Does baijiu have a shelf life? Can it still be drunk after 100 years?
Theoretically, a high ABV baijiu won’t go bad. Baijiu that hasn’t been opened and stored correctly will last indefinitely. Let’s look at this in-depth below.
Baijiu is more than just a spirit in China. For many, it’s a way of life. Collections of rare and aged baijiu are considered national treasures, often changing hands for substantial sums of money at auction or among private collectors.
This begs a question, though – is aged baijiu simply for decoration, or can this infamous spirit be enjoyed at any age? Is baijiu truly for life, or does the spirit expire after a set period?
Happily, aged baijiu never loses its lustre. This why brands such as V.I.P Jiu 8, constructed from recipes that date back centuries, can retain their quality for many years, even decades. Baijiu can be stored for as long as you wish, provided you take the appropriate precautions.
The Shelf Life of Baijiu
If you browse the baijiu shelves of a Chinese supermarket, you will notice something interesting. These bottles are not stamped with a sell-by date. This is due to the ABV potency of baijiu.
The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China is responsible for food and nutrition data. This is the Chinese equivalent of the UK’s own Food Standards Agency. Use-by dates on Chinese produce are governed by the National Food Safety Standard General Rules of Nutrition Labelling of Pre-Packaged Foods.
These guidelines state that alcoholic drinks with an ABV above 10% are exempt from requiring a sell-by date. With a typical proof of between 35-60%, baijiu plays by different rules to beverages with lower alcohol content, such as beer (usually assigned a sell-by date of two years or less) or even traditional Chinese rice wine (around three years).
The Science of Use-By Dates
The reason for sell-by dates is safety. Once food or drinks age beyond a certain period, the risk of bacterial infection is enhanced. All food and drink accrue microorganisms during the production process, no matter how much hygiene is practised. These microorganisms are harmless in small numbers.
When produce sits on a shelf gathering dust, however, microorganisms multiply. Eventually, they begin to overpower the nutritional value of the ingredients and cause decomposition. This is why food that passes a use-by date is frequently mouldy.
This does not occur in baijiu as the alcohol content of the spirit is so high. Microorganisms struggle to thrive and reproduce among high levels of alcohol, so baijiu remains safe for years and even decades. Essentially, alcohol is a natural antibacterial agent. This is why baijiu can be sold for eye-watering sums once aged beyond a few years.
A baijiu such as V.I.P Jiu 8 has an ABV of 58%. This makes it hugely impactful in deterring the multiplication or microorganisms. As long as the bottle remains unopened, this baijiu can be stored and admired for decades.
This is where baijiu differs from wine. Even the finest unopened wine is rarely drinkable beyond 20 years of the harvest. Baijiu is perhaps closer in spirit to whisky. An unopened bottle of whisky is theoretically timeless. It’s only once the bottle is opened, causing oxygen to react with the contents inside, that the spirit is living on borrowed time.
This does not mean that aged baijiu can be treated in a cavalier fashion. There is a reason that aged baijiu is the reserve of collectors and experts. Just like western spirits, aged baijiu must be kept under particular circumstances to remain drinkable.
Storing Aged Baijiu
Baijiu is considered ‘aged’ once it reaches the age of 20 years or more. This is a similar timeframe to fine wines or premium scotch. Naturally, the price tag and reputation of the baijiu will rise with age – again, much like wine or scotch.
As with wine, a dry and cool location is ideal for baijiu. The ideal temperature for a storage locale is between 12 – 15˚C. A cupboard is usually fine, but if you have a cellar, your baijiu will flourish even more. What matters most is keeping the baijiu away from any source of direct sunlight. UV rays are anathema to alcohol.
Be aware – as discussed, this timeless shelf life only applies to unopened baijiu. Much like whisky, aged baijiu is only timeless until it’s opened. Once you unscrew the bottle for the first time, the clock starts ticking on the quality of baijiu of any age. You can still follow the same storage tips – leave the baijiu in a cupboard or cellar once opened, not the fridge. Do not expect it to keep for years, though. Even the finest baijiu experiences a chemical reaction once opened.
Baijiu is unlikely to make you unwell once opened and left. It will, however, lose much of its flavour. It will also taste considerably milder once oxygen mingles with the baijiu. More oxygen means less alcohol – which greatly reduces the trademark potency of baijiu. This process is known as oxidation. While some may consider this a good thing given the strength of the spirit, it defeats the object of purchasing baijiu in the first place.
What’s more, the molecules that provide baijiu with its trademark aroma and taste begin leaving the bottle from the moment it is opened. This is known as dissipation. Once these exit a baijiu bottle, there is no getting them back. In addition, the ratio of oxygen to baijiu will impact flavour more and more. A half-empty bottle, for example, will lose taste and scent faster than one that only a single shot has been poured.
To enjoy baijiu as it was intended, the bottle should be finished within 12 months of opening – ideally no longer than half that time. The longer open baijiu sits, the more flavour will be lost.
If the spirit tastes metallic, do not consume any more.
Does Old Baijiu Taste Better?
This is a matter of personal preference. What is certain is that older baijiu is more aromatic than a younger counterpart. The more time a baijiu has to ferment, the more organic acids will be created. This means the scent – and, in many respects, the flavour – will become more pronounced.
This is not an eternal process. Eventually, the levels of aroma and flavour within baijiu will reach their apex and level out. Typically, the aroma and taste of baijiu will cease evolving after around 20 years. If you pick a bottle for V.I.P Jiu 8, for example, it will taste astounding today, tomorrow and many many years from now.
Baijiu that dates back to before the turn of the millennium will cost more – indeed, the older the baijiu, the higher the price tag. This is due to the rarity and collectable nature of the bottle however, not the impact that the contents will have on the palate.
If you store your aged baijiu appropriately – and, most importantly, do not open it – you can enjoy it many years into the future. This is the only real consideration when it comes to back-dated baijiu, though. This spirit should be enjoyed, not considered a future money-spinner. Investing in V.I.P Jiu 8 is advisable, but only for the eye-opening experience of sampling such an astounding spirit.
Further Reading: Baijiu Storage Tips From An Expert Baijiu Collector