Opening your dad’s liquor cabinet and finding an unopened bottle of whiskey from decades past brings up the obvious question – is it still good? Can you drink 50 year old whiskey like Jim Beam safely? Let’s take a look at some quick answers before diving into the details.
Can whiskey go bad? Technically no, whiskey does not spoil or go bad if unopened. The high alcohol content acts as a preservative. However, very old whiskey can start to taste different due to oxidation and evaporation over many years in the bottle.
Is 50 year old whiskey safe to drink? Yes, 50 year old unopened whiskey like Jim Beam is safe to drink, but may not taste the same as when it was bottled. The whiskey will slowly oxidize and lose some alcohol through the cork or cap over decades.
Does whiskey improve with age after bottling? No, once whiskey is bottled, aging stops. Leaving it longer in the bottle does not improve or smooth the flavor, and may degrade taste over decades.
Should you drink very old whiskey like a 50 year old Jim Beam bottle? You can safely drink it, but very old whiskey may not taste good. It’s up to personal preference if you want to try very aged whiskey. Some enjoy the different flavor while others find it unpleasant.
Does Whiskey Go Bad?
Whiskey does not technically spoil or go bad if the bottle remains unopened. Why is this? There are two primary reasons:
- High alcohol content – Most whiskies are bottled at 40-50% alcohol by volume (80-100 proof). This high alcohol content prevents microbial growth and acts as a natural preservative.
- Oxygen-free environment – When whiskey is bottled, oxygen is displaced from the bottle which creates an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. This prevents oxidation reactions that can stale food and drinks.
These properties allow unopened whiskey to last indefinitely without going bad in terms of food safety. However, other changes can occur over time in the bottle that affect taste and quality, which will be covered next.
Changes to Whiskey Over Time in the Bottle
Although whiskey does not go bad if unopened, very old whiskey can undergo changes in the bottle over decades that affect its taste and drinking quality. The main changes are:
- Oxidation – Over many years, a small amount of oxygen slowly permeates through the cork or cap. This causes gradual oxidation reactions that form new flavor compounds.
- Evaporation – Alcohol and water can slowly evaporate over time through the cork or cap seal. This concentrates the remaining flavors.
- Integration – The whiskey’s complex mixture of compounds may integrate and react to develop new flavors.
These processes are very slow, but can change the overall flavor profile after decades. The whiskey likely won’t taste the same as when it was first bottled. It may take on darker, musty tones and lose some aromas. The alcohol content will also be lower.
Is 50 Year Old Whiskey Safe to Drink?
Yes, 50 year old whiskey is perfectly safe to drink as long as the bottle has remained sealed. Due to the high alcohol content and oxygen-free environment inside the bottle, dangerous microbial growth is prevented.
Over time, whiskey is unlikely to develop dangerous contamination or toxins. The amount of alcohol and other antimicrobial compounds remains high enough to prohibit the growth of mold, bacteria, or other microbes.
Of course, if the bottle’s seal was broken at any point, allowing oxygen in, then contamination becomes a concern. Visible mold, off odors, or separation of liquids indicates spoiled whiskey that should be discarded. But if the seal remains intact, 50 year old whiskey will be safe.
One health concern with very old whiskey is potential lead contamination from lead crystal decanters. Some vintage whiskeys were stored long-term in lead crystal, which contains lead oxide. Over decades, lead can leach into the whiskey.
This is only an issue if lead crystal was used – not for whiskey stored solely in glass bottles. If sampling very old whiskey of uncertain storage methods, it’s best to minimize consumption in case of lead exposure.
Does Whiskey Continue Aging in the Bottle?
No, whiskey does not meaningfully age or improve once bottled. The aging process stops, and leaving whiskey longer in the bottle does not make it more smooth or valuable.
Whiskey gains its characteristic aroma, color, and flavor through aging in wooden casks. This allows oxidation and evaporation to interact with the spirit and wood. But once bottled, these processes stop or slow drastically without the wood influence.
Some slight chemical changes can occur in the bottle over decades, but these are not equivalent to cask aging. Very old whiskey may taste different due to oxidation, but not necessarily better.
Does Unopened Whiskey Become More Valuable?
Age alone does not make an unopened whiskey bottle more valuable. An old bottle may accumulate value due to scarcity or demand from collectors. But the whiskey inside will not improve with extended storage.
For example, a rare 50 year old whiskey may command a high price. But if that same whiskey was reopened and bottled today, it would likely fetch a lower price. The value comes from the old whiskey’s rarity, not better quality.
How Does Very Old Whiskey Taste?
Most experts advise drinking whiskey within several years of bottling, when it tastes best. But how do very old whiskeys like a 50 year old bottle taste after decades of aging?
There are a range of possible flavors:
- Muted – Very old whiskeys may have muted aromas and flavors due to compound degradation over time.
- Oxidized – Oxidation can impart nutty, sherry-like flavors not originally present.
- Papery/Cardboard notes – Compounds from the cork or cap material may leach into the whiskey.
- Plastics/Adhesives – In very old bottlings, compounds from bottle seals and adhesives can emerge.
In many cases, the altered flavors are seen as defects and not an improvement to the whiskey. But some unique flavors intrigue whiskey enthusiasts curious to try vintage bottles.
Factors Affecting Taste of Old Whiskey
Not all old whiskeys taste the same. Factors like storage, type of whiskey, and bottle seal can affect an old whiskey’s flavor:
|Effect on Whiskey Flavor Over Time
|Higher temperatures increase whiskey oxidation and evaporation rates from the bottle.
|Higher alcohol percentages protect whiskey from air exposure better during aging.
|Type of Whiskey
|Bourbon and Scotch age differently than clear spirits like vodka or gin.
|Corks allow more air exposure than screw caps or metal lids.
|Non-chill filtered whiskey holds more compounds that can change flavor over time.
In general, whiskey with higher alcohol content that is well-sealed and stored in cool, dark conditions will taste better after many decades of aging in the bottle.
Should You Drink 50+ Year Old Whiskey?
Very old whiskeys like a 50 year or 60 year old bottle are rare and expensive. Is it worth tasting whiskey that is several decades old?
There are a few factors to consider:
- Cost – Older whiskeys can easily cost thousands of dollars. The price may not match the drinking experience.
- Taste – The whiskey likely will not taste the same as when it was bottled. You may prefer the flavor profile of younger whiskeys.
- Occasion – Save very old bottles for special occasions rather than everyday drinking.
- Collectibility – An unopened antique bottle may be more valuable than an opened one.
In the end, it’s a personal decision based on your curiosity to try well-aged whiskey against the high cost and possibility that you may not enjoy the altered taste. For antique, unopened bottles, it may be best to preserve the whiskey’s heritage as a collectible.
Can old whiskey make you sick?
Properly sealed whiskey does not go bad in a way that can make you sick, even after many decades. However, very old whiskey may contain high lead levels if stored improperly in lead crystal, which could cause lead poisoning when ingested. Sickness is also possible if the whiskey became contaminated after opening.
Does whiskey evaporate through the cork?
Yes, whiskey can slowly evaporate through natural cork closures over many years. The alcohol percentage will decrease slightly as alcohol evaporates – perhaps 1-3% over decades. Corks allow more evaporation than synthetic or screw top closures.
Can whiskey expire?
Whiskey has no true expiration date and does not spoil if the bottle remains sealed. However, oxidation and evaporation can degrade taste over decades. Most experts recommend consuming spirits within 5-10 years of bottling for best flavor.
Is 50 years old whiskey safe to drink?
Yes, 50 year old whiskey is safe to drink if the bottle has remained properly sealed. However, it may have an odd flavor compared to younger whiskey due to extensive oxidation and evaporation during aging in the bottle.
Extremely old whiskeys like a 50+ year old Jim Beam are safe to consume but will taste different from when originally bottled. The high alcohol and oxygen-free environment prevent whiskey from going bad if sealed, but oxidation, evaporation, and integration of flavors occur slowly over decades.
Very old whiskey can take on nutty, muted, cardboard, or plastic-like flavors. It likely won’t taste the same as when bottled. Some whiskey fans enjoy tasting rare antique bottles, while others find the altered flavors unpleasant.
Before opening a rare vintage whiskey, consider the high cost, collectibility, and that you may not enjoy the flavor. For precious antique bottles in good condition, it may be best to preserve the whiskey’s heritage and value as a collectible rather than opening it.