Throughout the ages, the coming of spring has brought a frenzy of activities inside and outside the home. People throw open windows, let the fresh air circulate, and perform their annual spring-cleaning. The ritual’s original remains unclear, but two traditions in the Middle-East and a more recent tradition explain why spring-cleaning exists. One ritual belongs to Iran where the new year falls on the first day of spring and people “shake the house,” meaning clean it from top to bottom to prepare for the new year. Another possibility is the Jewish tradition of cleaning before Passover, which falls in the spring. Because leavened bread may not be present in a household, families clean thoroughly, getting every speck of leavened bread out of the house.
The explanation that makes the most sense to this Midwesterner who impatiently waits the first warm day of spring is that prior to the invention of the vacuum an central heating systems, home shut all winter accumulated dirt and grime from wood and coal stoves. Sweeping and airing out the home was impractical given cold climates. When spring’s fresh and warm breathe hit, families would open doors and windows to sweep and air out stuffy and musty quarters. I agree that even with today’s conveniences, letting in the first gusts of warm air each spring breathes new life into me and my home.
Over the years, spring-cleaning has come to connote more than just thoroughly washing and uncluttering one’s home. Office workers might perform a spring-cleaning on their files to purge old and unnecessary information to make way for the new. And, cocktail aficionados might perform a spring-cleaning on their spirits collection to open shelf space for the newer more interesting liqueurs and rid themselves of that bottle of Irish creme liqueur that has hardened into sludgy goop.
Thankfully, I inherited genes that allow me to discard without distress. Whether it’s my closet, kids’ papers from school, cards, or that specialty bottle of mustard languishing in the back of the fridge, I use it or lose it. You might call me an anti-hoarder, even. But my liquor collection…I can’t throw away that perfectly good, but dusty, bottle of blue raspberry vodka waiting patiently in the back corner of the bottom shelf for a girls’ night out event. Is is perfectly good, though? Do I risk poisoning a guest or just making a bad cocktail if I use that 2-year old creme de menthe? No arguments allowed on whether creme de menthe ever makes a good cocktail, either! To each his own when it comes to cocktails!
After researching shelf-life of liquors and talking to a few industry experts, I think I need to call in my professional organizer friend for an intervention. Or, there’s going to one heck of a booze-fest at my house next week. The reality is that some, but not all liquors, last for a very long time. Even indefinitely, some would say. But, many of those specialty liquors I’ve accumulated for swanky cocktails need to go.
How old is too old? Because most distilleries do not includes an expiration date on their bottles, the percent of alcohol and the type of flavoring provides general guidance on shelf-life. First, most spirits, like vodka, rum, tequila, gin and whiskey, are at least 40 percent alcohol by volume, or 80 proof. Recall that a spirit’s “proof” is always twice the percent of alcohol by volume. Although some deterioration and evaporation will occur over time, these can be kept indefinitely. If you are using something older than 5 years old, you might was to take a small sample first to ensure the deterioration in flavor isn’t too great. High proof (80 and above) liqueurs should also theoretically last indefinitely, but again, take a taste of something more than a few years old.
The tricky choices, especially for booze-hoarders, like myself, are for those liqueurs between 60 and 80 proof. Examples of these are most of the orange liqueurs and some herbal ones. These should last about two years. Lower proof liqueurs (between 30 and 60 proof) often have significant sugar in them and tend to deteriorate quicker. Probably a year is a good time to let go of these. Chocolate, coconut, and fruity flavored liqueurs comprise much of this lower proof category. Creme liqueurs, such as Irish cream, typically last around 2 years, but check the label and website and these do vary widely. Finally, vermouth needs to be replaced often, about once every month! Essentially, vermouth is wine and it will go bad very quickly.
Ways you can lengthen the longevity of your alcohol include keeping it in a stable environment with a cool temperature and not exposed to unnecessary light. Also, always keep the original caps and tightly cap bottles after using them. For sweeter liqueurs, wipe the end of the bottle before sealing to prevent build-up of crystalized sugar. If you have a small amount left of a liqueur, consider transferring it to a smaller bottle to reduce the amount of oxygen available to the contents. Buy little bottles! Unless you have a Manhattan or a wet Martini every night, get the smallest bottle of vermouth. Above all, use common sense. A good friend with an amazing bar admitted that he doesn’t hold fast to the shelf-life guidelines, although he does agree with them. Use your discretion, but do not let the booze-hoarder made the decision.
How to keep track of it all? Put a small sticker on the top a bottle noting when to throw it out, that when you don’t have to recalculate the date every time you pick it up. And next time you think you need to do some spring-cleaning, don’t forget your bar!