Bourbon Shelf Life – Does Whiskey Go Bad?

Today I wanted to address a question see periodically in a lot of the Facebook groups, Instagram posts, or other whiskey forums. Does Whiskey Go Bad? I’ll attempt to answer the question directly, and then get into some details about long-term whiskey storage and care.

Does Whiskey Go Bad?

The simple answer here is that whiskey can go bad, but it doesn’t have to. Proper care and storage of a bottle of whiskey can help it last for decades. Even some moderate care will help keep whiskey entirely drinkable for ages. Keep it stored at moderate temperatures and away from direct sunlight, and the shelf life of whiskey can be extended for a very long time.

Sunlight and oxygen can have some negative chemical affects on your whiskey with prolonged exposure. Your whiskey won’t ever necessarily “spoil”, per se, but it’s character may change enough that you wouldn’t want to drink it any longer.

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If your whiskey has been improperly stored for an extended amount of time, you may start to notice some signs of it going bad. If you see a lot of debris or particulate floating at the bottom of the bottle, it’s probably a sign of some over oxygenation or exposure to sunlight. You may also notice a change in smell. Worst case scenario, you’ll notice when your whiskey has gone bad if you take a sip and it tastes extra bitter, dry and tart, or a bit like vinegar.

How To Keep Bourbon From Going Bad

Whether you’re a collector, investor, or just have too many bottles to drink at one time, it’s a great idea to store your bourbon properly and keep it from going bad. Here are a few tips for keeping your bourbon in peak mint condition:

  • Keep it away from sunlight. If fact, if you can keep it out of direct lighting at all, that’s a good idea. Store your bottles in a cabinet, closet, or cupboard to that it’s protected from light pollution
  • Store it at cool, stable temperatures. Stability is key here. You don’t want your whiskey stored where the temperature fluctuates up and down significantly. Ideal storage temperatures for whiskey are between about 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 15-20 Celcius). If your home stays in that sweet spot, your whiskey should be fine. A couple degrees up and down won’t make a big difference in the long run, as long as your temperature stays stable.
  • Wrap With Parafilm. This one may be deemed a bit overkill, but if you’re storing your whiskey for extended periods of time (several years), then using parafilm wrap will help protect your spirit from oxidation, and can also keep your labels from fading. You can buy Parafilm on Amazon, and it’s pretty affordable.
  • Store Bottles Upright. If you have more experience with wine, you may be tempted to store your whiskey bottles laying down, but this is usually a bad idea. Over time, the whiskey will eat away at the cork, causing the whiskey to go bad. Keep your bourbon bottles store upright to prevent it from corking. Obviously, this doesn’t really apply to screw-top bottles or other whiskeys without a cork.

Whiskey Shelf Life

So, given these tips and proper storage of whiskey, what’s the expected shelf life for a bottle of whiskey? Whiskey will stay shelf-stable indefinitely if stored properly. In fact, the hobby of shopping for and collecting “dusties” is so popular because old bottles of whiskey keep for a very long time.

Unopened vs Opened Whiskey

An unopened bottle of whiskey is the most protected type of bottle you can have and store for extended periods of time. Unopened bottles are sealed agains oxygen and usually wrapped with a bit of plastic or wax. Even despite these protections, whiskey may still slowly evaporate, and you could notice decreased volume in your bottle. This takes several years, though.

An opened bottle of whiskey does not have these protections, and oxidation will start to occur once exposed and opened. This process is exacerbated depending on the ratio of air-to-whiskey in the bottle. The more air (i.e. the more whiskey you’ve drank from the bottle), the quicker oxidation and evaporation will occur. Once a bottle is opened, we recommend drinking it within a year or two, at most, for best results.

Does Whiskey Age In The Bottle?

No, whiskey does not age in a bottle. The age of a bottle of bourbon, scotch or other whiskey is a measure of the time the spirit spends in a barrel. The aging process occurs only in a barrel, so once it is dumped the aging is stopped (or paused). A 12-year-old whiskey, once bottled, will remain a 12 year old whiskey even if kept in storage for decades.

This doesn’t mean your whiskey won’t change a bit over time. As mentioned some evaporation could occur even in unopened bottles. That would increase the proof point slightly, perhaps, and maybe change the flavor profile (along with oxidation). This doesn’t count as “aging” though.

Having said that, you’re welcome to age whiskey at home if you want. Buy a mini-barrel or oak staves and let your whiskey age a little longer for a custom experience. We’ve got another article ready to help you age whiskey at home.

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