It’s the curse of being a whiskey enthusiast: we often buy more than we can (responsibly) drink. Over the years, we accumulate quite a backlog of bottles waiting to be consumed. What to do with them in the meantime? How do you make sure their contents still taste good, even after being stored for 5 or 10 years … or maybe even longer?
Let’s start with the good news: whiskey can be kept for a very long time. How long exactly? That’s hard to say, but whiskey bottles should safely last a lifetime. That is, if stored properly. So pour yourself a dram, sit down and read these tips on how to best protect your stockpile.
Keeping bottles on their side is a mistake often made, and understandably so. Images of centuries-old wine cellars are more familiar to the general public, than say the collection displayed at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. Wine is always kept horizontally, because it is important to keep the cork moist. What’s good for wine, must be good for whiskey too, right?
Scotch Whisky Experience / Photo Credit: Sarah-Rose
Wrong. Wine is a drink with a relatively low alcohol percentage, and the cork will therefore not be affected by it. But a cork stopper can’t withstand the onslaught of an 80 proof (or higher) whiskey. It will slowly disintegrate.
Avoid Direct Sunlight
Light is the biggest enemy of whiskey, especially direct sunlight. Put a whiskey bottle in front of a big, sunny window, and before too long chemical reactions will start to degrade the liquid. Those lovely esters and other flavor compounds will be affected, and not in a good way. A precious Brora 30 Year Old will all of a sudden not taste like Brora anymore. A dark environment is best for bottles, like a cabinet or (if you have one) a cellar.
Constant Temperature is Best
Some climates are great for storing whiskey, while others are a disaster. A gentle winter and mild summer are a godsend. There’s no one particular temperature that is optimal, but a room with a constant temperature is much better suited for storage than one with lots of fluctuation.
Scotch Whisky Experience / Photo Credit: Scotch Whisky Experience
One result of extreme temperatures is that the whiskey expands in the bottle, which is why there’s always a certain amount of headspace (the gap between whiskey and cork). This allows for expansion, without the liquid coming in contact with the cork, which is something to avoid.
Keep Corks Moist
As discussed, storing whiskey horizontally is a big no-no. However, it is important to try and keep a cork stopper wet. Conundrum alert! Well, don’t worry, it’s a solvable problem. Actually, in most cases the alcohol vapors in the bottle will ensure a proper, moist cork.
But even still, sometimes a cork dries out. One of the potential results of this, is a broken cork when you finally open a bottle. While not the end of the world, it is quite anticlimactic when it’s a Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year that’s been savored and nurtured for years.
Scotch Whisky Experience / Photo Credit: Marion Wacker
More importantly, a dry cork means a less than optimal enclosure of the bottle. Air will be able to creep into it, leading to oxidation. While that is also part of the normal aging process when whiskey is still in the cask, too much oxidation will alter the whiskey unfavorably. A bottle with a faulty stopper could end up with a fill-level well below the shoulder.
How to prevent oxidation? Make sure to wet the cork every once in awhile, by resting your bottles horizontally for an hour or so. Once or twice a year should do the trick. You could also buy Parafilm to wrap around the seal of the bottle. It’s a plastic paraffin film, primarily used in laboratories for sealing or protecting vessels.
What About Open Bottles?
After opening a bottle of whiskey and slowly emptying it, its character and flavor will slowly be altered. Again, this is an effect of oxidation. Sometimes a whiskey might improve when halfway emptied, other times it might lose some of its enticement. It’s hard to predict whether or not the content of a bottle will improve after its opening, but it will change.
Highland Park 12 Year / Photo Credit: Scotch Trooper
If you want to prevent your whiskey from changing too much, there are a couple of things you can do. Firstly, you might buy smaller sample bottles to decant the remainder of the whiskey. Aesthetically not as pleasing, for sure. But there’s less oxygen in the small bottles, which means less oxidation.
Secondly, you might take a closer look at Private Preserve. It’s a mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon. Spray it into the bottle, put the cork back in, and it will form a protective layer between the whiskey and the oxygen. The chaps at the world-famous Dornoch Castle & Whisky Bar employ this method, and have had great results with it.
Keep all of the above in mind, and there’s no reason why your whisky collection shouldn’t be in tip top shape! The best way to find new whiskies to add to your collection? Distiller, of course.