Gin and vodka are two very distinct spirits. Most obviously, one is associated with pine and herbal flavors, while the other is often positioned as an odorless, tasteless entity. Yet the two are frequent substitutes for each other in cocktails such as the Martini or Vodka/Gin and Tonic.
It’s easy to think of gin as essentially a flavored vodka, but several intricacies distinguish the two. Here is a primer outlining the differences and similarities between vodka and gin.
Vodka is defined by what it’s not. It’s designed to be flavorless (well, other than flavored vodka), clear, and in all ways indistinct. The U.S. government defines vodka as “neutral spirits or alcohol” that is filtered or treated “so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”
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Yet Americans love it. Vodka has been the most consumed liquor by volume since 1970, and 32 percent of the liquor market is vodka. The average American drinks the equivalent of more than 3.5 shots of vodka per month. In Russia and Eastern Europe, however, where the spirit originated, people consume more than three times that amount. (Russians clock in at a whopping 17.28 vodka shots per month.)
Fittingly, the word “vodka” comes from the Russian word for water, “voda.” Vodka isn’t the only clear spirit, of course. There are also cachaça, rum, soju, and others. What sets vodka apart is that it can be made anywhere, and from many things.
Vodka cocktails most commonly take on the characteristics and flavors of whatever else is mixed in the drink. If it’s a vodka and orange soda, it’ll taste primarily like orange soda. If it’s a vodka cranberry, it tastes a lot like cranberry. There are some iconic vodka cocktails, however, including the Bloody Mary, White Russian, Moscow Mule, and the Vesper Martini popularized by James Bond.
Gin is a liquor with some level of juniper flavor that’s bottled at at least 40 percent alcohol by volume. The U.S. government defines gin as a liquid “produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts.”
Juniper, gin’s defining characteristic, tastes primarily like pine, but is also herbaceous and floral. Gin production dates back to the Dutch genever, a wine-based medicinal spirit. The English got a hold of genever during the 80 Years War and the 30 Years War in the 1600s, where it was referred to as “Dutch courage.”
Over time, genever lost the wine base for a distilled neutral spirit base, but kept the juniper. The United Kingdom embraced gin full-heartedly (a little too full-heartedly) and it became known as “mother’s ruin” because of how much gin each person in the country was consuming. In the U.S., gin — or something resembling gin — was popular during the 1910s and Prohibition. Gin became the base spirit for many of the first batch of classic cocktails.
Gin can be broken down into five basic styles. There’s London Dry, which is devoid of all sweetness; Plymouth Gin, which must be made in Plymouth, England; Old Tom gin, which is a little sweeter; Navy Strength, which is 57 percent alcohol by volume or higher; and American or West Coast gin, which is usually more herbal.
Regardless of the style, gin can be produced in three ways.
Distilled: Juniper berries and other aromatics are added to a fermented mash and distilled all together.
Redistilled: A neutral base spirit is redistilled with juniper berries and other aromatics.
Compounded: Made by mixing a neutral base spirit with juniper berries and other aromatics.
Popular brands include Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, and Aviation. Popular cocktails with gin include the Negroni, the classic Martini (which was originally always made with gin), and the Gin and Tonic.
Both gin and vodka can be made out of just about anything, but some common bases are corn, wheat, rye, potato, grapes, and sorghum. Other possibilities include carrots, beets, and even milk.
Whatever the primary ingredient, it is first fermented and then distilled. This usually occurs multiple times in order to remove as much flavor as possible. Then, water is added to bring the spirit down to 40 percent alcohol by volume, and in the case of gin, it is mixed with juniper and other herbs and spices.