By Fred Minnick
My whiskey collection is treasured art. Some people display Picasso, Rembrandt or their favorite local artist; I showcase an early 1940s bottle of Weller. Distilled by former Stitzel-Weller distiller Will McGill and perhaps touched by Pappy Van Winkle himself, it’s one of many great bottles in my collection. It’s empty, of course, the whiskey stored long ago in my belly, but the bottle is art.
The empties go on display, but the bottles with whiskey are stored for special occasions.
Whether you collect old dusty brands from the 1950s, are just starting out or want to buy contemporary limited editions, you must store them properly. Unlike wine, which we’ve learned to store over centuries, storing bottled whiskey is a relatively new concept. It’s easy compared to storing wine or beer, but if you want to preserve your whiskey, these steps will help you keep bottles for decades.
Store whiskey in a room that’s not too cold or hot. All distilled spirits will freeze in the minus-170°F range and have a boiling point of around 173.1°F. This varies by proof: the more water in the product, the lower the freezing and boiling points.
No doubt you don’t keep your home colder than Antarctica or hotter than the desert, but intense cold and heat will harden or soften the cork and eventually your whiskey will evaporate.
Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC is many times the collector I am: he maintains a steady 2,000-bottle collection at Jack Rose and 4,500 bottles at home. He agrees temperature is the most important aspect of storing whiskey.
“I’ve had enough experience storing bottles and seen whiskeys only 30 years old destroyed too soon by poor storage,” Thomas says. “High temperatures and direct light will break down the whiskey. While it will be more obvious in some old whiskeys, which will turn to what I call ‘chocolate milk’ – light brown and cloudy with sediment – others will just seem to separate or thin out, taking on a paint thinner taste and quality. I keep my bottles in a cool, constant-temperature room with blacked-out windows.”
I’ve found the perfect temperature to store whiskey is between 65°F and 72°F.
With wine, we’re taught to rest the bottle on its side at a slight angle. The carpenter and wine accessory businesses love this technique, because it created an entire wine shelving industry. In whiskey, all you need is a standard shelf, but since whiskey comes in all shapes and sizes, I recommend buying a shelf with lots of top space. You can find these in your large-scale home supplies store. Thomas even secures his shelves with bungee cords, in case someone bumps into them.
Jostling the bottles will push whiskey up toward the cork. The higher the proof, and the more the whiskey touches the cork, the quicker the cork breaks down, so keep your bottles upright. Sometimes just the shipment process from distillery to distributor to retailer to consumer is enough to allow seepage and oxygen to sneak in. That’s one reason why many brands add a wax or foil seal, to keep the cork fastened.
As for screw caps, well, they’re normally firmly affixed through a seal, but I’ve seen several older bottles withered with the milky substance inside the cap. This indicates screw caps are as vulnerable to the same issues as corked whiskey.
No matter the bottle type, however, Thomas says the best place to store whiskey is the “stomach. There’s nothing better than enjoying it.”
It will also save you a trip to Lowes.