We’re cleaning out our pantry and found some old, open bottles of rum, gin and other spirits. Are they still safe to drink?
Alcohol has long been celebrated as a great preservative; most spirits don’t go bad, in the sense that they continue to be safe to drink in moderation. They do lose flavour intensity and alcoholic strength over time, so that dusty bottle of tequila left over from your Cinco de Mayo party in 2017 will likely taste different from a newly opened one, but it isn’t generally considered dangerous.
Spirits above 40-per-cent abv (80 proof) don’t expire. Anything that’s been distilled, such as gin, vodka, rum, tequila or whisky, stops aging once it’s been bottled. Most brands are best enjoyed in the first year. That said, properly stored, factory-sealed bottles can be comparatively fresh even 10 years after release, meaning their aromas and flavour intensity will be relatively unchanged.
Exposure to heat and light will cause chemical changes inside any bottle of alcohol, open or not, which is why storing in a cupboard or a cool, dark place is suggested. Doing so prevents evaporation and oxidation, thereby extending shelf life. Once open, exposure to oxygen will cause the spirit’s flavour to change, while heat will cause evaporation of the alcohol. Depending on how much liquid is left in the bottle and the length of time open, those changes could be subtle only to a trained palate or much more pronounced.
Cream-based and other liqueurs, which contain lower alcohol volumes ranging from 17 to 27 per cent, and wine-based spirits such as vermouth, are more perishable. Cream liqueurs such as Baileys and Amarula can separate or curdle. Keeping open bottles in the refrigerator helps to extend their shelf life. Even then, eight to 12 months is likely the maximum time you should let them linger.
Open bottles of whisky fare better but are still considered at their best within a year or two. A whisky’s taste will become smoother in time, but the impact on its flavour is not as easily predicted – possibly better, potentially worse. I find higher-proof whiskies change more quickly than ones bottled around 40-per-cent alcohol. Those barrel notes and other bold flavours can really concentrate.
Some connoisseurs reduce air contact by pouring the remains into a smaller bottle. I’ve also heard of some placing sterilized glass marbles or ball bearings into a prized whisky bottle to displace oxygen. I could never be that meticulous, but with extra time on our hands, it may be something to consider.
The amount of liquid left is one of the most crucial aspects to consider when you come across a long overlooked bottle of booze. Members of the spirits trade and others I know live by the credo that once you’re down to the last third of a bottle, it’s time to drink up. I often took that as a license for them to sell more product, but maybe these brand ambassadors were truly being quality-minded. They didn’t want that bottle to lose its lustre or appeal.