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Sarah Ward

Alcohol Expiration: What Happens When Alcohol Expires?

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Have you ever left a bottle of alcohol on the back of a shelf only to rediscover it years later? If so, you probably learned the answer to “does alcohol expire?” and realized alcohol expiration is a thing.

This also means you now understand why it’s so important to consistently be taking your bar's inventory. But, you likely still have questions about what the alcohol went bad and what you can do to avoid it happening again.

Keep reading to learn about alcohol expiration and why alcohol goes bad, what is happening in the bottle, and how to avoid it in the first place.

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Alcohol Expiration - What Happens When Alcohol Expires?

When hard alcohol "goes bad," it loses its color and its taste becomes duller. There are two primary causes of alcohol losing its color and flavor. They are light and air. We’ll also cover heat, because whether heat affects alcohol is another common question. Alcohol expiration may occur when a bottle of alcohol is left open for an extended period of time.

Chemically, the answer is that the makeup of the liquor begins to break down and the bonds between different elements weaken and eventually separate. In wine, this is what happens when the varietal is becoming oxidized wine or suffering from bottle shock.

Is Light Bad for Liquor?

Light, and specifically sunlight, affects the molecules within liquor bottles. It breaks down and changes the liquor’s organic compounds. This mostly affects the color of the liquor, but it does have ramifications regarding the taste. In that, like the color, the taste can dull. That’s why the largest bars, restaurants, and cellar managers all invest in wine cellar lighting that will let you inspect bottles without having a negative impact on the contents. This is a way to prevent alcohol expiration.

It’s also important to note that this doesn’t make the alcohol unhealthy, it merely destroys the quality of the alcohol. So, you won’t suffer if you do drink it after long exposure to sunlight, but you also won’t be enjoying it.

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Useful Tips On Storing Liquor

To run your bar effectively and successfully, it is best to avoid wasting your inventory. Every dollar spent on inventory that you end up throwing away is a dollar that you could’ve spent on other expenses.

Here are the two best tips for storing liquor and avoiding alcohol expiration:

  • Keep as much air as possible from entering the bottle. You can use either the original cap or a stopper, just make sure it's sealed nice and tight. That also means removing speed pourers from bottles during storage.
  • Don't expose bottles to any extremes. That means hot, cold, and light. Keep bottles in a room temperature environment and out of direct light. This will give you the best chance that your bottles will be in mint condition when it comes time to serve them.
  • Keep bottles upright. Unlike wine, alcohol should almost always be stored in an upright position. This is because the strength of liquor can slowly deteriorate a cork from the inside. So, a bottle stored on its side will allow the liquor to slowly eat away at the seal greatly increasing the risk of oxidization.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Expiration and What Happens When Alcohol Expires

If you're wondering what happens to expired alcohol and how to prevent this, the questions below should be helpful. The article above covered the basics including "does alcohol expire?". There are a few more things you should know about alcohol expiration, including:

What Happens When Alcoholic Beverages Are Left Exposed to Air?

Oxidation. Once opened, bottles of alcohol and liquor are no longer fully sealed and are subject to degradation by air exposure. Specifically the oxygen within the air. Once a liquor begins oxidation, it can take years for the alcohol molecules to break down. But once they do, they taste more acidic and tart. Resealing all open alcohol is one of the bartender basics.

In the case of wine, the oxidization doesn’t make the drink taste tart, it drains nearly all of the flavor away. Luckily, you should be able to quickly identify alcohol that has oxidized as it won’t smell or taste the way it normally would. While we don’t advocate sampling the drink before serving a customer, you should give it a sniff. That’s why sommeliers sniff the cork before serving. If you catch the issue before the customer, you’ll avoid serving something of inferior quality and leaving someone unhappy.

What Happens if You Store Liquor in a Hot Place?

Alcohol is created in high and extreme temperatures and remains relatively shelf-stable in temperatures beyond the most extreme. There’s little danger in storing alcohol in consistently hot, by human standards, temperatures. You don't have to worry about alcohol expiration when it comes to heat and storing a bottle of wine.

There are a few caveats, though. If alcohol is generally stored and served cold, like wine, the heat may not be beneficial. White and red wine serving temperature and storage temperature tend to go hand-in-hand. Heat can also dry out corks and other bottling materials, which can lead to oxidization. Keep in mind that alcohol evaporates, especially from an opened wine bottle.

Try to avoid leaving alcohol in areas that become overly hot or have direct sunlight to have the best chance of keeping the alcohol in top shape. This also helps when you're learning how to ship alcohol because it ensures products reach customers in great condition.

Can Old Alcohol Make You Sick?

No, old alcohol can’t make you sick. When alcohol molecules are broken down and degraded by sunlight and air, their colors change and their tastes dull. But the only thing alcohol past its alcohol expiration date will make you is unimpressed, not sick. This feels counterintuitive because food tends to develop bacteria and rot as it ages, but alcohol essentially just breaks down into useless components.

You don't have to worry about losing your license to bartend because you poisoned someone with old alcohol, but it might be time to go back to bartending school.

Is It OK To Drink Expired Alcohol?

Drinking expired alcohol isn't considered dangerous, but it's not advised to do so. Be sure to check the alcohol expiration date on your bottles to ensure that you're consuming the alcohol before the past due date. When you drink wine and fortified wines, distilled spirits, or specialty based liqueurs , keep in mind that the alcohol will start to taste different once expired.

Does Unopened Alcohol Expire?

Unopened alcohol does not expire and it has an indefinite shelf life. However, an opened bottle of alcohol does expire and the alcohol content may change, unlike with an unopened bottle. The alcohol expiration date on a bottle once its opened is about a year or two. After this time, the alcohol will start to lose its flavor and color.

What Is the Best Place To Store Alcohol?

The best place to store alcohol is on a bar cart, in a liquor cabinet, or in a wine cellar. It's best to avoid storing the alcohol in direct heat and leave it a cool place for the best long-lasting flavor in a bottle. This way, you won't have to worry about alcohol expiration.

Can You Use Expired Alcohol for Cooking?

Expired alcohol can still be used for cooking if its flavor hasn't significantly deteriorated. However, it's best to use fresh alcohol for better results in recipes. Especially if you are cooking outside of your own home.

Do Liqueurs Expire?

Liqueurs, which often contain added sugars and flavors, can undergo changes in flavor and quality over time. It's advisable to check for signs of spoilage, such as an off odor or unusual color.

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Bad, Bad Liquor

Storing and tracking your liquor inventory properly is key to avoiding expired and stale alcohol. That's why we recommend having an inventory management system in place, like BinWise Pro. 

BinWise Pro is an all-in-one inventory management system that helps you manage your wine program more effectively and successfully. It keeps track of every bottle’s expiration dates and shelf time. There is no need to ask "does alcohol expire" again when you are using BinWise! The system will alert you when a bottle is about to pass its drink-by date, or alcohol expiration date, so you never waste your inventory again. Contact us to learn more about BinWise Pro and how it can help your bar.

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