Why Does Alcohol Not Have an Expiration Date?

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You’ve been holding onto that special bottle for years, and it’s finally time to crack it open. Your brew may not be as old as the oldest alcoholic beverage, according to Guinness World Records. Still, you might be wondering if your vintage is, in fact, still good.

Alcohol does not have an expiration date because it usually does not contain organic matter such as plants, eggs, milk, or cream. Organic matter deteriorates with time, shortening an alcoholic beverage’s shelf life and lowering its drinkability.   

Whether your celebratory drink is fermented or distilled, read on to find out how shelf-stable it is, how best to store it, and whether you can drink it past its shelf life. 

Most Sealed Alcohol Is Shelf-Stable

Distilled alcohol is shelf-stable indefinitely, while fermented alcohol’s shelf life varies according to its sugar content and organic ingredients. An open bottle of distilled alcohol will not lose its drinkability. 

In contrast, fermented alcohol becomes less shelf-stable within a year of opening the bottle.

At What ABV Percentage Is Alcohol Shelf-Stable?

Alcohol with a 40 % alcohol by volume (ABV) is the most shelf-stable, which includes distilled alcohol. Distilled alcoholic drinks include liquors and spirits like vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, brandy, and rum. 

Fermented alcoholic beverages typically have an ABV of less than 20 %, which include: 

  • Wine
  • Sake
  • Mead
  • Cider
  • Beer 

Once opened, these alcoholic drinks become less shelf-stable, and you should consume them within nine months. 

When a fermented wine is combined with distilled alcohol like brandy, you now have fortified wine such as sherry or vermouth. Fortified wines have a similar shelf life to other fermented drinks because of their high sugar content.

Can You Drink Alcohol Past Its Shelf Life?

You can drink distilled alcohol that is past its shelf life without harmful effects on your health. A liquor or spirit that has been opened for more than a year may change color, which also indicates a change in flavor. 

Even if you’ve guarded that bottle jealously for a long time, chances are your celebratory drink will taste nothing like the ancient wine in this video:

If you drink fermented alcohol when it has been opened for more than six to nine months, you may experience unpleasant side effects like an upset stomach.

Beer that is past its shelf life lacks carbonation, and there may be some sediment that settled at the bottom of the bottle. As Rachael Ray experiences in this short video, it’s not always easy to tell by taste whether a beer is stale:

A wine that is past its shelf life may taste like vinegar. Red wines tend to become lighter in color, while white wines look darker than usual over time.

How Best To Store Alcohol

The best way to store alcohol, whether it is fermented, distilled, or fortified, is to consider the amount of light exposure, environmental humidity, noise levels, and temperature fluctuations. You’ll want to store wine in a dark and cool environment like a basement, while fortified wines should be stored in the refrigerator.

Let’s look at these storage methods more in detail.

How To Store Fermented Alcohol Like Wine

Wine and other fermented alcoholic beverages are best stored in a dark, quiet, and cool environment with an average humidity of 70%. Red wines especially require a quiet, vibration-free storage environment to prevent the wine particles from separating and affecting the drinkability or palatability of the vintage.

Wines with high acidity tend to age best and remain shelf-stable the longest of all fermented alcoholic beverages.

Store your wines and corked fermented drinks on their side to keep the cork moist and tight, preventing oxidation. Capped bottles can be stored upright since there is no risk of the cork shrinking.

If you do not yet have access to your ideal wine cellar, try the Koolatron Free-standing Refrigerator (available on Amazon). 

It fits easily into smaller living spaces without sacrificing storage quality, while the UV protective door ensures your favorite vintages are safe from sunlight, oxidation, and the adverse effects of vibrations.

How To Store Distilled Alcohol Like Whiskey

Unlike corked wine bottles, you should store distilled alcohol like whiskey upright because liquors or spirits with an ABV of 40% will cause the cork stopper to deteriorate. 

Distilled alcohol’s ideal storage temperature ranges between 55℉ and 65℉ (or 12.7℃ and 15.5℃). Extreme temperatures cause the ethanol to expand, which is why there is always some headspace in a distilled alcohol bottle to protect the cork. 

Remember that heat and light also speed up distilled alcohol’s oxidation, affecting the color and flavor of the beverage. Alcohol is often sold in dark glass bottles to protect it from UV light. 

As you consume your favorite liquor, it’s a good idea to decant the diminishing amount into a smaller, air-tight bottle until you’ve poured that last drop. The alcohol in a fuller bottle is less at risk of oxidation. 

You can also protect your unopened spirits by sealing them with Parafilm (available on Amazon), an all-purpose laboratory film. Mark Littler demonstrates how easy it is to use in this video:

How To Store Fortified Alcohol Like Sherry

Store fortified alcohol like sherry or vermouth upright and in the fridge to extend their shelf life, the flavor, and freshness of the wine and spirit’s ingredients and botanicals. 

If the flavor of your fortified wine has altered too much, you can try your hand at a variety of delicious cocktails. You can also replace ordinary wine when a recipe calls for it, such as a mouth-watering Chicken Marsala.  

Conclusion

While most alcohol does not expire, the longer a bottle is left open, the less drinkable it becomes because of oxidation. Be sure to store your brew appropriately to extend and maintain its shelf-life for years to come.

Distilled alcohols are the most shelf-stable, particularly when they are unopened and stored correctly, while an opened bottle of fortified wine will last less than two months in the refrigerator. 

And if your beer is no longer palatable, you can distill it and turn it into vodka, gin, or whiskey, giving it a new lease on life:

By Michael

Chief mixologist and cocktail enthusiast at Swizzle Club.