Drinking really old liquor can have varying effects depending on just how old the liquor is. Alcohol typically has an indefinite shelf life, meaning it does not expire or go bad in the traditional sense. However, the taste, aroma, and chemical composition of liquor can change over time as the liquor oxidizes and reacts with the environment. Very old liquor may have altered flavors or an unpleasant taste. In most cases, it is safe to consume very old liquor, but there are some risks to be aware of.
How long does liquor last?
Unopened liquor stored properly can remain drinkable indefinitely. An unopened bottle of liquor has a shelf life of many decades and sometimes longer than a century. Once opened, oxidation begins to take place as the liquor is exposed to oxygen. An opened bottle of liquor generally remains good for 1-2 years. Higher proof liquors above 80 proof last longer opened than lower proof liquors. The lower the alcohol by volume (ABV), the quicker the opened bottle deteriorates. Proper storage conditions like cool, dark places can help prolong shelf life. Refrigeration after opening can delay oxidation as well.
Here are some general liquor shelf lives for unopened and opened bottles stored properly:
- Vodka: Indefinite unopened, 2 years opened
- Gin: Indefinite unopened, 1-2 years opened
- Rum: Indefinite unopened, 1-2 years opened
- Tequila: Indefinite unopened, 1-2 years opened
- Whiskey: Indefinite unopened, 2-3 years opened
- Brandy: Indefinite unopened, 2-3 years opened
How does liquor change over time?
As liquor ages, changes begin taking place that affect the taste, aroma, and appearance:
- Color changes – Darker alcohols like whiskey and brandy darken over many years while clear liquors like vodka and gin can take on a yellow/golden hue.
- Flavor changes – The distinctive flavors become muted over time. Young, vibrant notes dissipate first while the deeper, oak flavors last longer.
- Aroma changes – Similarly, the vibrant aromas present in young liquors lessen over time.
- Smoothness – Age smoothens out the harshest aspects of liquor, mellowing out the taste.
- Alcohol content – A small percentage of alcohol evaporates over decades in storage, slightly lowering ABV.
In well-aged liquors like whiskey and brandy, these changes are often desirable up to a point. Extended aging eventually causes the liquor to decline in quality and develop off flavors. Well-aged liquor can fetch extremely high prices from connoisseurs. For most other liquors like vodka, gin, rum, and tequila, prolonged aging dulls the clean, vibrant flavors that are characteristic of those spirits.
At what point does liquor go bad?
There is no definitive point where liquor suddenly goes bad. Deterioration is a gradual process. Generally, unopened liquor does not go bad. Opened liquor slowly declines in quality over many years. Signs that liquor has gone bad include:
- Precipitation – Cloudiness, haziness, solids forming
- Strong odor – Significant change in aroma or unpleasant odors
- Off tastes – Sharp, bitter, vinegary, sour, or other chemical flavors
- Color changes – Unnatural colors like black, blue, green
These changes indicate chemical reactions and contamination have taken place. The liquor likely oxidized significantly and absorbed compounds from the environment over time. At this degraded point, the liquor may be unsafe to drink.
What are the risks of drinking very old liquor?
Drinking liquor that has been open for many years or stored in poor conditions comes with some potential risks:
- Methanol – Ethanol alcohol converts slowly to methanol over time, which is toxic in larger amounts.
- Lead – Old liquor stored in lead crystal decanters can leach lead into the liquor.
- Other contaminants – Bacteria, mold, rubber compounds from deteriorating bottle gaskets may contaminate and grow in old liquor.
- Reduced alcohol content – Evaporation can lead to higher concentrations of methanol and other compounds.
In most cases, drinking liquor past its prime results in nothing more than an unpleasant taste. However, contaminated liquor can potentially make you sick. Use good judgment when evaluating very old liquor. If the liquor was stored properly and has no odd appearance, sediments, aromas, or flavors, it is likely safe to try.
How can you determine the age of liquor?
You can estimate the age of liquor by examining the bottle and label for some telling signs:
- Brand, style, bottler – Look up when certain brands, liquor styles, and distillers were operating.
- Label condition – Faded, weathered, old fashioned label designs indicate age.
- Dating codes – Some bottles have coded date stamps pressed into the glass.
- Tax stamps – Government excise tax stamp designs can date a bottle.
- Bottle and closure – Certain bottle shapes, closure types correlate to different eras.
- Research vintages – Match production years on the label to determine age.
It may require extensive research into the brand and distillery archives to accurately date liquor without a readable bottle date code. You can consult resources like the Whiskey Inventory Archives and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Beverage Alcohol Manual to identify bottle eras.
How should you store liquor for longevity?
To maximize how long bottle liquor lasts you should:
- Keep bottles upright and tightly capped to minimize air exposure
- Store in a cool, dark place at stable room temperature if possible.
- Avoid storage areas with wide temperature fluctuations
- Keep out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources
- Maintain a humidity of around 70%
- Store liquor separately from pungent foods and chemicals
A root cellar, wine cellar, or basement offers ideal storage conditions. Refrigeration can help prolong opened bottles. Just be aware refrigeration can affect the flavor profile of liquor. Collectors investing in high end liquor may consider climate controlled storage units to assure prime preservation.
How does the taste of aged liquor change?
Here are some examples of how the flavor profile of different liquors evolves with extensive wood barrel aging:
- Mellows from harsh, grain heavy to smooth
- Sweet vanilla and caramel notes increase
- Fruity ester flavors decrease
- Spice flavors like cinnamon and nutmeg mellow
- Oaky wood flavors strengthen
- Loses fruity aroma and tastes less sweet
- Gains oaky, earthy notes
- Develops more complexity, deeper flavors
- Burn of high alcohol softens
- Becomes very smooth on the palate
- Citrus, herbal agave flavors decline
- Gains oaky vanilla, butterscotch flavors
- Harsh alcohol bite diminishes
- Some brands lose distinctive character
- Aroma becomes more subtle
While maturing can improve certain spirits, extended aging does not always benefit every liquor style. Vodka, gin, white rum, and clear tequila are generally best when bottled young. Whiskey, brandy, spiced rum, and aged tequila tend to get better with moderate oak barrel aging up to 12-20 years.
Does aged liquor have higher alcohol content?
Despite gaining more robust flavor with wood aging, the alcohol content does not increase. The alcohol by volume (ABV) labeled on the bottle remains the same over time. A small percentage of alcohol, usually less than 1% of the total ABV, does evaporate through the barrel and bottle as vapors each year. But this minor loss does not raise the concentration of ethanol alcohol left behind. However, as water evaporates faster than alcohol, the liquor may taste stronger than when first bottled.
Can old liquor make you sick?
Drinking very old liquor can come with health risks in some cases:
- Methanol – Ethanol alcohol slowly converts to toxic methanol over decades. But this is generally only an issue if other contaminants are present.
- Lead poisoning – Older liquor stored in lead crystal decanters can leach dangerous amounts of lead.
- Bacterial infections – Contaminated liquor may contain harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria.
- Mold toxicity – Liquor stored in unsanitary conditions may grow hazardous molds that can cause illness.
While serious poisoning is highly unlikely, contaminated old liquor can potentially cause headaches, nausea, fatigue, and digestive issues if consumed. The stench and unpleasant taste would deter most people long before toxic levels are reached. But in theory, heavy consumption could be risky if the liquor was severely degraded.
Will really old liquor get you drunker?
There is a common myth that really aged liquor is more intoxicating than young liquor of the same proof. In reality, the ethanol alcohol content and resulting intoxicating effects on the brain and body do not increase over time. However, really old liquor may taste stronger due to some key factors:
- Higher concentration of flavorants as water evaporates through the barrel and bottle over decades.
- Enhanced aroma and taste due to long oxidation reactions.
- Higher amounts of congeners which amp up the flavor.
So while the ABV doesn’t change, your perception of the liquor’s strength may increase due to its concentrated intensity. Of course, consuming more alcohol volume means you ingest more alcohol overall. But old liquor won’t impact you any differently than a young liquor of the same proof. The notion that antiquated booze packs more of a punch is mostly exaggerated lore.
Does old liquor have more hangover effects?
There are a few reasons really old liquor might exacerbate hangovers:
- Contains more methanol and fusel alcohols from aging which worsen hangovers.
- Higher congener levels add to hangover misery.
- You falsely assume it won’t hit as hard so you overdrink.
- Its strong, smoother taste leads you to drink more volume.
In general, the same precautions apply to vintage liquor as any alcohol when drinking. Consuming reasonable serving sizes paired with food and water will minimize adverse effects the morning after. Moderation is key no matter the liquor’s age.
Does aged liquor have more calories?
The calorie content of distilled spirits does not change as the liquor ages. Most liquors contain around 100 calories per 1.5 ounce shot. Whiskey, tequila, vodka, gin, and rum at 40% ABV generally have the following calories per serving:
- 40% ABV (80 proof) – 100 calories
- 35% ABV (70 proof) – 90 calories
- 30% ABV (60 proof) – 80 calories
What alters over time is the flavor intensity and aroma richness. The deeper, more pronounced flavors may lead you to drink more than you otherwise would if the liquor was younger. This indirectly correlates to higher calorie consumption. But fluid ounce per fluid ounce, aged liquor harbors no additional calories compared to when first bottled.
Drinking really old liquor is generally safe if properly stored. Extensive aging results in subtle changes to the aroma, taste, mouthfeel and appearance. Very old liquor may lose the vibrant qualities present when first bottled. Storage conditions, air exposure, and bottling materials also impact how liquor ages. While not harmful in moderation, heavily aged liquor may contain higher levels of methanol and other compounds that can exacerbate hangovers. Examining the label, bottle, and drinking judiciously minimizes any health risks of indulging in vintage liquor.