Does Alcohol Go Bad? Yep, So Here's How Long You Have To Finish Off Your Favorite Booze

There's a lot of misinformation out there about alcohol, which can lead to innumerable questions about drinking. Is tequila actually an upper instead of a downer? No. Will I really never get sick as long as I stick to one color of liquor? Again, no. Does alcohol go bad? Actually, yes — booze does go bad, so contrary to popular belief, you don't have forever to finish off that bottle of sherry you inexplicably have stashed away in the back of your liquor cabinet.

It seems almost counterintuitive that alcohol should go bad, because the older an alcohol gets, the more expensive it tends to be. I mean, you even compare things to "fine wines" if they get better with age (or is that just a thing my dad says about my mom?). So, what's all this nonsense about it going bad?

According to researchers at Bacardi (that is not a sentence I ever thought I would write), who presented their findings recently at the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, everyday factors such as temperature fluctuations, light exposure, and oxidation can lead to rapid spirit denigration, which can pretty severely alter both the color and the flavor of alcohol stored in glass bottles. Basically, unless you're drinking out of boxes (which I am, because Franzia is a food group), you're drinking from glass bottles, which leave your precious booze vulnerable to flavor changes.

When wine and spirits age in wood barrels, their flavors mature and develop into the tastes you've come to recognize as "rum" or "whiskey" (also known as "Oh god, I didn't even taste it mixed with that much lemonade and now I can't walk" and "Smokey regret juice," respectively). Once the barreling process has ended and the alcohol is placed in glass bottles, common lore would have you believe that the drink is finished changing flavors, which of course means that you can keep that bottle of Maker's Mark in your liquor cabinet (or desk drawer) for as long as you'd like, right? Not so.

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The Bacardi flavor scientists conducted a series of experiments on the effects of temperature fluctuations on its rum, and found that temperature changes can degrade an organic molecule called "terpene," which alters the flavor of the alcohol. To try and combat this, Bacardi now ships rum in coolers or blankets (this is real, guys) in an effort to reduce temperature-based flavor changes.

Light, the scientists found, is actually an even bigger problem for liquor (which, incidentally, is also a huge problem for people the morning after they've consumed too much liquor) than heat. By exposing various glass-bottle-stored alcohols to UV radiation intended to simulate the effects of sunlight, the researchers found that over a period of 10-day exposure, bourbon lost 10 percent of its color and scotch lost 40 percent. But color is never just color: when it comes to alcohol, color changes are indicative of flavor changes.

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The fina, and most potent factor the researchers touched up in their studies is air exposure, which leads to oxidation of your liquor. I mean, you knew this one, right? Once you open a bottle of something, you can't just leave it there and expect it to stay good. This also brings us to an important lesson about commitment: don't start a project (e.g., a bottle of Jack Daniels) if you're not prepared to finish it. The researchers demonstrated this point by exposing bottles of gin to air for various lengths of time and then asking volunteers to taste test them. Needless to say, people did not care for the highly oxidized gin.

Now, it's worth considering that this research was conducted by a major liquor brand. Is it possible that there's a little bit of tactical “booze goes bad, so buy more booze!”-ing going on here? Of course. As Wired notes, it's not peer-reviewed, published data — but it does give us a look at “what a big spirits company cares about.” Also, we already know that tons of things most people think can't go bad do, in fact, have expiration dates; as such, this is all useful information anyway.

When people tell you that alcohol doesn't go bad, what they mean to say is that it won't make you sick (I mean, at least not for bacterial reasons). Microbes can't survive in ethanol, which is why you put rubbing alcohol on cuts that you don't want to get infected. But alcohol can go bad, in that it can start to taste like the devil.

Not sure how long your favorite booze will last? Here's a handy guide:

1. Vodka

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If vodka is your spirit of choice, then congratulations on starting your freshman year of college or being Russian. The worst thing about vodka, arguably, is that it tastes like burning rather than anything discernible, but that's also what makes it a highly stable alcohol that will keep almost indefinitely. An unopened bottle should actually stay the same, flavor-wise for many years. Once you open it, however, it will start to evaporate, so it won't taste the same after, like, 10 years. Many companies, like Absolut, will recommend consuming vodka within two years of purchasing it.

2. Whiskey

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Like vodka, whiskey has an almost indefinite shelf life if you leave it unopened and store it in a cool, dark place, but once you open it the rules of the game change. In order to best protect the flavor profile from oxidation, if you half a bottle or less left you should drink it within a year, and if you have less than a quarter of a bottle you have about three to four months before it gets questionable.

3. Tequila

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Tequila degrades quickly (as do I when I drink it) when it's opened, so you're going to want to drink it in the first two months after you crack it open to avoid oxidation and evaporation.

4. Rum

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Think of rum like whiskey in terms of oxidation. In a cool, dark place, you can keep it almost forever, but once you open it, it'll start degrading in about three months.

5. Bailey's Irish Creme

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Remember the first time you got drunk? Remember how much Bailey's you drank because someone convinced you it would taste like "spicy chocolate milk"? It probably would have been good to know whether that bottle had been opened in the last year. Cream based liqueurs like Bailey's should be thrown out 18 months after they've been opened, for safety reasons (microbes like cream just like you do).

6. Champagne

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Who on earth does not finish a bottle of champagne the night (afternoon) she opens it? If you don't finish it for some reason, you better be prepared to slam it back in the next 24 hours or it'll lose all its bubbly goodness.

7. Bourbon

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Boubon is so high in alcohol that it's even more stable than whiskey or scotch (the alcohols to which it is most frequently compared). Even opened, bourbon can taste pretty much the same after 10 years if you keep it out of the sunlight.

8. Wine

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This one is more about taste than anything, because you will definitely be able to taste when your wine goes bad. It will start to taste like vinegar. Some older wines last one to two days once they're opened, while younger wines can last up to two weeks in the fridge.

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