Monday, September 21, 2015

Can Whiskey 'Go Bad'?


Does whiskey ever 'go bad'? It is a commonly asked question and people usually don't get a satisfactory answer.

First, whiskey in the bottle is very sturdy stuff. It will remain unchanged indefinitely. It has only a few enemies.

'Go bad' usually means 'spoiling,' as in the result of some kind of unpleasant bacterial activity changing some component of the product into something else. Milk becomes sour. Meat becomes rancid. Fruit becomes mush. That doesn't happen with high proof spirits like whiskey because nothing can live in that much alcohol.

So no, whiskey can't 'go bad' in that sense. What whiskey can do is absorb too much oxygen, which makes it taste like somebody added way too much vanilla. This happens most often when someone leaves a small amount in the bottle for a long period of time, and can be aggravated if the cork or cap isn't well seated.

The best solution is drink the whiskey. Don't leave that last quaff for a special occasion. Just drink it.

The best alternative is to transfer the remainder to a bottle appropriately sized.

Under some rare conditions you can get unbalanced evaporation, where some or all of the alcohol goes away leaving a very unpleasant-tasting brown water. An inadequate seal is always the culprit here, aggravated by high temperature. This is why you don't want long exposure to direct sunlight. Alcohol is volatile. We think of that as meaning prone to catching fire, but it actually means prone to becoming a vapor.

Some people think the solution is to store bottles on their side to keep the cork moist, like you do with wine. This is a TERRIBLE idea with whiskey. High proof alcohol is hard on corks and dissolved cork is hard on the flavor of the beverage so do not store bottles on their side, or upside down, under any circumstances.

Some people will suggest that you wrap the bottle tops with paraffin tape. Some will recommend replacing whiskey when your pour it with marbles, to keep the fill level high. This is a bit too fussy for most people and it really isn't necessary. Just drink the whiskey in due course. That's what it's there for.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whisk(e)y is aged in anything but airtight containers. A stroll through any bonded warehouse confirms that the barrels, casks, butts etc. are only barely impervious to the liquid they store, never mind air. Given that most spirit has the chance to oxidize for 10+ years prior to bottling why would a small amount of air trapped in an otherwise sealed bottle cause a problem even over the course of several years? Can anyone reading this enlighten us as to how the chemistry of oxidation in the bottle differs from that encountered in an aging cask?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The difference between air in the barrel and air in the bottle is the passage through wood. If you doubt this, let a glass full of bourbon sit out overnight and taste it in the morning.

David said...

Chuck, any thoughts on cork selection? Natural or synthetic? I'm always a fan of the natural look and feel of a REAL cork - it just makes me happier to see and touch them when I'm experiencing a nice, indulgent product like whiskey. But sometimes I wonder if I should recommend synthetic cork for spirits that are a bit more "special" and are likely to be sealed & stored for a longer period of time. People often ask me which is "better" for this, but my experience is anecdotal at best and I'm afraid I'm pushing cork for personal/aesthetic reasons - to the detriment of the liquid.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If a cork breaks or otherwise becomes unusable, I won't hesitate to substitute a synthetic cork if that's the best fit, but I don't think synthetic is better. Stay with what brung ya. It doesn't matter that much since you ARE NOT letting the liquid touch the closure.

Curt said...

I've only found one bottle that was bad right off the retailer's shelf. Now, how long it had been on the shelf or how well it had been sealed, is anyone's guess, but it appeared normal, right up until the pour. It was OGD 114, or at least it had been at one time. The nose was completely missing and the taste was nothing but burnt leather, cardboard, and dry mummy. Felt like I was drinking cotton.
I took it back and was allowed to exchange it for something else.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Another possibility, unlikely but possible, is counterfeit or adulterated product. For example, if a bit of iron got into the bottle somehow, that could ruin it.

Erik Fish said...

If you visit some Scotch blogs and forums, you can find debates on this issue akin to religious war. Scientifically, oxygen absorption is definitely a thing, but in my opinion, noticeably changing the flavor isn't a matter of just a few years. The closest we have come to "test" this was to compare the content of a quarter-full bottle of JD #7 that, as far as we were able to reconstruct, had been open for about 3 years, with a freshly opened one, and no one could consistently blind-identify which was which; not top-class stuff, but solid whiskey that should show out if there was something substantial happening.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You're right. Where I have actually tasted oxygen damage it has been with bottles where a tiny amount was left for 20 years (at a bar), or where it was a decanter with a poor seal and similarly long 'aging.'

Greg R said...

Good article, Chuck.

If the small amount of air in the bottle doesn't really do much in the short term, how come several bottles I've opened that I didn't care for at first became better a couple months later? Is it just in my head?

Like wine, letting it breath or using a aerator changes the taste relatively quickly, can the same happen with bourbon? Do I need to commandeer the aerator from my wife's wine rack?

Also, in response to your earlier comment, what really happens to a glass of bourbon that's left out overnight?

Chuck Cowdery said...

One reason the same thing can taste different is because you change. Your health affects how things taste to you. So do other things you've eaten or drank, or what's in the air. Handle ice cubes for your drink after cutting hot peppers and you could get a surprise. As for the glass left out, sacrifice a small amount of bourbon and find out for yourself.

WhiskyParty said...

You sometimes see people in whisky groups saying/asking whether or not "the juice is clear." What's that all about?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Whiskey should have color, of course, but no cloudiness. That's what 'clear' means. It should shine, like highly polished metal.

Stacy Thomas said...

"I've only found one bottle that was bad right off the retailer's shelf .... It was OGD 114, or at least it had been at one time."

I also have an undrinkable bottle of OGD 114. It has a horrible mildew smell unlike anything I've ever encountered in any whiskey or other booze of any kind.

Crown Point Marc said...

Chuck, I've got an unopened bottle of Four Roses 125th anniversary limited edition small batch from 2013. I was planning on saving it for my son's wedding; he's in the third grade now. Should I rethink? I was fortunate enough to buy two bottles, and I drank the other. It may be the best American whiskey I've ever had, so I was going to save the other for a special occasion. Please advise.

Curt said...

Stacy, I think they may have a quality control problem. I doubt the whiskey went that bad in the bottle.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Unopened, your Four Roses should be fine, Marc, unless your son doesn't get married until he's 60. Even then, it will probably be fine.

J.E. said...

@Anonymous @Chuck I always thought the char on the inside of the barrel created sort of activated carbon filter. Wouldn't that also serve as an oxygen absorber and help slow oxidation?

Chris said...

Has anybody ever done an experiment with colored smoke to see the rate of air exchange in a typical barrel? Obviously there will be a large range of results barrel to barrel, but it would be interesting to see the results.

J.E. said...

@Chris Check this timelapse of oxygen transfer through french oak (comparing dry barrel vs. wet/filled barrel) https://vimeo.com/107633122

Anonymous said...

I did try your test on leaving some Bourbon out overnight. What a difference! I left out about an ounce of WR, and in the morning it was gone-and the glass was on the floor! Maybe I should blame the cat? :)

Jake said...

@Stacy and Kurt-- I visited some distilleries recently and they said that there have been a lot of issues with contamination from algae in the water sources. I forget what the name of the chemicals are but they said that it's particularly frustrating because the reaction that causes the flavor to turn takes place over the course of the aging, maybe this was an example of that? They made it seem like it was hard for them to notice even in QC but the distilleries have all since cracked down on monitoring their water sources and so it shouldn't be a problem any more.

Tim Fisher said...

Cork taint will cause a strong mildewy smell and taste. It ruins the whiskey.

Anonymous said...

Nitrogen keeps it good, O2 makes it oxidize. Barrel maturation is a balance of the "good" you get from the barrel over X period , vs the "bad" that is also occurring at the same rate due to oxidization. When the blender feels it's right, it gets bottles. The nitrogen on top keeps it fresh untill it's opened. After that it oxidizes in the bottle just like it would in the barrel, without the "good" benefit of the barrel, as it is no longer so contained.

Matt said...

Anonymous: I would absolutely blame the cat. I have two cats who between them know how to turn on the stove, so I don't put much of anything past them. Given the difference in manipulation required, blame the **hole(s).

At least a knocked over glass of whiskey is less apt to wake you up as you attempt to fall asleep (personal experience here; though also, to misquote Inglourious Basterds: "There's a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good [whiskey]. Seeing as how I may be rapping on the door momentarily..."), I can't say I've ever left a glass for the boys to knock over.

Besides kitty interference, I haven't tried letting any whiskey sit out overnight (blame negative tendencies if you must), and am not about to start. I have a few cocktails aging in mason jars with JD woodchips, but those can't count negatively against me (Negroni and Manhattan with Templeton). At least a month until those are done. Might try it soonish though with a Buffalo Trace, just as an experiment. With the glass set solidly way from feline interference.

akendeall said...

Hello everyone,

I have a large decanter in which I conduct 'vatting' experiments, like the ones mentioned in Bourbon County Reader. This is a great way for me to avoid keeping the small 'swaller' of whiskey at the bottom of the bottle. Rather, I use them in my fine blended whisky, which helps me evaluate the influences of different types of whiskey -- malt, bourbon, rye, blended, grain, &c.

I thought it was a good solution to the oxygenation problem until reading this post. There is usually a small surface-area to the whiskey, as I try to keep it up around the neck. That is, unless I have company, because it is quite a complex whiskey as you might guess and it's a great conversation starter among whiskey lovers.

Unfortunately, it only has a crystal stopper. I do notice vapor drops on the sides of the vessel, occasionally -- usually on a hot day. I am often adding to the container, and swirl it around often.

Can you please advise? Is swirling actually adding more oxygen? I'd never thought of this before. So far, the contents have tasted great. There's probably about 800-1000 ML in the container, presently.

Thank you.
Aaron

Curt said...

Jake, thanks for that information. Would not have thought of that, but sounds reasonable.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Just a note about my comments policy. I clear every comment unless it's spam, offensive, or libelous. I don't judge accuracy. I mention this because quite a few of the comments in this thread are wrong. Please don't assume that just because I cleared something to post here, it is factually accurate. I don't have the resources to correct every mistake. I have enough to do correcting my own mistakes. Just don't assume something is right because somebody said it here.

How skeptical you need to be of what I write is also something you'll have to judge for yourself. I try to get it right. Trust but verify.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Aaron, whiskey isn't that delicate. Your system sounds fine.

Mark Thompson said...

What about using something such as Private Preserve, that is often used with wine? I've seen at least one you tuber suggest it...

Chuck Cowdery said...

As with my comment to Aaron, I don't think you have to be that fussy, but I assume it will work.

Anonymous said...

Funny stuff about some of these posts being "wrong". This in an industry that uses the term "angels share" as the only definitive description of the cause and effect of h20 and ethanol vapor exchange and loss.

Barrel maturation holds in most vapor but of course loses some every day. The outward vapor pressure of the expanding ethanol ( more volatile than air at any temperature) keeps most O2 out of the equation, but some gets through. This typically at night when the barrel cools and creates a bit of vacuum.

The next day it's repeated but again the maturation process of the wood, char, vanillin's, etc counteract the negative and dilutive effect of oxidization.

The nitrogen in the bottling line keeps the O2 out until opened, but once opened, as previously mentioned, there is no "maturation offset" against O2 contamination thereafter. So it off-gasses, and oxidizes over time.

When you pour, do so gently, don't splash it around and subject the liquid left in the bottle to an undue amount of surface interaction with O2. Also by gently pouring you will maintain some Ethanol vapor in the bottle, that will help to suppress the negative effects of O2.

But for the love of god man, drink it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I can't speak for any other kind of bottler, but bourbon makers do not inject nitrogen into their bottles when filling them. What is in the bottle's 'air space' is plain old air.

schlimmerdurst said...

Hi, currently I have a problem with a Bourbon. I bought it half a year ago, and, because I have a somewhat large spirits rack, I only consumed about one quarter of the bottle. Now I wanted to have a dram of it, and it had a horrible, sour, vinegar taste to it - absolutely undrinkable, not bland or any other taste change that you described so far. As I said, vinegar. To make things worse, it looks as if another bourbon, standing next to this bad bottle, begins to smell sour as well. Has any of you ever encountered that?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Whiskey won't turn into vinegar. You say 'spirits rack.' You're not allowing the liquid to be in contact with the cork, are you? (That would be bad.) Is it possible someone has tampered with it?

schlimmerdurst said...

My bottles are standing upright, no contact with cork. I actually also can't imagine my wife tampering with my whiskey... it's a mystery. After checking my bottles this evening, I found 2 bourbons, 1 tequila and 1 gin to be undrinkable now - sour to the point of vinegar. So it's not the bourbon itself, but a general contamination of my home bar. I've researched a bit, but can't find any other report regarding this. Too bad.

Benny said...

Curt and Stacy mentioned having terrible OGD114. I had an Old Taylor 200ml(with a screw cap not a cork) from 1979 that showed a similar bland nose and putrid moldy basement taste. My bottle was from National Distillers and if both Curt and Stacy had older OGD114 those would be from National Distillers too. Tim mentioned the Cork Taint creates a moldy taste.

Cork Taint can be used to describe many imperfections, especially with wine. The most common form of Cork Taint is the formation of the compound TCA, which is formed when airborne fungi combine with chlorophenol(found in bleach). Perhaps ND has some issues in production, perhaps through the use of bleach for sterilization in the bottling process.

sandylee said...

Chuck my mother has bottles of whiskey in her basement that are unopened. This is whiskey that my father had bought in beautiful bottles. My father passed away in 1969 so this whiskey is at least 47-50 years old. The bottles are all on the shelf at the back of a bar.
She will be 94 years old in October and is now ready to get rid of things before she goes. My sister and I are wondering if this is any good and if it is worth anything? How would we dispose of the whiskey other than dumping it out?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Whiskey doesn't age in the bottle nor, if it is well sealed, does it deteriorate. It is complicated to sell, since such sales are illegal, but you can feel free to drink it or give it away.

akendeall said...

Sandylee -- Are there any Whiskey-related groups in your area? You can check on Facebook.

Selling whiskey on the black market is a shady deal. But perhaps if you donated the whiskey, they could do something nice for you in return? I'm part of a few groups in Washington, DC, and would go bananas if I got my hands on some 50 year old bottles. Even if they're common expressions like Jim Beam, Dewar's or Jack Daniel's, it would be wonderful to do a tasting comparing the old and new expressions to see how it has changed over the years.