Uncluttering alcohol: the shelf life of beer and liquor

Depending on your buying habits and your drinking habits, you may never need worry about whether or not to keep a bottle of booze. But sometimes people do wind up with alcohol that may not be worth keeping: because they got something as a gift and never drank it, because their own drinking habits changed, because they inherited some bottles, etc.

At Unclutterer, we’ve touched on this subject before, but I’d like to provide more detailed guidance.

Beer

Two things can go wrong with beer.

Beer can get skunky — so it smells pretty awful, almost exactly like a skunk — if it’s exposed to light. Beer in brown bottles or in cans has good protection from skunking. And as the Beeriety blog explains, some beers that come in clear or green bottles use a hop substitute rather than actual hops, which means they won’t get skunky.

Beer also goes stale over time — more quickly if it’s not refrigerated. It won’t harm you, but it won’t taste all that good. How long does that take? As Chantal Martineau explains on Food Republic, one expert says three to six months for many beers; those with high alcohol content last longer. You can check for sell-by dates on the bottles, although they’re sometimes hard to see, and may use codes rather than actual dates, making things more complicated.

Hard liquor

“Distilled spirits don’t go bad; they fade,” says Glenn Jeffers, writing in the Chicago Tribune. Unopened bottles of hard liquor like whiskey will last indefinitely, unless you store it horribly — like in a cedar chest, close to mothballs, or near a direct heat source.

What about an opened bottle? Ethan Kelley, an expert quoted by The Kitchn explains, “From a spirit geek standpoint, it’s good for 6-8 months — that’s the industry standard. For the average layperson, 8 months to maybe a year.”

But those old, opened bottles aren’t unsafe to drink from — although you may not want to. As Phil Vettel writes, also in the Chicago Tribune, “Barring contamination, liquor doesn`t go bad in the sense that meat or fish go bad. Liquor instead experiences a gradual decrease in quality; for example, an ages-old bottle of whiskey might develop, over time, a taste so unpleasant that you can`t drink it.”

Bottles with very little left in them deteriorate more quickly; these are the ones you’re most likely to want to pour down the drain.

Cream liqueurs

These liqueurs will indeed go bad; some will note an expiration date on the bottle, so look for that. You can also check the guidance of the individual brands.

Baileys says of its cream liqueur, “Baileys … guarantees its taste for 2 years from the day it was made, opened or unopened, stored in the fridge or not when stored away from direct sunlight at a temperature range of 0-25 degrees centigrade. … Under normal conditions of storage Baileys has a shelf-life of 30 months.”

And Carolans says, “An unopened bottle of Carolans will last about 2 years on average, but this can vary depending on storage conditions — exposure to excessively hot storage conditions can adversely affect the shelf life. … All cream liqueurs are best drunk ‘young’ and should be consumed within 6 months of opening the bottle; refrigerate after opening.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?,” asks Michael Dietsch at Serious Eats. The answer? “Maggie Hoffman reports that the Baileys in her father’s liquor cabinet actually became solid after a decade or so.”

Consider taking a moment to assess your own liquor collection, before you ever get to a situation as sad as solid cream liqueurs.

9 Comments for “Uncluttering alcohol: the shelf life of beer and liquor”

  1. posted by Anne on

    Thank you! This is exactly the information and boost I needed to go dump a ton of abandoned bottles of alcohol into the garbage.

  2. posted by Andrea on

    Ha ha, that solid cream liqueur happened to me. The bottle had never been opened. I try not to buy things in quantities that I can’t use in a reasonable time.

  3. posted by Ang on

    Great tips. I would love to see a similar post about wine!

  4. posted by Yashima on

    Wine is very varied – I guess that’s the reason it wasn’t included in the post. It really depends on the vintage how long you can keep it. Reds last longer than whites as a general rule. Mass produced cheap wines I would drink within the first 2 years of buying. At the latest after maybe 5 years. Better vintages can easily last well beyond that: 10, 15, 20 or even 35 years. Sparkling wines usually do not age very well …

    What about fortified wines like sherry, port or vermouth?

  5. posted by Steve on

    Longevity of wines depends greatly upon the storage conditions. Stored upright in a hot garage, they will not last long at all, Stored in a wine cabinet that maintains the proper constant temperature the wine will last a lot longer. And of course the quality of the wine, varietal, vintage etc greatly effect how long it will last. Thus, no fixed answer. In general your fortified wines will last a lot longer.

  6. posted by Hoosier on

    I think the obvious solution for this “problem” is to simply drink the stuff rather than letting it sit around. For those of you who have a full liquor cabinet, have a great weekend. Cheers!

  7. posted by Nutella Nutterson on

    This might seem obvious, but opened mixers need to be refrigerated. A friend accidentally grew a sci-fi style mold in his unrefrigerated Rose’s Lime!

  8. posted by Dinah Sanders on

    I tackled this topic—including fortified wines and similar lower proof ingredients—in a post on my cocktail blog, Bibulo.us:
    http://www.bibulo.us/2012/01/c.....space.html

    Treat those frail flowers right while you have them, and use them up before they’re past their prime.

    Fortunately, this is a strong argument for having more cocktail parties. ;)

    Dinah Sanders
    author of Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff and (coming this year) The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level

  9. posted by BrewDemon on

    Its nice to know about beer and liquors. How the taste change overtime is left opened and why they uses the same color of bottles for beer. As a drinker one must know how to preserve the beer and liquor to maintain its taste.

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