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Does whiskey go bad?

I have mentioned Steve Ury’s (Sku) website, RecentEats, before. His site covers a lot of ground about whiskey (global) and food – it’s always a great read. Steve’s post today was exceptional. He did an experiment for a number of years to determine if open whiskey deteriorated over time. Check it out HERE.

My take: I’ve communicated about this topic with many of you. I believe strongly that whiskey does deteriorate if left in half empty (or less) bottles for extended periods of time. It’s not unlike fruit that is left to over ripen on a kitchen counter. The whiskey softens, loses structure, and the spice and bite is reduced tremendously. In short, the character and integrity is altered some.

What can you do about it? I try to consume open bottles within 3-4 months. It’s a great reason to invite some friends over and share a good bottle. But what if you can’t do that? My next suggestion is to purchase 4oz and 2oz Boston Round bottles with screw caps. You can purchase them from companies like Specialty Bottle on the internet. All you need beyond that are some labels and a small funnel from a kitchen supply store.

Once you consume opened bottles down to half or less, simply funnel into a couple of 4oz and/or 2oz bottles. You’ll have to eyeball it, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. If you have an ounce left over, well I’m sure you’ll figure out something to do with it. ; ) Once you’ve re-bottled, simply label it so you’ll know you’re drinking Elijah Craig 12 Year Old (or whatever) months or years later. I also place a date on the label so I can inventory accordingly. That sounds complicated but it’s really not.

The investment is pretty small (approximately $10 for 20 2oz bottles) and it will keep you from blazing through stock. And obviously the bottles are easily reused after a thorough washing. Be certain to dry completely and quickly to prevent mildew from ruining your whiskey. The other nice benefit is the 2oz bottles are a convenient single serving size.

Kudo’s to Steve for going to great lengths for this experiment. That’s what I call dedication! It also deserves “Whiskey Public Service Announcement” designation.

Cheers!

31 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    Jason – good article. My experience has been mixed. I have some bottles that have been open for years and don’t suffer in any way. I’ve had others that begin to turn rather quickly. Your advise to decant to smaller bottles is spot on. The real issue when it comes to a bottle that is half full (or half empty) is how often the stopper or cap is removed which allows air to enter the bottle. Doing this on a routine basis will accelerate oxidation. If I find I hit a bottle fairly often, I’ll decant when it gets too low otherwise, I leave it as is. Bottom line, if you have a hard time finishing off bottles, that’s the time to have a poker night and get your friends and family to drink ‘em down.

  2. sku says:

    Thanks for your kind words Jason. Now that I’ve run this experiment, I may well start decanting as you suggest.

  3. JWC says:

    slightly off topic perhaps but spending time (not 3-4 months) in a half empty bottle seems to improve certain bourbon. recently, i poured Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107 into empty Wild Turkey American Spirit bottles (big, thick body). I think about a month? Anyway, it’s almost all gone now but I think the “air time” improved it for me: still had some “burn” to it but the flavors and smell seemed fuller and more pronounced. I could also detect flavors (quite haven’t put my finger on it) that I couldn’t pick up with “fresh” newly opened bottles of ORVW 10/107. It didn’t taste “flat” (I’ve tasted this in some pours I’ve gotten at bars with very empty bottles).

    Generally, I agree that I don’t like whiskey spending MONTHS (let alone YEARS) in opened bottles with too big a “pocket”. My whiskey doesn’t last that long but when I think it will, I use Wine Preserve (?) and it seems to work. Course, I don’t really know because I end up finishing it off fairly soon after I use the Wine Preserve =)

  4. Greg it seems Sku has likely caused a frenzy of invites and poker nights to finish off some older stock.

  5. sku says:

    Dang! I should have included an address for people to send their old whiskey.

  6. Texas says:

    Hey sku, read your CFS review. Stay out of the big cities in Texas if you want great CFS..also San Antone’ has a great Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican food, but not CFS. East Texas is the king of CFS. Just randonmly pick any local cafe in East Texas and it’ll beat any CFS from Tahoe… :))

    Fantastic blog, though. I enjoy it very much.

  7. JMac says:

    So I have a fairly on topic question that would help out a beginner like me. Is it better to store whiskey with the bottles standing up or laying down? I know with wine storing it on its side so the cork stays moist helps keep air out, but with my EWSB the cork actually started breaking down in the little over 2 month time period it took me to drink it, and my bottle of EC 12 would leak if you put it on its side. The pieces of cork didnt affect the taste, but its the only whiskey bottle I’ve ever seen do that. As always, your thoughts are appreciated.

  8. JDW says:

    First off, thank you for your informative posts and videos. I have enjoyed learning more about bourbon and the tasting process on your weblog. Pleasantries aside, the idea bourbon deteriorates over time causes me great anguish as I have around twenty bottles open currently, and have several bottles on order at my local purveyor of fine spirits. My biggest concern is the bottle of Parker’s Heritage 27 year I opened recently. Then again, nothing lasts forever so it is a good reminder of “vanitas vanitatum omnia vanities”, I suppose.

  9. JDW, first off, don’t fret. A huge factor is how full the bottles are and certainly how long they have been open. But let’s also make it clear that we cannot tell exactly how long it takes for the whiskey to rapidly deteriorate. It is a year? Two? 6 months? Nobody knows.

    To combat it you can try some of the wine bottle air pumps to siphon off some air before stoppering them and you can also get some bottles online to pour into. I recommend the boston round bottles (as mentioned in the post) in some larger sizes so you’re not siphoning into a boatload of 2 oz bottles. Specialty Bottle online is a great resource for those.

    And finally don’t sweat it. If the bottles are more than half full you’ll be fine. Start with your lowest bottles and have some friends over to finish them off, or put them into smaller bottles w/ screw caps and seal tightly for later drinking. You’ll be glad to find those gems in the cabinet on a rainy day. Don’t forget to label them!

  10. JDW says:

    Dear Jason,

    Thanks for the moral support and pragmatic advice. If you make it to the Seattle area, I would be honored to have you assist me with the depletion of the Parker’s. I have some off topic questions about tasting and analysis. If you have the leisure and inclination to assist a fellow bourbon enthusiast, then I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to email you a few questions and ideas I have.

    Thank you,

    JDW

  11. I will definitely take you up on that if I’m out your way. Same to you if you are ever in Nashville. Anytime.

    As for email discussions on bourbon, I live for that stuff. Buzz me an email anytime, I love that stuff. I’m at jmpyle1@gmail.com.

  12. adam says:

    Hello there guy’s..now i have one question in mind.. i got this old bottle of canadian whisky. Seagram’s V.O… it’s been kept for years (28yrs. to be exact) unopened until i opened it last year but never dare to drink it..my question is, is it still safe to drink this? thanks!..

  13. Adam, great question. If unopened, I don’t see any reason this whiskey isn’t drinkable. I am assuming with that statement that the closure looked in good shape, and airtight before you opened it.

  14. adam says:

    Jason, that is correct. Everything is in good shape. It was sealed before i opened it. I’m just hesitant when my cousin told me that it was bought when her husband was still alive, and it was meant for display only since he doesn’t drink. The tag was dated 1983.
    Thank you.

  15. nick says:

    i just got a bottle of old whiskey ….and it has some kind of brown gunk in the bottom in it…. what is it and is alright to drink?

  16. Nick, that was probably unfiltered whiskey. Does it look like murky sludge that rests right on the bottom? Should be fine to drink still.

  17. JSymon says:

    So for corked but unopened bottles do you store on their side (like wine) or standing?

  18. Ryan says:

    Jason, great post! I’ve been looking for someone to confirm this for me; I feel like my whisky looses its zing after just a couple months. But, everyone else talks about their 20+ open bottles, and having them open for years, and I thought I was going crazy! I think I am going to invest in some small bottles so that I can transfer my special bottles that I don’t drink fast enough.

    PS I found this post through Google – I don’t think there’s a path to it from your main site. You should make sure there’s a link so others can find it.

    Thanks for the good information!

  19. Ryan says:

    My mistake – I just noticed that it was in the “News and Info” category. Just missed it before, I guess.

  20. Townsend says:

    My lesson in oxidation was with a bottle of A. H. Hirsch 16-year that I drank down to the last three or fingers of the bottle. I decided to save the rest for another time and nine months later a friend asked for a pour. We had one and it was noticeably different but not for the better. It had a stale taste in the finish I found disappointing. From that point on I decided to limit my number of open bottles to around twenty. No easy feat when new label make it home. And I’m more diligent about finishing any bottle when it’s below two-thirds to three-quarters gone. It’s a better safe than sorry policy.

    I’d bet there is a scientific calculation regarding oxidation. I don’t know what it is but I’d bet it’s something like this… If a bottle is half full it oxidizes at X rate. When it’s one quarter full it oxidizes at a 3X rate. It’s 3X as there is a three-to-one volume of air to liquid. Conversely, a three quarter bottle probably oxidizes at a 0.3X rate since there is three times as much liquid to air. A bottle that is down to 1/8 is probably oxidizing at a 8X rate. Leave a small dram and it could be 20X. My theory assumes the oxidization rate is proportionate and not exponential. I wouldn’t be surprised if opening a nearly empty bottle for a nose pushes to oxidization along by circulating in a little fresh air.

    Regardless, of the true rate or the susceptibility of a given bottle, my bottle finishing policy and protocal remains in force. And I haven’t complained of stale whiskey since. When I have too many stragglers they all get served on poker night instead of opening a new bottle. That’ll polish off four or five old bottles no problem and the new bottle opening resumes.

  21. Townsend – that is a good way to deal with this “problem”. And you make even better friends in the process.

  22. Lanny DeVaney says:

    I recently had a relative call and say they had discovered a *really* old bottle of Old Forester in their garage while cleaning. It turned out it was a b’day gift to a late grandfather … the label had been signed happy b’day with a date of 1945! Well, we opened it. It was definitely drinkable, but REALLY woody. It may have just been in my head but it definitely tasted old. Not bad, just old.

  23. Lanny DeVaney says:

    Just wanted to add this quote from Sku’s site, talking about tasting a very old bottle of Old Forester. It does a great job of describing what I had:
    <<
    I've had bottles from the 1950s that have an intense, chewy, cigar butt note that reminds me of a well aged Zinfandel.
    <<

    Cigar butt note is what I tasted. Still neat to think I had something that had been sitting in a bottle for over 60 years.

  24. DM says:

    Jason,
    I had a question that kind of relates to storage. I’m built up a pretty solid (in my opinion) stockof bourbons over the years and I’m looking to give a few away as gifts to friends who are coming around to bourbon. I also have some special bottles that I’d like to keep away for special occasions. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on where I should look to get nice whiskey boxes to give with gifts or even to store my special boxes in at home. Most bottles now a days come with a brand box or bag and I’d like something a little more substantial and isn’t specific to one distillery.

    Any help you or the guys could give would be appreciated.

    Thanks,
    DM

  25. DM, great question man. I honestly will not be much help here sadly. I’m not sure where you would look to find something like that, but you’ve peaked my interest and I will keep my eyes peeled. One this is for sure, a nice bag or a simple bow around a bottle is probably enough for your friends. They’ll be so glad to see the bottle they may not pay much attention to the box. Cheers!

  26. JSJ says:

    To answer JMac and JSymon: store your bottles upright. The higher alcohol in liquor will, as JMac has noted, eat away at the cork.

    A more reputable source than me: http://www.thekitchn.com/does-liquor-ever-expire-straig-105435

  27. JSymon says:

    Perfect. Thanks.

  28. Bob says:

    Great info in these posts…though I’ve not had to consider this issue, as my bottles never last longer than about two weeks!!

  29. Jake says:

    Jason how do you go about cleaning/sanitizing these small bottles? I just received my shipment from Specialty Bottle and I don’t know what the best cleaning methods are for whiskey storage. Thanks in advance.

  30. Jake, I use a sink full of hot water and just a tablespoon or so of bleach. I rinse them thoroughly twice in only hot water. Then I let them fully dry upright. Cheers!

  31. Josh says:

    Preference on plastic or glass for the smaller 2oz storage size bottles? Or does it not matter?