Vodka and gin are both staple ingredients to have in your home bar; although they're both clear spirits, they do differ significantly in certain areas and converge with each other in others. Whether you're thinking about becoming a mixologist or you're just interested in learning about how to make better cocktails using these ingredients, here's a useful guide to help you breakdown each of these historic spirits.
Vodka vs. Gin: From Distillation to Purchase
While there are multiple ways that people used to distill spirits in the past, it's best to focus on the contemporary distillation process since it forms the basis for the creation of both vodka and gin. Fundamentally, vodka and gin are clear spirits, distilled from fermented ingredients like corn, rice, rye, grain, and potatoes. Once these fermented ingredients reach their boiling point, the alcohol molecules are released into the air and collected. For greater ethanol purity, you can redistill this alcohol multiple times. Interestingly, gin can be considered a flavored vodka since gin can be made from redistilled vodka mixed with juniper berries and a custom combination of herbs, spices, and botanicals.
The main difference between gin and vodka is that vodka is considered a neutral spirit in that it isn't supposed to have a distinctive taste, while gin's herbal and botanical flavors depend on each individual brand's concoction of natural ingredients. Thus, you'll find gins with hints of juniper, citrus, and so on.
How They're Purchased
Generally, each type of liquor is most commonly purchased as a fifth or 750mL sized bottle. However, it isn't uncommon to see people purchasing handles of vodka (1.75mL), though it's not nearly as common to see the same for those buying gin.
How They're Best Kept
Vodka is best stored and served, chilled; if you have the space, keep your opened bottles of vodka in your freezer. However, gin can be kept and served either chilled or room temperature, as neither drastically impacts the liquor's overall flavor.
Each of these liquors has an extensive history full of ebbs and flows. Take a look at how each of these spirits got their start and evolved into the beloved boozes they are today.
Early distillations of vodka come out of the Baltic region during the 8th and 9th centuries out of native starches like potatoes, and were often heavily contaminated. This impurity wasn't significant since the mixtures were mostly used for medicinal purposes. However, as pot distillation returned to the region, vodka became purer and purer, eventually growing to be exported out of the region in the early 14th century. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century that vodka production was both codified and established in western Europe and the United States. Due to its neutral quality, vodka has become the leading spirit of the 21st century.
It's likely that gin first appeared during the Medieval period as a medicinal treatment and continued to be used as such for about two hundred years before it began being used in England and the English colonies as a proto-cocktail ingredient. Still medicinal in origin, people would mix an early gin and tonic with quinine - a malaria medication - as a way for soldiers and colonizers to be able to protect themselves in the malaria-infested tropical colonies. During the 18th century, gin became intimately associated with cocktail making, and continued to be drank throughout Prohibition as it was incredibly easy to distill gin from home, though perhaps not very well. Gin continues to be a popular choice for alcohol drinkers, though vodka has far surpassed its popularity with modern audiences.
Classic Gin and Vodka Cocktails
Considering how cocktail history is so dependent on these two individual spirits, the number of classic cocktails that you can make using them for your base is practically endless. Yet, some of these drinks stand above the rest for their longevity and love among modern markets. Here are just a small sampling of the many classic cocktails you can make using vodka and gin.
Classic vodka cocktails embody a wide range of flavors and depths, spanning drinks that are served both morning, noon, and night.
- Vodka Martini
- Bloody Mary
- Moscow Mule
- White Russian
Classic gin cocktails have an inherently old world sensibility to them, with the drinks including both pantry staples and unusual ingredients.
- Gin and Tonic
- Tom Collins
Best Gin and Vodka Mixers
Part of the mysticism of being a mixologist is being able to pluck out flavors and ingredients to throw together into a mouth-watering mixture. This comes from having a detailed understanding of how spirits, juices, liqueurs, and fresh ingredients interact with one another, and both vodka and gin are great spirits to try out cocktail making for the first time. Given that these spirits are considered neutral spirits (with gin admittedly having base notes of other ingredients, depending on the brand), they work well with a wide variety of mixers. Here are a few go-to ones to get you started.
Vodka's neutrality makes it an equal opportunity spirit in that you can add it to almost any beverage and they'll work well together; however, here are some of the mixers that work best with the clear liquor.
- Tonic Water
- Cranberry Juice
- Lemon Juice
- Tomato Juice
- Pineapple Juice
- Ginger Beer
Since gin has distinctively botanical notes, it can be a bit of a unique spirit to pair with mixers. Yet, there are some that you can't go wrong with mixing it with, like these listed here:
- Lime Juice
- Grapefruit Juice
- Club Soda
- Lemon Juice
- Tonic Water
Quality Brands of Both Gin and Vodka
Any chef's first piece of advice is knowing that your dish is only as good as its ingredients, and the same can be said for cocktail mixing. Therefore, you want to pick the best brands of each spirit that're available in your budget. More than likely, you probably won't be buying the limited edition bottle of imported vodka that costs a few hundred dollars; rather, you can absolutely find quality brands between the more average price points of $15-$45. These are some of the brands to be on the lookout for the next time you stop by your local liquor store:
Some of the first liquor brands that people learn about are vodka brands, and that familiarity can lead to some long-lasting partnerships with quality batches. A bottle of vodka from any one of these brands will taste delicious and mix consistently.
- Ketel One
- Grey Goose
- Three Olives
- Crystal Head
While these gin brands might not sound as familiar to you as the vodka brands do, they're just as reliably delicious and consistent from batch to batch.
- Bombay Sapphire
Why Not Have Both?
Thankfully, you don't actually have to pit vodka against gin in real life; everyone can enjoy the fruits of each liquor simultaneously. Mix them together in a powerful cocktail or have two separate drinks back to back - either way, gin and vodka is certainly here to stay.