Of all the different forms alcohol takes – beer, wine, brandy, etc. – whiskey is one of the hardiest. It’ll keep longer and survive worse circumstances than most other drinks. That being said, it’s not invulnerable. Whiskey’s two biggest enemies are light and air. The more it comes in contact with either, the more it will change and the shorter the shelf life. How concerned do you need to be with your whiskey storage? Not overly. Why do I say that? Because once opened, the average shelf life of whiskey in a normal home bar is 5 years. I don’t know about you, but most bottles I have get enjoyed before they reach 5 years on my shelf. So the only time you’ll want to take extra precautions is when you have a bottle you’re trying to preserve long term. How do you do that? By keeping your whiskey away from light and air.
Combating light is straightforward. Keep the whiskey somewhere dark. Combatting air involves a little more. Keeping air out is about cork preservation and managing headspace in the bottle. Let’s first look at the cork.
The cork is the weakest link in a whiskey’s packaging. Yes, glass can shatter if dropped or exposed to sudden extreme temperature changes. However, just sitting on a shelf or in a cabinet glass won't dry rot, mold, or let any air through – but a cork can do those things. So how do you preserve the cork?
First, keep the bottle in happy-medium humidity and at room temperature. Too cold and the cork can shrink, allowing air in. Too humid and the cork can mold. Too hot or dry and the cork can crumble. Keep it middle of the road in temperature and humidity for best results.
Second, keep your bottle of whiskey upright. The concentrated ethanol content of whiskey can deteriorate the cork if stored sideways, leading to air exposure or worse – leakage!
Third, keep some extra corks of various sizes on hand. No need to go buy new ones, just remember to save some from previously finished bottles. That way if a cork ever goes bad you can replace it.
Managing headspace is another way to preserve your whiskey longer. What is headspace? Headspace is the air between the whiskey level in the bottle and cork at the top. The more whiskey you pour out of the bottle, the less liquid there is, the larger the headspace. How do you manage it? One of two ways; by periodically transferring your whiskey to a smaller bottle that has less headspace or, putting a non-reactive element in the bottle to decrease the room for air.
What’s a “non-reactive” element? In the wine world they have cans of inert gas you shoot into the top of the bottle thus pushing the air up and away from the precious liquid below. These cans can be bought online or in wine shops for relatively little money and work well with whiskey.
A DIY way of reducing headspace is to sanitize glass marbles. How do you sanitize marbles? By carefully boiling them for 15-20 minutes or baking them at 225°F for the same amount of time. Then let them cool, and gently put them in the bottle. This raises the liquid level and decreases the headspace. Possibly a cheaper method, but far more of a headache and riskier than using the inert gas.
Now that you know best whiskey storage practices, what bottle(s) in your collection will you make the extra effort for? Let us know in the comments below!
— Zac Smith