Gin Versus Vodka: What’s the Difference?

Mark Yocca / Supercall
Mark Yocca / Supercall

Gin and vodka are two of the most recognized clear spirits available. They’re used in countless classic and signature cocktail recipes, and drinkers have generally aligned themselves as either gin people or vodka people (we get it, you had that bad experience one time). Despite the tribalism, it’s easy to stumble when it comes to the most basic question: What’s the difference between gin and vodka?

Legally speaking, the U.S. government defines gin as a spirit that’s 40 percent ABV or higher “with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries.” It can be made in three ways: distilled (juniper and other botanicals added during fermentation), redistilled (adding juniper and botanicals to a neutral spirit and distilling again) and compound (adding juniper and botanicals to a neutral spirit and letting them infuse). Vodka, on the other hand, is a neutral spirit made from any fermentable grain or fruit that’s distilled or treated to create a spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”

In other words, the difference is juniper. Juniper is what gives gin that typical pine-like taste. Not all gin is made with the same amount of juniper, however, and other botanicals are usually added that make each gin slightly different. In general, London Dry-style gins like Tanqueray and Broker’s are the most juniper forward. Plymouth Gin is a little softer, and American or new age gins run the herbaceous gamut from a touch of juniper, to using solely juniper and nothing else.

Gin Versus Flavored Vodka

Flavored vodka, like gin, can be made with a distilled, redistilled or compound method. The government defines it as: “Vodka flavored with natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, bottled at not less than 30 percent alcohol by volume (60 proof).” If juniper is the predominant natural flavoring material, then the spirit is gin, not flavored vodka.

“The most underrated flavored vodka is gin,” Blaze Powers, the lead bartender at Harlowe, tells Supercall. “Making gin is like flavoring vodka with juniper and other botanicals.”

Flavored vodka is an easy target for ridicule (hello, salmon vodka), but as well-made gins show, the right mix of ingredients can make a quality flavored spirit. American gin toes the line closer to flavored vodka than traditional London Dry. Brands like South Hollow Spirits, Bully Boy and St. George Spirits use botanicals from nearby their distilleries to make gins that taste of a place, similar to wine and terroir.

Gin Versus Vodka Cocktails

Gin and vodka can be swapped in a variety of cocktails. The most classic example is the Martini, which is historically made with gin but commonly ordered with vodka (thanks, James Bond). The original Bloody Mary, called a Red Snapper, is a gin-based drink. The Gin Parlour in the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel, which has more than 85 different gin options, makes a Harvey Wallbanger with aromatic Tanqueray 10, as well as a gin-based Sangria and Old Fashioned.

“With vodka, there’s only so much you can do,” Jessy Fusco, the assistant director of food and beverage at Gin Parlour, tells Supercall. Vodka takes on the flavor of whatever it’s put in, while the right gin can accentuate bright citrus or herbal qualities of a drink. “You just have to be careful with what you put [gin] in to make sure it’s not so overpowering that you’ve created something unbalanced.”