Does Bourbon Go Bad

“Does bourbon go bad?” is a question that’s asked quite often these days. If you’ve found a half-empty bottle of bourbon sitting in a cabinet for who knows how long, that’s a legitimate question to ask.

Maybe you had a habit of enjoying a small glass of bourbon every Friday, but life got hectic, and that bottle is sitting untouched for a few months. Or you got a bottle of bourbon as a gift a few years ago and for some reason didn’t quite have a chance to open it.

No matter if you opened the bottle or not, and how long it sits in the cabinet, chances are the alcohol will be safe to drink and, what’s even more important, taste as it’s supposed to.

If you would like to learn a thing a two about storage, shelf life, and going bad of bourbon, this article is for you. Let’s dive in.

Empty bottle of Jim Beam bourbon
(credit: Jonas Kaiser)

How to Store Bourbon

Since bourbon is a type of whiskey, you store it pretty much the same way.

For a sealed bottle, two things to avoid are light and temperature. Both can catalyze chemical reactions that will mess with the flavor of the bourbon.

The best thing to do is store the bottle somewhere the temperature will not change often and away from light. While a basement or wine cellar is preferred, you can also use a cabinet, closet, or even a box will do.

When you store it properly, the alcohol should remain the same as it was on the day it was bottled. You can keep an unopened bottle of bourbon for many years and not worry about any changes to the flavor. Bourbon only ages in wood, so no flavor change should happen.

A Glass of Bourbon Whiskey
Image used under Creative Commons from ctj71081

When it comes to expensive bourbon, you don’t want to plow through it in one night. Sure, the cheap bottles who cares, but the expensive ones should be something you enjoy over time. While the shelf life of bourbon is indefinite, for quality purpose you want to store the opened bottle properly.

Once you have opened the bottle, you still want to keep it away from any sources of light or heat. Besides those two factors, oxidation is a process you should be aware of. In that process, the compounds are changed by oxygen, which affects the flavor of the bourbon.

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You can experience how oxidation works by leaving a glass of bourbon out overnight and drinking it in the morning.

The more air, the faster this process takes place. That’s why it’s important to make sure the lid is always screwed on tight. You don’t want oxygen leaking in and speeding up the oxidation.

Also, the more air in the bottle, the faster the oxidation. So, if you have a bottle that’s almost full, the quality of the alcohol will remain great for years to come. But if the bottle is two thirds empty, you can notice the flavor change within a few months.

A smart way to extend the taste of your bourbon is to empty the contents of the bottle into a smaller bottle and seal it tightly. This way, less oxygen will have access to the alcohol and therefore the process of oxidation will be slowed down.

Ice falling into a glass of whiskey
(credit: Mathew Schwartz)

Can You Store Bourbon in a Decanter?

Let’s finish this section with a word about decanters.

Decanters come with a slightly less airtight seal than bottles do. Because of that, they are a somewhat inferior way of storing bourbon than leaving it in a bottle.

However, that seal still does a pretty good job of keeping the oxygen from getting inside the decanter. So if you plan to drink that bourbon within a few months, pouring it into a decanter is perfectly fine. The change in flavor between the bourbon in a decanter and in a bottle in such a short period will be negligible.

Bottle of bourbon on the ground
(credit: John Fornander)

How Long Does Bourbon Last

As mentioned earlier, bourbon has a pretty much indefinite shelf life.

If you stumble on a bottle of bourbon that hasn’t been touched in many years, don’t worry about it being bad. If it’s not opened, you can expect the flavor to be the same as it was the day it got bottled.

However, stumble onto an open bottle and all bets are off. It won’t get you sick, but the flavor will depend on factors such as where it was stored, for how long, and how much liquid was in the bottle.

As already stated, the more alcohol in the bottle, the better quality you can expect. If there’s only a little left in the bottle, and it sat in the cabinet for a few months, you can expect the taste to be quite disappointing.

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Bourbon (Unopened or opened)Keeps fine indefinitely
Bottle of bourbon on a shelf
(credit: Brett Jackson)

How To Tell If Bourbon Is Bad?

As with most hard liquors, bourbon doesn’t go bad. Because of the alcohol content, any bacteria that enter the bottle will be killed. So it’s more of a question of how bad the quality of the bourbon can get over time.

Once you open the bottle of bourbon, the alcohol will start to evaporate slowly over time. With the addition of oxygen, the contents slowly begin to change. This results in a loss of flavor over the years. While it is not dangerous to consume bourbon that tastes somewhat off or develops a slightly different odor, it is still best to discard it for quality purposes.

Of course, if you notice that something is wrong with the bourbon, get rid of it. Human intuition is quite good at figuring out if something is safe to eat.If you’re not sure the alcohol is okay to drink, cut your losses and throw it away.

Jim Beam stillhouse
(credit: Adam Bouse)

Bourbon FAQ

What’s the difference between a whiskey and a bourbon?

For a whiskey to be a bourbon it must meet a few criteria to earn the name. Here’s a quick summary of those requirements.

First, it must be made in the United States. It must contain 51% corn, while also being aged in new oak charred barrels. The whiskey must be distilled no higher than 160 proof and barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof. When bottled it must be no less than 80 proof (or 40% alcohol by volume).

Lastly, the whiskey must not include any type of additives including flavoring or coloring.

When the whiskey fulfills these rules, it can be considered a bourbon.