Like many of you, I’ve got a few dusty bottles on my shelf. Things purchased with a certain cocktail in mind, never to be made again. Seasonal things that didn’t sound good over the winter. Or things that just got lost in the shuffle. Some—the Irish whiskies, the rhum agricole, the Colorado gin—will taste perfectly fine when I get back to them. Others, sadly, will go down the drain.
Why? Because while high-proof spirits last indefinitely (assuming they’re tightly capped and stored in a cool, dark place), wine-based libations like vermouth and some liqueurs begin losing quality almost as soon as you crack the bottle. Part of the reason is alcohol content. Alcohol acts as a preservative, and anything with more than 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof) will likely last as long as you want it to, even liqueurs like Luxardo Maraschino and Green Chartreuse.
But wine’s another matter, and it’s easy to forget such cocktail staples as vermouth aren’t spirits, they’re wine.
Refrigeration helps, but even that only buys you a month or so when it comes to vermouth. Lower-proof liqueurs and those made with cream or fruit last slightly longer, but it varies product-by-product. I hit the high points in today’s Kansas City Star, but here are some rules-of-thumb, based on interviews with brand representatives and other experts and information on web sites.
Still, these are just guidelines. As soon as a bottle is opened, its contents begin to change. The only way to keep tabs on whether it’s still “good” is to taste it. As a spokesman for SKYY Spirits told me, “Just because it has alcohol in it doesn’t mean it lasts forever.”
Cordials with lower levels of alcohol and natural fruit flavorings such as Chambord: six months
Aromatic, lower-alcohol liqueurs such as St-Germain Elderflower: six months
Higher-proof liqueurs based on herbs and spices, like Domain de Canton ginger: two years
Sweet and dry vermouth: about a month (refrigerate)
Other aperitif wines, such as Lillet: three weeks (refrigerated)
Sparkling wine: a day or two (refrigerate)
Still wine: three to four days (refrigerate)
Port: bottle aged lasts 3-4 days, vintage lasts 2-3 weeks, cask-aged 6-8 weeks (refrigerate)
Sherry: fino and manzanilla sherries are best within two days; heavier sherries and Madeira last a week to 10 days (refrigerate)
Carolans Irish Cream: six months (refrigerate)
Baileys: two years (no refrigeration required, according to the brand web site)
Kahlua: four years