Can Bourbon Go Bad?

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

At one point in time or another, you’ll most likely find a bottle of bourbon in your possession. Whether you’re a whiskey connoisseur looking to try this corn-based, barrel aged spirit in a cocktail, or you happened to receive a bottle as a gift, odds are you won’t go through the whole bottle before it’s forgotten in the back of the liquor cabinet. Will the rest of the bottle go to waste? Can bourbon go bad? Read on to find out!

Can Bourbon Go Bad?

As bourbon is a spirit, spoilage in the traditional sense is unlikely, if almost impossible. The shelf life of bourbon is pretty much indefinite, when the spirit is stored properly. Proper storage of spirits is actually quite easy to accomplish. Simply keep the bourbon in a tightly sealed container, safe from light, heat or oxygen exposure. Unopened bourbon can last for years, or even decades, when stored like this. Opened bottles can still be safely stored indefinitely, but there will be some changes in quality.

Conventional wisdom states that bourbon, and other spirits, do not continue to age after they are removed from the barrels and bottled, but there are those that say there is a benefit to storing unopened bourbon a bit longer. After bottling, there are some changes that will take place in the whiskey, even when the bottle is unopened. The tannins in the whiskey (that come from the wooden barrels used to age the spirit) will continue to evolve, changing the taste ever so slightly over time.

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Image used under Creative Commons from rpavich

Signs of Spoilage

Spoilage of bourbon is not much of a concern, but rather the main issue you will encounter is the degradation of the spirit’s quality due to evaporation and oxidation. Oxidation occurs when an alcohol exposed to oxygen, and can change the flavor compounds, reducing the quality. Exposure to light and heat can increase the rate at which oxidation occurs, which is why storing a tightly sealed bottle in a cool, dark place is so important.

Evaporation occurs when the bottle is not tightly sealed, and will increase with exposure to light and heat. Alcohol evaporates more rapidly than water, and so the spirit will certainly lose a bit of kick over time, if improperly stored. Be sure to tightly seal the bottle before replacing it in the cabinet.

Storing Bourbon Long Term

Because light, heat and oxygen are the primary threats to the quality of your bourbon, unless you are planning to drink the entire bottle quickly, a decanter (though cool looking) is not a recommended storage container. Instead, a dark glass bottle or jar is recommended.

For the most part, you can simply store bourbon in a cool, dark cupboard or your cellar to retain the quality. However, if you live in a particularly warm climate, or one with wide temperature ranges, you may want to keep your bourbon in the refrigerator or freezer. Bourbon can be stored in either your fridge or freezer to slow the oxidation and evaporation processes, just be sure to tightly seal the lid tightly and place the bottle deep inside (not on the door). Once stored in the freezer, the bottle should remain there, as fluctuations in temperature can speed up oxidation, and diminish the quality.

Another way to reduce the bourbon’s exposure to oxygen after opening the bottle is to transfer the spirits to a smaller bottle with each consumption. The air in the bottle will oxidize the bourbon over time, so if you’ve consumed half the bottle, and don’t plan on drinking the rest for quite a while, slowly pour the contents into a jar where there will be very little extra space. Seal the jar tightly and store in a cool, dark place. Darker glass containers work the best, but as long as the bourbon is kept in a dark place, clear glass should be fine.

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