

Q: True or False? Spirits are completely shelf stable. Unlike wine, which can sometimes develop an off taste during storage, or rapidly go downhill once it's been opened, liquor will keep indefinitely.

A: Well, yes and no. Read on to learn how to get the most out of your favorite bottle.

To find out more about the proper care and handling of spirits, I consulted Ethan Kelley, Head Spirit Sommelier and Beverage Director for the Brandy Library, a bar-lounge in NYC's Tribeca neighborhood that stocks over 900 fine bottles, including scotches, bourbons, brandies and armagnacs, as well as aged tequilas and rums:

Unopened bottles are shelf-stable, aren't they?
Ethan: Yes. Unlike wine, which continues to mature after bottling, a spirit stops aging after it's taken from its wood barrel and put in a glass bottle. An unopened bottle of spirits is stable - so long as it's properly sealed.

Okay, so far, so good. But what about after the bottle's been opened?
Ethan: From a spirit geek standpoint, it's good for 6-8 months - that's the industry standard. For the average layperson, 8 months to maybe a year.

What exactly happens to spirits after this "expiration date"?
Ethan: The first thing that happens is the alcohol begins to evaporate - you're losing the fun part. This will happen more quickly if you're keeping the bottle in a warm place. After that, at the 6-8 months mark, you'll begin to notice oxidation. The spirit will lose its "sparkle" and develop a flat taste.

Is it still drinkable at this point?
Ethan: Yes, but if it's a good bottle, you'll want to enjoy it at its very best. Once it's open, the clock is ticking.

Any tips for storing liquor?
Ethan: Room temperature is fine. Keep the bottle upright. You never want to keep anything stored sideways, the way you would a bottle of wine. If the bottle has a cork stopper, and the alcohol has prolonged contact with it, it will eat away at the material. (Ethan notes that this is a completely different phenomenon than the funky, moldy taste and smell of "corked" wine - what can go amiss with horizontally stored spirits is something more along the lines of an unappetizing "cork infusion".)

My Takeaway
Hmm, all this has me re-thinking those stray bottles I've been storing sideways in my wine rack...and a certain single malt scotch I've been dipping into from time to time over the past year or so, but haven't quite finished. Time to use things up, reorganize, and replenish for the new year.

Do you have any bottles needing "attention" at home?

Nora Maynard is a longtime home mixologist and an occasional instructor at NYC’s Astor Center. She is a contributor to The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and is the recipient of the American Egg Board Fellowship in culinary writing at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. She previously covered food and drink in film at The Kitchn in her weekly column, The Celluloid Pantry.

Related: Whiskey vs. Whisky: What's the Difference?

(Image: Nora Maynard)