When tequila is no longer worth chasing and other scary tales of booze gone bad
By now, everyone should have a good idea who spent 2019 being naughty or nice.
For those who celebrate the end-of-year holidays exchanging gifts, a good inventory of what has been received says a lot about whether one should continue living as one has or if one should perhaps try a little harder on the being good part.
If the gift stash contains an impressive amount of liquors, liqueurs, wines and other alcohol-based gifts, one may assume 2019’s goodness has been rewarded. But now there’s a whole new responsibility for what might happen in 2020.
With this new family of bottled treasures comes the question: Can alcohol be bad?
Everyone knows that wine, even when unopened, reaches a peak of goodness and then begins to lose quality. Opened, wine has a short time to spread cheer before it’s ready to join the salad dressing.
But what about that bottle of 15-year-old scotch or the bottle of wonderfully botanical gin? Will rum live forever or join the 15 men on the dead man’s chest? Does tequila become no longer worth chasing? And when there’s a particularly good bottle of 10-year-aged bourbon, will aging it longer make it particularly better?
Here’s the answer to the last question first. If one hides away an unopened bottle of 20-year-aged Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon and leaves it hidden for 20 years, what one will have in the end is a 20-year-old vintage bottle of 20-year aged Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon. Properly stored, it might be as good as the day it was hidden, which at $900 a bottle is considered the finest bourbon made, but it will not have improved, nor is it now a 40-year-aged bourbon. The age statement means that’s how long a spirit is kept in a barrel or other container before it goes into the bottle.
In response to the other questions, experts have a definite answer. Yes and no. Most all agree that as long as a bottle is not opened (what’s the point?) and stored correctly, the contents will last indefinitely.
But yes, once opened, liquor will go bad over time. In most cases, the degree of badness is loss of quality, not loss of drinkability. An excellent sipping gin might age to be better with tonic or a fine tequila might eventually need a woman’s help, one named Margarita.
“Spirits do not really go ‘bad’ like, say, wine and beer,” said Kelly Railean, owner and master distiller of Railean Distillers in San Leon. Railean makes a full line of tequilas and rums. “Spirits have been through the process of distillation, and the ethanol has been taken down to a molecule of vapor. They will not oxidize like wine and beer.”
That said, once a bottle is opened, some oxidization does begin, and it eventually will change the finer tastes of the alcohol. If one really wants to waste good gin to test this, pour some in a glass, take a sip, and then leave the rest to sit there for a day. There will be a noticeable difference in taste that’s not for the better.
The key here with all forms of spirits is once opened, always reseal them as tightly as possible. Never store it with the pourer still in it and, as beautiful as they might look, avoid storing whiskeys, gins, rums, tequilas or any other spirits over a long period of time in old decanters that don’t have stoppers that completely lock out air. If a bottle is only half or less full, and there are no plans to consume it for several weeks or more, some suggest pouring it into a smaller bottle and sealing it there, cutting the exposure to air.
Anyone who has ever overindulged during an evening of cocktails knows the painful experience of facing a bright, sunny window the next morning. Well, know that all that light is no friend of alcohol either.
Ever wonder why a lot of older whiskey brands are in dark bottles? Like wine, the idea is to limit the contents’ exposure to light.
Several years ago, a team of scientists for Bacardi Limited conducted a serious study on what affected the flavors of their products. Light, it turned out, was the worst culprit.
The study exposed various alcohols in sealed bottles to UV radiation, which simulated sunlight. In just 10 days, the bourbon lost 10 percent of its color and the scotch lost 40 percent, the scientists reported. Because changes in color mean changes in flavor, this was serious damage to the product.
In storing any bottles of alcohol, opened or unopened, one should take care to limit light. For spirits that won’t be consumed in a month or so, store them in cabinets or pantries instead of in the liquor cabinet with glass doors or the open shelf. When storing an unopened bottle that won’t be used any time soon, leave it in the canister or box it came in.
The third company one’s liquor should not keep is fluctuating temperatures.
Those same Bacardi flavor scientists reported that constant temperature changes, which occur when storing bottles near heat or air-conditioning vents, degrade a thing called terpene. This sounds like something one would be horrified to find in a drink, but terpene is actually an organic molecule that alters the flavor of the alcohol for the better. Temperature fluctuations degrade this molecule and, thus, degrade the spirit’s flavors. As a result of this study, Bacardi now ships rum in coolers or blankets to reduce temperature changes.
In general, most open bottles of liquor, when stored properly and kept sealed, will be good with no major loss for about 10 years. Bourbons will be good even longer, while tequila is about half that. Absolut, which is, of course, in the business of selling vodka, suggests keeping opened bottles no more than two years.
“The exception to liquors not really going bad would be spirits made with cream or organic materials like worms, scorpions, fruits and the like,” Railean said. “Avoid extreme temperatures, avoid light and make sure the cap or cork is on tight.”
Some cream-based liqueurs will note on the label they should be refrigerated after opening, but even the liqueurs that don’t have cream have a much shorter life once opened compared to other spirits. Drinks like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Advocaat and Crème de Cassis should be consumed within months after opening. Even refrigerated, cream-based drinks should be thrown out after about 18 months. Campari will degenerate in months after opening. Even unopened, Crème de Cassis, for example, is good for only about three years.
While almost no one would think of opening a bottle of wine and leaving it to sit on a shelf for months at a time, people do forget that those bottles of vermouth are just that. They are fortified wines, but wines nonetheless.
A few other hints on keeping your bar family from going bad include storing the bottles upright. Where wines are usually stored on their sides to keep the cork moist, stronger spirits can actually speed up disintegration of the seal. Also, if one has imbibed in about half a bottle of very good and/or expensive liquor and wants to save it for a special occasion, don’t set the standards of “special” too high. The quality started going down when the seal was broken. Why not make drinking it the special occasion for which it’s being saved?
Finally, the best rule of all for keeping all that liquor good is following the age-old advice of, “Don’t start something unless you plan to finish it.”
After all, Christmas 2020 isn’t that far off. Be good.