Does Alcohol Go Bad?

Shelf Life of Spirits

This is a collection of assorted alcoholic beverages.
Once exposed to air, alcohol can evaporate and pathogens can begin growing if the ethanol concentration is low. Steve Allen, Getty Images

From a chemistry perspective, there are several types of alcohol, but the one of interest here is the alcohol you can drink, which is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Technically, none of the types of alcohol go bad or expire in pure form or when diluted with water. Alcohol is a potent disinfectant, so when it is present in a high enough concentration, it's safe from mold, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria. It's only when alcohol is mixed with other ingredients that it has a shelf life.

Types of Alcohol That Never Go Bad

Hard alcohol essentially lasts forever. In fact, some forms of alcohol, such as scotch, improve with age up to the point where they are opened. Here are common examples of spirits that don't have a shelf life:

  • gin
  • rum
  • tequila
  • vodka
  • whisky

However, once you crack open a bottle, oxygen from the air starts to change the chemistry of the contents. While the alcohol won't become unsafe to drink, the color and flavor will change. Once you open a bottle of hard alcohol, be sure to re-seal it as tightly as possible and keep the liquid in a container with as little air space as possible. This means you may need to transfer the liquor to a smaller bottle as the contents are drained. Once the seal is broken, the clock starts ticking. If you cracked open that bottle of quality scotch, for example, you'll want to finish it off within 8 months to a year to get the best experience.

Types of Alcohol That Have a Shelf Life

When other ingredients are added to the alcohol or the alcohol is fermented, the product can get skunky or support the growth of yeast, mold, and other non-tasty microbes. These products have an expiration date stamped on them. They often last longer when refrigerated.

  • beer
  • cream liqueurs
  • mixed drinks (either packaged or made yourself)

Beer has a definite shelf life. This will be stamped on the container and varies according to the way the beer was processed.

Cream liqueurs contain dairy products and sometimes eggs. These products typically last no longer than a year to a year and a half once opened. You can taste them to see if they are still good or play it safe and throw them out if they look or smell curdled or have passed their expiration date.

With mixed drinks, consider the beverage 'bad' once you have passed the shelf life of the least stable ingredient. For example, while straight vodka might be good forever, once you mix it with orange juice, you probably would not want to drink it left on the counter the next day. It might be good a couple of days refrigerated. It's not necessarily that the drink becomes dangerous, but the taste may be unpleasant. After a while, mold and other nastiness will grow on these drinks, making them unsafe in addition to gross.

Alcohol That Can Go Bad

  • wine
  • liqueurs
  • cordials

While wine matures once bottled and can last indefinitely, if the seal of the bottle is compromised, it can get nasty. This is in contrast to liqueur, which won't grow pathogens even if the bottle is open.

However, in either situation, if the product is exposed to air, the chemical of the composition changes (rarely for the better) and the alcohol can evaporate out of the liquid.

Liqueurs and cordials contain sugar and other ingredients. There is no hard and fast rule regarding shelf life, but if you see sugar crystallizing out of the liquid or the flavor or color looks 'off', you may not want to drink it.

Extend the Shelf Life of Alcohol

You can keep alcohol in top form by:

  • Storing it in a cool, dry place. This location varies. It might be a cellar or climate-controlled rack for wine, while you can store vodka in the freezer.
  • Avoid exposing any alcohol to sudden or extreme temperature changes.
  • Store it out of direct sunlight.
  • Keep alcohol in a bottle with little airspace.
  • Make certain the seal on the container is good. Do not store alcohol in unsealed pourers or decanters unless you plan to go through the container fairly quickly.

    The Bottom Line

    Pure alcohol lasts forever. Once you add ingredients to alcohol, it can go bad. If the beverage looks or tastes funny, it's probably best to throw it out. Higher proof alcohol might not become dangerous to drink, but once the seal of lower proof alcohol is broken, air gets into the bottle, the concentration of the alcohol drops, and pathogens that can make you sick may multiply.

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