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The ubiquitous bottle of vodka, rum or gin socked away in the back of the freezer might seem like the product of a different time to you—certainly a staple of many of our college years, that’s for certain. But it’s something that people still do, typically without any real reasoning or knowledge of whether it’s helpful or harmful for their liquor and spirits. I’ve personally known people who kept a bottle of bourbon or scotch in the freezer, contrary to all popular wisdom. And so I wondered: Is there any point? Does it really help or hurt anything to keep liquor so very cold?
And here’s what I learned, which should give you an idea of whether you ought to put your own bottles of liquor in the freezer.
As anyone who has accidentally forgotten a can of beer in the freezer knows, not all alcoholic products can be introduced to such low temperatures for long. This is a simple factor of the freezing point of ethanol vs. water. Ethanol is much harder to freeze, but given the fact that a standard beer is only in the 4-5% ABV range, a can of beer is still perfectly capable of freezing (and bursting, because frozen liquid expands) at temperatures around 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Many styles of wine, for the same reason, are dangerous to put in the freezer and are also capable of freezing solid at temperatures in the low 20s.
Standard, 80 proof hard liquor, on the other hand is 40% ABV, and at this point the freezer would have to get to approximately -17 degrees Fahrenheit for it to freeze. So that effectively means there’s zero danger of liquor bottles being destroyed in the freezer. But do those low temperatures affect the chemical composition or flavors of your booze?
The answer is “no” to the first, but “yes” to the second. There’s no evidence that keeping liquor at freezer temperatures—even extremely cold freezer temperatures—has any lasting effect on the liquid in the bottle. If you put an expensive bottle of whiskey in the freezer and then let it come back all the way to room temperature, it should theoretically taste exactly as it did before you stuck it in the freezer. But if you tasted the liquor while it was still cold, you would notice a big change indeed.
This is purely a factor of temperature—liquids simply give off different aromatic compounds at different temperatures, and our tongues are capable of discerning different flavors at different temperature points as well. It’s the reason why major beer manufacturers make such a big deal about their beers being “brewed cold” and “served ice cold”—because macro lager doesn’t taste like much, it’s best served at a temperature where your palate isn’t likely to notice any of its off flavors or flaws. Just try drinking a room temperature Bud Light, and you’ll see the benefits that serving cold can provide.
The same is true for neutral spirits like vodka, which have long been the bottles most likely to be kept in fridges and freezers. Because they don’t taste like much—by design, as vodka has most of its flavor stripped away through repeated distillation—they are often consumed chilled, where the muted assertiveness brought on by cold temperatures is a benefit rather than a drawback. Some vodka brands will also say that the cold temperature of a freezer makes the spirit “more viscous” on the palate in a pleasant, mouth-coating way, but one has to wonder whether that claim is based on sensory data, or is simply a tool that brands hope will allow drinkers to consume vodka more quickly.
Not the worst location for your vodka, when all is said and done.
The main point, however, is that cold temperatures dampen the intensity and complexity of flavors, which can be considered a good thing in certain applications. Candy sweet liqueurs such as Fireball and Jägermeister, for instance, are often served ice cold as well, presumably in the hopes that they will taste less cloying than at room temperature. You may be detecting a pattern here: Extreme cold is often involved when one is drinking something that the manufacturer doesn’t really want you to spend much time tasting.
It’s for this reason that keeping other spirits such as bourbon, scotch or aged rum in the freezer is much more rare, as these are spirits one typically wants to be tasting at their full potency and complexity, especially if drinking neat. In other words, if you’re planning on drinking that scotch neat, please do not stick it in the freezer, or it won’t be at its best when you sample it.
However … given that there is no actual harm to storing liquor at freezer temperatures, there actually is a case to be made that it may make sense to keep inexpensive bottles of whiskey used for mixed drinks there. After all, if you’re already going to be mixing that bourbon with ice and soda from the fridge, then what’s the harm? The same could be said of all cheap, mixing liquors—if you’ve got space in your freezer for them, there’s really no harm. Of course it should be noted that the colder the liquor is, the less dilution will happen with melting ice, which can be a positive or negative for your drink.
Regardless, though: Please, for the sake of the whiskey geeks everywhere, don’t put your bottles of McCallan or Booker’s in the fridge. That’s not doing anything for them.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.