Bartender Basics: Time to Spring Clean Your Bar Cart | Wine Enthusiast
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Bartender Basics: Time to Spring Clean Your Bar Cart

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Along with closets and the kitchen drawer full of spare batteries and orphaned keys, the bar cart is one of the areas of your home that collects the most junk. Unlike wine, which is understood to have a short shelf life once popped, many believe that opened liquors and other bar ingredients can kept indefinitely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

While it may be hard to let go of unenjoyed liquor, in the interest of fresh starts, it’s time to spring clean your bar cart.


Unopened liquor

Still-sealed, distilled spirits that aren’t fortified with sugar, like plain vodka, gin, whiskey, Scotch, Tequila and so on, have a nearly indefinite shelf life. If you’ve been saving an unopened bottle of single malt since 1986 to toast the next time the Mets win the World Series, don’t worry, it should keep for another 35 years.

Unopened vermouth

Unopened vermouth can last for a few years if stored properly. These fortified wines should still be treated like regular wine—kept out of direct sunlight and at cellar temperatures. Still, with a tight seal, if you’ve got unused bottles on your bar cart, they should be safe to hold on to for future use.


Opened vermouth

Since it’s used generally in smaller proportions than most other cocktail ingredients, a half-empty bottle of vermouth is a common sight in most households. Have one stashed in the door of your fridge? The good news is, you’ve been storing it in the right place—opened vermouth should always be kept cold. The bad news? Even refrigerated temperatures can’t make vermouth last forever.

Most opened vermouths will keep in good condition for a full month if refrigerated. In its second and third month, you can still use the bottle to make a decent martini or Boulevardier. Had a bottle open for longer than three months? Time to toss it.

Pro-tip #1: Unless you’re stocking a full bar or adhere to a strict three-martini lunch schedule, opt for half-bottles when purchasing vermouths. You’re more likely to use them up before they turn, and will have more opportunity to explore different brands and discover new favorites.

Pro-tip #2: If you’re a wine lover with access to a Coravin system at home, you can use it to extend your vermouth’s life indefinitely. The company also offers screwcap adapters for bottles without cork closures.

Nothing is certain in life but death, taxes and oxidation.

Maraschino cherries

For even the most dedicated Manhattan lover, it can be hard to use an entire jar of cocktail cherries before they turn bad. While an unopened jar of Maraschino cherries can last for 2–3 years, once you’ve popped the top cherries should be stored in the refrigerator and used within six months. If they’ve started to turn brown or become mushy, trash them and start fresh.

Pro-tip: Check to see if the lid of your sealed cherry container has started to bulge outward. If it has, the cherries have started to ferment or become contaminated and should be retired.

Cocktail olives

An opened jar of brined olives is a common sight in refrigerators. Most jars of cocktail olives have expiration dates, but these can vary based on olive variety, oil content, amount of salt in the brine and whether they’ve remained sealed or been opened.

It’s a good rule of thumb to toss opened olives every 3–4 months and start fresh, which means it’s probably time to trash your current jar. What’s the point of making a cocktail with quality spirits just to risk ruining it with a rancid garnish?

It depends

Opened liquor

Nothing is certain in life but death, taxes and oxidation. While they don’t “go bad” like wine, oxygen still affects spirits. Opened bottles will degrade and lose quality over time.

How quickly opened spirits spoil depends on the type of liquor, storage conditions and the complexity of a given spirit. While an incredibly loose estimation, here are rough guidelines of the shelf life of various liquor types.

  • Whiskey, Bourbon, brandy and other brown spirits: An opened bottle will stay good for about 1–2 years before it loses a noticeable amount of the aromatics and flavors. More complex pours with heady aromatics, like Scotch or higher-end Bourbons, may begin to degrade in as little as 6–8 months.
  • Vodka: Unsurprisingly, plain vodka keeps the longest. As a fairly uncomplex spirit, vodka’s compounds are mostly stable and even an opened bottle can last for many years without being overly affected by oxygen and time.
  • Gin and Tequila: Gin’s use of botanicals and flavoring agents means it’ll begin to lose aromatics and degrade much quicker than vodka, despite a similar base. The same goes for Tequila, which can bleed off the unique subtle flavors of its agave base when exposed to oxygen. Finish a bottle of either spirit within one year after opening.
  • Rum: This sugarcane-based spirit is one of the most susceptible to oxidation. Most rums should be consumed within six months of being opened, or you risk a disappointing pour.

Pro-tip: The less liquor that remains in a bottle, the quicker it will spoil. This is because the amount of air/oxygen in the bottle has increase in proportion to the remaining liquid. It can help to pour opened spirits into smaller bottles and reseal, if you’re hoping to hold on to them longer.

Liqueurs, cordials and fortified aperitifs

Popular liqueurs like triple sec, Chambord, falernum, St-Germain and others have a vast gray area of shelf-life stability. But, generally speaking, any ingredient with sugar goes bad faster than an ingredient without.

The higher proof a liqueur, the longer it’ll keep shelf stable. A bottle of absinthe at 45% abv (alcohol by volume) will degrade slower than a bottle of triple sec at 24% abv. But even if it won’t “spoil” or make a person sick, opened bottles can still evaporate alcohol and lose aromatics and flavor.

Look for sediment in bottles, or a murkiness, as a sign that a liqueur may be past its prime. For a loose, unscientific guide, aim to replace liqueurs under 35% abv every 3–4 months, those from 35–44% every 6 months, and those 45% or above every 12 months.

Baileys and other cream liqueurs

There are many types of cream liqueurs and different brands each have their own shelf life. It’s always best to inspect expiration dates and storage instructions on the bottle.

For popular brands of Irish cream-style liqueur like Baileys, Carolans, Ryan’s and Kerrygold, be prepared to toss an opened bottle—yes, even the one you’ve kept in the freezer—after six months. If you’ve had one hanging around since the holidays, it may be time to let go. After all, you wouldn’t drink milk you found in the back of your fridge from last December.

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