Storing Your Spirits: How Long Does Your Alcohol Really Last?

Cocktail facts & history / email / For your bar

There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to booze. Does sticking to one type of liquor really prevent a hangover? Not necessarily. Does mixing an energy drink with alcohol make you more drunk? Again, that’s a no. And there’s just as much confusion over the proper way to store your spirits and how long each of them lasts. Turns out, despite the notion that alcohol gets better with age, most liquors will go bad after a period of time. Some may simply develop an “off” taste, while others could legitimately make you sick. Here’s an overview of what you need to know for keeping your booze both palatable and safe.

Spirits
In general, hard liquors are the easiest category of booze to keep, although that doesn’t mean their quality will last forever. There are three main factors when it comes to how long liquors last: temperature, light, and air exposure. When it comes to temperature, spirits should be stored in a cool, even place. Back in 2015, flavor researchers at Bacardi found that temperature fluctuations break down an organic molecule known as terpene, which alters the flavor of the alcohol. Since then, Bacardi has been begun shipping their bottles in coolers or even wrapped in blankets to avoid temperature changes.

An even bigger factor is sunlight, which, in just 10 days, has shown to reduce the color of a dark spirit by anywhere between 10 and 40 percent. And this color isn’t just for show. The hue of a spirit is indicative of its production process and eventual flavor. Changes in color ultimately mean changes in taste. Exposure to sunlight also speeds up the evaporation process, and while a little bit of this is unavoidable, keeping your liquors out of the light will prevent this from getting worse.

The third and final factor is air exposure, which leads to oxidation and the diminishment of a spirit’s flavor over time. The more air that’s in an open bottle, the more that oxidation will happen. While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll notice a difference in just a few months, the same can’t always be said for a few years.

So, what exactly does all of this mean? Most spirits have an incredibly long shelf life, and some will taste just as good 10 years after the first sip. That said, many spirit companies recommend storing your bottles in a cool, dark place and polishing them off within one to two years of opening. The exception here is tequila. The agave that gives tequila it’s unique flavor happens to be incredibly fragile, and once opened, a bottle may lose its original properties within just three months, sometimes by up to 50 percent.

And here are two more tips when it comes to keeping your liquor as fresh as you can: If possible, choose a bottle made of darker glass, which will prevent less sunlight from reaching the spirit. Secondly, if your liquor is running low, consider transferring the remainder to a smaller container. The less empty space that’s inside the bottle, the less room there is for oxygen to react with the spirit.

Liqueurs
Most liqueurs like Grand Marnier, Campari, Chartreuse, and St. Germaine can be stored at room temperature and last for a very long time, provided they have around 20 percent or more alcohol by volume. The more alcohol they contain, the longer the shelf life. There is one caveat, however. If a liqueur is cream-based (think Bailey’s), it most likely needs to be refrigerated — and because cream eventually spoils, will probably last only between 18 and 24 months. An easy rule is to read the label. Most cream-based liqueurs will indicate a best-by date and whether or not it needs to be refrigerated. If the color, texture, or smell of the liqueur seems off, throw it out to avoid getting sick.

Another tip about liqueurs: The high sugar content in these drinks can both draw fruit flies and cause a tight seal to form beneath the cap. Wiping down the neck of the bottle after each use can prevent both.

Beer, Wine, and Champagne
Beer and wine are easily affected by heat and light, and should be kept in a cool, dark place. Beer can be stored for roughly a few months, while wine tends to be best within a year to a year-and-a-half of purchase. Once opened, beer’s carbonation will go flat rather quickly. It’s ideal to finish a beer in the sitting in which you open it, but if pressed — and with proper covering — an open beer may stay fresh and fizzy for up to three days in the fridge.

As with beer, wine is best when finished shortly after opening, though depending on the age and varietal, it may be good for up to three days. You won’t get sick by drinking an “off” wine, however wines that have been open for awhile will develop a vinegary taste that most find off-putting. The exception to this rule is boxed wine (and unlike a few years ago, there are many great options that don’t have the same stigma as Franzia). Thanks to the tight seal of the polyethylene bag and the box that blocks out light, many of these wines are totally drinkable for up to six weeks.

Champagne, like beer, begins to lose its bubbly goodness once it comes in contact with the air. If you don’t plan to knock back the bottle on the day it’s opened, be ready to finish it within 24 hours — or, you know, you can always send it our way.

Fortified Wine
Like regular wine, fortified wines (think port, sherry, madeira, marsala, and yes, even vermouth) will eventually oxidize and need to be kept in the fridge once they’ve been uncorked. While these don’t have nearly as short of a shelf life as your standard Cabernet, they will start to deteriorate after a few months — maybe six at the most. Our suggestion: Buy smaller 375mL bottles when available.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by FTD Flowers