The two most popular drinks in a bartender’s arsenal, vodka and gin are often used interchangeably. They’re both “neutral spirits”, which means that they’re produced from fermenting and distilling natural products, like wheat, barley, or even potatoes. While both spirits begin life in roughly the same way, gin has extra botanicals — namely juniper berries — added to it, which gives it its unique flavour.
With roots tracing back to at least the 15th century (the first written mention appeared in 1405), vodka was initially used for medicinal purposes. The first records come from eighth-century Poland and ninth-century Russia, and the spirit is typically associated with Slavic countries in central and eastern Europe, in what’s known as the “vodka belt”. Traditionally drunk neat (without water or ice), vodka was initially fermented to around 14% ABV (alcohol by volume). However, once producers started using alcohol stills, it was made at a higher proof and quality.
Vodka can, in theory, be made with any base ingredient, as long as it has fermentable sugars or starch. Nowadays, it’s usually made from grains like sorghum, corn, rice, rye, or wheat. However, you can use fruit, potatoes, or a simple mix of sugar and yeast to make the ethanol.
Vodka is typically noted as being tasteless and odourless, however, this depends on the ABV and the region in which it was produced. Traditional Eastern vodka countries, such as Russia and Poland, produce a spirit that retains more of the flavours and aromas of the base used in fermentation. However, Western vodka from countries like America tastes much more neutral.
Gin is also a neutral spirit, crafted from the fermentation of natural products with sugars or starch. However, unlike vodka, there are actually legal definitions of what constitutes a gin, with specific legislation governing things like the production and alcohol content.
The EU regulations for what a gin actually is state that:
These rules are generally similar around the world. There are different types of gin available on the market, with their characteristics primarily depending on how they’re produced.
This is the most well-known style of gin, and the most widely produced. The botanicals are added during the second or third distillation, which means that the flavours are blended with the alcohol as they pass through the still. This is the main difference between London dry and other gin types. The only thing that can be added post-distillation is water, and a tiny amount of sweetener, if needed.
If you fancy trying one of Drinks House 247 London Dry Gins, we have Bombay Sapphire available.
This is a fruitier, more full-bodied and aromatic gin, which gets its name from its city of origin — in order to be a true Plymouth gin, it needs to be made in Plymouth. While there used to be a few distilleries working there, only one remains: the Plymouth Gin Distillery.
This gin is much sweeter and was made popular in the late 1800s. Its origins stemmed from the British government’s attempt to control the Gin Craze with tighter laws and licensing. As a result, people would begin to make their own gin at home, adding sugar or honey in order to hide its poor taste, at least compared to its professionally distilled counterparts. It’s said that patrons would look for wooden plaques shaped like a black cat (an “Old Tom”) as a sign that gin would be available. Beneath the plaque would be a slot to put money in, as well as a lead tube where a shot of gin would be poured from the bartender inside.
While this gin is generally considered inferior in quality, it’s enjoyed a resurgence in recent years by bartenders who prefer using it as a way of sweetening classic cocktails.
There is some debate about the authenticity of the story behind this type of gin, but it’s said that from the 18th century, the British Royal Navy were rationed gin (for officers) and rum (for sailors) for their journeys. These spirits were typically stored below deck in wooden barrels—along with the gunpowder. Allegedly, the Navy demanded spirits that were 100% proof, to guarantee that the powder would still burn in the event that the spirit accidentally leaked into the gunpowder barrels. This means it would be 57.1% ABV by today's standards, so any gin that’s marketed as Navy Strength means it’s at least 57% ABV. However, many historians have also called this story a marketing ploy.
Gin liqueurs are different from spirits as they’re less alcoholic and sweeter. They’re made by infusing distilled gin with fruits or herbs and then sweetening. This gives them an ABV of less than the 37.5% needed to be classed as a gin, which makes them a gin-based liqueur. This lets drinkers appreciate the complex notes of gin, along with the best complementary flavours. Popular examples of gin liqueurs include sloe gin, rhubarb and ginger, and violet gin.
While gin and vodka are both crafted as neutral spirits, gin has additional ingredients—namely juniper berries—to give it its signature pine flavour. In fact, gin can only be called a gin if it has juniper in it. Without this, the spirit is technically vodka.
The taste also hugely differs between the two spirits. As we’ve mentioned, vodka is relatively tasteless and odourless, and any taste or scent depends on its alcoholic strength. Gin, however, is known for its distinct herbal and pine tastes, thanks to the presence of juniper berries and any other botanicals.
Vodka is typically served ice cold, while gin can be served chilled or at room temperature. Chilled vodka is more viscous, offering a much better mouthfeel which, in turn, provides a more pleasant drinking experience. However, thanks to the complex flavours found in gin, it can be enjoyed at any temperature.
Both drinks are the basis of classic cocktails, however, vodka is the preferred choice for many mixologists. This is because it doesn’t add any strong flavour to the finished drink, so won’t clash with the flavours of any other spirits or mixers. Thanks to the aromatic flavours of gin, it needs to be carefully balanced in a cocktail.
Both vodka and gin are considered key ingredients in a martini, with drinkers often having a preferred base spirit between the two. However, contrary to what James Bond says, a classic martini is actually made with gin, and should be stirred, not shaken.
Whether you want to go for gin or vodka, a martini is one of the easiest cocktails to master. All you need is your spirit of choice, dry vermouth, and either a lemon twist or olives for your garnish. Just remember that for every one shot of gin or vodka, you want two shots of vermouth. Simply stir them together with ice cubes, and strain into a chilled cocktail before adding your chosen garnish.
Perhaps the first thing people think of when they see a bottle of gin, a gin and tonic is a classic for a reason. This highball cocktail was traditionally drunk for medicinal purposes in tropical countries. Quinine was found to be a cure for malaria and was initially drunk in tonic water. In order to make the bitter taste more palatable, British officers in India added gin, sugar syrup, and lime, which is the basis for a gin and tonic. However, as tonic is no longer used as an anti-malaria drink, the quinine levels are much lower and a sweetener is added, making modern tonic water much more pleasant to drink.
One of the best things about a gin and tonic is the simplicity and the freedom to dress it up however you like. Add more gin for stronger mixes and play around with garnishes, like cucumber, orange, lemon, lime, or mixes like elderflower or peach bitters.
While you can use vodka for a number of cocktails, there are some that are considered classics that every bartender — and cocktail fan — should know how to make:
The alcohol levels in a spirit are measured by how much ethanol is present at the time of bottling. This is what’s known as the alcoholic proof. The ABV of a spirit is simply half the proof—so a bottle of 80 proof alcohol will have an ABV of 40%.
Figuring out the units in any drink requires you to multiply the total volume of a drink (in ml) by its ABV % and then dividing the result by 1,000. So, a shot of spirit at 40% ABV would be:
40 x 25 ÷ 1,000 = 1 unit
Both gin and vodka are typically bottled at around 60 - 80 proof as standard, giving an ABV of 30% - 40%. While each brand offers its own alcohol percentage, it’s easiest to simply count each shot as one unit.
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