Friday, April 5, 2013

"Damn it Jim! He's Dead . . ."

How many times did Bones McCoy tell Captain James T. Kirk that the nameless starship engineer or lowly Starfleet security officer was dead?

According to Wikipedia, fifty-nine of those crew members who beamed down with the landing party to some dusty planet, didn't make it back to the Starship Enterprise.

This got me thinking.  You know, death and all, caused me to become pensive and melancholic (but not misty-eyed).  I started to have an uneasy feeling that I tried to suppress with about the success a high school student has eradicating pimples with a tube of Clearasil, as he stands in front of a mirror, hours before the prom.  So, an understandably poignant thought that came to my mind was: How long do my beloved opened bottles of whisky have before they are dead too?

As a whisky fanatic, I accumulate a lot of bottles, and they get opened quickly.  Before I know it, I can easily have 20 odd bottles open at any one time.  So, I am keenly aware of what oxygen can do to whisky.  And, what does it do?

Some whiskies are sharp, tight, almost tart or bitter when first opened, but come back to that bottle a few days or a week later, and the flavors have softened.  The discordant notes have disappeared leaving only pleasant flavors, a softening if you will, that is most pleasant.  I have noticed this sometimes with  Highland Park 12 years.

Other whiskies when first opened deliver a supernova flavor explosion that is quite magical, leaving you stunned and in awe.  Give them a couple of days and that pesky oxidation takes place leaving a slightly muted, even a little disappointing, distant memory of what had been fantastically good.  I notice that Islay peat bombs can lose some of their intensity after opening and may settle down within a month that lacks the grandeur of the first week or so.  This can also happen with sherry bombs like The Macallan and Highland Park 18 years.

Still, there are other whiskies that are great from the beginning, and never waver, in spite of air in the bottle.  I am thinking of various Springbank releases, Ledaig 10 years, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Black Bottle and White Horse.

There are No Hard and Fast Rules
So far, all I have told you is that there are no hard and fast rules with respect to the affect oxygen has upon a bottle.   Since air is a fact of life with the opened whisky bottle, the larger question is how long does a bottle have in your cabinet before most of the satisfying flavor is gone.  What's the optimal shelf life?

I will share with you some of my thoughts that hopefully will encourage you and other readers to comment, and maybe, just maybe, all of us will benefit from some insights into this most opaque of whisky mysteries.

The conventional wisdom is that a good single malt, Canadian whisky or bourbon can last for many years.  Technically whisky can last for years after being opened because it will not spoil in an organic sense.  Anyway, you know what I mean.  We all know somebody who pours for special guests an expensive whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue or Royal Salute every Christmas, and after five years or so, he has finally reached the bottom.

Yes, he has reached the bottom, but the bottom of what?  The bottle . . . sure.  Has he also reached the bottom of a once great flavor profile too?  Have those flavors flat lined for the past four Christmas seasons?  Is that what he was left with?  That's my worst nightmare.  To drink a whisky past its prime.

My dad had a bottle of Black Velvet in a cabinet and would pull it out and give my grandfather a tipple once a year at Christmas.  Gramps seemed to enjoy the Canadian whisky even though the bottle towards the end was probably ten years old!  My grandfather grew up in the Great Depression and so was not too picky about hooch.  If it had some bite and generated some warmth, it was good.

For those of us with more refined palates and undiagnosed gustatory obsessive compulsive disorders, ten years for a bottle is probably nine too many.  Some of us want to cut that time line down even more.

My Practice
While there are no hard and fast rules, I have some that I try to live by.  My experience is that it is best to finish a bottle within three months.


I said three months.

For certain more resilient whiskies that seem impervious to the affects of oxidation, I might let those bottles go six months but I am thinking, get half way down the bottle in three months, and finish it within the next three.

Why so soon?  For me, I want to enjoy my whisky in its optimal state.  Its zenith, followed by the plateau, before it falls into the Grand Canyon of muddy mediocrity.   When bottles are less than half full, oxidation will exacerbate the decline of the flavor profile to a point where it is lower than a snake's belly.  Not only TV test pattern boring, some become terrible.  There was a bottle of Royal Salute that I hung onto for far too long and it really became just slop.

Part of drinking whisky is to accept that oxidation plays a part, for better or worse or no significant change at all.  Do some bottles in my collection get past the six month life span and still deliver up a great taste experience?  Some may, but not many, and it is not a risk I am prepared to take.

An acquaintance of mine feels otherwise and notes that single malts that are cask strength or higher than the standard 40% ABV hold up better, for a couple of years.  I suppose it is possible and does happen, but I rather not take the chance.

Whisky Charity
So, surely I am not finishing off every bottle I open in the course of a year, especially where I review a new bottle nearly every two weeks.  What am I doing with them?

My favorites disappear within the three to six month time frame.  The ones that disappoint or are snore-fests (like many Piers Morgan interviews) are given away to people I know like whisky, but aren't  ridiculously crazed (i.e. have some inexplicable need to tell everyone via the internet about their whisky obsession).  Normal people you know.  Guys who, if not crazy about the taste of a given whisky, remedy the situation by adding ice or soda.  I feel good knowing someone is enjoying it, rather than have the bottle left to sit on my shelf, ignored, unloved and neglected.

When Will it Go Bad?
Let's say you are not going to polish off a bottle within three to six months, you may be wondering when it will go bad?  While the flavor may not necessarily be optimal, that is not to say the whisky is now bad or will be headed that way very shortly.  By following a couple of precautions, you can maximize the longevity of your whisky.

1. Cool Storage - Store your whisky in a cool environment that has a temperature of between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  Heat is not good for whisky.  So, don't store it in your kitchen cupboard above the stove or in the lazy-susan next to the dishwasher.  Heat will do nasty things to your whisky.

2.  In the Dark! -  Sunlight is the enemy of whisky.  I am paranoid about artificial light too.  Keep your whisky bottles in their original packaging tubes or boxes to ensure the environment is dark.

Another benefit to making such use of the packaging is that it will protect the whisky bottle should you accidentally drop it or knock it off the shelf.  We don't want to see a grown man cry over spilled whisky do we?

3.  Watch the level!  How full is the bottle?  Once it is half full, you wanna finish it up quickly.  The lower the level, the more urgent is the need to polish it off.

4.  Do not store bottles on their sides!!!!!!  Whisky is not wine.  Long term storage of wine requires you to store the bottles on their sides so that the cork does not dry out.  If the cork dries out, air gets in and spoils the wine.

With whisky the ABV is too high for long term storage of the bottle on its side.  The higher ABV will damage the cork, causing it to disintegrate gradually depositing bits of the cork in the spirit.

One caveat though.  A learned whisky acquaintance of mine has an enormous collection of whisky.  Literally several hundred bottles, mostly unopened.  Once in a while he will reach for a bottle that could be 10 to 15 years old from the date of purchase.  Before opening it, he will put it on its side so that the cork will moisten. The thought is that older bottles are susceptible to corks that can dry out when opening, leaving cork in the whisky.  So, he moistens the cork by leaving it on its side for a week before opening.  The hope is that this bottle position will moisten the cork, revitalize it, and cause the cork to be withdrawn without falling into the whisky.

5.  Consider Pouring Whisky into Smaller Bottles - You know those airplane miniatures of whisky you gulp down when the wife goes to the washroom.  C'mon, you know.  The ones you discretely stuff in the airplane seat.  Well, stop doing that and start collecting them.  When your standard 750ml bottle gets below half full, transfer the remainder to those minis.  Hopefully, oxidation will be curtailed or stopped dead in its tracks.

. . .

Follow the above suggestions and hopefully your whisky will enjoy a long and fruitful life and not share the fate of a Star Fleet redshirt!


Jason Debly


  1. Hi Jason, all good points, I had my share of whiskies going flat, and I'm keeping track of how long my bottles have been open. For me, the yellow zone starts at half-bottle, and the red zone starts at 1/3. I would never let that bottom 1/3 linger. Three months is too short when you have more than 20 bottles open, especially if the bottle is almost full. A couple other suggestions: Private Preserve is a nitrogen spray, designed for wines but that works really well for whisky. Also, a lot of us anoraks buy empty bottles, of various sizes, at Specialty Bottle - the 50ml samples are too small to be practical.

  2. Excellent points, all of them. My bottle of Jura Superstition went pretty flat and boring after two years. I've found that by limiting the number of open bottles (to around 10), and then decanting them to smaller bottles when they get to the half way point has enabled me to extend their lifespan (although the bottle of Amrut Single Malt that I bought and opened in July 2010 was just as fresh for the last pour in September 2012; it was a higher ABV whisky, though).

    In terms of decanting to smaller bottles, I keep any 375ml, 350ml, or 200ml spirits bottles that I come across (such as those found in the Classic Malts and Glenfiddich tasting collections). Once you soak the labels off, wash, rinse, and dry them, you can re-label and re-use them as you see fit.

    1. Your comments bring to mind a point I forgot to make in the blog post. What does one do with flat whisky? One solution is to do some of your own, home based blending. For instance, add a teaspoon or two of Ardbeg to a double of White Horse and the mixture of the two, might revitalize a flattened White Horse.

      This involves some experimenting and good gut instincts but if the whiskies involved are past their prime, waste of dollars is not a concern.

  3. This is a timely post. I just threw out a partial bottle of Knob Creek bourbon. It had been open for three years, about half full. It didn't just go flat, it actually tasted bad. I'll have to sample my other long-opened bottles to see how things stand.

    We have a variety of Mason jar sizes used for canning in years past. If the open liquor is still OK, I'll use them as needed. They are, of course, easy to seal and label. I'm going to have to limit the number of open bottles. I just can't drink the stuff fast enough to deal with ten or more open containers. Virginia ABC stores, state run, don't carry much variety in the 50ml or pint size, which is a shame.

    For the booze that is still OK but doesn't suit my taste preferences anymore, I'll give it away. I'm also going to look into using it in cooking. Now retired, the wife and I don't eat out as often as we used to. (It helps to no longer work 80+ hours a week as we used to.) Nothing specific in mind but the idea of a bourbon or scotch BBQ or cream sauce has possibilities. There are probably other items to consider. A scotch glaze on salmon or chicken breast? Hmmm!

    Jeff The Bear

    1. I think there are a lot of possibilities with whisky and food. Just a matter of googling whisky and food pairings. Even desserts can become more interesting. Creme Brule drizzled with some Macallan 12 anyone?

  4. Good article as always. Living in Scotland we don't struggle too greatly to keep our whisky at a steady, cold temperature! Those abroad may have more of challenge.

    Another aspect with shelf-life is the quality of the stopper. I'm sure we've all had bottles where the cap doesn't fit as tightly as we'd like. Ceramic decanters are another league of trouble. For the most part I've been lucky but whenever I do have a plug that is too loose for my liking then that bottle use frequency is accelerated.

    Whisky and food is growing in popularity. It's good to see some of the cafe's within the distilleries (Ardbeg and Deanston to highlight but two) making use of the dram and coming up with some tasty treats.

    1. As always, you raise an important point. How could I forget about the quality of the stopper? Thanks for pointing that out. Always good to hear from you!

  5. Jason, Nice treatment of the subject. We do "topping up" with bottle remainders frequently, the combining of whiskies into a "dump bottle" or "solera bottle". It's fun, practical and very instructive. It's actually become an activity shared as end in itself in our club, with a couple events each years centered upon it. Use of products such as Private Preserve is smart work too. I am actually quite unafraid of letting any bottle linger longer than six month, or below 1/3 full as well. Some whiskey actually reach a wonderful place, even a better place that way, notably Elmer T Lee Bourbons. Experiment ! Cheers, JK

    1. Jk - I noticed that with Eagle Rare, which I found rather bland and boring when I opened it, just sweet on the open / no middle / woody finish.

      I drank half the bottle within the first few weeks (as I tend to do with stuff I don't love) - then sort of forgot about it for a few months. When I revisited it, the initial flavors had taken on some much more interesting dimensions, with lots of nice caramel / toffee / baking spice notes I hadn't really gotten before.

  6. Jason, thanks for the heads up on storage now that the spring season is upon us and typically my scotch consumption beings to drop until winter arrives again. I have several newly opened bottles that likely won't be revisited for almost 6 months so I need to figure something out! Your article explains why the remaining 1/5 of my Glenfiddich 18 that I had been carefully saving from 5 years ago was completely without cache and improperly turned me off Speysides.

  7. "You know those airplane miniatures of whisky you gulp down when the wife goes to the washroom. C'mon, you know. The ones you discretely stuff in the airplane seat."

    Damn funny!

    I also use a vacuum pump from time to time, especially if a bottle is opened and mostly cleared out quickly (say, in an evening with friends), but is also something I want to sit and review more closely later. I'll use a vacuum pump and stopper for wine to keep a 1/4 bottle sitting nicely for months. While I've never made a careful study of how effective this is, it seems to do the job in the short term.

    Great post!

    1. I have no experience with a vacuum pump, well I mean for wine, ok that didnt sound right. Anyhow, they are becoming a lot more common as a way to preserve whisky, once opened. Something else I need to check out sometime.

      By the way, I always enjoy your sharp wit on your blog ( Glad to see your move from the west coast didnt mean you would stop the blog.



  8. Funny how tastes differ. I was just posting in another scotch forum about how I think Springbank (both the 10 and 15) lose a lot of the "unruly" flavors that make them great (don't get me wrong, their still damn good) after a few weeks of being open while I find the flavors of HP 18 get much better integrated after a few months.

  9. Great article. I have often pondered this so I usually only have one bottle open at a time. Now it is a bottle of highland park 15. the rest of my collection sits waiting patiently for it's turn to be opened. Not sure what I'm going to do about my Green label though, quite sad it is going away. One of my more favorite sitting with a book and a glass whiskeys.

    1. Highland PaRK 15 is a Scotch to savour! As for Green Label, get a couple and open one a year.

  10. Does it matter what contents were in the bottle? Got a couple of 285ml glass ones that had Soda Water... I'm hoping to use.

    AL from Oz

    1. Nope, just make sure you thoroughly wash the bottle repeatedly with hot water. No need for soap.

  11. Good one.
    Thanks Jason.


  12. Jason, We may have found a bottle that may never "go dead" and responds well to extended aeration over long periods. It's Longrow (not the 10, not the CV, but the other one, the young one with no added designation). For well over a year now, it's reeked strongly of many different things and is still going stronger than ever. We love how the nose moved from an initial punch of wet-boggy peat and clay kiln, then into a period of a wondrously aggressive sulfurous, vegetal, challenging face-slaps, only to be now residing at the corner of sheep pen and Banalg liniment. Highly recommended traveling the long row(d) s-l-o-w-l-y. Let it see the air. JK

    1. Duly noted, and I will have to try and pick up a bottle.

      I just polished off a bottle of Bowmore 12 and it had been open nearly a year and did well in spite of extended periods of aeration.