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I have some never opened alcoholic bottles under the kitchen sink and has been there for years. The are basically whiskey, vodka and bacardi.
I always thought that alcoholic drink never go bad and even the taste doesn't spoil and can be kept for years but my other question about wine got me thinking if that is not the case.
So can we keep alcoholic beverages indefinitely without even spoiling their taste?

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    Clearly you have more self-restraint than many other people !
    – Criggie
    Dec 12, 2022 at 2:32

4 Answers 4

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Short Answer: Yes.

In general, unopened containers of alcohol have an indefinite shelf-life. For example, there are 500+ year old barrels of wine which are likely still drinkable (i.e. not only safe to drink, but pleasant). Alcohol itself is a preservative, and will prevent nasty organisms from growing. As such, I would not have any safety concerns about old bottles of liquor (especially if they are still sealed, but even if they are not---I have a bottle of whisky that I have been sipping on for about 20 years). However, there are things which can change over time.

Beer

When beer is exposed to ultraviolet light, it can become skunked. This is why beer is generally kept in brown or green bottles, as these are better at blocking UV light than clear glass. It is also worth noting that one of the defining features of beer is its effervescence—those tiny bubbles of CO2 are part of what makes drinking beer pleasant. Once opened, the CO2 comes out of solution pretty quickly, leading to flat beer.

Mold can also grow on the surface of beer, or in a container which has been in contact with beer (e.g. homebrew equipment which is not properly sterilized). Properly bottled beer will not grow mold as long as it is unopened. Once a bottle is opened, it can be exposed to mold. However, mold is typically pretty obvious, and the beer will no longer be pleasant to drink long before it gets moldy.

Thus opened containers of beer will likely remain perfectly safe to drink for a longer period of time than they are pleasant to drink. Unopened containers should remain safe virtually indefinitely.

Wine, Cider, and Sake

Wine continues to change and evolve after it is bottled. There are some wines which improve with age, and others which are meant to be drunk "young" (e.g. [1] and [2]). Wine also reacts with oxygen, and changes significantly once it has been opened, which will changes its flavor and character over a short period of time (e.g. you'll notice significant changes after only a few days—eventually, you'll have vinegar).

Sake and cider are similar. Unopened bottles will generally change very little over time, and opened bottles will react with oxygen.

Finally, as with beer, sparkling varieties of wine (such as champagne) go flat fairly quickly after they are opened.

Again, just for emphasis, wine which as been sitting in a bottle for a long time is generally safe to drink, but it may not be pleasant.

"Hard" Liquor

Hard liquors, like whisky, rum, tequila, and vodka will basically never go bad, and will experience very little change once they are bottled. For something like vodka, which has very little flavor, even opened bottles will change very little over time.

For more complicated liquors, such as whisky or rum, which are aged in (and take on the character of) barrels, the complex molecules which carry flavor and aroma can react with oxygen. However (in my experience), these changes are very subtle, and have very little effect on the overall experience.

In short, something with a higher alcohol content is going to be both safe and pleasant to drink for a very long time, either opened or unopened.

Dairy

There are some drinks which contain dairy, e.g. Bailey's Irish Cream or (appropriately for this season) eggnog. These types of drinks are often lower ABV and may have some risk of spoiling. However, it will generally be pretty obvious that the drink has gone off, as the milk will curdle.

Again, I would imagine that sealed bottles will last basically forever, and I would have no problem drinking from an old bottle if there are no signs of spoilage. But if you do see or smell something off, throw it away. It should be obvious.

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  • Maybe it's a regional thing, but at least in the US, I've never seen eggnog sold with alcohol in it. It's generally an "add your own alcohol (usually rum, sometimes brandy) after pouring" situation, in which case you're going to drink it immediately and not worry about spoilage. I wouldn't keep a container of eggnog around any longer than one of milk, especially once opened. (They're usually kept refrigerated here.) Dec 12, 2022 at 21:27
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    @DarrelHoffman Weird. I've bought 'nog in both southern California and in rural Arizona with "the joy already included". These tends to run around 14-15% ABV, are made with dairy (but not eggs), and are kept in the unrefrigerated section of the grocery store. I would assume that these are about as shelf-stable as, e.g. Bailey's. But, again, when it goes off, you're gonna know it. :D Dec 12, 2022 at 21:30
  • Northern California, Florida, Georgia, and Massachusetts FWIW. MA still has pretty strict blue laws, so you won't see alcohol sold in the same places as non-alcoholic stuff anywhere. Not an issue in CA, GA or FL though. Maybe I'm just not going to the right stores... Dec 12, 2022 at 21:37
  • Alcoholic nog is fairly widely available in upstate NY. Dec 12, 2022 at 21:41
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    @chepner Bottled (or canned) alcohol (other than cooking wine) is generally sold only in liquor stores, some of which may be adjacent to a grocery store, and possibly even run by the same company, but they cannot be connected internally. (So that the liquor section can be closed on Sunday while the grocery remains open.) Note this may be out of date, it's been some decades since I lived in MA. Dec 13, 2022 at 20:14
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Alcohol in high concentratons is a preservative.

The only spiritous liquor or cordial type thing I've ever had go off from age was off-brand Irish Cream liqueur which curdled - never had a problem with Bailey's IME. That includes open (sometime for years) bottles, (with the cap screwed back on or the cork reinserted, of course.) Some have been in use but not used up for more than a decade without issues.

The seal of the cap/cork is the very same one that's sealed the contents since the distillery bottled them - the seal you crack or remove to open the bottle is just to show that nobody did that before you did.

One book I read did suggest getting a small wooden cask so your whiskey would actually improve, rather than stay the same, while you sat around not drinking it, but I've never bothered yet.

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  • Would placing the bottles in a place that is directly under sunlight e.g. in a display in front of a window cause them to go bad?
    – Jim
    Dec 11, 2022 at 17:30
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    @jim This is likely to ruin beer (but from a taste and smell point of view, not from a safety point of view), and likely to diminish wine (again, from an experiential point of view, not a safety point of view). Other bottles should be fine (both in terms of safety and experience). Dec 11, 2022 at 18:50
  • Despite you bringing it into your answer, @XanderHenderson - beer was not in the question. With an appropriate snap cap on bottles to keep the carbonation, beer keeps in fine drinkable shape for a week in the fridge. Cans, you just have to drink the whole thing. The Vodka and (clear) Rum would have no issue sitting in the sun - it might cause some changes in the Whiskey - the color may fade, and the photo-chemical reactions causing that might affect the flavor as well.
    – Ecnerwal
    Dec 13, 2022 at 14:18
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    I think I've had Bailey's go bad on me but it was after a very long time. A decade, maybe. I had to throw out a bunch of bottles with similar ABVs. I think the sugar content is a factor. It seemed to have precipitated out of solution.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 14, 2022 at 16:15
  • @JimmyJames: You threw them out due to bad taste or was it hazardous for poisoning too?
    – Jim
    Jan 23, 2023 at 10:39
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I've experienced sugar crystallising out of some very-sweet liqueurs. That's taken over 20 years so far, with a net result that the content is less-sweet than it used to be.

And that suits my changing palette quite fine.

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Unopened spirits have an indefinite shelf life. Once opened, color and flavor may be impacted. They will certainly be food safe. Wine is fermented fruit. It continues to change, even in a sealed bottle. While it will not become unsafe, it will eventually become undrinkable (certainly unpleasant) from a taste standpoint...though, in some cases, this can take decades.

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  • In regards to details on wine if you have time to review my other question cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/122616/… that would be so great!
    – Jim
    Dec 11, 2022 at 17:29
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    @Jim...really depends on the wine. In general, it is best to store wine at a consistent "cellar" temperature. This is generally slightly warmer than a refrigerator. Your wine will be fine from a safety perspective. Wine changes very slowly in colder temperatures, however some wines are not meant for aging. A couple of years probably matters little. Crack them open and give them a try.
    – moscafj
    Dec 11, 2022 at 18:22
  • White wines can change color after a few years. And red wines are prone to precipitation of solids. Dec 12, 2022 at 22:49

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