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What Happens When Alcohol Expires?

By
Joshua Weatherwax
Table of Contents

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?”

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

There are a few caveats, though. If alcohol is generally stored and served cold, like wine, the heat may not be beneficial. 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. 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.

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 old alcohol 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.

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. 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.
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Bad, Bad, 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. 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.