Food & Drink

What's the Difference Between Gin and Vodka?

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Is gin actually just flavored vodka? Is vodka really a subset of gin? Is gin really made of Christmas trees? Can vodka actually make me dance better?

The questions surrounding our two favorite clear liquors abound. And while I can't answer that last one (sorry, but it's probably a "no"), we can certainly tackle the question that should be so obvious that most people are afraid to ask...or Google sans incognito mode.

No, gin and vodka are not the same thing.

Yes, they are both clear, grain-based liquors with a long history of European distilling -- and, to complicate the matter, the two liquors are commonly interchangeable in many popular cocktails. In the (relative) world of spirits, they probably could be considered more alike than they are different -- but both have distinct tastes, chemical differences, and disparate origin stories.

This is why gin and vodka, are decidedly different. (And also, gin isn't made of Christmas trees. I know. I was disappointed, too.)

What is vodka, anyway?

Surprisingly, the quintessential Russian spirit has been America's most consumed liquor on average every year since the 1970s -- we drink about 157 million gallons of the stuff every year (or, enough to fuel at least four sorority parties at the Gamma Beta house). But the first time "vodka" was ever recorded in writing, dates back to Eastern Europe in the early 1400s. The word "vodka" itself is a modified form of the Slavic term voda, which means water. And that isn't because Putin and Co. sip it down like H2O: the spirit is primarily made of ethanol and water. It's that simple.

But, that's also where it gets a little confusing: Vodka can be made out of almost anything. Technically, vodka can be made by distilling any starch or sugar-rich grain. Traditionally speaking, it's usually made of corn, rye, or wheat. But potatoes and beets are also fair game.

In fact, vodka is officially defined more along the lines of what it isn't, than what it is. Our own government classifies it as "any neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Any flavored vodka is the result flavoring added after the distilling process.

Today, some of the most popular brands of commercially available vodka include Grey Goose, Absolut, Smirnoff, Ketel One, and Ciroc -- with many American imports coming from the so-called "Vodka Belt," a region of Eastern Europe including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. That's the birthplace of vodka, and where most of it is still produced.

And some iconic cocktails that traditionally use vodka include the Moscow Mule, the Bloody Mary, the White Russian, and the vodka martini.

Wait, so is "Everclear" vodka?

Despite being a tangent, this is actually a great question: though it may seem -- by the regulations I just laid out -- that Everclear (pure grain alcohol) would be considered vodka... it isn't. This super-strong alcohol has not gone through the filtration and refining process that would technically turn it into a vodka.

Think of it as almost vodka (but it still gets the job done, clearly).

Well, then what is gin?

The key word when talking about gin is juniper. The US government classifies gin officially as "spirits with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts derived from these materials." Juniper makes all the difference, and it's what makes gin, gin.

The murky history of gin likely dates back to the Netherlands, around the mid-17th century, where it evolved from a malted, juniper-based medicinal spirit called "Genever," which is still heavily consumed in the Netherlands today -- and is fairly similar to gin as we know it.

But gin, as we do know it, really came into form in England in the early 1700s, when the British government officially loosened rules on producing and creating the spirit -- leading to what is historically known as "the Gin Craze." Which, coincidentally, is also what I nicknamed my 21st birthday.

So, in its basest sense, gin is a British spirit, with Dutch origins, heavily reliant on juniper flavoring, commonly made with more herbal aromas and flavoring, too. That's it.

Are there different types of gin?

You bet your juniper berries! There are five basic style of gin: London Dry (which is not sweet at all), Old Tom Gin (sweeter), Plymouth Gin (which entails any gin made specifically in Plymouth, England), Navy Strength basically gin at 57% alcohol or higher... which is super-strong), and American gin (made in America, with more herbal notes than traditional gin).

Also, gin can be produced in three separate ways:

  • Distilled: where the mash and the juniper is all distilled together
  • Redistilled: where the juniper is added when a neutral spirit is redistilled
  • Compounded: where a neutral base spirit is simply mixed with juniper.

Popular gin brands include London Dry, Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Bombay Sapphire. And some of the more well-known cocktails to include gin are the gin and tonic (duh), the Negroni, and the martini (which was originally made with gin, not vodka -- so saying "gin martini" is wrong and redundant).

OK. So just to be clear: What's the difference between gin and vodka?

Think of it this way: you remember how our own government pretty much classified any neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color a vodka? Well, gin has aroma and character, in the form of juniper. Thus, juniper makes the flavor, and flavor makes the gin. Superficially, you can easily tell the difference between gin and vodka, by the piney taste which vodka obviously lacks. So, though subtle, there is an inherent difference between the two that should be evident on taste or even a quick sniff.  

Gin is not just another flavor of vodka, and vodka isn't simply a flavorless gin. And anyone who claims otherwise is -- frankly -- full of shit.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have a martini.

One of each, in fact.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.