Mythbusting – Whiskey doesn’t oxidize after you open the bottle

Many whiskey drinkers claim that if a whiskey tastes bad when first opened,  just pour a serving out, re-cork it, and then it will soon “open up” and taste much better. But for that to be true a lot of oxidation and chemical changes would suddenly have to occur .

There are just two problems with this: (A) Nope, the whiskey isn’t significantly oxidizing more in just a couple of weeks, and (B) it doesn’t even taste better.

Think this through carefully – that “bottled” whiskey has spent most of it’s life in a porous wood barrel, with oxygen flowing in and out it daily, usually for at least four years, and sometimes for ten or twenty years!  If any oxidation and chemical change was going to happen, it would have happened during that long time.

Check their logic: So adding just two more weeks will often change the flavor for the better? If that were true, then the implication is astonishing! So just about every whiskey maker mistakenly ages their whiskeys just two weeks short of the time for a better flavor to develop. Welp, how likely is that?

Now, before we go on, please note that this article addresses only a specific claim: that a couple of weeks after a bottle is opened it will change in flavor.

This article is not claiming that no further significant change can occur to the contents of the bottle.  Indeed, changes over longer periods of time – years – are indeed possible! This is due to a number of reasons, including evaporation of alcohol, increasing ratio of air-to-liquid, exposure to direct sunlight, and temperature swings.

In part (A) Cody Corbin helpfully explains why the idea of whiskey oxidizing over just a few weeks is a myth (And further down, see parts B and C for some really well done studies about this topic!)

(A) Is whiskey oxidizing after a couple of weeks?

Hello all. PhD chemist here. I’ve been wanting to put a post about the myth of whiskey “oxidizing”. From what oxidizing means, which in laymen’s terms is “reacts with oxygen”, this just chemically isn’t very likely.

Think of the process of making bourbon” First you distill the mash. That distillation is done in air at high temperatures. Any compounds that could have be oxidized should theoretically happen there already.

Aldehydes Esters Furfural Compounds Whiskey
excerpted from The Chemistry of Whisky, James Kennedy, compoundchem.com

What kind of compounds are giving us whiskey flavors? Check out this beautiful infographic of Esters and their Smells by James Kennedy.

Next the barrel aging. You’re putting that whiskey in a charred oak barrel, which in and of itself is the most oxidized form of the wood since you’re literally burning it in air. None of those compounds have the capability to oxidize further, they’re done.

There’s also air present in the barrel during the entire aging process of years. So, after all that, how can any oxygen do anything to whiskey in a glass bottle? It’s done!

Q: But every time you open the bottle to have a pour, new air enters the bottle.

A: It’s not the new air going in the bottle that’s making the difference, it’s the escape of the headspace in the bottle when it’s open that makes the difference. Alcohol is more volatile than water, so it (in the gas form) takes up much of the space above the liquid. When a bottle is opened and that escapes, more alcohol fills the space after the bottle is sealed which lowers the proof. This happens every time the bottle is opened. It’s the same thing like adding a drop of water to a glass of whiskey and all the changes that can cause. You’re not adding water when you open a bottle, but the loss of alcohol makes the water more abundant, which is the same thing.

Q: How would a wine vacuum sealer impact this? Better, worse, no change? I’ve done this before, and the vacuum remains even after a month plus, but didn’t make any other observations.

A: Vacuum will pull even more alcohol out each time, so worse. The higher the ABV the higher the difference most likely. The vacuum may seem to be similar, but I can guarantee you it’s pulling more alcohol out. It’s physics. Wines being only 15% ABV don’t do it as much, or it’s not noticeable because wine is drank within a couple of days after opening.

Q:  Aside from very slightly lowering the ABV, what really does adding a drop of pH neutral water do to whiskey?

A: Changing the ABV changes the solubility of all the flavor compounds present, both from the grain and from the barrel. Example: ever left some whiskey in a glass overnight? You come back to it being cloudy. This is because a lot of the alcohol has evaporated – leaving relatively more water. Some of the organic compounds that were soluble in the originally higher alcohol solution now clump together, as they are less soluble in this somewhat higher water solution.

(B) A blind taste test on how flavor will or won’t change over time

, see Did my bourbon change in the bottle? 1 year test by consumer advocate Wade Woodard. His well-conducted blind taste test shows that even after you open a bottle and let air in, even when a year passes, there is no detectable change in the whiskey’s taste!  When people say “my bottle opened up and tastes better!,” that’s really just the placebo effect.

(C) Breaking Bourbon blind taste test on how flavor will or won’t change over time

In this experiment, Bourbon storage experiment from Breaking Bourbon, blind taste tests don’t reveal any significant changes in a few weeks after a bottle is opened. No magical “opening up” that can be revealed or replicated.  But oh yes, once the liquid in a bottle falls to a lower level and more air gets in, over a longer period of time, some flavor changes can happen; lots of alcohol escapes at this point. and some cogeners begin to clump up in the now higher-water liquid. Most importantly, exposure to direct sunlight has a deleterious effect on whisky quality.

(D) Sku’s taste test on how flavor will or won’t change over time

Even over a two year period, Sku found no significant change in flavor, unless the bottle was mostly empty of liquid and more filled with.

http://recenteats.blogspot.com/2011/03/whiskey-wednesday-whiskey-age-and.html

(E) Some more discussion (will be adding more over time) here

straightbourbon.com Bourbon and air
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pointing finger

Here you can check out our reviews of  bourbonScotch,  Irish whiskey,  Canadian whiskey,  ryesflavored whiskys, and rums. We have articles on science & health, and a plethora of other topics. Feel free to learn more about me, Distilled Sunshine.

4 comments

  1. I think it has more to do with the vagaries of body chemistry than the infinitesimal changes that could occur in an opened bottle . If you don’t like it on your first pour , wait a few days and try again . I’ve found that a strong reaction in either direction usually indicates a new whiskey that I’m going to eventually like .

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