Whiskey is a strong drink that’s pretty hard to damage and under the right circumstances can last indefinitely. It’s still important to know how to store whiskey properly because it can be ruined by light, extreme or fluctuating temperatures and oxygen. If you’re a collector you also have to know how to store whiskey in a way that will protect it from evaporation, humidity damage and theft.
And every whiskey drinker needs to know how to store whiskey bottles that have been opened. This includes but is not limited to being careful that other whiskey drinkers living in your house don’t drink all your whiskey by having and I quote, “just one glass” once a day for two weeks.
Knowing what can ruin whiskey means you all also know how to store whiskey in a way that keeps it perfectly preserved. This means somewhere dark and cool and in a way that won’t cause the cork to dry out and the seal to loosen. If you’re a collector, you’ll also need to think about additional seals, security and insurance. And for open bottles it means ensuring they’re tightly sealed when stored so that the increasing oxidation is minimized.
One thing that doesn’t count as storing whiskey is drinking it. Although it’s certainly true that once drunk, it’s impossible for anything to ruin it, it’s now also impossible to store because the definition of storage is to keep something for future use. In my experience I’ve found that once a whiskey is drunk, future use becomes extremely difficult.
Why It’s Difficult to Damage Whiskey
In theory whiskey can last forever. It won’t spoil like milk or turn to vinegar like beer and wine. This is because it only matures in casks and once bottled its high alcohol content helps preserve it by freezing all of its esters, congeners and volatile alcohols and placing them in suspended animation.
Wine on the other hand, continues to age even in a sealed bottle, making it much more susceptible to being ruined as it passes its expiry date, deteriorates, loses its character and becomes vinegar.
The Things That Can Damage Whiskey and Why
The three main things that can damage whiskey are:
- Extreme or fluctuating temperatures
This is why.
Direct light, especially direct sunlight, can ruin both the color and the flavor of your whiskey.
The ultraviolet rays of direct sunlight bleach out the color pigments of whiskey over time and the beautiful color of your whiskey will be … discolored.
Direct light and sunlight catalyzes chemical reactions in the volatile compounds of the whiskey causing them to break down so the flavor, which was carefully acquired through years perhaps even decades of maturing, will quickly (one to two months) degrade. It will taste much harsher, possibly even of rubber, paint thinner or rotten fruit.
A problem for collectors and retailers is that direct light and sunlight will also cause the label to fade.
Extreme and Fluctuating Temperatures
Whiskey can tolerate slightly warmer and cooler temperatures fairly well, but exposure to heat and fluctuating temperatures will damage it.
Heat will increase the amount of whiskey that evaporates from the bottle. Even when a bottle is tightly sealed there’s some evaporation (unless it’s 100% airtight) and heat will make it worse.
Also, when whiskey becomes hot it expands damaging the cork sealing the bottle. This is because whiskey is 40% ABV or higher and the cork will decay and disintegrate if it has constant contact with that level of alcohol.
Not only does this mean that the cork may crumble unimpressively all over the place when you finally open the bottle, it also means that you will have bits of wood in your whiskey. This is not very nice especially if they are decayed pieces of wood.
Furthermore, a damaged cork means a looser seal and oxygen (the third thing that can damage whiskey) seeping in. The same is true if there are a lot of temperature fluctuations. With every fluctuation, oxygen can flow into the bottle.
Oxygen readily binds with lots of chemical compounds turning them into other compounds in a process called oxidation. When you add oxygen to whiskey new compounds are created and the flavor (decades to acquire blah blah blah – you can only do this a certain number of times) will be drastically altered.
How the taste of your whiskey will change can’t be predicted. Sometimes it becomes better, sometimes it becomes worse. You won’t know until you taste it but why take the chance with a product that’s taken decades to … well you know.
Besides when you add oxygen to iron you get rusting, when you add oxygen to copper you get corrosion. On that basis it’s not very likely that adding oxygen to whiskey will bring about an improvement.
Additional Issues for Whiskey Collectors
Whether you’re a whiskey collector that owns some of the rarest and most expensive whiskeys in the world or you have a more modest but still relatively valuable collection, you’ll need to know how to store whiskey in a way that will protect it from four additional things:
Minute amounts of whiskey evaporating is tolerable if you’re storing your whiskey for a few years until you get round to drinking it, but you don’t want to look at your collection after 30 – 40 years of storage and find the filling level has drastically decreased.
Bottles with a twist on lid are almost impervious to evaporation. If there is any it will take much longer to cause a significant decrease of the filling level. You just need to ensure the lid is screwed on nice and tight.
Modern wax dipped bottles are also very resistant to evaporation during long periods of storage.
But if your bottle has a cork, evaporation is inevitable and will become noticeable after about ten years. Although newer bottles tend to have better seals than older ones making evaporation slower, it’s still a problem for the long-term collector.
If a bottle is well sealed, humidity won’t harm the whiskey itself but it can have a significant effect on the exterior of the bottle, which is a concern if this is an investment and you want to keep your bottle and all its matching accessories in pristine condition.
Humidity can damage the label and make it mouldy. It can also damage any outer layers of boxing and packaging, making it more fragile and easier to tear.
The bottle can be scratched or broken, the label, box and packaging can be ripped or torn. The house can collapse on your collection.
Which is doubly annoying because had you known you were going to lose out on your investment, you’d have drunk that rare and expensive whiskey years ago.
How to Store Whiskey
Now we know what can damage whiskey, we also know how to store whiskey properly.
Away From Direct Light and Direct Sunlight
Store your whiskey somewhere where it’s not exposed to direct light or sunlight.
Many whiskey bottles are dark green because it deflects to an extent the sunlight. It’s also better to keep your whiskeys inside their boxes as it provides another layer of protection against the light.
You may be able to solve the direct sunlight issue by storing your whiskey in an opaque cabinet or behind windows with a UV-blocking coating. However, since this won’t dissipate the heat, your whiskey will only be protected from discoloration and flavor degradation but not evaporation.
In a Cool and Stable Temperature
Keep your whiskey in a cool, temperature-controlled room. 15°-20°c or 59°-68°F will do.
Cellars, that are dark with only a minimum amount of sunlight and heat, and a room temperature of 15°-18°c are perfect for storing whiskey, wine, coal and anything whose storage conditions are those of a cellar.
Though I’m not sure the majority of us have a cellar– probably because we spent our money on buying whiskey.
But whatever your whiskey storage situation is – home bar, a lone cabinet or making do with a small portion of bookshelf, cupboard or other similarly unremarkable location – make sure its conditions are as close to that of a cellar as possible. This means cool, with no direct light and as few temperature fluctuations as possible.
But Not in the Freezer
The freezer being cold and dark might seem like a good place to store whiskey, but it isn’t. Keeping your whiskey in the freezer won’t permanently harm it, but it will dull its flavors and character until it returns to room temperature.
This all starts with corks whose job is to seal your bottle against the flavor-changing-probably-for-the-worse oxygen. But corks are quite fragile. If they’re kept completely dry for long periods of time they may chip or crumble, meaning a looser seal and oxygen seeping in.
To prevent this wine bottles are stored lying down. This way the cork is in constant contact with the wine so it’s always moist and the seal will remain intact.
But as mentioned, constant contact between a cork and whiskey’s high ABV will cause it to decay and disintegrate. The seal will loosen, and oxygen will seep in. So whiskey bottles (unless they have a twist on lid) must be stored standing up.
But Turned Over Every So Often
Preventing oxygen seeping in via a weaker seal due to cork damage from the high ABV of whiskey, does not prevent oxygen seeping in via a weaker seal due to cork damage from drying out.
So even though your whiskey must be stored standing up it must also be turned over every so often. Some rest their bottles horizontally for an hour or so once or twice a year. Others turn their bottles upside down for a few seconds once a month. This way the alcohol won’t damage the cork and the cork won’t dry out.
In many cases the alcohol vapors evaporating through the cork will keep it moist but it’s still a good idea to turn your bottles over in case that’s not enough.
Sometimes, despite all this the cork will dry out. This is especially true if the cork is of a very bad quality.
How to Store a Whiskey Collection
Here’s how to store whiskey in a way that will also protect it from the four additional issues that apply to a whiskey collection.
With an Additional Seal
To prevent evaporation over the long term, add another seal. This can be done by using an additional cap on top of the cork or dipping your bottles in wax. However, these methods can damage the bottle and the underlying seal, decreasing their value.
A better solution is to use parafilm.
Parafilm is a semi-transparent, flexible … film composed of a blend of waxes and polyolefins. It’s malleable, non-toxic, tasteless, odorless, and self-sealing. You can wrap it around the lid making it airtight and it won’t harm the underlying seal. The only downside is that after some time it becomes brittle and less effective, so it needs replacing every five to seven years.
All Purpose Laboratory Parafilm
Do not apply parafilm to wax dipped bottles as that’s redundant and the film will meld with the wax making it impossible to remove after a while.
In a Thin Plastic Bag
To prevent humidity from damaging the label or the entire packaging keep your bottles in an airtight plastic bag. Make sure the bag doesn’t contain any plasticisers or other chemicals as they could bleach the packaging or label and affect the contents of the bottle via the cork.
Somewhere It Won’t Be Easily Damaged or Stolen
Not in the kids’ room.
Not in the garden shed.
And definitely and absolutely 100% away from roommates that have a tendency to drink your whiskey when you’re not looking.
Depending on how valuable your collection is you may want to think about storing your whiskey in a locked cabinet, safe or even vault with a good alarm system. You may want to use a secure location outside your home.
Store your whisky carefully to avoid rips, scuffs, and dents to the labels, boxes and packaging. It’s a good idea to keep bottles packed in the cartons or cases they came in. Make sure your inventory and appraisal are up to date.
Get an Insurance Policy
Because your whiskey collection is like any other valuable item that requires protection from damage and theft.
How to Store Whiskey Bottles That Have Been Opened
The problem with an open whiskey bottle is not a new one but an exacerbation of an old one.
The more you drink from the bottle, the more headspace (the space between the cork and the whiskey) there is. With a greater air to whiskey ratio in the bottle oxidation will happen at a quicker rate.
There’s no need to panic and drink the entire bottle as soon as possible (although I can’t claim that’s a terrible solution), because unlike wine that must be consumed within a few days, open whiskey has a shelf life of between six months and two years. The quicker rate of oxidation is actually a relatively slow process. An inch or two of headspace won’t have much of an effect on the whiskey’s taste for at least a year. Although this time frame decreases as the whiskey does.
Once oxidation has begun there’s no way to stop it, but ensuring your bottle is tightly sealed when stored can extend your whiskey’s life.
If the original cork does not seal your bottle well buy a poly seal cap. If your bottle has a twist on lid you should re-tighten it regularly because they often become lose on their own.
There’s also the option of transferring your whiskey into a hermetically sealed glass container.
You can also use a whiskey decanter but make sure it has an airtight seal and that it does not contain lead. This is because unlike wine whiskey is usually drunk and therefore stored over a longer period of time. If your decanter does not have an airtight seal your whiskey will be oxidizing the entire time it’s being stored in there. If your decanter contains lead it will leach into the whiskey and over time reach dangerous levels.
If three quarters of the bottle is air, you’re going to notice a degradation in quality in quite a short period of time – about a month.
At this point you have two options. You can either transfer the rest of your whiskey to a smaller container, decreasing the headspace and slowing the rate of oxidation (small decanters do exist for this very purpose) or you can finish off the bottle ASAP – finally some decent advice.
Two Tips That Come From Knowing How to Store Whiskey
- Since whiskey will oxidize inside an open bottle and that will change its taste, finish it within a few months so you’re enjoying your whiskey at its peak. Only open the number of bottles you can finish within four months.
- When drinking whiskey at a bar check how long the bottle of the drink you want has been open and the amount of whiskey that’s left. If it’s been there for a while and has only got a small amount left, it will have probably lost most of its taste.
The Last Rule for Storing Whiskey – With Flare
Unless your whiskey collection is in a cellar or under lock and key, your whiskeys should be stored in a way that while keeping all the above rules, still allows them to be displayed with flare.
This may be of some help.
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Although difficult to damage, you still need to know how to store whiskey so that it doesn’t becomes ruined by direct sunlight, heat or fluctuating temperatures and oxygen. This means storing it upright in a cool place with no direct light and as few temperature fluctuations as possible.
If you’re a collector you also have to know how to store whiskey in a way that will protect it from evaporation, humidity, damage and theft. This means additional seals, security and insurance.
And you need to know how to store whiskey bottles that have been opened. This means making sure they’re tightly sealed when being stored so that the increasing oxidation is minimized. It also means telling any whiskey drinkers you live with what happened to the last person who drank your whiskey when you weren’t looking.