liquor shelf life

Liquor Shelf Life: Can It Go Bad?

In the middle of cleaning, you find an old bottle of tequila. Perhaps, a leftover from the party ages ago. You heard that tequila is a liquor, but not quite sure if it’s still drinkable. Does liquor go bad?

You’ve probably heard that the shelf life of alcoholic drinks depends on the types. But, you’re not sure what liquor is.

We got you covered! In this article, we break down the nitty-gritty of liquor, it’s shelf life, storage, and common signs of going bad. We also unravel the main difference between liquor and liqueur. Sounds interesting? Read on!

What Is Liquor?

Liquor is definitely a bar essential, both to drink neat or mix into cocktails. But, what kind of alcoholic beverages is liquor?

Liquor (or hard liquor) is a synonym for distilled spirits. That being said, you don’t need to be confused about the difference between spirits and liquor, they’re similar!

Liquor is an umbrella term for alcoholic beverages made from the distillation of fermented grains or plants. Other alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer were made with fermentation, but not distilled.

There are at least 6 different types of liquors made from different materials and processes: tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, and brandy. These liquors are commonly termed “base liquor” due to their application as a base for mixed drinks and cocktails.

Tequila and rum are prepared from the distillation of fermented agave plants and molasses. Vodka, whiskey, and gin are made from the distillation of a variety of grains. Meanwhile, brandy is technically distilled wine.

Some liquors, like whiskey, brandy, and rum, are aged in wooden barrels. While vodka and gin are not suitable for aging. Once the liquid is bottled, the aging process stops. That means liquor doesn’t get better as it ages at your home.

On average, liquor contains 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), while some varieties may contain up to 75% or higher. In the United States, an alcoholic beverage should have at least 40% ABV to be called distilled spirits.

This regulation can be different for each producing country. For example, we can easily find gin brands made in the UK containing 37.5% alcohol.

Liquor vs. Liqueur: What’s the Difference?

If you’re confused with ‘liquor’ or ‘liqueur’, you’re not alone. These two sound similar, but are entirely different products and are not interchangeable.

A liqueur is technically liquor that has been added with sweetener, flavors, and other ingredients. A liqueur is typically lower in alcohol, on average 15%, but can also be as high as 55% ABV.

With a diverse range of added ingredients, liqueur varies considerably in terms of flavor and taste⁠—from chocolate to coconut to orange.

Some popular liqueurs are cream liqueur (Baileys Irish Cream), rum-based liqueur (Malibu coconut rum, Kahlua), crème liqueurs (crème de menthe, crème de cocoa, etc.), fruit-flavored liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Cointreau), and many more.

How To Store Liquor

First thing first, liquor or distilled spirits is shelf-stable. The high amount of alcohol acts as natural preservatives. Thus, liquor doesn’t provide a hospitable environment for microbial growth.

Liquor⁠—no matter if it’s rum, tequila, whiskey, vodka, gin, or brandy⁠—can safely stand at room temperatures or a bit lower, between 55 to 60 ºF (or 12 to 16 ºC).

Refrigeration or freezing is not necessary, in terms of storage. Of course, you can always keep it in the fridge (which many people do) to chill before serving in the evening.

Although liquor storage sounds easy and straightforward, the quality degrades at a faster rate with improper storage⁠—mostly due to exposure to air, light, and heat.

Follow these storage guidelines to ensure your liquor tastes as great until the last drop.

1.  Pick a cool, dry, dark place. If you only occasionally buy liquors and don’t have dedicated storage (like a liquor cabinet), a dark cupboard, pantry, or cellar should do the job. For long term storage, don’t keep liquor in a damp place as it may damage the label.

2.  Avoid heat and lights. Heat and lights are real enemies, particularly for long term storage. This is also the reason why most liquors are packaged in dark bottles. That means you shouldn’t keep liquor anywhere next to the windows, above a refrigerator, or near an oven.

3. Place the bottles upright. Contrary to wine storage, you shouldn’t place liquor bottles on their side. This is an issue, particularly if the container is sealed with a natural cork. After a while, the cork can disintegrate and leak the bottle.

4. Don’t leave a pourer on. After opening, make sure to seal the cap tightly. That means, always remove the pourer if you use one. If the bottle is left open, the air gets inside, accelerates the oxidation process, and damages the flavor and taste of your liquor.

The changes are more pronounced for whiskey or gin, compared to vodka that is renowned as tasteless, odorless liquor.

5. Transfer into a smaller container. You have two options if you’re left with a little amount of liquor. Finish it off immediately (moderation, please) or transfer it into a smaller bottle or flask. The latter can prevent excess air from getting into the liquid and prevents evaporation.

How To Tell If Liquor Is Bad

As mentioned earlier, liquor is high in alcohol content, which doesn’t support microbial growth. Generally, liquor doesn’t go bad as in typical food spoilage. What you might see is degrading flavor and taste, while the chance of going bad is very unlikely.

Liquor varies considerably in terms of appearance, flavor, and taste. The changes in flavor and taste are easier to detect for liquors with distinct characteristics, such as gin or whiskey, compared to vodka, which has neutral odor and taste.

Some changes may look suspicious, but usually are harmless.

1.  Fading color. Gin gets its natural color from the infusion of botanicals and herbs. This color tends to fade away as time goes by, mainly due to oxidation.

2.  Sediments on the bottom.

3.  Cloudy appearance. When kept in cold temperatures, whiskey tends to turn cloudy. But, this is normal, and the cloudiness disappears when brought back to room temperature.

Now, let’s talk about the worst scenario. Perhaps, you forgot leaving the pourer on, or the cap doesn’t seal tightly. Oxidation and evaporation are inevitable. If your liquor smells and taste foul (in any way), or contaminants (maybe dead bugs) get into the bottle, let’s just stay on the safe side.

If you think everything looks and smells as usual, give it a little sip to decide.

If you’re pleased with it, feel free to drink it. If the taste is somewhat inferior, but creating food waste is not your habit, consider making mixed drinks or cocktails. The use of other ingredients can make up the flavor or taste loss of your liquor.

How Long Does Liquor Last?

Liquor is widely known for its miraculously long shelf life, thanks to the high alcohol content. Unopened liquors can keep for many years to come or indefinitely, with proper storage.

As mentioned above, liquor stops aging once the liquid is bottled. Waiting for a decade to enjoy a bottle of whiskey is pointless because the taste doesn’t improve with age. On the contrary, if not properly stored, the quality is compromised.

After opening, the air is introduced into the bottle and accelerates oxidation and evaporation. Physical and chemical reactions alter the flavor and taste slowly over time.

In general, liquor remains in its peak quality within 6 months, up to 1 to 2 years. After that, it is likely safe to consume until spoilage signs are evident. There are a lot of factors determining these time frames, from the ingredients, quality, storage, etc.

Liquor or Distilled spiritsRoom temperatures
Tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy (unopened)Keeps indefinitely
Tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy (opened)6 to 24 months


Does liquor go bad in the heat?

Heat doesn’t necessarily affect the safety aspects. Still, it can accelerate evaporation and eventually affect the flavor of your liquors.

Does liquor go bad in the freezer?

With 40% alcohol content, liquor freezes at -10 °F (or -23 °C). This point is unlikely to be reached in a household freezer. In most cases, the quality is still the same when brought back to room temperature. Many people put whiskey or vodka in the freezer during the afternoon to drink during the night.

Does liquor go bad if left open?

Excess air triggers oxidation, which only damages the quality, let alone bugs, or other contaminants that can enter the bottle. So, try not to leave a pourer on or let the bottle open for too long if you don’t want to end up with tasteless liquid.

Final Thoughts

Liquor or distilled spirit can last for many years if stored properly. It doesn’t necessarily go bad in typical food spoilage. However, the flavor and taste may degrade slowly over time, particularly after opening.

Keep liquors in a cool, dry, dark place, protected from heat and light. Place it vertically to keep the cork moist and always seal the bottle tightly

Generally, liquor is best to enjoy within 6 to 24 months before the flavor and taste changes due to oxidation and evaporation. Beyond this time, liquor is likely safe to drink. But, if it smells or tastes strange in any way, or contaminants get into the bottle, let’s just stay on the safe side.

Up Next: Does alcohol go bad?

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