Whisky and Vodka – Two Distant Relatives

by Oliver Klimek on August 10, 2009

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?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Chuck September 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm

I have a couple of thoughts to the post. You essentially have it right, that the aging process is the main difference between vodka and whisky. But in therms of one being used to enjoy, and one being used to get drunk, I’d have to disagree. First, there are as many college kids doing shots of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels as there are drinking vodka cocktails. Secondly, vodka and whisky are generally both around 80 proof. With the same basic alcohol by volume (abv), one isn’t better than the other for getting drunk. Also, in Eastern Europe, Vodka is traditionally also drank “neat.” Historically, in Ireland, farmers converted left over crops into whisky because it was easier to transport long distances than trying to move crops to market, and it got a better price. The Irish found out quickly that the whisky tasted better if it sat in the casks for any lenght of time, and the longer the better. I don’t think that it’s an either or proposition, but people in the U.S. who like vodka tend to like it mixed, and therefore are likely to be turned off by the idea of drinking whisky, and people who appreciate good whisky tend to stay away from cocktails unless they don’t have a choice. Just my thoughts

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Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 11, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I agree with the premise. Vodka is perhaps the cheapest form of alcohol to make, and frankly it doesn’t really matter from what it’s made. The concept is tasteless, easy to mix and drink. And that it does. Sydney Frank was the main force behind the “premiumisation” of vodka when he realized that “vodka is simply alcohol and water”, and that if he could raise the price by ten or fifteen dollars (most sold for $15 to $20 then), it would be all profit. Thus he developed a designer, see-through reverse labeled bottle, sold giant-sized bottles to bars, moved the production to France for the cachet and…

Voila! “Premium vodka”, massive sales and all profit. He sold out for literally billions of dollars. Whisky surely can be abused but its a lot harder. Why? It has tastes that many people don’t like. And any taste you add – whether rum, cachaca, whisky, bourbon, etc. tends to rule out plenty of drinkers. OTOH vodka tends to poured in greater quantities (bar vodka is really cheap), not to mention martinis (the famous three martini lunch was a guarantee you’d need a taxi). Not so for whisky, especially the premiums.

The premise – that vodka is for a buzz and whisky for flavor – is perfectly valid and largely true.

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