There comes a point in every whisky lover’s journey when he or she surveys the box/cabinet/shelf/underwear drawer in which his or her whisky collection is stored and wonders how long all those open bottles are going to keep. Anyone who enjoys wine at home has also faced this conundrum: Do I finish the bottle or save the last fifth for tomorrow? Will it still be any good?
You can relax, whisky lovers, because the wine people have it WAY worse. Not only do open bottles of wine deteriorate faster than potato salad at a summer barbeque, wine collectors also have to fret and worry and wring their hands over the sealed ones, because wine continues to age in the bottle. That means every bottle of wine has an implied “drink by” date. For some of the better (read: expensive) reds, this date can be well over a hundred years. For your average $15-$30 bottle, though, you’re probably looking at between three and ten years of life, depending on the varietal/blend. After this date (which is always a matter of guesswork or research) the wine starts to go downhill, losing its character and ‘punch’ – eventually becoming either vinegar (if bacteria-laden air has leaked into a deteriorated cork) or the liquid equivalent of those twenty-something year-old spice containers in your folks’ kitchen cabinets.
Whisky doesn’t do this. A properly sealed and stored bottle of whisky (even $15 swill) will taste the same in two-hundred years as it does today. Don’t believe me? Check this out. Whisky’s high alcohol content serves to preserve it indefinitely, and freezes all of its esters, congeners and volatile alcohols in suspended animation. While the whisky itself might last forever, the whisky market’s fickle nature and cyclical waning and waxing mean that its value won’t necessarily continue to increase. You can certainly put away whisky now for drinking at an undefined future time, but don’t expect your collection to put your grandchildren through college. True whisky collecting requires a lot of research and a good sense of what modern releases will be rare and sought-after in the future. Just like collecting coins, stamps, and signed celebrity chef cookbooks – in fifty years there will be some valuable collections, and a lot of worthless ones.
How to Store Sealed Bottles
A sealed bottle of whisky has two enemies: light and temperature. Light and wide temperature fluctuations both serve to catalyze chemical reactions in volatile compounds and will eventually degrade those tasty esters and congeners in your whisky. An improperly-stored bottle of whisky will still be 40% ABV (or whatever it started at) after a decade or two, but it will taste like you spent $15 on it. Store your Stitzel-Weller bourbon, 2008 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix away from light (especially direct sunlight) and somewhere the temperature doesn’t fluctuate (the South Pole works!). A basement, wine cellar, or root cellar is best for this, but any box, cabinet, or closet inside your air-conditioned home will be fine. I’d avoid the attic unless it’s insulated or finished. Non-air-conditioned storage units are also prone to large fluctuations in temperature – I’d avoid those too.
Unlike wine, whisky won’t be affected by constant freezing temperatures, vibrations, or the occasional round of show-and-tell for your jealous friends.
How to Store Opened Bottles
An opened bottle of whisky (stored away from light) with more than two-thirds of its contents remaining can be expected to remain unchanged for about one year. After that, oxygen begins to work its destructive magic and effectively rusts your whisky. Okay, it’s not rust, but it’s the same basic principal: oxygen readily binds with lots of chemical compounds – a process called oxidation – turning them into other compounds. Add oxygen to copper and you get copper oxide, that green crusty stuff on old pennies. Add oxygen to iron, and you get iron oxide (rust), which is red-brown and crumbly. Add oxygen to whisky and you get whisky oxide… just kidding. You get lots of compounds that don’t taste like they used to. The more contact the air has with the whisky, the more oxidation occurs. This means the more air (or headspace) in your bottle, the more oxidation happens. Luckily, the process is slow, so an inch of headspace will not be detectable by your taste buds for a year or so. If 75% of the bottle is air, though, you’ll probably notice a degradation in quality after as little as a month. To see (taste?) this in action for yourself, leave a half glass of whisky out overnight and try it in the morning. Yuck.
A good rule of thumb in whisky circles is to invite some friends over to enjoy a bottle when it hits the one-third mark. You’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of that third of a bottle by sharing it now than you will by miser-ing it away until it turns flat and tasteless. An alternative, if you must be miserly, is to funnel that remaining whisky into smaller glass bottles with good seals (I like the 2- or 4-oz brown glass bottles here, with the POLYSEAL caps). This method isn’t foolproof, as some oxidation will have already begun, but you can definitely extend the whisky’s life this way. Another method is to use an inert gas to provide a layer of protection between your remaining whisky and the oxygen in its headspace. I like this product [Sponsored Link]: Oenophilia Private Preserve Wine Preserver. Just remember that you lose this protection every time you open the bottle. I save the air spray for open bottles that I know are going to remain untouched for awhile.
Even if you’re plowing through your open bottles in a few weeks, this knowledge does have practical application. If you see a bottle of something rare and special at the bar – sitting on the highest shelf and covered in dust – make sure to ask how long it’s been open and check out how low the level is. If the bottle’s been there for years with most of it gone, I guarantee you it won’t taste nearly as special as it’s supposed to.