Pouring up a nip of your favorite bourbon can take the edge off a long day. But if you haven’t touched the bottle in some time or you’re considering opening a memorable bourbon, you might wonder, “Does bourbon go bad?”
Unfortunately, yes. An opened bottle of bourbon does go bad by losing many of its premium qualities. The shelf life and degradation depend on many factors, including storage temperature, exposure to air, and the amount of light it receives.
In this article, we’ll cover all the essential points about bourbon storage and shelf life so you can ensure to keep your bourbon in excellent condition for as long as possible.
The truth is that bourbon does go bad. While an unopened bottle can last an extremely long time if properly stored, an opened bottle is a different story. Once you’ve cracked the seal and poured some out, the bottle of bourbon is on its way to going bad.
In most cases, old bourbon is unlikely to harm your health. But due to chemical changes in the bourbon, many qualities begin to suffer after opening the bottle.
There are three main reasons why an opened bottle of bourbon goes bad. These include oxidation, light, and contaminants.
Similar Question: Does Vodka Go Bad?
Oxygen is a marvelous thing. It is an essential component of life. Without it, humans wouldn’t exist. But it also causes a degrading process known as oxidation. A common form of oxidation seen in many places is rust.
But rust isn’t the only result of oxidation. It also changes the chemical structure of other things, including opened bottles of bourbon. This process, which involves the loss of electrons, is harmful to the taste and profile of bourbon, resulting in an inferior product over a long enough time.
Sunlight is another thing that is vital to life, yet causes harm. We understand that laying on the beach on a sunny day can fill you with warmth and provide a nice golden tan. But it also can cause skin cancer due to radiation.
Your bottle of bourbon isn’t going to get skin cancer. And while UV light can be used to sterilize, it can also be harmful to bourbon, causing a reduction in quality. When a bottle of bourbon is in direct sunlight, its structure and profile will change.
Eventually, what’s left will be dissimilar to the original product.
Other things that can cause a bottle of bourbon to go bad are contaminants. The world has many hidden microorganisms, such as bacteria. While the alcohol content of most bourbons prevents excessive growth of bacteria or mold, that can change over a long enough time.
Alcohol is the first to evaporate out of a bottle of bourbon. If that continues for a long time, the water content rises. This change could give rise to an environment where bacteria could grow. This fact is especially true on bottles that use a cork.
Most times, you don’t have to worry about bacteria growth. But if a bottle has been sitting open for a long enough time, bacteria could begin to develop somewhere within the bottle or cork.
Let’s start by differentiating two different classes of stored bourbon. First, unopened bottles that are fresh from the distillery and haven’t had the seal broken. And on the other hand, a bottle of bourbon has been opened, leaving a broken seal and more air inside.
These are two very different situations, so let’s tackle them each.
You can store an unopened bottle of bourbon for a long time. In appropriate conditions, it will stay good for a practically indefinite period. So you don’t have to worry about any unopened bourbon going bad.
Proper storage ensures that bourbon keeps its ideal flavor and profile. Some storage conditions, such as high temperature and light, can cause harm to a bottle even if unopened.
One myth is that bourbon continues to age in a glass bottle. While many still believe this misconception, the bourbon aging process happens inside a charred oak barrel, not a glass bottle. Leaving it in the bottle doesn’t harm it but doesn’t add color or flavor as a barrel does.
When you crack the seal on a bottle of bourbon, everything changes. Many times, distilleries will do everything they can to reduce the amount of oxygen in bottles of spirits like bourbon. They’ll fill them carefully and sometimes even add an inert gas to remove oxygen.
After you open it, ambient air rushes in, and the oxygen level increases. This change is a primary reason why the answer to “Does bourbon go bad?” is yes.
Generally speaking, a bottle of bourbon will start to lose some characteristics within a matter of months, and at about the two-year mark, you’re really pushing your luck. While the bourbon is unlikely to develop anything harmful, it will have a dull taste and may lack the right alcohol content.
Some bottles of bourbon are not cheap. They’re worth setting down in the right location and holding onto for a long time before opening. And even once you crack the seal and give it a taste, proper storage can go a long way toward preserving those ideal qualities.
The best way to store bourbon is to keep it in an area with a consistent, cool temperature and away from sunlight. You don’t want to allow heat or direct light to hit any bottle of bourbon, opened or not. These can change the flavor and color more quickly.
Another top tip is to use a bottle that fits the amount of leftover bourbon. As you consume it, transfer the bourbon to an empty, clean bottle that doesn’t leave an excessive amount of air inside.
Cool temperatures are not equal to cold temperatures. Most experts do not recommend refrigerating or freezing bourbon (or freezing whiskey), just keeping it in a cellar-like location with a steady temperature on the cooler side rather than hot or frigid.
Not everyone has a cellar or wants to install one. But you know what can work perfectly well? A cabinet located in a well-insulated corner of your home. This storage can provide a constant temperature.
Besides a constant temperature, the other main objective for proper bourbon storage is to avoid light exposure. Since light accelerates harmful changes in bourbon, ideal storage locations protect bottles, both sealed and open, from light.
The simple cabinet can provide storage away from light. But it’s best if the doors are opaque. It can be tempting to put all of your nice bottles on display, but that will boost the degradation rate.
A nice compromise can be a particular cabinet with doors that can be closed for storage and propped open when you want easy access or to display the collection. You can find elegant armories or large cabinets made for liquor, and the best ones have opaque doors to protect your collection.
Say you notice a bottle that’s been stored improperly. Or in a perfect location, but open for around a year or more. How can you tell if the bourbon has gone bad?
If you want to run a simple experiment, leave a bit of bourbon in an open glass overnight and have a taste. This flavor can help you identify what the immediate changes are.
But if a lot of time has passed and you’re wondering if the bourbon is safe to drink, you can start with a visual inspection. If the color seems weakened or has a cloudy appearance, it has likely lost premium characteristics.
You can also check the flavor. Since it’s rare for stored liquor, even if open, to have harmful health consequences, a little taste can help you detect if the bourbon has gone bad. Most of the time, the flavor will be much duller and could be more watery due to alcohol evaporation.
Finally, and most importantly, there are times when you want to stay far away from a bottle of bourbon. If you have no idea how long a bottle has been sitting or if you can see, smell, or otherwise detect any growth of bacteria, mold, or fungi, you should stay far away.
Most of the time, it’s not worth testing very old open bottles of bourbon. While you can take a year or two to consume a nice bottle, pushing it beyond that will result in lackluster quality not worth preserving or drinking.
While sealed bottles of bourbon can last an indefinite time when stored in cool temperatures away from light, an opened bottle of bourbon will start to lose some characteristics within a matter of months and will usually not be worth drinking within two years.
So save those good bottles sealed until you’re ready to enjoy them. And keep both sealed and opened bottles in proper storage at a consistently cool temperature and away from light. Pour leftover bourbon into a bottle that reduces the air inside.