One of the best things about travelling is seeing how each country has a different approach to eating and drinking. Any restaurant in Italy will have a different selection of antipasti. The difference between a pad thai in Bangkok and Chiang Mai is huge. And don't get me started on how confused I was when in Glasgow a couple of years ago and my friend ordered a bowl of “clappy dos” (they’re mussels in case you’re wondering). But walk into any bar in the world and you will always find two main spirits on the shelf. You might find some god awful ones too (Fernet Branca, anyone? Jagemeister? Akavit?), but any bartender worth their salt will have both vodka and gin in their arsenal. Often (mistakenly) used interchangeably, there is a popular belief that as both spirits are neutral grain alcohols and colourless they can be used as a substitute for each other.

Well, no. It’s easy to think of gin as essentially flavoured vodka, and true enough, they both begin life more or less the same way - by fermenting and distilling natural products (think wheat, barley and yes, the humble potato). But this is where the similarity ends: the distillation process of the two is very different. Gin has natural botanicals - namely juniper berries among others - added to it, while vodka remains a neutral spirit. So, while they might look the same, their tastes are very different.

We know that the difference between gin and vodka is not immediately obvious, so we’ve done the hard work for you. You can thank us later.

Gin

Gin parties, gin menus, ginvent calendars and even a Ginstitute hotel: there is no denying that gin is in. From classic martinis to gin and tonics to dutch courage, the UKs renewed love affair with gin cocktails has turned it into a multi-million pound industry. Flavoured gins are immensely popular, and have helped turn the spirit from zero to hero in a matter of years. It is truly a 21st century drink for a 21st century generation.

In order for gin to be called gin, the EU has decreed that it has to respect the following rules:

  • Be a neutral spirit made from natural products
  • Must contain juniper, with this being the predominant flavour
  • Gin must have an ABV (Alcohol by Volume) of at least 37.5% (this is 40% ABV in the US)


So in a nutshell, or rather juniper berry, gin’s defining characteristic must be that it tastes of juniper. This is regardless of the additional botanicals that are added to it pre-distillation (such as pine, floral and herbs) and the styles of gin we’re talking about. London Dry, Plymouth, even Navy Strength all get the same treatment.

Vodka

Vodka is best described by saying what it's not. It is not bursting with life, nor full of complex tastes with a long lasting flavour in your mouth. Vodka’s very design is to be flavourless. In fact, the word vodka means “water” in Russian and thus its beauty is that it works fantastically as a base spirit in classic cocktails. From James Bond’s favourite, the Vesper Martini (100 ml of gin, 30 ml vodka, 15 ml dry vermouth, in case you were wondering) to Carrie Bradshaw’s Cosmopolitan (45ml vodka, 15ml triple sec, 30ml cranberry juice, 10ml lime juice) vodka is a great spirit because of its lack of flavour. So, a vodka and cranberry will taste of just cranberry, a vodka and orange of, you’ve guessed it, orange juice. With the rise of craft cocktails, bartenders have looked to vodka to use as their neutral spirit base, allowing them to work in much more esoteric ingredients.

The spirit is enormously popular stateside - what gin is to Britain, vodka is to the US. It is by far the most consumed spirit in the country, cornering a whopping 32% of the spirit market and is “the backbone of the spirits industry in America”, (this coming from the country that gave us bourbon). Statistically, Americans drink around 4 shots of vodka per month, which might seem like a lot, but is peanuts compared to our eastern European friends who notch up a whopping 17+ vodka shots per month. Makes sense really, the drink did originate there.

What is the Difference Between Gin and Vodka?

Basically, the difference between vodka and gin is that vodka can be made from anything - as long as the alcohol created comes from any kind of high starch source then you’re golden (or rather, completely colourless). This is why it is such a popular spirit in rural areas; you can make vodka from wheat, corn, rye, potatoes or even fruit, like grapes, and sugar cane. Milk whey is even sometimes used for surprisingly delicious results.

Gin therefore cannot be considered as simply being “basically vodka with flavour”. Gin’s distinctive juniper and delicate botanical taste should be done pre-distilling and needs the delicate touch of a master distiller which takes years of training. Vodka can be distilled by pretty much anyone as the process of obtaining the alcohol is far less complex. So while they might look the same, we are talking about two very different alcohols here. One, elaborate, flavourful and delicate, the other: flavourless at best, tasting a bit like watered down nail polish remover at worst. Vodka is also best served at freezing temperatures, gin is better when it's at ambient warmth. Basically it’s like having identical twins. Same on the outside, different on the inside.
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