Wine needs to be stored under specific conditions of temperature, humidity, and light. Bottles need to be stored at a certain angle, called on the cork to prevent the cork from drying out, which could break the seal. It is even sometimes important to protect wines from vibration so as not to disrupt the sediments.
See also Does Beer Get Better As It Ages?
For the same reason, we are often told to store the bottles with the labels facing up so that they can be read and identified without disturbing the bottle. In fact, when wine connoisseurs speak of wine provenance, they are not only talking about its age and where it was bottled, but who owned it and how it was stored. All this is because wines mature as they age, and when properly stored, a fine wine gets even better. If improperly stored, the wine can taste off or even be ruined. Distilled spirits, or liquors like whiskey, rum, tequila, or vodka do not require such painstaking storage conditions. So, what’s the difference?
Wine has substances in it that change over time, even in the bottle. For instance, wine contains tannins which, in a new wine, may be up front and very disagreeable but which mellow out as the wine matures, making for a balance fruit and tannin taste. Since red wine contains more tannins, reds generally are matured longer. This means that wine gets better with age, and it can take several years to reach its peak of maturity. Wine does not always continue to get better and better after a certain age.
Different wines are matured for different periods, after which they begin to age and “dry out.” For more information see Discovering Wine by Joanna Simon.
Do Liquors like Whiskey Get Better with Age?
Spirituous liquors are distilled. They do not change much at all once they are bottled, and usually, if they do change, it is for the worse. You may have seen references to “20-year-old Scotch” on TV or in movies, referring to a very old bottle, but this is usually a misunderstanding. An old Scotch would refer to one that was aged in barrels for a long time, not one that sat in a bottle for a long time. Whiskey doesn’t get “smoother” in the bottle. The same goes for any other distilled liquor, such as tequila, rum, vodka, or gin. You may come across very expensive bottles of whiskey, especially Scotch whisky, that declares proudly the year it was bottled as if the whisky being bottled 20 years ago should make it more desirable than one bottled last week.
But it is the time spent in the barrel that matters, not the time spent in the bottle. If, on the other hand, a very old, and expensive bottle of whiskey has been stored long enough and in poor enough conditions, like changing temperatures (very cold temperatures to hot attics, for ex.), exposure to a lot of sunlight, or with a loosened cap or seal, the whiskey may be bad tasting, or even undrinkable.
What Does the Age Mean on Whiskey Labels?
Usually, the age recorded on a whiskey bottle refers to the amount of time it was aged in barrels. So, 18-year-old whiskey is whiskey that was in the barrel for 18 years before it was bottled. Wealthy whiskey lovers have been known to pay amazing sums of money for whiskey aged for many years. Sometimes, they make the mistake of paying thousands for an ancient bottle of whiskey rather than aged whiskey. Whiskey that has been in a bottle for 100 years is not likely to be good!
Storing Unopened Liquor
So, as implied, there are certain things that can affect a bottled distilled spirit. However, the affects any of these conditions have on liquors are slow to occur and if you consume the liquor in a reasonable period of time, say, over several months, you really don’t have to be all that careful. A liquor cabinet, a shelf, or bar or serving table, or just a cupboard should do just fine, especially if temperatures are not extreme (and you wouldn’t store yourself at extreme temperatures, would you?) Also keep in mind that storage will have more of an effect on the taste of aged spirits like whiskey or tequila than on un-aged or ‘white’ spirits like vodka.
Light can have an effect, especially if the bottle is clear. However, it takes a long time for any noticeable changes in taste to take place. For maximum life keep bottles of liquor, especially whiskey in a closed cabinet.
Temperature has an effect as well, especially heat. Avoid storing your liquors in areas that can get extremely hot at any time of day. A nice constant temperature of about 60 to 65°F is good (vodka can be stored in the freezer), so the basement might be a good choice for long-term storage. The attic, on the other hand, is always out.
The seal on bottles with modern screw-on caps isn’t likely to be compromised. However, many whiskeys and tequilas use a cork that has been, in turn, wrapped in plastic or coated with wax, to help guarantee a good seal. If the cork were to shrink the liquor would be exposed to oxygen, and subject to evaporation. If a wax seal is used, you’ll probably be fine for long-term storage, but the plastic film seals may be insufficient for very long-term storage. In that case you could use parafilm, which is a tape treated with paraffin wax that can be wrapped around the caps of your bottles, or around the caps of any other containers whose seal you want to reinforce. By the way, although it is proper to store wine “on the cork” you should not store whiskey or aged tequila bottles on their side so that the liquor makes contact with the cork as the cork and the spirit may not get along so well, affecting the taste.
Storing Opened Bottles of Liquor
The same things from above that affect an unopened bottle will, of course, affect an opened bottle. Once it is opened, if the seal is not so good, say from a loose cork, then the alcohol in the spirit will be subject to slow evaporation. This, obviously, will affect the taste, and concentrate the remaining constituents. The other thing that affects the spirit is the air itself. Oxygen causes oxidation, which starts to convert some of the compounds in the liquor to other, not so tasty, ones. Every time you open a bottle to pour, you expose it to oxygen and kick off this process. Keep in mind that oxidation, once begun, can continue to occur even if more oxygen is not introduced. However, as well as letting in the air when you open the bottle, you are making room in the bottle when you take a drink, leaving room for air to stay in the bottle. This means that the lower the level of the liquid, the more air in the bottle, and the faster the effect of the air on the liquor remaining. Using two-thirds of a bottle and then leaving the last third to sit for a year may not be a wise idea, therefore. There are ways to get around this, like decanting, but they all have their pitfalls and are a lot more trouble than they are worth. The best way to deal with opened bottles is to consume them within one to two years after opening.
For the most part, although you will find over-precious and paranoid recommendations on storing liquors, especially whiskey and other aged spirits, you will likely never notice any issues with storage affecting the taste of your spirits except under the most extreme conditions of improper storage or age.