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Open spirits - shelf life


tedious
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I recently began building a home bar - the liquids, that is, not the horizontal surface - from scratch. I've been picking up a bottle or two a week for a few months and sampling most of them on arrival. Some of these are fairly expensive - particularly the brown 'sipping' spirits. It has occurred to me that if I continue accumulating at the current rate, and if I continue opening to taste-test as I go, I will wind up with bottles which may remain unfinished for several years. This is because, in the interests of variety, I'm buying much faster than I (and any guests of sufficiently sophisticated tastes) will consume.

This got me researching shelf-life, and on F. Paul Pacult's 'Spirit Journal' site I noticed the following remark:

I personally don't leave bottles of spirits unconsumed for longer than two to three months at the very longest. I notice dramatic differences after a month or more.

Wow. A month? Even if two or three months are 'safe', I probably don't want to have more than one or two really good bottles open at a time, and that rather screws up the possibility of offering visitors / myself an interesting choice. And then there's all the non-sipping stuff which may be sitting open after making various cocktails.

So, I'm wondering what the experiences of others here are. Is Mr Pacult overly pessimistic or cautious? Does it vary for different spirit (sub-)categories? Obviously, you can take it as read that all bottles are carefully resealed, in the dark, and away from direct heat. In an ideal world I'd do this the scientific way using a batch of bottles bought at the same time, but one Ardbeg Uigeadail is quite expensive enough. Especially since the experiment is premised on the possibility of ruining most of it...

I did search the forums, and found only one short discussion on this. Most of that related to literally open bottles (rather than opened bottles). But feel free to flame me if this FAQ #1 and I'm missing the obvious.

By the way, first post. Thanks all for the great resource which I've been dipping into for quite a while.

Edited by tedious (log)
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I recently came across the same remark in Pacult's 'Kindred Spirits' and was immediately crestfallen. How could anyone hope to build even a basic spirits collection for their home bar if the quality starts to turn for the worse within a few months of the first pour? The Rittenhouse BIB I've been so sparing with these past four months is now a faint memory of it's former unopened self? My Bruichladdich 15? The Amer Picon my friend muled in for me? Damn.

So, I went about asking spirits enthusiasts and bartenders and the vast majority said they never experienced a detectable loss of flavor or aroma in that short amount of time. Of course, after a long period of time (years), I assumed opened base spirits would begin to gradually dull due to oxidation, depending on how full the bottle is when it sits.

Keep in mind, Paul Pacult spends at least 30 minutes tasting and analyzing in a single tasting, so he has a highly nuanced and sensitive palate. Maybe he can detect the slightest of changes.

I'm curious about others' experience with this as well.

"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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I can't claim a highly skilled palate with hard liquor, but I have not tasted a drop in quality with hard liquor stored decently. I did have a bottle of slivovitz that I brought back from Yugoslavia (when it existed) that sat opened for many years and it did have a loss of alcohol, but it had a not very good screw cap and was not stored well. But I have had nice bottles of brandy, rum etc. that I have had around for a number of years and never noticed a drop in quality. Things like vermouth would probably show a lot of degradation sitting for months after opening.

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I recently came across the same remark in Pacult's 'Kindred Spirits' and was immediately crestfallen. How could anyone hope to build even a basic spirits collection for their home bar if the quality starts to turn for the worse within a few months of the first pour?

Exactly my thinking. :sad:

Vermouth, I realise, is a different animal - my own experiments agreed with the popular wisdom. The difference is clearly detectable though, to be honest, I didn't find a couple of weeks of oxidisation desperately unpleasant.

But I'm really concerned about the hard liquor keeping for a good couple of years - especially the expensive stuff!

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Most spirits should last almost indefinitely, especially the grain spirits and rum. I keep most of my single malts around for about a year (sometimes longer) and they're fine. Tequila can lose its vegetal character after a while. I know that añejo tequilas tend to get woodier if kept too long (not that they are gaining wood characteristics, obviously, but if the agave taste fades a little, then the woodiness gets out of balance (although personally, I don't mind that so much)).

Most liqueurs should last a good while, except for cream liqueurs, for obvious reasons. The alcohol preserves the cream for a little while, but not forever.

I would say that Pacult's "dramatic differences" is a rather dramatic exaggeration. I don't know anything about him, but I wonder if there are industry ties that might entice him to say something like that. Hell, even Laphroaig's Ian Henderson (ret.) said that their whisky will stay good for up to a year "as much as we'd like to say you should throw away the cork when you open a bottle".

You might want to limit the number of opened bottles of sipping spirits to about 7 or 8 unless you think you won't finish them in under two years.

Edited by brinza (log)

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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I have a regular who collects vintage single malts and he says he uses the argon canister system used to preserve wines, so that he can keep a bottle open for several years without appreciable degradation of flavor. He also apparently has several bottles sufficiently special that he won't open them unless they are to be consumed that night, so there you have it.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Vermouth is a wine and should be bought in 375s, stored in the fridge, and thrown out after 2 weeks. 

Toby

Yeah, that's why I hate to buy Carpano Antica. Sure wish it came in a half liter size.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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Vermouth is a wine and should be bought in 375s, stored in the fridge, and thrown out after 2 weeks. 

Toby

Of course this brings up an interesting question with regards to classic cocktails since refrigeration wasn't all that common. My grandfather built the first refrigerator on his block on Oakland in the late thirties and when I stayed in england in the mid 70's there was a big stink because milk was no longer going to be delivered in 1/2 pints and a lot of people didn't have any refrigeration.

SK

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I've only noticed two bottles go horribly wrong after about a year. One was a bols peach snapps I found with a speed pourer under the counter. Tasted kind of fermented. The other was a Pirrasunga 51 Cachaca, also with a speed pourer. The cachaca took on a heavy smokey flavor, which was not enjoyable.

Other than that, I've seen stuff hang around for a long time. There is a bar in town that has a huge bottle of galliano, half full, with a nice 1960's era label on it. Most likely past it's prime, I'd guess... :shock:

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Camper English wrote a blog post about open bottles a while ago...

Storing Whiskey

According to him, and the folks at Woodford Reserve:

After the bottle is opened, it will still last indefinitely until the bottle is roughly a third emptied. Until that point enough spirit evaporates into the empty air that the environment is right. But once you've had more than a third or so of the bottle, the air/whiskey balance can throw off the spirit and you may see it turn cloudy and the flavor will go off...Here's the good news- this won't happen for about two years, so you've got plenty of time to finish that bottle.

To be honest, I haven't noticed it that much with spirits. The only exception I can think of right now is my current bottle of Flor de Cana Extra Dry. I dunno if I'm just tired of it or if has gone off...I've certainly had it for less than a year...But much of the flavor seems to be gone, leaving me with something that more or less smells and tastes like plain vodka. Maybe it is the bottle level air thing? I haven't had much call for Dry Rum drinks lately in the Savoy, and it's been more than 3/4 empty for a few months.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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