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Does Alcohol Expire? When Does Liquor Go Bad?

January 3, 2020
BinWise Staff
mastering bar inventory ebook

Sometimes the older alcohol gets, the better it tastes. But not all alcohol defies time like that. There are obviously multitudes of types of alcohol, and they all have their own lifespans to be aware of.

And the clock on every bottle’s mortality usually starts ticking when it’s opened. Opened alcohol can expire and go bad. And when it does, the most common effect is the loss of color, flavor, or both. 

Keeping track of every alcohol’s shelf life is a crucial part taking your bar's inventory. That way you’re not serving bunk drinks or hemorrhaging money as your bottles die off, unenjoyed.

Does Liquor Expire?

Unopened liquor has an indefinite shelf life. Opened liquor lasts about a year or two before it goes bad—meaning it starts losing its color and flavor. Don't use a liquor for well drinks if you won't use the whole bottle within two years. It does not generally become toxic, though. As always, use your common sense: if you see anything suspicious in your old liquor (like mold or something floating), toss it. Checking to make sure your liquor hasn't expired is a valuable part of a bartender's duties.

Why Does Liquor Go Bad?

So what makes a liquor go bad? There are three main factors that can affect the quality of liquor over time: light, temperature, and air. When liquor is exposed to daylight over a long period of time, it can lose colors. For liquor, color changes are indicative of flavor changes. Similar to that, temperature changes can degrade an organic molecule called "terpene," which alters the liquor’s flavor. Lastly, air exposure can lead to oxidation of liquor that affects its flavor.

That said, if you store hard liquor in moderate temperature away from direct light, it lasts indefinitely. At 30% to 40%, liquor is not a hospitable environment for bacteria. And if it’s not opened, you’ll deal with virtually no oxidation.

But once you open a liquor bottle, oxidation begins. That’s why most hard liquors will “go bad” within a year or two. But when we say bad, we don’t mean they grow mold, become toxic, or coagulate. What we mean is that the amount of oxidation degrades the flavor and quality to such a degree that you may as well not drink it. But you can if you want. We recommend that you finish the bottle (which is admittedly not easy to do with some liquor bottle sizes) as soon as possible after you open it. Because once you open a bottle, time’s not on your side. Adhering to the proper standard pours and keeping track of your pour count is a good way to avoid waste.

When Does Alcohol Expire?

Does Unopened Liquor Go Bad?

Most primary (also called "base") liquors like whiskey, brandy, rum, gin, tequila, and vodka, have an almost infinite shelf life if left unopened. That's because they don't have much sugar and, unopened, aren't at risk of any oxidation. The high alcohol content also makes them particularly inhospitable to bacteria life.

Do Open Bottles of Liquor Go Bad?

Once you open bottles of liquor (primary liquors like vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, tequila, etc.) they tend to lose certain flavor qualities over a few years. But they won't spoil. If an opened bottle of liquor is nearing its date of expiry, you can always use it for a happy hour drink idea and discount it. You should also try to upsell drinks and prevent wasting more expensive top-shelf liquor.

An important thing to note is that the less liquor in an opened bottle of liquor, the quicker the alcohol expires. That’s because there is more oxygen-rich air in the bottle, which hastens oxidation and degradation.

Now let’s look at each type of spirit.

Does Vodka Go Bad?

No, vodka really doesn’t go bad. If the bottle stays unopened, vodka shelf life is decades. So, effectively, vodka doesn’t expire. Vodka is a simple, stable spirit. There’s just not much in it. So there’s not many chemicals to start decaying and going out of control. But any bottle of vodka isn’t perfectly, hermetically sealed. There will be some contact with the outside air. After about 40 or 50 years, an unopened bottle of vodka may have lost enough flavor and alcohol content—due to a slow, consistent oxidation—to be considered expired. But it could take 100 years, too. The point being that, for our purposes vodka doesn’t expire, but it wouldn’t literally last forever.

Once opened, not a whole lot changes, surprisingly. Vodka is a durable spirit. The shelf life of opened vodka is around 10 to 20 years. Having opened the bottle, the seal will be weaker and the oxidation more rapid. Rapid, relatively. We’re still talking about decades before the vodka expires, which is why we say not a whole lot changes.

Does Whiskey Go Bad?

Unopened whiskey doesn’t go bad. Whiskey that hasn’t been opened lasts indefinitely. But whiskey can expire. You just have to open the bottle.

Most whiskey scientists believe that an opened bottle of whiskey lasts about 1 to 2 years—if it’s half full. Whiskey expires about 6 months if it’s a quarter or less full. That’s because the less whiskey in the bottle, the more oxygen. And the more oxygen, the quicker the oxidization and the quicker the whiskey can go bad.

Does Bourbon Go Bad?

The shelf life of bourbon isn’t much different from the shelf life of whiskey, as a whole. Unopened, a bottle of bourbon won’t go bad. You can store it for decades. But once a bottle of bourbon is opened, it’s got roughly 1 to 2 years before it goes bad. Again, that time frame depends on the amount of whiskey in the bottle.

Does Rum Go Bad?

An unopened bottle of rum doesn’t go bad. Unopened rum can last for decades upon decades. But once the bottle is opened, rum goes pretty fast. Seaspirits Distillery, master rum distillers, recommend drinking a bottle of rum within 6 months of opening. There are worse fates.

Does Tequila Expire

Tequila doesn’t expire if left unopened, like the other shelf-stable spirits. But tequila can go bad. Once opened, tequila should be enjoyed within a year. That’s how long tequila lasts.

Does Gin Go Bad?

Gin can go bad if not enjoyed within about a year of opening the bottle. If kept sealed, a bottle of gin can last indefinitely if stored out of direct sunlight in non-extreme temperatures. Unlike vodka, gin depends on the subtle flavors of botanicals. That means that gin has a lot more to lose when it comes to flavor degradation. That’s why the open-bottled shelf life of gin is a fraction of vodka, yet they’re both clear liquors.

Does Brandy Go Bad?

Brandy, unopened, does not go bad if kept away from heat and light. Once a bottle of brandy is opened, it’s got about 1 to 2 years left before noticeable degradation in flavor and quality.

Do Liqueurs and Cordials Go Bad?

Liqueurs and cordials like Grand Marnier, Drambuie, and Midori will spoil much sooner, though. That's because they contain sugar and other volatile ingredients. If you're ever confused about which bottle will expire fastest, just look at the sugar content. The more sugar an alcohol has, the faster it will expire. Especially if opened. A lot of liqueurs and cordials, like crème liqueurs, may spoil and become undrinkable after a year or more. Even if your bottle isn't on the verge of spoiling, it's best to store them strictly according to their storage guidelines. Because they can lose their flavors over just a few months, if opened.

Check the bottle to see if there are any preservatives. That may help stem the tide of spoilage. There may even be an expiration date on the bottle. That's always helpful. But if you ever see any discoloration or sedimentation in the bottle, it's best to chuck it. You can give it a quick taste test if you want, but chances our it won't meet your standards.

bar liquor inventory system

Can Wine Go Bad?

Yes, wine can go bad. But there are many factors that play into how bad it goes and when it goes bad. Wine storage conditions, the type of wine, if it’s been opened, and how long it’s stored. The below times assume proper wine storage temperature and wine cellar lighting.

How Long Does Wine Last Unopened?

Generally speaking, red wine that costs around $10–$30 at the store will last about 2–3 years unopened. Likewise, unopened white wine of similar quality lasts around 1–2 years. You may not want to purchase a full case of wine if you don't go through bottles quickly. If this flies in the face of what you’ve heard about wine being aged for decades, that’s by design. Wines at these price points are designed to be enjoyed right after bottling. If a wine is meant to be aged, that’s built into the winemaking process.

When you get into fine wines that are meant to be aged, they can last for decades unopened. Both reds and whites, though bigger-bodied wines and red wines tend to age better. The best thing to do if you’re serious about aging wine for years is find out the optimal storage conditions and time for that specific wine.

How Long Does Wine Last Unopened?

Unopened wine does go bad. After opening, a wine’s shelf life gets dramatically shorter, its shelf life gets dramatically shorter. Again, it depends on the type of wine. Note that all opened wine should be stored in a refrigerator. Bring the temperature up before serving. Don't waste a full case of wine by storing it improperly.

Type of Wine How Long the Opened Wine Lasts
Sparkling Wine & Champagne 2-3 days
Light White Wine & Rose 5-7 days
Medium- and Full-Bodied White 3-6 days
All Red Wines 3-6 days
Dessert Wines 3-8 days
Port 1-4 weeks
Sherry 1-9 weeks

If the wine left is 1/3rd or less of the bottle, these numbers all go down. The less wine, the more air, the more oxygen, and the faster the degradation. Stick to the standard wine pour and you should use up a bottle in time. Pay attention to your wine bottle sizes and don't open one that you won't use before it goes bad.

Fortified Wines

As you can see above, the average shelf life of an opened fortified wine, like Port or sherry, is longer than regular types of wines. That checks out, because, as we saw above, the more alcohol is in a liquor (i.e., the less sugar), the longer it'll last. The same holds true for wine. Fortified wines have higher ABVs, and that alcohol acts as a preservative. Typically, you can store fortified wines, once opened, for a couple of months.

Can Old Wine Make You Sick?

In general, you can drink old opened wine. Rarely will old wine make you sick. We hypothesize that it will make you unhappy, but that’s relative. Old wine goes bad, but bad wine can’t make you sick. If you’re willing to stomach numerous wine faults in the name of consuming alcohol, you’re free to do so. 

Can Beer Go Bad?

Yes, beers can go bad. That doesn’t mean it becomes unsafe to drink, though. It means that the flavor and quality are so degraded that it’s probably not worth knocking back. Don't let your bartenders pour beer that isn't quality.

When Does Beer Go Bad?

At room temperature, beer lasts about 5 to 9 months. In a refrigerator, beer can last up to two or three years. This applies to bottled beer, cans, growlers, you name it. Unopened, of course. Opened beer has a shelf life of about a day. Thankfully, you can easily tell if your bottled beer has gone bad. Most beers have expiration dates printed on them or their package.

What Happens If You Drink Expired Beer?

If you take a sip of expired beer, you’ll likely notice strange cars following you over the next few days. Then the phone calls will start. A targeted harassment campaign will try to wrest you from house, home, and job. You will be left penniless, mirthless, and out of luck.

Just kidding! The only thing that happens when you drink expired beer is that you experience unpleasant tastes and aromas. You won’t get sick. No shadowy organization will haunt you. It’ll taste bad, that’s it.

Non-Alcoholic Mixers

For non-alcoholic mixers and other perishable items, we suggest following the stated expiration date on the bottles. You'll often need to refrigerate these after you open them, too, and that'll also be on the bottle. This includes juices, too. Lastly, the ones with the shortest life span at your bar are most likely sodas and sparkling waters. As anyone knows from a lifetime of consuming carbonated beverages, that stuff doesn't last long. Use the fizzy stuff as soon as you can after opening it.

Since these mixers are a part of most of the most common cocktails, it's important to make sure they don't go bad.

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 a common question.

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.

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.

What Happens if You Store Liquor in a Hot Place?

Alcohol is created in high 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.

Can Old Alcohol Make You Sick?

No, it can’t. When alcohol molecules are broken down and degraded by sunlight and air, their colors change and their tastes dull. But the only thing old alcohol will make you is unimpressed, not sick. 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.

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:

  • 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.
mastering bar inventory ebook

So, Does Alcohol Expire?

Yes! Your alcohol can go bad. Quickly, too, if you're not careful enough in the storing process. Which is why it's important that your bar buys liquor in the right amount and stocks the bar considering usage and par levels.

Like everything else in your bar, your booze has its own expiration dates that you need to be aware of. Always know how many beers in a keg, so you know when you're about to run out and you’re not pumping turned beer. To avoid wasting your liquor, you can keep track of every bottle’s expiration date using a liquor inventory spreadsheet. But that can be an enormous amount of work if you have more than a thousand liquor bottles.

That's why we recommend having an inventory management system in place, like BinWise Pro. It automates the process and keep track of your inventory’s shelf time for you.

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. The system will alert you when a bottle is about to pass its drink-by date so you never waste your inventory again. Contact us to learn more about BinWise Pro and how it can help your bar.