Alcohol 101 – What is Vodka, Gin, Whiskey, and Tequila?

by Columbine Quillen on March 4, 2010

About every six weeks I teach a cocktail class in conjunction with Crater Lake Vodka.  I always open up the class asking people what they buy when they venture into the liquor store and most people feel fairly uncomfortable because they don’t know what most of the bottles on the shelf are made out of or what they taste like.  So this is a little Alcohol 101 to turn anyone into a liquor store pro.

First, what is alcohol or distilled spirit?  Well, the first thing you need is juice – it could be the juice from an apple, a potato, or a piece of wheat.  The next thing you need is some yeast to eat the sugar in the juice and excrete it into alcohol (you can think of booze as a special sort of yeast poo).  This is the basic gist of how to make beer and wine – but you can only get around 16% alcohol with this method, so for a stronger alcoholic drink you must distill it.  Distillation is the act of removing water from the liquid and can be done in a pot still – which looks a lot like a Hershey kiss with a squiggly line at the top of it.  Put the wine or beer in the still, heat it up (alcohol has a lower boiling point than water) so that the alcohol evaporates through the top of the still but the water stays in the bottom.  The alcohol will condense in the squiggly part of the still and wa la – a higher proof alcohol comes out.  Every time you distill, you get a cleaner product that is higher in proof than the last distillation.  After a couple of distillations, you will get a product that is of a higher proof than most consider palatable (like maybe 150 or 160 proof), and that’s when water is added to bring it to a preferred proof.  For example, most vodkas are 80 proof.  Obviously then, water plays a big part in the flavor of the spirit, in particular in plain vodka, where there are no other factors playing into the flavor of the spirit.

Vodka

Vodka is a distilled beverage from fermented grain, potatoes, or fruit. Vodka typically has 40% alcohol which was a standard set by Russian Czar Alexander the third in 1894 for taxation reasons.

Vodka means little water in Russian, coming from the Russian word voda.

Vodka is the world’s most popular spirit.

Most premium vodkas are distilled numerous times and at the end of distillation water is added to lower the proof.  The water can impart a very distinct flavor to the vodka.

The vodkas are then filtered, typically over charcoal to remove further impurities.

Gin

Gin is a grain spirit that has been flavored with juniper berries (so in effect it is a flavored vodka).  There are three basic styles of gin, London dry gin, Plymouth Gin, and Genevere gin.

London dry gin is typically produced in a column still and redistilled after the botanicals are added.  In addition to juniper, lemon, bitter orange peel, anise, coriander, angelica root and seed, orris root, licorice root, and cassia bark are often added.

Plymouth Gin can only be produced in Plymouth England.  Not as common as London dry gin it has a sweeter flavor as lemon and bitter orange peel are never used in distillation.

Genever gin is the Dutch style of gin and is distilled in pot stills.  It typically does not have as strong of a juniper flavor as its English and American counterparts as its style is geared toward a lighter and less dominant juniper flavor.  Ketel One began as a Genever gin distillery (although now they are obviously known for their vodka).  The currently make a Genever gin which unfortunately, isn’t available in the U.S.

Try gin again, you might just be surprised.

Whiskey

Whisky (spelled whiskey  concerning U.S. or Irish whiskey) is an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grain mash.  Almost any type of grain can be used such as barley, rye, wheat, and corn.  Most whiskies are aged in wooden casks. Scotch whiskys are typically smoky as they treat their malt with peat smoke before distillation.  American bourbon is usually sweet as it has to be at least 51% corn and barrelled in oak for at least two years.  Canadian whisky is typically lighter in style than other whiskeys.  Irish whiskey typically has a spicy undertone due to using un-malted barley.

(What is malted barley compared to un-malted barley?  In simple terms the malted barley has been moistened enough so that it starts to sprout – as barley is a seed.)

Tequila

Tequila is a spirit produced in only a very distinct and small portion of Mexico.  It is distilled from the blue agave plant which is a large succulent which looks a bit like an aloe vera.  There are five styles of tequila: silver, gold, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo.    Silver is clear and is aged less than two months in oak barrels.  Gold is honey colored and typically colored with caramel coloring. Reposado is aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels.  Añejo is aged a minimum of one year, but less than 3 years in oak barrels. Extra añejo is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.

(Mezcal is also made from the blue agave plant – but it doesn’t have to have to be from a specified region.  Mezcal also has the worm in it – not tequila)

Brandy

Brandy is a spirit created by distilling wine and cognac is brandy from the cognac region of France.  More expensive brandies and all cognacs are aged in wooden casks to soften the flavor and add character.  It always seems to me that people have an affinity for cognac but hate brandy – they are one in the same.  Next time you reach for a bottle of Courvoisier try its American counterpart – I think you will be surprised.

A.C. must be aged two years in wood

V.S. stands for Very Special and must be aged three years in wood

V.S.O.P stands for Very Special Old Pale and must be aged five years in wood

X.O. stands for Extra Old and must be aged at least six years in wood

Now that you know this – take a moment to glow in the fact that you now know more than most professionals in the bartending field.  You might enjoy some of these answers from a recent interview.

Want to know more about distillation?  Check out this post:
What is the difference between jacking, column stills, and pot stills?

- Columbine Quillen
I am a bartender and this is my blog.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Alcohol 101 – What is Vodka, Gin, Whiskey, and Tequila? « Doctor John Magazine
October 23, 2012 at 5:09 pm
Food Fund Friday - DIY Infused Alcohol | Food Politic
February 7, 2014 at 8:52 am

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Lanny April 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

I’ve read that ‘Oak bark Extract’ is often added to Mixto or the lower (lowest) grade of Tequila. For what purpose might that be the case? I cannot find info relating to same. Your input, please?

Lanny F.

Columbine Quillen April 13, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Lanny, I am doing some research. I’ll get back to you on this.

Columbine Quillen April 14, 2010 at 5:20 pm

So Lanny, I passed then on to Mark Merrick who owns East Bend Liquors and is quite possibly the geekiest spirits nerd I know. He didn’t have the answer, so he passed it on to four others and this is the result: “Three out of the four goofy liquor geeks agree…it is probably for flavor.” So there you go.

Ethan May 30, 2011 at 12:50 am

Well, I’ve done some research on the effect of oak on liquor & I believe that the oak extract (I’ve used some myself in some of my blends) not only adds flavour, but also adds the vanillins and tannins from the wood which ‘reacts’ with the volatiles in the liquor, helping to smooth out the end flavour….

Hanna Cooper July 28, 2011 at 3:40 am

Hi, I am working on behalf of Drinkaware.co.uk, a charity which promotes responsible drinking and aims to reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol-related harm. I have just come across your site and was wondering if we could possibly work together to raise awareness. If you could contact me on hte email provided it would be greatly appreciated.

Hanna Cooper September 8, 2011 at 8:02 am

Dear Sir/Madam

I am working on behalf of Drinkaware.co.uk, a charity which promotes responsible drinking and aims to reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol-related harm. I sent an email to you previously concerning the possibility of working together to raise awareness.

I would like to enquire about sponsoring one of your articles. Currently we are trying to direct users to our alcohol facts and information pages: http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/alcohol-facts-and-information/what-is-alcohol

Let me know your thoughts on the above, along with any other ideas you may have. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you in advance for your time.

Kind Regards

Hanna

jason September 17, 2011 at 8:15 am

Hi, I was having a discussion with my friends about vodka, and I remember hearing somewhere that vodka(in apure form) is turned into whiskey. Or during the whiskey prosess it starts as vodka.

Is this true?

Thanks

arunvinud February 21, 2012 at 9:59 am

Thanks for the info man but I need to know the difference between tennessee whiskey and scotch whiskey?I have heard Scotch is more bitter than tennessee.

Fred B. Mullett June 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm

So here’s the question (if you don’t mind): if vodka and whiskey can both be made from, say, grain, what would be the distinct difference (pre aging in oak) between the two? I mean, on a very fundamental level might they not be considered the same thing? Or does the mash process used in whiskey manufacturing produce a distinctly different critter coming out of the pot still?

This was a subject that came up tonight during Father’s Day dinner, and I said there was much crossover in the naming of many distilled spirits as you could have, for example, vodkas made from the same ingredients that whiskey is made from. Aging and in what kind of container helps to differentiate some of these things…or so I posited.

Thanks for your time.

Columbine Quillen July 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Dear Fred, thank you for your question and I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner as I lost my father right before Father’s Day – so I haven’t been keeping up with the blog. (On that note, next time you see your dad give him a really big hug and tell him that you love him because unfortunately you don’t get to keep your dad forever. Maybe also take a photo of the two of you together.) As for your question, white dog (which is un-aged whiskey) really could be called vodka for all practical purposes. A lot of American whiskey has corn in it, which gives the raw spirit a distinct sweet flavor (it reminds me of a baby’s breath) that you don’t typically find in vodka (although Tito’s vodka made in Texas is made from corn). The aging of the spirit is what makes whiskey whiskey, not so much the mash process. Although most vodka is fermented and distilled from one ingredient – so the mash bill isn’t all the complicated whereas every whiskey distiller has his secret mash recipe which probably has many grains in it. Lastly, vodka is never aged in wooden barrels whereas whiskey always is. Typically the longer the whiskey is aged the smoother and easier to drink it is. I hope this answered your question – if not, shoot another.

rich August 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm

You did mention anything about rum? I know it’s sugar cane that makes rum but any more info about rum. Age rum is how much different from brandy

Columbine Quillen August 3, 2012 at 9:25 am

Hi Rich,
Thank you for the comment, as I am embarrassed that I didn’t include rum in the original post.
All rum is produced from some type of sugar, typically sugarcane or sugarcane by-products. Typically, higher-end rums are made from sugarcane juice which is then fermented, distilled, and aged. Rum made from sugarcane juice is known as rhum agricole. These rums tent to contain floral/herbal aromas, which differentiate them from molasses-based rums.
Rum is also produced from molasses which is the very viscous, concentrated by-product of crystallized sugar production. There are different qualities of molasses depending on how much sugar is contained in the molasses. Typically a higher grade of molasses will create a higher quality of rum.
Rum is not required to be aged. Un-aged rum is white and typically is produced in a column still. Aged rum has spent some time in an oak barrel and thus will have be some shade of brown from the barrel imparting flavor and color. Rums that has been aged for at least one year can be labeled añejo.
And there are the basic truths about rum. If you have never tried Pyrat, I totally recommend buying a bottle. It is my favorite rum, excellent for sipping and thus mixes quite well.

praveen R sasha April 9, 2013 at 6:29 am

Thanks for the info man but I need to know the difference between tennessee whiskey and scotch whiskey?I have heard Scotch is more bitter than tennessee.

praveen R

Columbine Quillen April 10, 2013 at 5:54 am

Dear Praveen,
Thank you for your comment. Tennessee Whiskey is straight bourbon whisky from Tennessee. It must be composed of at least 51% corn and be aged in new charred oak barrels for two years. Scotch whisky is typically made from malt or grain and is typically distilled in Scotland. Although the Japanese also are known for their fine Scotch whiskies. Scotch whisky must be aged in oak for at least three years. I recommend going to your local bar and buying a pour of each side by side and then you can really see the differences in flavor. Scotch typically has a smoky flavor to it as the malt or grain is smoked before fermentation and distillation. Tennessee Whiskey is typically considered to be a bit sweat, as far as whiskeys go, because of its corn base.

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