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Dec 14, 2008 07:10 PM

Should Liquor "Breathe"?

I have never thought about "breathing" before for anything other than wine, but I recently had three separate bottles of liquor improve substantially after being open for a while:

- A bottle of kirsch smelled nothing like cherries and tasted indescribably disgusting. I thought I would end up throwing it out, but put it away anyway. Two days later I noticed it and tried it again... And was surprised to discover that it both smelled and tasted exactly as I would expect it to.

- On a trip to Montreal I picked up a bottle of maple brandy and upon opening it found that it had little or no flavor. Several days later I tried it again and found it to be rich and satisfying. (As an aside, it's similar to an amber rum--and something I would recommend giving a try should you encounter some.)

- Right now I'm sipping a glass of bourbon from a bottle I purchased last night (Evan Williams Single Barrel). I was extremely disappointed list night, finding it to be overly hot and without much depth. Tonight as I sip it I'm finding it to be much smoother, deeper, and better than my first try, with vanilla and cinnamon notes that I didn't get last night.

Could be me--different times of day, different mental states, etc--but the fact that it's happened three times leads me to believe that it's actually the liquor oxidizing a bit or otherwise reacting with the air in a good way.

Comments/thoughts? Anyone else experience similar changes with liquor after being opened?

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  1. It's possible but I don't think that it's likely for liquor to "blossom" within the closed bottle even after it's opened.

    I am certain however, that liquor can and will change in the glass as you drink it and depending on how long it's been sitting or how long it takes you to finish. There are most certainly volatile aromatics involved with all liquors and that's partly why you have different glasses for different liquors. A brandy snifter for instance.

    So yes, liquor can benefit from breathing, but I wouldn't waste your time and energy in opening all you liquor bottles and letting them sit out. Let it happen in the glass... which leads to a different subject, do you have a nice snifter to use while drinking these fine spirits? I would highly suggest it!

    2 Replies
    1. re: HaagenDazs

      Who needs another glass? Most of the liquor I buy is packaged in a nice big 750 mL glass...

      1. re: davis_sq_pro

        Ha! That's the Swedish spirit I like ;-) (from your picture)

        I'm 2 generations removed from Sweden on my Mom's side so there's quite a bit of Swedish heritage floating around especially this time of year.

        Got Glogg?

    2. Hmmmm, I think HaagenDazs has it right. What I do know is this, one of th reasons you can open a bottle of spirits and consume it over a relatively long period of time is that alcohol is very stable and is comparitively immune to oxidation. Also, the surface area to volume ratio when the goods are in the bottle is such that once the cap goes back on, there just isn't enough exposure to air to drastically change the chemical composition. In the same way, you are not really letting a wine "breathe" by just taking the cork out and letting it sit in the bottle.

      However, I do know that certain cognac makers suggest at least a minute of "breathing" in a snifter (there is a reason evidently we use those glasses) before beginning to sip the goods. And you seem to have been fairly thoughful in regard to your palette and having a similar experience happen more than once.....

      So I wonder if the initial contact with a viable quantity of "fresh" air doesn't create some sort of limited, and not particularly progressive, but important shift in the chemical, and therefore organoleptic, characteristics of the spirit.

      I will have to make some calls on this.

      1. Temperature will have a lot to do with it, too. Ice-cold, cool, warm, and hot versions of the same spirit will taste very different even if served in the same-shaped glass.

        1. Allowing wine to "breathe" refers to opening it before-hand in order to simulate aging, and thereby allow some of the tannins to break up, and more flavor to be released on the finish.

          Liquor does not act in a similar fashion. Wine ages in the bottle. Liquor does not. If you buy a bottle that is thirty years old, as long as it has been sealed, it will taste the same as it did the day it was bottled. Age statements on, for instance, bottles of single malt scotch refer to how long the whiskey has been in the cask, not how long it has been in the bottle. Once liquor is bottled, it ceases to age in the bottle. The only instance, in a bottle, where this is not true is when there is only an inch or so left. At that point, there is such a large ratio of oxygen to alcohol, that the alcohol oxidizes, and the flavors of the liquor involved change.

          What you experienced with the bourbon was likely that an oxidized version. In order to experience the same thing, try adding a tablespoon of filtered water at a time; this will allow the tightly bound flavors to essentially separate from each other and be tasted. Also, a snifter will allow some oxidation to take place due to the increased surface area and the heat from your hand. Between the water and the snifter, you should be able to experiment and find a level that you enjoy.