I glanced at my filled-to-bursting bar cart the other day with a mix of pride and exasperation: I need to clear some surface area on this thing. As I started my visual evaluation—Do I really need five bottles of gin? Yes, I do—I spotted some dustier bottles toward the back that gave me pause. I had an old bottle of armagnac I’d brought back from a trip to France, some aged rum I reserve for special sipping occasions, some cachaça I don’t use much. Could these go bad? And more broadly, can all types of booze go bad? I called the experts to assemble some guidelines for those whose booze cabinets are as in need of a spring cleaning as mine.
“Any liquor can go bad,” Alex Bachman tells me. He’s a broker who specializes in vintage liquor sourced from private collections and defunct auction houses around the world, which he markets through his company Sole Agent. “All spirits have a shelf life. Even if they’re stored absolutely impeccably and climate-controlled beautifully, they’re all going to expire at some point and that’s simply due to oxidation.”
He says that for most liquors, though, that point is a long way off. Some spirits —absinthe and amaro especially—actually benefit from aging under good conditions, whereas low-alcohol spirits like sherry and vermouth tend to oxidize more quickly and to undesirable results. Keeping spirits away from heat (including halogen lightbulbs) and very bright light will extend their lives, but Bachman says the average person doesn’t need to do much other than keep bottles at room temperature and away from light.
“You can open a bottle of whiskey, throw it on the shelf and it’ll be good for 10 years,” he assures me. If something’s been on your shelf or in your parents’ liquor cabinet for decades, he just suggests opening it and giving it a sniff. “You’re not going to get sick from it, so open it and smell it. You don’t need to be a master sommelier to figure out if something’s good or not. Does it smell like something you want to drink?”
Aging wine in collectors’ cellars and climate-controlled refrigerators is a whole other ball game that’s way beyond my price point. So let’s skip that and say we’re talking about regular, run-of-the-mill wines you bought from a liquor store and then forgot about. How long are those going to stay decent?
“There’s never any danger. I mean, you’re not going to die drinking old wine,” Collin Moody, general manager and beverage director at Chicago’s Income Tax wine bar, tells me. (But what a way to go, right?)
He says that deciding whether a wine will benefit from aging or be hindered by it is a matter of knowing its acidity level, its tannins, and whether it was made reductively or oxidatively. Okay, I say, but what if it’s just a random bottle from the grocery store that I forgot about in the back of my pantry?
“If you’re going to ‘accidentally’ age something, three to five years is fine. That’s a really safe window. If you’re going to experiment with aging a bottle, then five to 10 years is about the range. If you’re going to age something more than 10 years, you really need to do your research,” he advises.
When it comes to an open bottle of wine, you have an obviously much more narrow window. The more times you cork and uncork a wine to pour a glass, the more oxygen you’re inviting into the bottle, and the more empty space that’s left to fill up with oxidative air.
Rachael Lowe, beverage director at Chicago’s Spiaggia restaurant, says that generally though, white wines are more forgiving of time spent open than reds. The white wine’s flavor might fade, but it won’t develop the stale oxidation as quickly as a red wine might. She says two to three days is probably the maximum life span of an open bottle that hasn’t been corked and uncorked a bunch. And resist the urge to move the bottle in and out of the refrigerator, which can actually shock it. Instead, if the wine’s already been out at room temperature, recork it and leave it there. Best yet, though, avoid the problem of leftover wine altogether.
“Usually if we open a bottle at home, it’s gone that day,” Lowe says.
Beer, like wine, can both benefit from or be hampered by aging. Some barrel-aged beers or high-alcohol, malt-forward styles mellow out and develop additional, complex flavors over time; whereas the hops in styles like IPAs and pale ales degrade relatively quickly and would taste drastically better fresh. But let’s put aside the brawny beers designed for aging—doppelbocks, barleywines, imperial stouts—and just talk about a regular off-the-shelf six-pack.
The first step to ensuring the freshest-tasting beer is to look in a refrigerated section, not a room-temperature shelf, says Neil Witte, the Brewers Association’s quality ambassador and owner of Craft Quality Solutions. The warmer a beer is, the faster it ages, so beers that are shipped and stored cold are likely to taste fresher.
The second step is to check the beer’s date code, if it has one. Some breweries stamp their cans and bottles with a “born on” date, which is the date it was packaged. Others mark a “best by” date. He says he’d generally try to avoid buying a beer that was within two months of its best-buy date. Even if it’s still fine to drink, it’s probably not in optimal condition.
“If you see a date of packaging, drinking that beer within one month is awesome; within two is pretty good; three is okay; four I’m concerned; five is probably too long,” he says.
Of course, different beer styles—like different types of wine—aren’t subject to these guidelines. If you get the chance to try an oak-aged, Brettanomyces-fermented saison from two years ago (as I did last weekend), it could be a real treat. And while a bottle of porter from four months ago could taste just fine, an IPA of the same age might be pretty underwhelming.
If there’s one lesson I gleaned from all the experts I spoke to, it’s that there’s really no time like the present if you’re unsure of how a type of alcohol will age. A booze in the hand is worth two in the cellar, as the adage goes, right? But if you do forget a bottle somewhere only to rediscover it later, rest assured that drinking it won’t kill you—unless it’s Everclear and you down the whole thing.