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, once you open a bottle, some liquors will go bad, and others will lose their character over months or years.
How long the liquor in your bar stays fresh depends on its alcohol content, sugar, and other ingredients. For instance, a high-proof schnapps will last longer than one with less alcohol but the same amount of sugar. Cream and fruit liqueurs are also susceptible to spoiling after several months. Hard liquor like vodka and whiskey has an indefinite shelf life, even when opened, though you may notice that the flavor begins to fade after a year or so.
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 (brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey) are the most shelf-stable distilled spirits. These average 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof—though some are stronger) and typically do not contain added sugars, so you can store these bottles for a very long time.
- Unopened, these hard liquors have an indefinite shelf life.
- Once opened, they will lose certain flavor qualities over a few years but will never really spoil.
- The exceptions are flavored spirits, which may have sugar and additives that lower their shelf life. If you have a flavored vodka, rum, or tequila below 80 proof, it may contain sugar. Also, look for lower-proof flavored brandies and whiskies that have "liqueur" on the label. Treat all of these like liqueurs.
You may notice a diminished character, particularly in the aroma and subtle taste nuances of complex spirits like brandy, gin, whiskey, and aged rums or tequila. Since it's relatively neutral in flavor, vodka is the least susceptible to flavor loss. Rather than waste them, these older liquors will be best served in mixed drinks rather than enjoyed straight.
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 problematic than others. Generally, you'll want to discard open bottles after about 18 months.
For example, liqueurs with a high concentration of sugar (e.g., crème liqueurs) will deteriorate faster. Some may include preservatives to combat spoilage, and you might find these listed on the label. On the flip side, a higher-proof liqueur contains more alcohol, which should protect it for a little longer than lower-proof liqueurs.
Liqueurs that contain dairy, cream, or egg should be consumed as soon as possible. Drink 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 include an expiration date on the bottle.
There are a few general rules regarding the shelf life of liqueurs:
- Most opened (and well-sealed) liqueurs should last for six months to a year (or even longer), depending on the alcohol content and preservatives.
- Once you notice 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.
Drink Emptier Bottles First
Whether it's liquor, wine, or beer, oxygen is the enemy of great-tasting alcohol. For distilled spirits, once a bottle is open, the alcohol will begin to evaporate, and the liquor will lose some of its kick. More importantly, the emptier the bottle, the more oxygen is trapped inside, and oxidation leads to flavor loss. For instance, if you just cracked open a bottle of whiskey, you have a reasonable amount of time—about a year or two—to enjoy it at its prime. However, once that bottle is about half-empty, it's exposed to more oxygen and should be drunk as soon as possible to avoid flat-tasting liquor.
The shelf life of opened fortified wines like dry and sweet vermouth is longer than regular wines, but it's not even close to liquor's timeframe. It will become musty and stale if stored for too long, so keep an open bottle of vermouth for just two to three months. Some people prefer to store vermouth in the refrigerator, while others say that it is unnecessary.
Alcohol is an excellent preservative, but it's not present in nonalcoholic spirits, such as Seedlip, Three Spirits, and Optimist. This modern sub-market of the cocktail world comes with a different set of shelf life standards. The formulae and ingredients are widely varied, so each brand is different; on average, an opened bottle will keep for six to 12 weeks. Most do not need to be refrigerated, and you can typically find storage recommendations on the label.
Write the Date on Bottles
When you open a bottle, write the month and year somewhere on the label. It's a simple step that will be helpful later when you question how long it's been open.
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
While liquor can stay good for a considerable amount of time, there are specific steps you can take to ensure you're getting the freshest taste out of any bottle. The most important is to avoid leaving open bottles too long: for the best flavor, plan on drinking liqueurs within eight months and hard liquors within a year or two.
- Store liquor bottles upright. While it's traditional to store wine on its side when it's sealed with a cork, liquor bottles should always stand up straight. This prevents leaks from screw caps, and there is the possibility that the alcohol will eat away at cork enclosures and taint your liquor.
- Keep opened bottles tightly sealed. Use the original cap, a replacement cork, or a wine stopper that takes the air out of the bottle.
- Never store liquor with speed pourers unless you're using them during a party. Even the best designs 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.
- Generally, it's unnecessary to refrigerate cream liqueurs, but many people do because it can prolong their freshness.
- 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.