Beverley has a degree in science and additional certifications in nutrition and aromatherapy. She's published on and offline.
What Are the Differences Between Whiskey, Gin, and Other Hard Spirits?
The differences between spirits begin at distillation and the mash bill that each distillate originates from. From there, each spirit is produced distinctly, resulting in different hard alcohols. In this article, I introduce the distillation process, preparation phases, and geographic origins of gin, whiskey, vodka, rum, and tequila, highlighting how unique each one really is!
What Is Liquor (Or Spirits, or Hard Alcohol)?
Liquor is made through the distillation of a fermented mash bill. The concentrated end product (ethanol) is then used in a multitude of different ways to create diverse flavor profiles. Whiskey, for example, begins as liquor and then is aged in new, charred American oak barrels. There are a variety of ways to make gin, but adding juniper berries, herbs, and spices to flavor the ethanol is a consistent process amongst all gins.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) content of gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey (also spelled whisky) varies, but to be considered a "liquor" and not a "liqueur," the ABV must be over approximately 35%. They are all commonly referred to as hard alcohol.
Distillation: How All Spirits Are Made
Let's get this straight: All hard alcohol is distilled. But how is it prepared for distillation? The differentiation of hard alcohols begins at distillation and what the mash bill comprises. The following are the carbohydrates used in each type of liquor:
- Tequila: Weber Blue Agave plant, of which there are many varieties.
- Rum: Molasses (the by-product once sugar has been extracted from sugar cane) but also sugar cane syrup, sugar cane juice, or beet sugar.
- Whiskey/Whisky: Corn, rye, wheat, or barley; whiskey/whisky production is highly regulated in most places (the exception is Canada) and certain percentages of grains in a mash bill are required to qualify a whiskey as bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish whisky, etc.
- Vodka: Any grain or carbohydrate; often barley, wheat, rye, corn, rice, or sorghum (some producers even use soy, potato, beets, or molasses).
- Gin: Any grain (this can vary depending on where the gin comes from), but often corn, wheat, barley, or rye.
How Does Distillation Work?
- Before fermentation and distillation, the grains of gin, vodka, and whiskey/whisky are crushed then combined with water and boiled, or steeped into hot water to make a mash. Sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then boiled to a concentrate, and turned into a thick liquid before the sugar and molasses are separated. Agave is baked then the juice or “pina” is extracted for fermentation.
- A "beer" of about 8% to 10% alcohol is prepared via fermentation of the mash (water, sugar/carbohydrate, and yeast). These carbohydrates can come from any number of sources, highlighted above.
- The production process includes distillation through a continuous column or pot stills. The "beer" is then heated to a point where the alcohol is evaporated off and travels up the still, dripping into a new container where it's cooled. This is called condensation This process is repeated until most of the ethanol has boiled off of the wash.
- Often a second, slower distillation is performed to isolate the "heart" spirits or those that taste excellent and will be used for manufacture. The "heads" (methanol and acetaldehyde) and "tails" (bitter fusel oils such as propanol, amyl alcohols, etc.) are isolated out of the final product.
- The hearts are then treated in a number of ways to yield a hard spirit end-product. Spirits are aged (whiskey, rum), steeped in herbs and spices (gin), or even rested in steel barrels (vodka).
After Distillation: How Hard Liquors Are Prepared For Sale
Each type of alcohol has a different origin, distillation method, and different post-distillation preparation.
- Gin was called Hollands, genever, or the Dutch jenever because of the juniper berries.
- Gin has many classifications, including London Dry, Old Tom, Plymouth, Dutch, or New American. We will not be delving into the differences between these gins in this article.
- Gins are infused with various herbs, fruits, and other botanicals to create new blends. For example, producers add coriander, lemongrass, ginger, rosemary, hot chili peppers, anise, chamomile, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, tamarind, citrus peels, berries, grapes, watermelon, peach, mango, almond, vanilla, cocoa, coffee, or honey. They use one botanical or a combination of them. Gin producers must include juniper berries regardless of what other botanical(s) they use.
- Whiskey was known as uisce breatha or uisage breatha in Gaelic for “water of life,” poteen, moonshine, and white lightning.
- The whiskey/whisky distillate is almost always aged in charred new American Oak Barrels. It's aged for a certain amount of time depending on the regulations of the country of origin.
- Whiskey/whisky has a diverse array of origins and classifications. It is made in America, Scotland, Ireland, or Canada. Because of this, there are a variety of regulations dictating how whiskey is made and, thus, types of whiskey. The following are commonly recognized categories of whisky: Irish, Scotch, rye, bourbon, and Canadian.
- Vodka was aqua vitae in Latin for “water for life,” voda in Russian for “water,” bread wine, burnt wine, bitter wine, and distilled wine.
- Most vodka is neutral or flavored. Neutral vodka is bottled as-is, whereas flavors are added to flavored vodka.
- Tequila was octli in Aztec, and pulque, which is now used to refer to a fermented agave product.
- Tequila is classified as mixto (mixed) or 100% agave. 100% agave tequila is then classified as blanco, reposado, or anejo, depending on how long the tequila is aged in barrels.
- Rum was saccharum, which is Latin for “sugar,” rhum in French, ron in Spanish, demon and kill-devil in the English Commonwealth, and rumbullion.
- Rum can be grouped as light, dark, or flavored/spiced. It also grouped as Jamaican, French, Spanish, or Demerara.
Gin & Tonic
History and Geographical Origins of Different Liquors
While distillation was indisputably used first in the Middle East, these spirits originated from different parts of the world and had different meanings and uses in each community where they came from.
- Though gin is the national spirit of England, it originated in 17th-century Holland. The British military was responsible for introducing it. It was used to treat kidney ailments, then scurvy, and later as a stimulant for the Dutch military.
- Rum production began in Asia some 3,000 years ago because sugar cane is native to that region. It reached the Caribbean, today’s major producers, in the 15th century through Portuguese and Spanish explorers including Christopher Columbus, and 17th-century slave traders who used it to barter.
- Tequila is a Mexican original. In fact, the spirit must be made in Jalisco, Mexico, to be called tequila. Native Aztecs were the first to ferment it. By law, mixto tequila must contain 51% agave.
- Vodka, Russia, and Poland’s national drink have three countries laying claim. Russia says it was discovered by Russian monks around 1100 AD. Poland says they made it in the Middle Ages. And Sweden says they invented it in the 15th century.
- The origin of whiskey/whisky is contended by Ireland and Scotland. Notes found in a 1405 journal favor the Irish. Written evidence supporting Scotland’s claim was discovered in 1494.
Spirits in Summary
Every spirit has a distinct origin story and method behind its manufacture. Do you have a favorite hard alcohol, cocktail, or historic fact related to the spirits above? Leave a comment below!