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Alcohol and Health

Does Alcohol Expire? Factors Influencing Alcohol’s Shelf Life

May 27, 2024
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 27, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
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Determining the Shelf Life of Alcohol and Its Impact

  • Alcohol can “go bad,” but the only thing affected is its taste. Drinking expired alcohol is not inherently more risky than drinking unexpired alcohol, but it could open the door to unpleasant experiences.
  • Understand and track your alcohol’s shelf life to avoid moldy or stale ale and take into account the general risks of drinking alcohol.
  • Reframe answers less-common questions about alcohol that help us practice safe consumption. Our 24/7 Forum and science-backed tools will empower you with knowledge to make safe alcohol choices.

We may be familiar with the term “aging like fine wine,” but despite what we commonly hear, alcohol doesn’t last forever. The shelf life of alcohol depends on several different factors, and proper storage plays a major role in how long it lasts. 

Let’s get a general idea of how long different types of alcohol last and what factors affect it. We’ll also delve into ways that we can identify spoiled alcohol and how it can affect our health. Since many alcoholic products don’t clearly state an expiration date, let’s first determine if alcohol does expire.

Does Alcohol Go Bad? 

Collection of alcohol bottles on glass shelf

Alcohol is commonly used as a preservative and has antimicrobial properties. However, alcohol does expire and can go bad. It may not spoil in the same way that other foods and drinks do, but alcohol doesn’t last forever as it’s commonly perceived to.

While ethanol is an approved preservative that extends the life of many foods, the specific process of developing alcoholic beverages and additives contributes to its perishability. The shelf life of alcohol depends on many different factors including whether or not it’s been opened.

Does Alcohol Expire If Unopened?

Alcohol that has been left unopened and stored correctly may have a longer shelf life. That’s because proper handling decreases the chance of exposure to factors that increase the progression of expiration. However, the shelf life of alcohol that is unopened isn’t indefinite. 

Although unopened, alcohol can still be exposed to external influences that can contribute to its spoiling. Let’s explore these factors in greater detail.

Factors That Influence Alcohol’s Shelf Life

Like all food and drink we consume, different factors can influence how long they last. An apple we keep in our car during the hot summer months will spoil much more quickly than an apple we keep in the fridge. The same goes for alcohol. Specific factors influence the alcohol’s shelf life:

  • Ethanol content. Due to its antimicrobial properties, ethyl alcohol is used as both a disinfectant and a preservative. Alcoholic beverages with a higher ethanol content typically have a longer shelf life.
  • Production process. Certain production processes give alcoholic beverages their distinct characteristics. However, certain processes and ingredients may result in a longer or shorter shelf life.
  • Additives. Flavors and mixers added after the production process can dilute ethanol and decrease the shelf life of alcohol. 
  • Storage. Exposure to oxygen, high temperatures, and light all contribute to the degradation of alcohol. Research shows that these influences create changes in the chemical compositions of alcohol. That’s why unopened alcohol typically has a longer shelf life. It’s also why wine cellars exist.

A variety of factors can influence how long different types of alcohol last, which means each kind has a different shelf life. To practice safe consumption of alcohol, we need to understand the general shelf life of each type.

Shelf Life of Different Types of Alcohol

Different types of alcohol are produced differently, have different ethanol content, and may have distinctive additives that influence their shelf life. Let’s compare three main types of alcohol — liquor, wine, and beer. 

How Long Does Liquor Last? 

Liquor encompasses distilled spirits, including gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila, and rum. Out of the three main types of alcohol, liquor is considered the most shelf stable due to its high ethanol content.

Liquor is produced through fermentation of different grains and plants. After fermentation, liquor goes through a distillation process, which separates alcohol from water and increases the alcohol concentration. Since spirits have a higher alcohol content, they typically have the longest shelf life. According to industry experts and authors of the book Aroma of Beer, Wine, and Distilled Alcoholic Beverages, liquor lasts for about 6 to 8 months after opening. 

Liqueurs, not to be confused with the general term liquor, are sweetened with other flavors, which shorten liqueurs’ shelf life to 6 months after opening. 

Generally, liquor, or spirits, should be stored in a cool, dark area. The bottles also should be stored upright to prevent the alcohol from touching the cap. This reduces the risk of corrosion, which can affect the flavor and quality of the alcohol. While some spirits may last longer than 6 – 8 months after opening without affecting the taste, it's better to err on the side of caution.

How Long Does Wine Last?

Wine is produced through fermentation of different parts of the grape. Unlike spirits, the shelf life of wine can vary greatly. While quality wines that are aged in casks for months to years can continue to last and intensify in taste if unopened, cheaper wines that don’t go through this aging process last only about 2 years after bottling. The shelf life of unopened wines is difficult to determine and can vary widely among different types of wines and brands. 

Organic wines are typically made without preservatives and should be consumed within 3 – 6 months. After opening, wine is exposed to oxygen and should be consumed within 3 – 7 days. Sparkling wines, which deteriorate fastest, should be consumed within hours (or 1 – 3 days if refrigerated and sealed with a wine stopper). More shelf-stable wines, such as fortified wines, can last 2 – 4 weeks after opening. 

As we can see, the shelf life of wine is volatile and greatly affected by light and heat. A wine cellar or another cool, dark, and dry environment (not the freezer) will help keep wine fresh for several years unopened. Unlike other alcoholic beverages, wine is meant to be stored on its side to keep the cork moist and prevent oxidation. 

How Long Does Beer Last?

Beer is produced through the fermentation of cereal grains. As the yeast converts the sugars into ethanol, CO2 is produced – causing natural carbonation. At the end of the process, hops (parts of the Humulus lupulus plant) are added to give beer its distinctive taste and help preserve and stabilize its foam. 

The shelf life of beer depends on the alcohol content and whether or not it's pasteurized or unpasteurized. Brewers typically print a “use by” date to indicate when the beer will be at peak taste. Pasteurized beers, which go through a heating process similar to pasteurizing other foods and drinks, prevent harmful pathogens and extend the shelf life for up to a year after packaging and generally 6 – 8 months past its “best by” date. Unpasteurized beers, like most craft beers, have a shorter shelf life and last about 3 months after bottling. 

Beer can be properly stored in a cool, dark area with consistent temperatures, such as the fridge. After opening, beer should be consumed within a few hours. After opening, beer will begin to lose its carbonation and taste. 

Shelf Life of Different Types of Alcohol

Signs of Expired Alcohol

Since expiration periods of alcohol are highly dependent on external factors, it’s important to know the signs of spoiled alcohol. Here are the most common indicators:

  • Changes in appearance. Expired alcohol may sometimes change the appearance of a drink. Look for changes in color or consistency.
  • Changes in odor. Spoiled alcohol can also commonly smell sour, similar to vinegar. 
  • Presence of particles. Floating particles or sediment may indicate expired alcohol — but not always. Particles can be present for several different reasons, including the growth of bacteria or the separation of proteins. They can also form naturally in some wines and spirits.
  • Mold. Mold can commonly grow in beer, wine, and liqueurs. While mold isn’t common in spirits, it can still occur. Certain types of fungi target ethanol, such as “whiskey fungus,” which thrives on the vapors released during the whiskey aging process.

While not all expired alcohol will have visible signs, it's important to be aware of how alcohol that’s gone bad can look, smell, and taste to help us avoid it. But if we’re in a dark bar or at a party with lots of different smells, it’s not always easy to recognize the signs. What if we accidentally drink alcohol that’s gone bad? Should we be worried?

What Happens If You Drink Expired Alcohol?

Expired alcohol is most commonly associated with a change in taste. While spoiled wine turns to vinegar, making it taste sour, other expired alcohol may not have a distinctly “off” taste. Alcohol past its expiration date may be described as weak or unflavored. The change in taste may not seem like a big deal. However, it can be difficult to tell for sure if bacteria or mold has grown in it.

Consuming alcohol that contains bacteria or mold increases the risk of experiencing adverse effects such as an upset stomach. Expired alcohol, however, isn’t reported to cause serious illness. Still, it isn’t a great idea to consume expired alcohol, especially if signs of decomposition are detected. It’s similar to eating the rest of an apple after cutting off a discolored piece — we may or may not get sick, but why take the chance? 

Health Effects of Alcohol vs. Expired Alcohol

Even if it’s not expired, alcohol still poses numerous risks. We can cut the discolored piece off an apple, but if the apple is poisonous, it doesn’t make a difference. Likewise, consuming any alcohol in excess — expired or not — can lead to serious health conditions:

  • Liver disease. Our liver processes over 90% of alcohol and is subjected to prolonged exposure to the toxins in alcohol. Drinking is directly linked with liver damage and disease.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Alcohol has negative effects on our blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, which all contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Pancreatitis. Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). 
  • Cancer. When we drink, our body breaks down ethanol into acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that is classified as a carcinogen. This is why alcohol is directly tied to an increased risk of developing all types of cancers.
  • Diabetes. Alcohol raises our blood sugar, and, over time, it can increase our insulin resistance, which can develop into type 2 diabetes.

Drinking alcohol directly impacts our health and well-being in multiple ways. An expiration date doesn’t change that. Mindful drinking practices can reduce the risk of complications and limit the negative impacts of general alcohol consumption.

Tips for Safe Alcohol Consumption 

Safe alcohol consumption includes checking for signs of expiration and, more importantly, implementing mindful drinking practices:

  • Be mindful of expiration dates. Alcohol isn’t required to have expiration dates. However, based on the shelf life of different types of alcoholic beverages, we can get an idea of how long our alcohol will last. When in doubt, throw it out!
  • Adhere to proper storage recommendations. Different types of alcohol may have different storage recommendations, which helps to prolong its shelf life. Generally, alcohol should be stored in a cool, dark area.
  • Look for abnormalities. Since alcohol doesn’t always have a “best by” date, it’s always important to check for abnormalities before drinking. Check for changes in appearance, consistency, and smell. 
  • Practice moderation. Follow moderate drinking guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Limit intake to two drinks or less for men and one drink or less for women to limit the negative effects of excessive drinking.

Since alcohol, expired or not, has the same detrimental health effects, safe alcohol consumption always includes limiting intake.

Key Takeaways

While some alcohol can last for years unopened, alcohol is not indefinitely shelf stable. Storage, ethanol content, and additives can all influence alcohol’s shelf life. While expired alcohol (compared to non-expired) may not have significant health effects, it can increase the possibility of exposure to bacteria and mold. It’s important to note that alcohol, even when not expired, has detrimental health effects — accentuating the importance of quitting or cutting back on alcohol to improve our overall well-being. 

Summary FAQs

1. Does liquor go bad?

Yes. Although liquor has a higher alcohol content than other alcoholic beverages, it can still go bad.

2. How long does liquor last after opening?

After opening, liquor lasts about 6 – 8 months when stored properly in a cool, dark place.

3. Does alcohol expire if unopened?

Yes. Alcohol can still expire if unopened. The shelf life may depend on the type of alcohol and how it’s stored. 

4. What happens if you drink expired alcohol?

Alcohol that is expired typically only changes in taste; however, it may open the door to increased risk of ingesting mold or bacteria.

5. How long does Champagne last unopened?

The shelf life of Champagne depends on whether it’s a vintage or non-vintage. Unopened vintage Champagne has a shelf life of 5 – 10 years when stored properly; non-vintage sparkling wine has a shelf life of about 3 – 5 years.

Interested In Practicing Safe Alcohol Consumption? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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