Liquor Lifespan

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.

The dry vermouth on the left was opened today. The one on the right has been open for months. Which would you rather drink?

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

Bitters: indefinitely

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~ by fooddrinklife on March 23, 2011.

9 Responses to “Liquor Lifespan”

  1. Good information…
    Are Fernet Branca and Campari in the “bitters” department? Use them infrequently.
    Thanks,
    Mariann

    • Both are Italian amari, or bitter liqueurs, and both will last a long, long time. They’re usually used in greater quantities in cocktails, as opposed to bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s, which are used in dashes and last indefinitely. Sorry for the confusion!

  2. Very Cool! Great info…

  3. I have 2 (very old) NEW, BUT UN-OPENED Bottles of “Scoops, Ice Cream Flavored Liqueur” and was wondering if they were still any good. I have several other bottles of Liqueur’s and Alcohol (Opened and tightly capped and some brand new but very old…up to 13 years on most of them) and want to make chocolates with all of them. Can I salvage anything? I would hate to see any of them go to waste. I also found a bottle of Crown Royal (that is still brand new in the velvet case) that dates back to 1976, I believe, and need to know if it has survived the ages. Almost everyone of them have been kept in a cool dark place in lower cabinets and here I thought all alcohol lasted a lifetime. I don’t want to make myself or anyone else sick…not to mention waste good chocolate!
    Thank you so much for this site…I had no idea you existed. Eileen

    • I’m glad you found the site helpful! I’m unfamiliar with Scoop, but whether it’s drinkable depends on a couple things: the alcohol content (the higher the better) and whether it’s made with real dairy products. If it’s got cream or milk, I’d toss it. Otherwise, open the bottle and examine the color, smell and taste. If it looks, smells or tastes burnt, sour, like old raisins or in any way unpleasant, I wouldn’t use it. Check your open bottles the same way. Straight spirits like whiskey, rum, vodka, etc. keep well, especially if they’re 40% alcohol (80 proof) or more. Liqueurs have a shorter lifespan, especially after opening. So, again, look, smell and taste. That bottle of Crown should be just fine, though. Good luck!

  4. Why can we expect bitters to last indefinitely? Does this not depend on the contents?

    For example, Fee Brother’s orange bitters has no alcohol and is just composed of “Water, Glycerin, Flavors – Natural and Artificial Extracts and Flavors”. Would you expect it to last as long as Angostura’s aromatic bitters which are 45% alcohol?

    Thanks, and great blog! I’ve been browsing your blog for hours.

    • Glad you’re enjoying the blog! Alcohol is an essential component of bitters; it’s what draws out and preserves the flavor of the other ingredients. Brands like Angostura (45%ABV), Peychaud’s (35%ABV) and Bitter Truth (44%ABV) will last for what feels like forever if properly capped and stored because of their high alcohol content, as will Fee Brothers. Owner Joe Fee told me in 2008 that they don’t put the ABV on the label because their bitters aren’t considered potable alcohol, but rather a flavoring extract similar to vanilla. That said, my bottle of West Indian Orange Bitters does list alcohol in the ingredients but the rhubarb does not. I’m not sure what accounts for the difference. Regardless, a bottle of Fees will likely last as long as you want it to. Enjoy!

  5. I have anissette and sambuco that is over 40 years old. What do you think?
    Should I open the bottles and server them?

    • There are lots of “ifs” with old bottles. If they’ve been stored properly (still sealed, hidden away in a cool, dark place) they might still be okay. First, look at the color. If the liqueurs look like they’re supposed to, then open the bottles and taste them. If they taste like they’re supposed to, then you can serve them. If they look or taste off in any way, though, you’re out of luck.

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