Friday, February 17, 2012

Should You Open That Bottle?

I have heard people say that whisky never ages once you open the bottle (unlike wine, which must be consumed within a couple days, though you can extend that a bit with a fancy decanting system). I was at a whisky bar a couple years ago and the owner had a really expensive bottle that he didn't want to open. He said he wanted to sell the whole bottle -- all at once.

My initial reaction was that this was silly. How much alcohol could escape the bottle for the few seconds that it's open? But as usual, I wasn't seeing the big picture, and was thinking about whisky as if the only important chemical was alcohol. That's so superficial -- besides, isn't alcohol flavorless and odorless? Clearly you drink whisky for the flavors and smells, not the alcohol. Well speaking for myself, that's what *I* do! :-)

This is a weird situation -- on the one hand I'm hearing that whisky doesn't age after it's opened (though everyone agrees that it must be stored vertically!), and on the other hand I'm hearing that whisky "deteriorates" with age. So...which is it? Maybe they aren't talking about alcohol at all!

Over the years I have paid attention as I have opened various bottles. When I brought home my first bottle of Port Charlotte 5, even just opening the can filled the room with powerful, angry smells of peat smoke. Awesome! But those smells were very ephemeral. Today, the smells are still there, but have been greatly diminished.

These most volatile chemicals, that can evaporate at room temperature, fight their way out of the bottle at the earliest opportunity.

So: Should you forgo opening a bottle? In my opinion: NO! Personally, I think that's the best part! I view the life of the product as a continuum, where the highly volatile components gradually step aside and make room for the middle and lower notes that can't be appreciated when the top notes are dominant.

Besides, if you don't open the bottle you have wasted your money, and the product is trapped in there and you can't ever take the journey of enjoying the product as it evolves. Note that I didn't say "ages." Aging only happens in barrels....

Back to the point re: alcohol being flavorless. It is and it isn't. Many of the chemical components of the best flavors around are alcohol-soluble. It's no surprise that they "ride along" with the alcohol when we drink whisky. Why do you think you can pick up everything from hazelnuts to orange peel to cinnamon oil, tobacco, caramel, "Christmas cake" and leather (and peat reek!) in Scotch? Heck, you might even smell freshly cut grass, which may not be tasty despite being evocative. Those chemicals are really there. Many of them are more volatile than alcohol, which means that they boil at a lower temperature. In short: If you open the bottle, they evaporate at room temperature and escape. Poof.


  1. so, my hunch is correct. To open a bottle and decant it in, for example, a crystal container, does have the potential of losing some of the "good stuff". And, after opening, do not keep it on the "the rack" ages (although your wallet might want to...).

  2. I think decanting into a crystal container will agitate the liquid more, and thus may allow more of those precious aromatic volatiles to escape. However, if the decanter helps you enjoy the whisky, then by all means...decant. :-)

    My assumption is that you bought the whisky with the intent to consume it, and you just have to understand that it won't be the same experience on the last serving as it was for the first. This isn't good or bad, it's just a fact - but it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of the whisky either.