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 of taking your bar's inventory. That way you’re not serving bunk drinks or hemorrhaging money as your bottles die off, unenjoyed. Before you even learn how to get a liquor license, you should learn how to look after your liquor inventory.
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 bartenders 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.
Why is light bad for liquor? When liquor is exposed to daylight over a long period of time, it can lose color. For liquor, color changes are indicative of flavor changes. Similar to that, temperature changes can degrade an organic molecule called a "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 at 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 expiration date, you can always use it for happy hour 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. Try to keep track of the remaining alcohol and make sure you know how many shots are in a handle.
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's shelf life lasts for decades. So, effectively, vodka doesn’t expire.
Vodka is a simple, stable spirit. There’s just not much in it. So, there aren't 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 slow, consistent oxidation—to be considered expired. But it could take 100 years, too. The point is that for our purposes, vodka doesn’t expire, but it wouldn’t literally last forever.
Once opened, there aren't many changes. 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, relatively speaking. 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 it has. 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 consumed 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, if 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. 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. If opened, they can lose their flavors over just a few months.
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, which is always helpful.
But if you ever see any discoloration or sedimentation in the bottle, it's best to toss it. You can give it a quick taste test if you want, but chances are it won't meet your standards.
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 to find out the optimal storage conditions and time for that specific wine.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions About Does Alcohol Expire
Does beer go bad?
Most beers last longer than the expiration date printed on the package. When stored at room temperature, you can expect beer to last for 6-9 months past the expiration date. Keeping it refrigerated increases this time period up to 2 years.
How can you tell if liquor has gone bad?
You'll know if your liquor has gone bad if you detect any changes in color or smell, although it's uncommon.
Is it okay to drink expired alcohol?
After a bottle of alcohol has expired, it's okay to drink but the alcohol content will be decreased.
So, Does Alcohol Expire?
Yes, your alcohol can go bad. Quickly, too, if you're not careful enough in the storing process. This is why it's important that your bar buys liquor in the right amount and stocks the bar with a full bar liquor list 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 are 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 bar inventory template. 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 keeps 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.