Unlike some wines, distilled spirits don't age (or mature) in the bottle. Your unopened bottle of scotch that's been on the shelf for 20 years will taste the same as it would have the day it was bottled. However, like beer, certain liquors can "go bad." After months or years, almost any distilled spirit in an opened bottle can lose some of its character, "punch," or flavor.
When determining the shelf life of liquor, it's essential to break it down into the major categories found in the average liquor cabinet. And, while there are some storage guidelines you can follow, your instincts are the best indicators of freshness.
The base liquors (e.g., brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey) are the most shelf-stable distilled spirits because they do not contain sugars. You can store these bottles for a very long time.
- Unopened, these liquors have an indefinite shelf life.
- Once opened, they will lose certain flavor qualities over a few years but will never really spoil.
Liqueurs and Cordials
The shelf life of a liqueur (e.g., schnapps, amaretto, and triple sec) is more temperamental. These spirits contain sugar and other ingredients that can spoil, and some are more worrisome than others.
For instance, liqueurs with a high concentration of sugar (e.g., crème liqueurs) will deteriorate faster. Some may include preservatives to combat spoilage, and you can sometimes find these on the label. On the flip side, a liqueur with a higher proof contains more alcohol, which should protect it for a little longer than lower proof liqueurs.
There are a few general rules regarding the shelf life of liqueurs:
- Most opened (and well-sealed) liqueurs should last for months and even years, depending on the alcohol content and preservatives.
- Opened bottles are likely to lose some characteristics due to air exposure.
- Once you begin to see any sugar crystallizing on the bottom, discoloration, curdling, or other changes, throw the bottle away.
- Do a smell and (small) taste test before drinking any questionable liqueurs.
Cream liqueurs that contain dairy, cream, or egg, are a different story. Discard open bottles after about 18 months. Consume liqueurs like Baileys Irish Cream and Amarula within a year of opening; RumChata should be drunk within six months of opening. Even in unopened bottles, these liqueurs may spoil and be undrinkable after a year and a half or more. Some of the more sensitive liqueurs will include an expiration date on the bottle.
Generally, it's unnecessary to refrigerate cream liqueurs, but it can't hurt either.
The shelf life of opened fortified wines like dry and sweet vermouth is much longer than regular wines. Typically, you can store vermouth in an open bottle for at least a few months. It will become musty and lose flavor if stored for too long. Some people prefer to store vermouth in the refrigerator while others say that it is unnecessary.
Follow the recommended expiration date on the labels of all juices, bottled cocktails (e.g., margarita, daiquiri, and bloody Mary mixes), and similar mixers. Refrigerate these after opening.
Consume sodas and sparkling waters immediately after opening the bottle, or shortly after. There's no point in adding soda to your drink when there's no fizz left. If you find yourself wasting a lot of soda when making only a few drinks, buy packs of miniature bottles. One small bottle of club soda can usually mix two or three cocktails.
Liquor Storage Tips
- Keep opened bottles tightly sealed. Use the original cap, a replacement cork, or a wine stopper that also takes the air out of the bottle.
- Never store liquor with speed pourers unless you're using them during a party. These allow air to get inside the bottle and will quickly deteriorate the alcohol's quality.
- Avoid exposure to extreme heat or cold. Keep your liquor cabinet away from an exterior wall and heat vents.
- Avoid bright, direct light. Consider storing liquor bottles behind tinted glass if window light is prevalent in your bar.
- When in doubt, pour the liquor in question into a glass. If it doesn't look, smell, or taste right, it's probably best to throw it out.