Does Bourbon Go Bad?

Does bourbon go bad or not? Who doesn't like a glass of bourbon now and then, but it does go bad. Here is a simple guide.

Not everyone finishes a bottle of bourbon in one sitting. Whether you drink it alone or share it with your friends, families, or colleagues, the possibility of putting “America’s Native Spirit” back on your shelf is always there.

When it is time to put it back safely on the bar display, you might wonder, does bourbon go bad? And if so, how much time do you have left to finish your bottle?

Bourbon, a type of whiskey (yes, you read that right – they are family!), is distilled from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.

Recognized by Congress as a distinctive product of the United States, and massively produced in Kentucky, this American favorite, can also go bad.

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How Long Will It Be Before My Bourbon Goes Bad?

Jeffersons Bourbon

An unopened bottle of bourbon can defy time and be stored for decades, benefiting all the generations of drinkers to come. This indefinite shelf life is possible since there are no added artificial flavors in its distillery process – not even an ounce of sugar. No bacteria can ever penetrate it.

However, its fate changes when the bottle becomes open.

An opened bottle of bourbon lasts roughly one to two years before it goes bad. The moment you take the seal off, air slowly creeps in, and your bourbon starts the oxidation process. The oxygen that leaks in causes the compounds of bourbon to change. This explains why a glass left out in the open overnight tastes different in the morning. The more air there is inside the bottle, the faster the rate of oxidation.

More on oxidation later.

How To Tell If Bourbon Has Gone Bad

bourbon brands

Bourbon enthusiasts love the drink for its characteristic sweet taste, with hints of smokiness due to the charred oak. The compounds of the wood it aged from pigments its color, thus, giving off its deep tint of brown.

When a bottle of bourbon goes bad, its distinct brown color fades. And when you pour it into a glass to taste, the satisfyingly sweet, spirited, and smoky flavor becomes dull. 

In extreme cases, a bottle that has been opened for a very long time can make the alcohol evaporate faster than the water, causing molds to grow in the bourbon.

In the unlikely event that you see any type of mold, throw your bourbon away!

What Happens When You Drink Bad Bourbon?

Woodford Reserve

If you sip inferior bourbon, no need for concern. True – the flavor will let you down, but drinking it won’t cause sickness.

That said, if you’re worried about a bottle of bourbon, stay on the safe side. If the bottle has been left open for a long time, looks cloudy, and tastes unacceptably worst, it is time to let go and drain-pour. 

Useful Tips On Storing Bourbon

bourbon in glass

To avoid drain-pouring bourbon, ensure proper storage and follow these tips to prolong shelf life.

When storing bourbon, regardless if it is still sealed or already opened, ensure it is in an upright position. Bourbon has a high content of alcohol, and it can destroy the cork when in contact for a long time. Therefore, be mindful and protect it at all costs.

Regardless if you only have one bottle of bourbon or a whole collection, you must keep the bottles away from direct sunlight. The sunlight damages the liquor and makes the flavor go bad. So, keep it out of the light as much as possible.

Now, remember oxidation?

Here’s an expert tip. You can reduce oxidation by storing your bourbon in a smaller bottle once you’ve opened it. Essentially, you’re lowering the percentage of air and increasing the percentage of liquid in your bottle!

Do not refrigerate your bourbon. No matter how brutally hot the day is, putting bourbon inside the refrigerator to chill it won’t do the beverage any good. Yes, life trained us to toss everything we open (from food to beverages) inside the refrigerator, but bourbon is an exception to this rule.

Bourbon is best served at room temperature to preserve its taste. If you want it cold, you can always opt for bourbon on the rocks and add the ice separately.

In Summary: On Bourbon

  • Unopened bourbon has an indefinite shelf life.
  • A bottle of bourbon, once opened, can last for 1-2 years before it goes bad.
  • You can tell if bourbon has gone bad from its faded color and dull taste.
  • Air, sunlight, temperature, and even the bottle’s headspace are factors in bourbon’s degradation.
  • The best way to store your bourbon is in a clean, dark place at room temperature.
  • If your bourbon looks cloudy or, in extreme cases, moldy, it’s time to drain-pour.

Bourbon is a crowd favorite. Each bottle of bourbon is patiently and carefully crafted. The distinct aging process and its rich history and culture have greatly influenced the success it is today.

So, whether you drink it neat, on the rocks, straight, in cocktails, or whatever works for your enjoyment and taste buds, the most important thing to keep in mind at all times is to observe proper storage to avoid your bourbon from going bad.

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Alisa Shimoyama

Alisa eats her way around the world on her travels and likes to have good food ready and waiting for her when she gets back.