If you are as big of a fan of whiskey as we are, you probably have a wide variety of bottles of whiskey to choose from at your home bar. Different whiskeys are appropriate for different situations, and having a choice is fun.
The downside is that you probably have bottles of whiskey on your bar that have been open for… well… longer than you would like to admit. We know we do. This may have you wondering: Is this whiskey still good?
Does whiskey expire or go bad? What happens to whiskey when it sits open? How long does whiskey last? Will my special, unopened bottles go bad if I don't drink them? The questions are nearly limitless. The answers might surprise you.
We did our research to figure out the answers to these questions (and more), so you have everything you need to know about this spirit. Here are the must-knows about the shelf life of whiskey.
What Is Whiskey?
To understand how long whiskey lasts, we need to know what it is. Whiskey is one of the five major types of liquor — the others are vodka, gin, tequila, and rum. It is typically amber to copper brown in color and is typically made from distilled cereal grains, like rye, wheat, barley, and corn.
Whiskey is hard liquor, meaning any whiskey is at least 40% ABV or alcohol by volume. Whiskey is also typically aged in wooden barrels, sometimes for years, before being bottled and sold or consumed.
Those barrels are what give whiskey its flavor. This is why moonshine and vodka are clear, and whiskey is darker in color. The wood the whiskey is aged in imparts colors and flavors into the liquid.
Every whiskey has its own unique flavor notes, but most whiskeys will have flavors that fall into the following categories:
Whiskey can be sipped straight, on the rocks, or in any number of cocktails, making it a very versatile drink.
Does Whiskey Go Bad?
So does whiskey go bad? The short answer is: it depends.
An unopened bottle of whiskey can last forever without going bad. As long as the bottle remains sealed and it remains stored in proper conditions, any special bottles you have will last for decades.
But once you open the bottle, the clock starts ticking. An opened bottle of whiskey will last as long as two years or go bad in as few as six months, depending on a few factors.
What Makes Whiskey Go Bad?
Whiskey goes bad for the same reason that all alcoholic beverages go bad over time. Factors like exposure to air, sunlight, and extreme temperature can alter the flavor and alcohol content of the liquor, making the spirit unsafe to drink.
How Does Light Impact Whiskey’s Shelf Life?
Light impacts the shelf life of whiskey and all liquors. Direct sunlight exposes the alcohol to UV rays, the same kind of sun rays that give you sunburns, which can cause the alcohol to lose color.
This is why whiskey bottles, and many other alcohol bottles, are typically brown or green — to help block some of the UV rays from reaching the liquid. However, the best protection is to keep your bottles stored somewhere completely out of direct sunlight, like a cupboard or shelf.
How Does Temperature Impact Whiskey Shelf Life?
Once you deal with light, you should know that temperature plays an important role in the shelf life of whiskey too. Whiskey contains something called terpenes, which are chemical compounds responsible for the scents and flavors in whiskey and other foods, drinks, and perfumes.
Temperature changes to the alcohol will alter these compounds and degrade them, altering their flavors, weakening or changing them. This can render some bottles undrinkable if enough unsavory alterations occur.
Storing your alcohol at a relatively consistent temperature, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, is ideal. A cellar or basement is a good storage place for bottles you are keeping for a long time, as long as it is well insulated against temperature swings.
How Does Oxidation Impact Whiskey’s Shelf Life?
The final key to understanding how long whiskey lasts is the largest factor in determining the shelf life of your whiskey: oxidization.
A sealed bottle of whiskey stays good indefinitely because there is no or virtually no alcohol exposure in the bottle. As soon as you open it, the seal is no longer airtight. As you pour more out of the bottle, there is room for more oxygen in the bottle. This means that the oxidization rate increases over time as the volume of the bottle changes.
This means that as soon as you open a bottle of whiskey, it will start to go bad. The speed at which it goes bad increases as you continue to drink more of the bottle.
How Long Do I Have To Drink an Open Bottle of Whiskey?
Once you open a bottle of whiskey, the clock starts ticking. But how long exactly do you have to get the best flavors out of your whiskey?
If you store your bottle in the best possible storage conditions, it may last as long as two years from opening or one year in less ideal conditions. However, this is only if the bottle is at least halfway full. Once you cross the quarter half-full mark or less, you can only get as much as six months out of a whiskey.
These are, of course, estimates. Depending on storage and air exposure quality, these numbers may go up or down.
How Does Aging Alcohol Work?
You’ve probably been wondering for a bit now what is different about aging alcohol before bottling compared to letting a bottle of alcohol sit unopened or opened on a shelf in a bottle. Why does one go bad while the other seemingly gets better with age?
While the whiskey is in wooden barrels, it is sealed to prevent oxidation which is the main mover of decay in whiskey’s flavors and compounds. As such, the aging process allows the whiskey to take on new flavors in the wooden barrel without going bad.
We use the same idea for our finishing process but take it a step further. Here at Oak & Eden, each bottle of whiskey is equipped with a spire, a spiral-cut piece of wood that sits in a whiskey bottle and continues the finishing process even after the whiskey leaves the barrel.
This gives you control over exactly how long you’d like your whiskey to age.
Tips To Store Whiskey in the Best Conditions
If you store whiskey in ideal storage conditions, you can get a sealed bottle to last just about forever. You can give your bottles the best chance to stay fresh by following these few tips for proper storage conditions.
Store Your Whiskey Out of Sunlight
The first key to keeping your whiskey fresh and flavorful while storing it is to keep it out of direct sunlight, where UV rays can degrade the colors and flavors. Place your bottles in an area of the home that does not get direct sunlight and, if possible, in a dark cupboard.
If you have any whiskeys that came in a box or bottle sleeve, it is there to protect them from sunlight. Store these whiskeys in those containers when they are not being poured to protect them from sunlight.
Store Your Whiskey Somewhere With a Consistent Temperature
The next thing you can do to keep your whiskey as fresh as possible is to keep your whiskey in a temperature-controlled location. Temperature changes can cause the whiskey to lose its terpene flavor compounds and alter the flavor in less-than-palatable ways.
Try storing your bottles in a cupboard during hot days as the temperature tends to stay a little cooler. Keep long time saver bottles in a basement or cellar space to avoid temperature changes.
Store Your Whiskey Bottles in a Cellar or Wine Fridge
Our final tip to help you keep your whiskey good for as long as possible is to put your whiskey in a cellar or wine fridge. While the upfront cost of a dedicated cellar room or wine fridge is high, keeping a bottle fresh for years to come is worth it.
A cellar or wine fridge will be a temperature, humidity, and sunlight-controlled area. This keeps the environment as consistent as possible to prevent damage to the whiskey.
So, How Long Does Whiskey Last?
While whiskey doesn’t necessarily expire, it does start to lose flavor and elements after it is opened.
An unopened bottle of whiskey will last indefinitely if stored in proper condition. After opening a bottle of whiskey, you have as long as two years or as few as six months or less to drink it before it goes bad.
To store your whiskey most effectively, keep it out of direct sunlight, avoid massive temperature swings, and keep it sealed airtight when drinking.
Keeping whiskey for the long haul only takes a little effort, but it’s worth it to protect your favorite spirit.
The Oxidation of Alcohols | Chemistry Views
What Is Whiskey? | The Spruce Eats