Vodka and whiskey are two types of alcoholic spirits, enjoyed in cocktails or “on the rocks” for sipping. These two alcohols are among the most popular drinks worldwide, enjoyed by people of all cultures.
Vodka and whiskey are easily distinguishable—vodka is clear, like the appearance of water, and whiskey is a tan color similar to apple juice. The differences don’t stop at the color! Vodka and whiskey are twin flames to one another, and social drinkers can enjoy both. Below, we’ve outlined the differences between each one.
Vodka originated in countries like Russia, Poland, and Sweden. The word vodka comes from the Slavic word for water. There is an unproven legend that vodka was created by a monk named Isadore in Moscow back in 1430, over 500 years ago.
Whiskey’s origins are similar. In 1494, 64 years after vodka was being brewed in Moscow, whiskey popped up in Scotland. Whiskey’s name comes from the Gaelic term “usquebaugh,” which, similarly to vodka, means “water of life.” Unlike vodka, however, whiskey is aged and distilled in many different ways, altering the taste depending on the method chosen.
How They’re Made
The process of making alcohol and spirits is called distillation. Anything with an ABV over 16% is considered a spirit.
Vodka is made by distilling the liquid from any type of starch. Potatoes, corn, rye, and wheat are the most common starches used in vodka production. These ingredients are fermented (the process of feeding sugar to yeast) and then heated in a container called a still, at high temperatures.
After heating the container, the liquid vaporizes, and droplets are collected. These droplets become the vodka we drink. The more times vodka is distilled, the smoother it will be. Vodkas distilled multiple times are considered to be “high end” and are generally more expensive because the process removes bacteria and increases the spirit’s alcohol volume. Sometimes vodka companies will distill with different flavors to offer variety. Once the process is finished, distillers bottle the final product and send it off to your local bar.
Whiskey is also distilled before coming to market. The ingredients used to distill whiskey include grains like barley and wheat. Whiskey can also be made by distilling beer, a notable departure from the vodka distillation process.
The container used to ferment the whiskey makes a significant impact on the flavor as well; for this reason, many whiskeys are fermented in copper drums, which bring out the drink’s natural flavors. The process of distilling whiskey is the same as vodka, except that when distillation is complete, the whiskey is aged in wooden barrels over long periods to enhance the flavor. The type of wood that the barrel is made of alters the whiskey’s taste, and the final result is a light tan to brown liquid with a higher ABV.
The Taste, Smell, and ABV
Despite having dissimilar tastes, smells, and distillation processes, vodka and whiskey have similar alcohol content. Vodka is 60% water, so it has a lighter taste with a bitter note at the end. It’s usually described as “smooth going down” and mixes easily with virtually any drink. The smell of vodka is also light and not jarring to the nostrils.
Whiskey has a muskier taste, and it can vary based on the type of grain used or the barrel used to age the batch. Most whiskey drinks are oaky in flavor and feel warm going down. Whiskey’s alcohol percentage is between 40-60%, and the smell is woody and bitter.
How to Use in Cocktails
These different spirits make for varied cocktail options. Most vodka drinks are variations of the martini, where what you mix in is the predominant flavor. Whiskey drinks aim to highlight the taste of the whiskey. We put together a top-five, must-try cocktail list for each alcohol.
- Cosmopolitan—most famous on shows like Sex and the City. Fruity citrus flavor and pink in color.
- Dirty Martini—a staple composed of olive juice and vermouth. Vodka flavor comes through in this cocktail.
- Bloody Mary—a brunch-time drink, the bloody mary is composed of tomato juice, spices, and fixings such as pickles to top it all off.
- Moscow Mule—a gingery sweet drink where vodka is mixed with ginger beer.
- Espresso Martini—a drink that will perk you up, vodka is mixed with espresso and Kahlua.
- Neat—whiskey by itself with no ice.
- On The Rocks—whiskey by itself with ice.
- Manhattan—a mixed drink of vermouth and orange bitters, this is an iconic drink that highlights whiskey’s distinctive taste.
- Old Fashioned—made by muddling sugar with bitters and water, garnish your Old Fashioned with a cherry and an orange slice.
- Whiskey Sour—similar to an old fashioned but with a dash of lemon.
You can’t go wrong with drinking whiskey or vodka. Both of these alcoholic beverages are interesting to explore and offer a plethora of drink options. However you like to drink, these spirits are to be savored and enjoyed responsibly.