“Everything is better with age.” We’ve probably all heard this at least once in our lifetime. That claim often remains true with alcohol because after bottling, as long as the bottle isn’t reopened, most liquor ingredients will continue to mature, ferment, further saturate, etc.
So does that mean alcohol doesn’t expire?
Well that kind of contradicts our basic knowledge of alcohol. To answer the question accurately, I would say, yes and no. Alcohol is more likely to spoil when you have uncorked it, or stored it at unusually high temperatures after the initial seal is broken.
Unfortunately, this is an everyday occurrence in bars and nightclubs. Drinks are sold in shots and used in preparing most cocktails – take the average dirty martini for example. Typically “dirtier” martinis contain slightly staler alcohol that has been uncorked for awhile.
Some bartenders are nonchalant enough to cover the bottle with detachable nozzles, rather than using the original cork for closing the bottle. This lackadaisical attitude isn’t usually a big deal because they run through bottles so quickly. However, it can be detrimental to the consumer’s health on occassion.
Our vodka, for example, is sweetened with cassava root but has an incredibly long shelf life compared with most liquors. This doesn’t mean all vodkas are insusceptible to expiration. And there are factors that can make an alcohol expire faster, such as exposure to sunlight, high temperatures, and contamination. In the subsequent paragraphs, some of these factors will be discussed.
Exposure to Sunlight:
While the effect of sunlight on alcohol is very minute, we can’t totally disregard the possibility of this being one of the factors that could reduce the shelf life of the alcohol. Technically, transparent glasses are more likely to allow light to seep into the alcohol than colored bottles like green or brown bottles. Glass and aluminum are also less likely to spoil the alcohol that say, plastic. But alcohol isn’t usually stored in plastic in most 1st world countries. And since most chemical reactions are somewhat sunlight dependent, sunlight can also make certain compounds in the recipe become interactice. This can lead to further alcohol degradation. Thus, it is advisable to store your alcohol bottles – especially the transparent ones – in dark places.
Exposure to Oxygen:
I have noticed people storing their alcohol bottles horizontally on occasion. For an alcohol like vodka with such high concentration by volume, and thus a corrosive tendency, the perpetual storing of the bottle horizontally could cause more alcohol getting into the cork. As the alcohol begins eating away at the cork, it will become easier for oxygen to get into the bottle and bits of the cork to corrode in the alcohol inducing a chemical reaction. This will end up reducing the quality of the alcohol over time, and changing the flavor a bit. If you uncork your bottle, this could be the case too. Small amounts of oxygen will creep into the bottle over time, lessening the seal and altering the flavor and chemical compound. It’s always best to store your bottles upright, in a cool, dark environment.
Like every other substance that has the capability of inducing some temporary “buzz,” Terpene is an essential compound that is in contained in almost all alcohols, drugs, and even cigarettes. Subjecting your alcohol to a very high temperature could lead to the evaporation and degradation of terpenes, thereby reducing the potency of the alcohol. It can simultaneously enhance the “rubbing alcohol” flavor experience which is also undesirable.
Subjecting your alcohol to extremely cold temperatures is equally bad because the chemical compound can also begin to change. It is advisable to store your bottles at room temperature to increase shelf life. While the deterioration of the alcohol is not rapid – it still can occur. It could take years before you notice any change in the alcohol – but for the best experience, try to finish off your bottles within a few months after uncorking. It’s always best to enjoy your bottles when they are fresh.