In a World Where Gin Exists, Why Drink Vodka?
Vodka has ranked as the top spirit for decades, but all reigns must end.
For the past 50 years, vodka has had a chokehold on American drinkers. Vodka sales clock in at $7.3 billion annually, or $2 billion more than our second-favorite spirit. However, there are signs on the horizon that vodka’s dominance is beginning to wane. For the first time in decades, vodka faces stiff competition as tequila and whiskey angle to become the best-selling spirits in the United States.
Gin sales, on the other hand, lag far behind. It’s a puzzling and, for some of us, infuriating trend. While both are neutral spirits with fast distillation processes, vodka easily takes on the flavors of whatever it’s served with, whereas gin has various botanicals and an unmistakable juniper flavor that punches you right in the mouth. It’s a more distinctive spirit, by any measure.
As the craft cocktail scene continues to evolve, and at-home bartending skills better than ever, why do so many people still choose vodka over gin?
The history of vodka vs. gin
Vodka and gin have been pitted against each other for generations of Americans. The former gets its name from the Russian word voda, meaning water. Historians disagree on whether vodka was first distilled in Poland in the 700s or Russia sometime in the 800s. Either way, we do know that, by 1174, a distillery in Khylnovsk, Russia was making it.
The spirit got a chance to dazzle American taste buds during World War II, when battle-weary soldiers encountered and enjoyed it—a lot. But, when they returned home, gin was still the preferred clear spirit stateside. It had been the grain-free spirit of choice since English settlers arrived in the 1700s.
The British first learned of gin from the Dutch during the Thirty Years’ War, when the allies were fighting much of Catholic Europe. The Dutch called their juniper-berry-soaked malt spirit genever. British troops noticed that whenever Dutch soldiers had a sip before a battle, they were braver, earning the drink the nickname Dutch courage. After the war, the British began distilling their own style of gin, which would become what we call London dry gin. Britain began exporting this spirit as more of its citizens moved to North America. By the 1800s, gin was as popular as brandy and whiskey in the U.S.
For over 200 years, gin was popular in America, including during Prohibition, when folks looking to get a little loose started making gin in their bathtubs. This is also when classic gin cocktails like the Bee’s Knees, Southsides, and Gin Fizzes were created.
How vodka became America’s favorite spirit
Vodka’s rise to the top of the spirits market happened due to a combination of population shifts, luck, and smart marketing.
“Marketing really was the driving force behind a lot of vodkas,” says McLain Hedges, owner of Yacht Club in Denver. “A lot of people started to look at gin as something their grandmother drank. It was for an older generation, whereas vodka really fucking jumped on board with marketing and attached themselves to celebrities and pop culture.”
There were demographic reasons, too, says Martim Smith-Mattsson, brand manager for Ford’s Gin, who estimates new immigrants made vodka in the US as early as the 1930s. “But by the 1960s and into the 1970s, that’s really when vodka kind of starts [taking over] the scene.”
In the ’60s, vodkas like Smirnoff and Absolut began using pop culture icons like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sean Connery, and Andy Warhol to help promote their brands. In Gabor’s iconic 1967 Smirnoff ad, she’s draped in diamonds. A flowy white dress hangs off of her shoulders. Her hair is in a sexy updo and her body is angled towards a glass with clear liquid in it. The campaign notes that vodka is the best spirit to use in drinks like Bloody Marys, Martinis, and on the rocks. It finishes with the promise of it also leaving zero scent behind after the drinker is done imbibing. “Always ask for Smirnoff vodka, it leaves you breathless,” the ad declares.
Soon thereafter, vodka became the drink of the young and happening. The trend continues through the 20th and 21st centuries, with celebrity brands like the uber-popular Ciroc, owned by rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, or King St. Vodka from actress Kate Hudson.
Some vodka brands deliberately target younger consumers, too. “Vodka is super approachable for a younger market,” says Conrad Helms, a spirits specialist and bar manager at Lazy Betty restaurant in Atlanta. “At the end of the day, that’s really who’s drinking a lot more vodka than anybody else, is gonna be those people that are in your 21-28-year-old kind of range.”
How to drink gin
It’s hard to argue with vodka’s approachability and versatility, but gin has evolved past the overwhelmingly piney-juniper flavors that many people associate with it.
A quick jaunt around your local liquor store and you’ll spot options like the indigo-hued Empress 1908 Gin, a subtle-tasting spirit made with black tea and butterfly pea blossom. Or, you could try Etsu Gin from Hokkaido, Japan. This yuzu-forward spirit is equal parts herbaceous and delicate, the type of drink you sip on the rocks (though it would work well in a gimlet, too). There’s also Procera Gin from Nairobi, Kenya, which uses indigenous Juniperus procera berries, pixie orange and Swahili lime, plus cardamom and mace from Zanzibar, Madagascan pink peppercorn, and Selim pepper from the Ivory Coast. The result is an earthy, robust spirit that’s just begging to be swirled around a martini glass with a touch of vermouth.
Whichever bottle you choose, start your gin exploration with cocktails, Helms says. Even if you’ve had bad previous experiences, “a cocktail offers you the chance to open that door and say, ‘Wait a minute, I can get down with this gin thing.’”
As for great gins for first-timers to try, Helms recommends Wonder Bird No. 61, a relative newcomer from Mississippi that’s made with Delta rice. “It’s a really good, all-around mixing gin.”
Hedges is partial to Ford's Gin, which he calls a “workhorse” spirit. “Ford’s Gin is an all-time favorite for our bar,” says Hedges. “It’s a great expression of a London dry style but with a little more pop. It has all the notes that I want for something classic, but with a little more energy behind it.”
The next time you find yourself at a bar preparing to order a vodka soda or martini, give a gin a chance instead. Or, try it in a gimlet, a great platform for winter citrus. You’ll likely be surprised, in the best possible way.