How Long Does Liquor Last After You Open a Bottle?

How Long Does Liquor Last After You Open a Bottle?
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When I was a younger man and surviving on budget liquors and hot dogs, getting a “nice” bottle of liquor was a pretty big deal. My natural instinct was to save these gifts; after a sample, I would reverently put the bottle on a high shelf and limit my interactions to gazing lovingly at it and breaking it out for extra-special occasions. This practice led directly to the harshest lesson of my young life: Liquor does, in fact, have an expiration date. Or, if not always strictly an expiration date, a pretty solid use-by date.

The moment your alcohol starts to turn varies depending on a few data points: the type of liquor we’re talking about, whether the bottle’s been opened or not, and your storage practices. The outcome is also pretty variable — some liquor will simply taste worse and be less potent over time, while some will literally go bad. Here’s a quick guide to how much time you have to enjoy your alcoholic treasures after you open that bottle.

How air affects opened bottles of liquor

Alcohol is a fickle product. Wine, for example, can continue to mature in the bottle, becoming richer and more interesting over time, but this isn’t the case for most hard liquors. Whiskey in a properly sealed bottle will be pretty much exactly the same whether you drink it today or 100 years from now. But once you do open that bottle, demon oxygen dives on in there and starts transforming your booze. And while the initial stages of this transformation can be positive (especially with whiskey, which can often improve slightly a few weeks after opening), eventually the oxidation process will rob you of your liquor.

Here’s how long you can expect various categories of liquor to last post-opening.

Whiskey

Whiskey’s high alcohol content and low sugar content means it’s fairly shelf-stable — but it will go “bad” about 2 years after you open the bottle. “Bad” is a spectrum, though — whiskey will never spoil, per se — you can drink a glass of opened whiskey 20 years from now and it will not kill you. You might not enjoy the experience, however, as the alcohol content will be lower from evaporation and the flavour profile will have turned.

Note: Flavoured whiskeys, especially if they are under 80 proof, may have a shorter lifespan because of a higher sugar content, so once you open that bottle of Honey Jack, you might as well pour all the shots.

Vodka

Vodka will last a bit longer after opening than whiskey — up to a decade, maybe even more. The process is the same, however, and your vodka may start to taste different after just a few years, and will slowly lose its alcoholic power, as well. Just like whiskey, it will never actually “spoil,” but if you don’t consume it within a few years, your drinking experience will definitely degrade. And again, flavoured vodkas will turn much more quickly due to the likely higher sugar content.

Rum

Rum will last indefinitely if unopened and start to turn within six months afterward. After about two years, you’ll absolutely notice a difference in the taste profile and the potency of your rum.

Gin

Gin has a slightly shorter runway once opened — it will taste significantly worse about a year after you open it. Just like other hard liquors, it won’t necessarily go bad in the sense of being dangerous to drink, it just won’t be the pleasant experience you’re hoping for.

Brandy

You might think that because brandy is distilled from wine it goes bad in a few days just like a good bottle of Cabernet. The truth is yes and no — an opened bottle of brandy will start to taste “turned” in about 6 months, so you’re definitely on a shorter clock than other liquors. But it will still be drinkable for 2-3 years, and like other liquors, will never actually go completely rancid the way that bottle of red you shoved to the back of your liquor cabinet and forgot about will.

Note: Some lower-proof brandies will turn much faster.

Tequila

Tequila will last about one year after opening before it starts to taste bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mezcal or tequila, the time frame is about the same. It won’t kill you, but it won’t taste right — and once you notice the taste profile turning, it’s a downward slide from there.

Liqueurs and cordials

These sweet drinks have a high sugar content as a rule, and will generally go bad within 1-2 years — and in this case, the word “bad” does mean “spoiled.” And any liqueur that contains dairy (like Baileys Irish Cream) needs to go after a year or less. In fact, liqueurs that contain dairy won’t last that long even in unopened bottles, so make your purchase decisions carefully.

Delaying tactics

So, your liquor will absolutely turn on you eventually — but you can do a few simple things to keep your booze fresh for as long as possible:

  • Store bottles properly. Liquor should be stored upright, as contact with the cork can contribute to the flavour degradation and damage the cork, weakening the seal that keeps demon oxygen out. Make sure the cork or screw top is firmly in place — and never leave pourers in, as they just let oxygen in.
  • Keep away from light and heat. If you’re storing your whiskey on the window sill next to the radiator, you are doing it wrong. Find a cool, shadowy, cave-like place.
  • Bottles all the way down. One thing you can do to keep your liquor fresher longer is to decant it into smaller bottles as you drink it. A smaller bottle (with a well-sealed cap — a decanter won’t work) limits the amount of air exposure and can slow down the process of turning — for a while.

Eventually, your liquor will become a ghost of its former self. If you think about it, though, that’s really just the perfect excuse to have an extra glass of something nice tonight — you’re doing your part in the war against waste.

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