It is a common misconception that gin is flavored vodka. While the spirits are similar, the ingredients and distilling processes are different. Gin is a little bit more involved in making, as Brian O’Rourke a culinary journalist aptly said, “Gin is the Disneyland of liquor. There is a rich history of gin creation, modification, and exploitation”.
Gin is (and must be by definition) a grain-based spirit (usually wheat or barley) distilled with juniper. Herbaceous and floral, juniper was first used in Dutch genever as a medicinal spirit that dates back to the 13th century, distilled in a wine-base. As distilling techniques advanced, modern gin was born made of neutral grain alcohol and distilled or re-distilled with juniper and other botanicals macerated and then distilled again to impart flavor. In the 1600’s, British soldiers fighting the 30-year war in Holland were given gin to bolster their spirits, known as, “Dutch Courage” in battle. They brought the concept of gin back to the UK, but it took about 150 years to create what’s known as “London Gin.”
Balance characterizes great gin. There are several categories of gins, with a wide range of flavors, citrusy to floral, dry and sweet. The botanicals in gin add a depth of flavor that is seductive to both the nose and the taste buds. There are top, middle and base notes to gin. The top is the most volatile, evaporating first. The middle note packs a punch (and that’s where the juniper lives) and the base notes are usually earthy and bind all the flavors together. There is a considerable amount of creativity in the crafting of gin because outside of the juniper, the botanicals are up to the distiller.
The styles of gin are distinct and different. Modern gins tend to be fragrant and floral with a minimal juniper flavor, while London Dry Gin is on the other end of the spectrum with a juniper-forward taste profile. Old Tom gin is sweet and full-bodied. Plymouth and Genever are earthy in flavor, soft in juniper and less botanical. American gin refers to a new style of gin made of non-traditional botanicals.
By definition, Vodka is a colorless, tasteless, odorless neutral spirit. Commonly associated with Eastern Europe and Russia, vodka’s origins go back to the late 9th century. “Voda” is the Russian word for water.
The variation of vodka is distinguished by the raw materials and distillation processed used. Barley, wheat, and potato are common raw materials used in the making of vodka, and each requires a distinct distilling process.
Cocktail-wise, gin is more of an extrovert, the life of the party, so to speak, used as a mixer that comes to life in combination with other flavors. The effervescence of citrus, tart-sweet of tonic, or the complexities of various fruit juices or liqueurs bring out the botanicals and depth of flavor of gin.
Vodka is enjoyed ice-cold and becomes viscous when chilled which coats the mouth and goes down smooth. Vodka is often enjoyed straight as a shot however it provides a solid nearly flavorless mixer in cocktails.
The most contentious piece in deliberating differences between gin and vodka is the Martini. It may be an ongoing debate, but for purists it’s clear. The classic Martini is made with gin. Vermouth and bitters are optional, garnishes may vary… lemon peel, olives, and cocktail onions are all viable options. The ‘correct’ ratio of gin to vermouth is an age-old quandary, but the base spirit is always gin. Historically Vodka ‘Martinis’ were called Kangaroo Cocktails, and they were popular in the 1950’s. The modern Vodka Martini is comprised solely of vodka served in an iconic triangular glass and often served “dirty,” (with a splash of olive juice). The Vesper Martini is a slick compromise, consisting of both gin, vodka and vermouth popularized by James Bond.
Clear? Yes. Both gin and vodka are clear. But as for gin being flavored vodka, the conclusion is a definitive no.