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 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 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.


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 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 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.

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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

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