alcohol shelf life

Alcohol Shelf Life: Can It Go Bad?

In the middle of cleaning, you find a bottle of whiskey that looks a little dusty. You’re not quite sure how long it’s been there. Is it safe to drink old whiskey?

You must have heard that wine gets better with age. Is this true for every type of wine? What about hard liquor?

No worries. In this article, we explore the nitty-gritty of every kind of alcoholic drink, its shelf life,  proper storage, and general signs of going bad.

We also write separate articles for each alcoholic drink. Links to each piece are provided throughout this article.

Storage Guidelines For Various Alcoholic Drinks

In general, alcoholic drink is made from the fermentation of grains, fruits, and other sources of sugar. Sugar is broken down and converted into alcohol.

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Alcoholic drinks vary considerably in terms of ingredients and processing methods. Consequently, we find an overwhelming variety which can be confusing for some people.

Regardless of the variety, alcoholic drinks have common enemies during storage: heat, light, and oxygen. Let’s go into details for optimal storage conditions for each type of drink!

Beer

Beer is brewed from grains, mostly malted barley, and flavored with hops.

Most bottled and canned beers are pasteurized to prolong the shelf life. Meanwhile, craft beers are usually unpasteurized to reduce costs and maintain their distinct flavors. Unpasteurized beers or most craft beers should be continuously chilled.

In terms of storage, the requirements are a bit different, depending on whether the beer is pasteurized or not. Canned or bottled beers from major breweries are safe to keep outside the refrigerator.

An ideal place to store beer is a beer cooler, but if you don’t have one, pick a cool, dark, dry spot, with a steady temperature between 50 to 55 ºF (10 to 12.8 ºC). The lower the alcohol, the cooler the storage temperature is.

Make sure the storage is protected from lights and direct sunlight. Otherwise, prolonged exposure to lights makes your beers skunky.

Once opened, beer is best enjoyed right away for maximum freshness. In case you can’t finish a bottle, keep it in the refrigerator and finish within a day.

See more: How long does beer last?

Wine

Wine is made from the fermentation of fruits, mainly grapes. We can find a bunch of varieties of wines, from red wine, white wine, Rosé wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine.

Regardless of the types, the storage guidelines are pretty much similar.

A wine cellar or wine cooler is the perfect place for your wine collections. But, if you can’t afford one, at least keep wines in a cool, dry, dark place, protected from heat and lights. A dark cupboard or cabinet usually works well too.

The ideal temperatures suitable for most wines are between 55 to 59 ºF (or 12 to 15 ºC). As a rule of thumb, lighter wine should be kept at cooler temperatures. Extended exposure to heat will damage the aroma and flavor.

Avoid too damp or dry area, as the cork might be damaged. The ideal humidity should be within 50 to 70%.

If you intend to age the wine or store for longer than a couple of months, place the bottles on their side. This way, the cork stays moist and far from drying out. If the cork dries out, the bottle can leak, and the particles contaminate the wine.

Once you uncork the bottle, place any leftover in the refrigerator. Seal the bottle tightly with a wine stopper or cover it with aluminum foil, at least.

See more: Wine shelf life

Liquor

Liquor (or hard liquor) is considered the most stable among other alcoholic drinks. A quick note, liquor is similar to distilled spirits.

Liquor is made from the distillation of fermented grains and plants. Hence, the alcohol content is much higher than wine or beer. On average, liquor contains 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), with some varieties containing 75% ABV and higher.

There are at least six types of base liquors, which are grouped according to the materials and processes: tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, and brandy.

Liquor is shelf-stable, no matter if the bottle is unopened or opened. The high concentration of alcohol acts as a natural preservative that doesn’t support microbial growth.

As you might have expected, a liquor cabinet is an ideal place for your liquor supply. In general, a cool, dry, dark place, like a dark cupboard, cellar, or pantry, should do the job.

Avoid a damp place, and exposure to heat, lights, and air. Hence, storing liquor next to the windows, above the refrigerator, or nearby an oven is generally not a good idea.

Contrary to wine storage, for long-term storage, you should keep a bottle of liquor in standing position. After opening, make sure it’s sealed properly. That means, never leave a pourer on.

If you’re left with a little amount in the bottle, consider transferring it into a smaller container (maybe a flask or bottle) to minimize the exposure to air.

Liqueur

Let’s make it clear before we go further. A liqueur is not the same as liquor. Technically, liqueur is a sweetened liquor added with other ingredients. It’s lower in alcohol content, on average 15% but can be higher.

The flavors and added ingredients significantly vary, from dairy to fruits to coconut to cocoa. Some famous liqueurs are Baileys Irish Cream (cream liqueur), Malibu coconut rum and Kahlua (rum-based liqueur), Cointreau triple sec, Grand Marnier, (fruit-flavored liqueurs), crème liqueurs, amaretto, and many more.

Except for cream-based liqueur, other liqueurs are typically shelf-stable. You can keep them similarly to how hard liquor is stored.

Cream liqueur, such as Baileys Irish cream, can be kept outside the fridge as long as unopened. After opening, it should be kept refrigerated. The dairy content makes it more susceptible to spoilage.


How Can You Tell If An Alcoholic Drink Has Gone Bad?

Alcoholic drinks do not go really bad in the typical sense of food spoilage. However, poor storage conditions, such as prolonged exposure to sunlight, wrong temperatures, excess air, are detrimental to the quality.

Always check for the visual signs, smell, and taste. Anything unusual deserves a second look. The following are some general symptoms of an alcoholic drink going off.

1. Skunky beer. An indication of skunky beer is the funky or musky smell. Next to that, if beer smells horribly sour or tastes like cabbage or wet cardboard, it’s definitely spoiled.

2. Discoloration or fading color. Oxidation turns the initial color of your drink. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is a symptom that the drink is going bad.

3. Off-smell. If your wine or champagne smells unusual, like rotten onion or cabbage, it’s likely undrinkable.

4. Vinegary or sour taste. Spontaneous fermentation can occur in the wine because it contains live yeast. If it happens continuously, the alcohol content is converted into acetic acid, which makes the wine taste vinegary.

Among other alcoholic drinks, liquor is the most unlikely to go bad. If you have an old bottle of whiskey or vodka, it’s still worth checking. Who knows you left the bottle long enough to let bugs enter the bottle.


Shelf Life of Various Alcoholic Drinks

How long an alcoholic drink lasts considerably varies. Generally speaking, it depends on the ingredients, processing methods, alcohol contents, and storage conditions.

Beer

Most mainstream beers are pasteurized and are best to enjoy within 3 to 6 months. Unpasteurized beers (in which most craft beers are) have a shorter shelf life up to 3 months. That’s why craft beers are distributed locally.

There is another type of beer that is aged before placed on the market, labeled as “vintage” beer. This one stays much longer than the average beers.

After opening, beer is best enjoyed immediately. If by any chance you can’t, keep it chilled in the refrigerator and drink within the same day.

BeerPantryRefrigerator
Beer (unopened)3 to 6 months4 to 8 months
Unpasteurized beer (unopened)3 months
Beer (both pasteurized and unpasteurized)–    1 to 2 days

Wine

As mentioned earlier, there are several groups of wine. So, does wine improve with age? Yes and no.

Fine wines, such as Merlot, can be aged in your wine cellar for decades. The same thing goes for vintage champagne.

Cheap, supermarket wines don’t age gracefully. They are meant to be enjoyed immediately. As a golden rule, full-bodied red wine and fortified wine last longer than lighter variety or white wine.

Once the bottle is uncorked, the shelf life drops significantly. Sparkling wine tends to lose its carbonation in a day or two. White and red wine stay fresh a little longer up to 3 to 5 days.

Fortified wine such as Sherry, Port, Vermouth, or Marsala, lasts the longest in the refrigerator up to 1 to 2 months, thanks to the addition of brandy or distilled spirits.

WineWine cellar/ wine rack/ dark cupboardRefrigerator
Sparkling wine (unopened)3 to 5 years
Sparkling wine (opened)1 to 5 days
White wine (unopened)1 to 2 years
White wine (opened)–     3 to 5 days
Red wine (unopened)3 to 5 years
Red wine (opened)3 to 5 days
Fortified wine (unopened)3 to 4 years
Fortified wine (opened)–    1 to 2 months
Fine wines (unopened)Decades
Fine wines (opened)3 to 5 days
Non-vintage champagne (unopened)3 to 4 years
Non-vintage champagne  (opened)3 to 5 days
Vintage champagne (unopened)5 to 10 years
Vintage champagne (opened)3 to 5 days

Liquor

As you’ve probably known, hard liquor has a fantastic shelf life. Its high concentration of alcohol is unfavorable for microbial growth.

Properly stored, liquor can be kept for many years to come. After opening, the flavor and taste may slowly deteriorate, mainly due to exposure to air. Although it remains safe to drink, an old opened bottle won’t taste as great as a newly opened one.

Liquor or distilled spiritsPantryRefrigerator
Tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy (unopened)Keeps indefinitely
Tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy (opened)6 to 24 months

Liqueur

The shelf life of liqueur differs significantly, depending on the added ingredients, alcohol content, and storage conditions.

Cream liqueur (think of Baileys Irish cream) has a limited shelf life of two years. The addition of dairy cream shortens the shelf life. After opening, it stays fresh up to 6 months.

Rum-based liqueur, such as Malibu coconut rum and Kahlua, lasts for 2 years and up to 6 years, respectively.

LiqueurPantryRefrigerator
Cream liqueur, such as Baileys Irish cream (unopened)2 years
Cream liqueur (opened)6 months
Other liqueurs Several years (varies for each type)

The tables above serve as general estimates. The actual shelf life depends on the specific variety of drinks, product quality, and storage conditions.

In A Nutshell

Alcoholic drinks greatly vary in the ingredients, processing methods, and aging. These factors determine the shelf life of each drink. Storage conditions also play a crucial role.

Most alcoholic beverages are shelf-stable, except for unpasteurized beer that needs continuous chilling. Wine, beer, and cream liqueur also need proper refrigeration after opening. Liquor and most liqueurs can be kept outside the refrigerator all the time.

Liquors are the most stable alcohol and can last for decades. Beer is best enjoyed fresh, within several months after brewing. Meanwhile, not all wines are suitable for aging.

Up Next: Does liquor go bad?

alcohol goes bad

Photo by depositphotos.com/OlegDoroshenko

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