What Is Vodka?

What's the Difference Between Vodka and Gin?

Chilled vodka bottle and shot glasses on a black surface.

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Vodka is a distilled spirit made most commonly from grains or potatoes. Traditionally, the clear liquor is famously from Russia and Poland, but today it's made all over the world. The United States and all parts of Europe contribute to the global vodka market. It's drunk worldwide, too. Russia and Eastern European countries drink the most, followed closely by the U.S. Vodka is also the most popular liquor to use in cocktails, mixed drinks, and shots, making it essential in every bar.

Vodka vs. Gin

Vodka and gin are both clear distilled spirits that are most often distilled from grain. They taste nothing alike, however. Where vodka is typically described as tasteless, gin is flavored with a variety of botanicals which is dominated by juniper. Some of the modern gins downplay this piney flavor to create a softer taste that appeals to vodka drinkers. Likewise, some herb-infused vodkas can be similar to gin. Despite their differences, the two liquors are often used interchangeably in cocktails. For instance, you can have either a gin or vodka martini or top either spirit with tonic water or another soda.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Grains, potato
  • Proof: 80–100
  • ABV: 40–50%
  • Calories in a shot: 64
  • Origin: Russia, Poland, Europe, U.S.
  • Taste: Grainy, silky, oily
  • Serve: Straight, chilled, on the rocks, cocktails, shots

What Is Vodka Made From?

Vodka is a vast and varied category of liquor and unlike some other spirits, there are no set regulations governing its production. Vodka has a Russian origin and is often called a "neutral grain spirit" because the standard method for making it is by fermenting and distilling grain. This can be corn, rye, wheat, or any other grain that the distiller chooses to use. Potato vodka has long been a popular product of Poland and other potato growing regions, such as Idaho and Scandinavian countries. Vodka can be distilled from nearly anything, though and you will find vodkas made from things like beets and grapes.

Vodka is a rectified spirit, meaning that it is often distilled at least three times. Some are distilled five or more times. It has become common practice for a vodka brand to broadcast that their vodka has been distilled X number of times. The assumption is that the more times it is distilled, the cleaner and smoother it is. Generally, this is true. As vodka takes each trip through the still, the "heads" and "tails" are often removed. These are the parts of the distillate found on the top and bottom of a finished batch. By taking only the "heart" of the distillate, the vodka becomes cleaner and has fewer impurities.

After distillation, vodka may be filtered, often through charcoal. Vodka requires no aging and is ready to drink right away. However, it is cut with water from still strength to bottling proof, which is typically 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof). Though less common, 100-proof vodka and higher are available.

Vodka's neutral taste also relies on one very important factor: water. You will see many brands brag about using mountain spring water or some other ultra-clean source to create a smooth vodka. This element cannot be discounted and is very important to the distillation and bottling process.

What Does Vodka Taste Like?

Vodka is known for lacking a distinct taste. Instead, a stylistic difference in brands is their texture on the tongue, referred to as the mouthfeel. Some vodka, such as Absolut, has an oily, silky texture with a hint of sweetness, while others like Stolichnaya are clean, watery, and have a medicinal finish. That said, today's vodka market goes far beyond these older characteristics and it is difficult to pinpoint all vodkas into a few simple categories.

Vodka is not necessarily tasteless or odorless and there are distinct differences between vodkas. The flavor of vodka is subtle and often like a clear grain. If you taste enough vodka of a great variety, you will begin to pick up the differences. You can liken it to the difference in taste between tap water and bottled water. If you pay attention to it, you can easily tell when you drink unfiltered water.

The heat of vodka is another term you may hear. This is the burn that is revealed on the tongue or back of the throat when you drink it straight and another way of indicating a vodka's smoothness. Heat is often determined by the care a distiller puts into creating a clean vodka, particularly in the number of distillations and the filtering method. Less expensive brands tend to burn in the mouth and throat, while premium brands are generally smooth and subtle.

Flavors

The flavored vodka scene has exploded and if you can think of a flavor, it is probably available somewhere. The most popular flavors include citrus (whether a single fruit or a blend) and vanilla. All types of berries, as well as melon, pineapple, pomegranate, and other types of fruits, are used to flavor vodkas as well. Chocolate and espresso vodkas are popular and a newer category simulates the taste of a variety of desserts and candies. There are even more obscure flavors like salmon, bacon, hemp, and tobacco, though these tend to be novelties and don't last long on the market. 

Some flavored vodkas are produced using the traditional infusion method of steeping ingredients like fresh fruits and herbs in a finished vodka. Many vodkas, however, simply add ingredients like natural or artificial flavor extracts to the vodka. Due to the flavor additives, most are bottled at 70 proof.

It's also easy to make your own vodka infusion. Beginning with a clear vodka and using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices, you can easily create your own flavor combinations that are fun to use in a variety of cocktails. 

How to Drink Vodka

Traditionally, vodka is drunk straight, whether enjoyed as a sipper or downed quickly as a shot. Chilling a bottle helps it go down smoothly and some drinkers prefer to serve it on the rocks. Straight vodka can also be shaken or stirred with ice, then strained into a glass for a smoother drink.

Its popularity as a cocktail ingredient comes from the general characteristic that it has no discernible flavor. This allows the other ingredients of a drink to become the focal point, which is why you'll find vodka cocktails and shots of every imaginable flavor and style. It works just as well in a martini as it does in vodka and soda or mixed drinks with layers of fruit.

Cocktail Recipes

There are thousands of vodka cocktails to explore. It's a key to many of the drinks that adorn the modern martini menu and essential for some of today's most popular bar cocktails.

Popular Brands

The vodka market is massive but all vodka is not created equal. You will find outstanding bottles as well as those you wish you didn't buy. It's a good idea to have a few of your favorite bottles in stock at all times for different needs. Find your favorite budget-friendly brands for heavily flavored mixed drinks. Then, choose a top-shelf vodka to keep on hand for martinis, cocktails with transparent flavors, and for sipping straight. While the big-name brands are reliable, don't ignore lesser-known brands because there are some impressive craft vodkas made today. Most brands also offer flavored vodkas; some have just a few while others sell a dozen or more.

Cooking With Vodka

Vodka makes an appearance in some food recipes. You'll primarily find it in pasta sauces and desserts. It's also incorporated into Eastern European dishes, such as Ukranian kovbasa sausage and Polish walnut cookies, as well as Russian foods like a classic Napoleon cake.