We all know that the finer things in life require a bit of care and upkeep from time to time. Got a nice car? You’re probably keeping it under cover, having it waxed, and changing the oil regularly. Love rare vinyl? You’re probably keeping those records carefully sleeved and in a spot that that’s not too warm or too chilly. Even something as basic as your iPhone gets protected by a case and screen film. In each of these scenarios, exposure to the elements has a negative effect over time.
If your experience with spirits is just buying a few bottles for mixing in cocktails, and regularly replacing a bottle when you’ve emptied it, this article might have little to offer. However, if you’re wonky enough about spirits to have a nice collection of whisk(e)y, rum, or mezcal that’s growing faster than you can reasonably (or healthfully) consume it, read on!
As you might expect, the main enemies of distilled spirits are heat, light, and oxygen exposure. Too much of any and the taste changes, rarely for the better.
Heat and light are relatively straightforward to control. Prudence dictates stating the obvious about reducing exposure: Don’t store your bottles over a heater vent, next to the dryer, over your refrigerator, or in your attic. Likewise, don’t keep your bottles on a shelf that gets lots of direct sunlight, or in your tanning booth. Oxygenation, however, isn’t quite as easy to control, and that’s my focus for the details here.
In an unopened bottle, sealed by the producer and stored properly, a distilled spirit will generally last decades or longer. It’s possible that a cork may be defective or dry out, but that’s pretty rare these days. And should you find yourself with a newly purchased bottle with a loose fitting cork, what follows applies equally as well. Once the cork has been popped, the clock starts ticking. Atmospheric oxygen will impact the taste of your spirit. However, for a very moderate cost, you can slow down time dramatically.
My spirits collection has risen well into the hundreds of bottles, and the Strategic Rum Reserve, as I jokingly call it, hovers near 200 bottles currently. Some of these, like Smith & Cross or Lemon Hart 151, are everyday mixers, and I finish a bottle in a year or less. These bottles are in no particular harm from oxygen exposure. However, I have an ever-growing set of expensive rum, whisky, and brandy, much of which isn’t easily replaceable should something take a turn for the worse.
One option, of course, is to simply not open those bottles until I was ready to consume the contents within a few months or less, but what’s the fun of that? I buy spirits to enjoy and share with others without hesitation. When I get an exciting new bottle, I pop it open, take a snap of two for Instagram, and then enjoy a dram. Afterward, the bottle joins its new siblings on my liquor shelves, where I may not have the opportunity to return to it for an extended period of time, sad as that may be for both of us.
One of my first “nicer” bottles was Aberlour A’Bunadh, a wonderful Scotch whisky from Speyside with heavy sherry notes. Over time, I noticed that the level on it was dropping, ever so slowly. In time, I noticed a few other bottles, not within easy reach, also dropping a bit. I’m reasonably sure that somebody wasn’t drawing off a few milliliters at a time from a dozen bottles, so I began digging and found a variety of stories and suggestions, mostly on the single malt Scotch side of things.
The most common theme in spirits preservation is this: The more air space in a bottle, the faster oxidation occurs. A newly opened bottle with just a dram or two consumed deteriorates (oxidizes) much slower than a bottle with only an ounce or two left. The general consensus: Once a bottle gets to the stage where there’s not much left, put it at the top of your list to finish off soon.
When Drinking Faster Isn’t an Option
Be that as it may, I still have plenty of half- or three-quarters full bottles on my shelves. How do I handle those? I’ve come up with a two-pronged approach that I’ve started incrementally applying to my collection and promoting to other spirits enthusiasts.
In the wine world it’s common to open an expensive bottle and only consume half of it, with the intent to drink the remainder another day in the not-too-distant future. Because wine oxidizes quickly, one popular solution is to fill the empty space in a bottle with inert gas like nitrogen or argon. Even if a bit of oxygen remains, the heavier argon sinks to the liquid’s surface to create a blanket of sorts, keeping the oxygen away. Since the gasses are inert, they’ll work equally well with your distilled spirits collection.
So how do you go about obtaining this magical elixir? Unless you’re running a bar, your best bet is to buy a can of wine preserver. It resembles a can of compressed air and sells for about $10 on Amazon. The specific product I purchased is called Private Preserve, containing a “Unique combination of argon, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen.” Even new, the can feels incredibly light, as if there’s nothing in it. However, the manufacturer claims you’ll get around 120 uses per can.
To gas your spirits, attach the plastic dispensing straw to the can’s nozzle, and insert the other end of the straw down into your bottle, close to but not submerged in the spirit. Next, position your stopper at the top of the bottle, ready to be inserted as soon as the gas is dispensed. Give the gas can one long pulse of about a second, followed by three quick pulses. Quickly pull out the straw, insert the cork, and you’re done! Of course, you may want to vary the amount of gas you use depending on how full the bottle is.
In an ideal world, applying the preserver gas should be enough (assuming a tight-fitting cork). Simply continue to store the bottle upright, away from light and heat extremes, and you’re good to go!
However, in reality, not all corks fit tightly all the time, especially in situations with large changes in atmospheric pressure. Even with the wine preserver gas in place, it’s possible for atmosphere air to flow into the bottle. This second process alleviates much of that concern.
In laboratory work, there’s frequently a need to create an air-tight seal around containers of various sizes and shapes. A common product used for this is called Parafilm, from Heathrow Scientific. Think of it as Saran Wrap’s big brother, in convenient tape form. A 250-foot long roll of two-inch wide Parafilm costs around $25 on Amazon. (Be warned, there are different widths available; I use the two-inch version, part number PM992.) For most bottles, a five-inch long piece is plenty, so I’ll get around 600 uses from a $25 roll. That’s just over $0.04 cents per use. Quelle bargain!
Using Parafilm can be tricky the first time or two until you get used to how working with it. After cutting a five-inch strip, remove the backing paper. (That’s always the biggest challenge for me in using it – the film and the backing paper just don’t want to separate sometimes!)
Next, using your thumb or index finger, anchor one end of the film almost horizontally about two inches from the top of the corked bottle. You’ll want a slight upward angle so as to wrap around the bottle in an upright spiral. Don’t be afraid to pull on the film a bit – it’s supposed to stretch, and helps it adhere better to the film it overlaps as you wrap. Once you’ve spiraled around at least once and the film is overlapping, you can stop anchoring it, but remember to keep a gentle tugging pressure as you continue.
As your spiral begins to go above the bottle cap, keep spiraling, but rotate the top towards the middle, so as to follow the contour of the bottle. Bunch and stretch the last little bit together so as to ensure the entire top of the bottle, cork and all, is underneath at least one layer of film. Finally, press the film all over to ensure good adhesion everywhere.
When it comes time to open the sealed bottle, a quick cut with a knife exposes enough of film to grab and tear off quickly.
An expert Weighs In
Lest you think these steps are a bit wonky and over the top, consider that the no less a rum expert than Martin Cate gasses some of his incredibly rare and expensive bottles served by the pour at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. I asked Martin about what he does to preserve his enormous collection:
We gas our bottles below the 50 percent fill level. It’s a commercial wine gas that I was assured was good for booze. I think it’s mostly argon. I usually decant filter, clean the bottle, then refill with a fresh high-quality cork. And store upright.
I followed up, asking if he’d ever used Parafilm, to which he replied:
Nope, never have. Trying to sell the booze, not think about it!!
Touché, Martin! But for those of you with a growing spirits collection at home, consider the Parafilm. It’s cheap and easy insurance.
Once you’re in practice, you should be able to do both steps in a minute or two per bottle. While you can certainly go overboard with gassing and Parafilming your entire collection, I’d suggest some restraint. Got a newly opened $40 bottle? Maybe not worth it. But when the level drops below 50 percent, perhaps then. As for that $200 of Duncan Taylor 25 year aged rum? Consider preserving it a little earlier in its life.
Got any thoughts or hot tips on this topic? Leave them in the comments!