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Pitch it or Pour it? Liquor Bottles Gathering
 Dust in your Storage, Still Drinkable?

By Glenn Jeffers, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 25, 2007 - So, you're wondering: Is that bottle of Baileys Irish Cream, the one gathering dust in your liquor cabinet, still drinkable?

Well, we're wondering the same thing. That's why the At Play staff raided its own liquor cabinets--finding bottles of various ages, proofs and varieties--and asked Jerald O'Kennard of the Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute to assess whether we should drink ... or pitch.

We raided our home liquor cabinets and had an expert assess which alcoholic beverages are still good.


An orange liqueur made with milk, cream and Grand Marnier.

It's been hanging around for ... 20+ years

What Jerald O'Kennard of the Beverage Testing Institute says: "Oh, this is gone. You can smell the stale nut thing. But it also smells a little like suede."

Expert assessment: Dead


An anise-flavored liqueur typically made in Italy.

Hanging around for ... 15-20 years

What the expert says: "Absolutely fine. It's half-full, so it's been sitting in air for a long time. [It's] mellowed out a little bit in terms of heat."

Expert assessment: Still good


A single-malt Scotch whiskey from Scotland.

Hanging around for ... 5 years

What the expert says: "It's oxidized a little bit. Very minor loss of aromatics and flavor. But still a good whiskey."

Expert assessment: Still good


A pre-mixed cocktail of gin, rum, vodka, caramel color and other "natural flavors."

Hanging around for ... 15-16 years

What the expert says: "This was made with cheaper spirits, so it's dead in the water."

Expert assessment: Dead


A fruit-flavored whiskey liqueur.

Hanging around for ... 10-15 years

What the expert says: "You're still getting a stale kind of fruitiness that's coming through, just a touch."

Expert assessment: Faded but fine


A blue-colored, orange liqueur with a strong citrus flavor.

Hanging around for ... 2 years

What the expert says: "This one definitely survived."

Expert assessment: Still good


A blended Irish whiskey aged for about three years.

Hanging around for ... 25 years

What the expert says: "It is what it always was--an inexpensive whiskey. I think it's past its prime. Maybe it was never at its prime."

Expert assessment: Dead


What is it? A bright-green melon liqueur mostly used as a mixer.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 1 year

Unique characteristics: Unnaturally green.

What the expert says: "It still smells good. Anything at that level [with little air inside] it probably not going to be affected by the oxidation."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? A light, thin sweet rum.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 6-10 years

Unique characteristics: Faded label.

What the expert says: "At half a bottle, it's lost some of the aromatics, but it tastes fine."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? A clear liqueur with the taste of butterscotch.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 3 years

Unique characteristics: Sugary crust on the bottle.

What the expert says: "This is fine. This still smells like butterscotch. It may not be as intense as it was, but it's still mixable."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? An ultra-premium, 40-proof tequila made in Mexico.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 8-10 years

Unique characteristics: Short, bell-shaped bottle holds less than half the volume (350 milliliters) of a regular bottle of liquor (750 milliliters).

What the expert says: "It smells pretty good. It's still pretty lively. Full-proof spirits are generally more resilient."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it: A dark-red, sweet liqueur sometimes used in a kir (made with white wine) or kir royale (made with Champagne).

Hanging around the bar for ... : 1 year

Unique characteristics: Bell-shaped bottle.

What the expert says: "This one's fine. This one held up. It's still quite good."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? A red, gin-based beverage flavored with citrus and other spices. Usually mixed with ginger ale or lemon-lime soda to make a "Pimm's Cup" cocktail.

Hanging around the bar for ... : Less than 5 years

Unique characteristics: Smells like ginger and cloves.

What the expert says: "Perfectly fine. The mixer covers up any flaws. Not the best Pimm's Cup, but on a hot summer day, it's perfectly fine."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? An almond-based liqueur normally made in Italy.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 15-16 years

Unique characteristics: Oversized square cap.

What the expert says: "It hasn't been drunk and it's still in pristine condition. There's not that much air in it. Just something on the nose, something a little unusual, but it's probably gonna mix up fine."

Expert assessment: Still good


What is it? A liqueur made with Irish whiskey and dairy cream.

Hanging around the bar for ... : About 2 years

Unique characteristics: Dark bottle.

What the expert says: "It's kind of like if you have custard or creme brulee in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. It has that old custard smell. It's just not fresh. It's faded. ... If most people drink that very cold or on the rocks, they would be fine."

Expert assessment: Faded but fine


What is it? A blend of malt and grain Scotch whiskeys.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 20-30 years

Unique characteristics: Triangular, dimpled bottle.

What the expert says: "It's faded a little bit, not a lot; 10 to 20 percent on the aromatics and the flavor. You can still tell it's Scotch. And some people might like that, though. It tastes a little smoother. It's past its prime, but some people might not mind. Certainly drinkable."

Expert assessment: Faded but fine


What is it? The typical wine cooler: a light, alcoholic malt beverage flavored to taste like a fuzzy navel cocktail.

Hanging around the bar for ... : At least 3 years

Unique characteristics: Never been opened.

What the expert says: "I don't have to open this to tell you that's probably gone, lost all of its fizz and fuzzy 'navelness.'"

Expert assessment: Dead


What is it? A South African cream liqueur made from the fruit of Marula trees.

Hanging around the bar for ... : 2-3 years

Unique characteristics: The Marula fruit is said to make elephants drunk.

What the expert says: "This is no good anymore. You're getting the stale nut. The cream is a old, like sour cream. You're not getting the Marula fruit."

Expert assessment: Dead


What is it? A Korean black raspberry wine.

Hanging around the bar for ... : More than 2 years

Unique characteristics: Wine made by fermenting wild berries with "volcanic rock water," according to the bottle.

What the expert says: "The fruit has faded and turned into a vinegary kind of thing. It should have more of raspberry fruit and it's kind of cidery. So that's gone."

Expert assessment: Dead

... And how you can tell if it's still OK to drink

So, you found a 10-year-old bottle of Rumplemintz in the back of your liquor cabinet and you're wondering if it's still good. We asked a couple of experts--the Beverage Testing Institute's Jerald O'Kennard and Ron Balter of Italian Village restaurants--for some guidelines for determining if it's time to toss that bottle:

1. Distilled spirits don't go bad; they fade.

Don't worry about finishing all that alcohol before it goes bad. Distilled spirits like whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila and gin don't spoil. And full-proof spirits (40 proof and higher) can last for decades.

"VSOP after 30 years is still VSOP," Balter says.

Once the bottle is opened, the air inside starts to oxidize the alcohol, causing it to fade in taste and aroma. Heat and sunlight can cause the sugar in the alcohol to crystallize, changing its taste. So be sure to store those bottles in a cool, dry place.

Even if the alcohol does fade, it still can be used as a cocktail mixer, O'Kennard says. "Once you mix it up with 7-Up and all that, you're really not going to notice," he adds.

2. Cream and fruit and herb liqueurs will spoil.

Liqueurs that have cream in them or are based on fruit or herbs are another matter. Although the alcohol content keeps the cream or fruit or herbs from spoiling quickly, the liqueur does have a limited shelf life once opened.

Liqueurs with cream should be used within five months, though Baileys Irish Cream can last for a year in a cool, dry place--or even longer if refrigerated, O'Kennard says. "I've yet to taste a bad bottle out of a refrigerator," O'Kennard says of Baileys. "It can go five, six years in a refrigerator. It's kind of an amazing product."

Fruit and herb liqueurs and wine-based alcoholic beverages (like vermouth) can last several months if properly stored. But if you don't plan on mixing after-work martinis, Balter recommends buying smaller bottles for the cabinet.

Liqueurs that are flavored with fruit generally last longer than their fruit-based brethren, O'Kennard says. Although there's no guarantee, liqueurs like curacao and schnapps likely will last a few years once they're opened, depending how much air is in the bottle.

"After a few years, they'll start to fade, but not to the point where people will notice," O'Kennard says.

3. More air = less flavor

Once a bottle of liquor gets down to the quarter-bottle level, the alcohol starts to quickly evaporate the longer it is kept. So either finish it fast or chuck it, Balter says.

--Glenn Jeffers


Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune

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