Many people do not realize that whisky and vodka are actually two different sides of the same coin. In a way they are completely different, but both are made from grain – if you don’t take into account some weird vodka varieties made from potatoes or even molasses.
There is a fundamental difference between whisky and vodka not only in production but also in philosophy. The rule of thumb for vodka is “the purer, the better”, and top notch vodka producers go a very long way to make sure that every “impurity” is eradicated from the final product. Quintuple disitillation in column stills, charcoal filtering, reverse osmosis and whatnots are applied to bring it as close to pure Ethanol + H2O as possible.
Whisky is totally different. Every step in whisky production tries to maximize flavour components in order to make the spirit as complex as possible. The concept of cask maturation takes this even further by letting the whisky leech aromatic components both from the cask wood and from the liquid previously contained therein. So as opposd to vodka, whisky is considered best when it is as old and complex (but of course also balanced) as possible.
What is the reason for this paradox? I think it lies in the way both spirits are consumed. I am simplifiying a bit, but in general, whisky is mainly drunk for enjoyment, whereas vodka is drunk for its effect on the body. In western countries, vodka is almost entirely used for longdrinks or cocktails. When drunk neat, it is done to “lift the mood” or even get drunk on purpose. The common habit of binge drinking among young people takes this to an extreme. And vodka certainly is a drink of choice there. Its “purity” is a neccessary feature needed to minimize the suffering in a hangover.
When we drink whisky, we want to taste it. Of course it is also used for mixing, but most whisky is drunk neat, with water or sometimes ice (please don’t!). The enormous bandwith that exits in the whisky world is caused only by the quest to keep as much “impurity” in the whisky as possible that is dismissed in vodka. Furthermore I doubt that most whisky lovers like getting drunk. After a certain number of drams it just keeps you from enjoying it.
What is your take on this? Can you actually enjoy both whisky and vodka? Or ist this really an “either/or” thing?