In the spectrum of spirits, vodka and whiskey are at completely opposite sides. One is clear, the other is dark. One is plain, the other is bold. One is feminine, the other is masculine.
Different as night and day, yet constantly and endlessly pitted against each other. In this article, we will, once and for all, settle the debate between vodka and whiskey. First off, let’s start with some fast facts.
Vodka is mainly composed of water and ethanol. It is produced by fermenting any kind of food that contains sugar or starch, like corn, potatoes, wheat, or rye. Through fermentation, the sugar turns into alcohol. The alcohol is then repeatedly distilled to increase the alcohol level to 80 proof.
Distillation is a process that purifies a liquid through heating and cooling. Vodka is distilled for at least three times, although some brands distill vodka for more than five times. They claim that the more distilled vodka is, the purer it is. Popular vodka brands, especially those that are marketed as premium brands, even put a “five-times-distilled” label on the bottle.
Vodka is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Any layman would wonder why people would drink it; and yet, it remains the world’s most popular drink. It is the largest alcohol category in the United States, with over US$6.2b sales in 2017.
Whiskey refers to a broad group of alcohol that undergoes roughly the same process of distillation, fermentation, and aging. It is made from fermented grain mash, using grains like barley, rye, or wheat. The grain has to undergo a process called malting, where it is soaked, grown, germinated, and mashed. The resulting solution will then be fermented, distilled, and matured in an oak cask.
The Scottish-Irish word for whiskey is ‘usquebaugh’, meaning ‘the water of life’. It remains unclear whether the Scots or the Irish invented it. The first evidence of whiskey production can be traced to a letter sent to a Friar John Cor in 1494. The letter was a request to make whiskey for the king, and it came with enough malt to produce 500 bottles.
Whiskey soon took over the world, and is now produced in at least 25 countries. America alone produces 37 million cases of whiskey per year, raking in the US $3.4b in sales in 2017.
Vodka and whiskey will be judged on three categories: taste, health benefits, and effects.
Differences Between the Taste
In the modern world, alcohol is an art form. The first category not only accounts for the taste, but also for the texture, mouthfeel, sensation, burn, and overall experience.
US law dictates that vodka should have no taste, no smell, and no color. Bartenders and enthusiasts, however, would argue that even highly-distilled products leave a taste. Most say that vodka tastes like bread, with spikes of sweetness and spiciness. Others say that vodka’s main appeal is not its taste, but its smooth, crisp texture and soft, light mouthfeel.
Vodka can be consumed neat, chilled, and concentrated. But we feel that vodka's most appealing feature is its simplicity. Vodka is light and unassuming, making it a versatile alcoholic base.
Add orange juice, you’ll get a screwdriver. Add tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, and spices, you’ll get Bloody Mary. Add coffee liqueur and cream, you’ll get White Russian - and so on and so forth.
While vodka is all about subtlety, whiskey boasts its flavor. It is widely considered a sophisticated drink because of the experience. Experts say that drinking whiskey should begin by smelling it. Drinking whiskey is an overwhelming experience because it has a powerful taste, and the first contact burns the mouth.
By nosing it first, you get acquainted with the subtle notes of fruits and spices. Science recommends adding a splash of water, then taking a small sip. Swirl it around your mouth, let it coat your tongue, and then swallow it. Eventually, you will get used to the burn, and then you will be able to taste the flavors that you identified by smell.
Whiskey has many varieties, and no two taste alike. Here are some examples.
Bourbon must be aged at least two years and it must be made with at least 51% corn. Bourbon has a sweet caramel note and an oaky aftertaste.
Rye, on the other hand, must be made with at least 51% rye. It is characterized by a sharp, intense spiciness and dryness.
Single malt must be distilled at a single distillery and must be aged at least three years. Its flavor is a heady blend of exotic fruit, citrus, and vanilla.
VERDICT: Versatility is important, but there's something to be said about a standalone drink. For taste, point goes to whiskey.
Alcohol comes with numerous health benefits - reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or diabetes. This is true for all alcoholic drinks, but the second category identifies the unique benefits presented by vodka and whiskey.
Red wine has a reputation as an excellent stress reliever, but a study shows that vodka might be a better option. Both drinks have the same intoxicating effect, but vodka has been proven to be more effective at reducing stress.
A shot of vodka contains only 85 calories. Vodka is composed of water and ethanol, which means that it contains no carbohydrates, fat, or sugar. Its low-calorie count also promotes weight loss.
Aside from reducing health risks, vodka also lessens the effects of inflammatory diseases. Arthritis patients who moderately consumed vodka have reported milder symptoms and 20-30% less pain.
Whiskey contains a small amount of fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates, but it still has a low-calorie count. A shot of 80 proof whiskey has 110 calories.
The antioxidants and phytochemicals found in whiskey have been proven to help patients with neurological diseases. Whiskey prevents the symptoms and advancement of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or dementia.
Recent studies have investigated its possible effects in combating cancer. Whiskey contains high levels of ellagic acid, which has been proven to reduce risks of infection and growth of cancer cells.
VERDICT: Whiskey lessens health risks. Vodka, on the other hand, has definite and curative effects on symptoms. For health benefits, point goes to vodka.
At the end of the day, nobody drinks for the taste or the health benefits - they drink because they want to get drunk. The third and last category accounts for the effects of vodka and whiskey. People claim that different kinds of alcohol affect them differently. These can be explained by two reasons: congeners and drinking conditions.
Congeners are byproducts of fermentation present in any kind of alcohol. They contribute to how fast you can get drunk, how drunk you become, and how you feel the next day. Drinking conditions, on the other hand, refer to how you drink. It’s a well-known fact that pure spirit can get you drunk faster than cocktails.
In this aspect, vodka and whiskey fall under the same category. Both are 80 proof spirits and both are scientifically proven to elicit feelings of heightened energy, confidence, and aggressiveness. Vodka, however, has an unexpected upper hand - it’s less likely to give you a hangover.
A study has found that clear drinks have less congener compared to darker drinks. Vodka is repeatedly refined and distilled, which means it has less imperfections, less chemicals, and less toxic byproducts. It’s also less likely to cause morning-after nausea, vomiting, and headache.
We don’t know about you, but getting drunk without getting a hangover seems like a great deal. Whiskey is an incomparable experience; it is a strong, flavorful drink that demands your full attention. Vodka, however, comes with immediate health benefits and a very convincing incentive. So without further ado, judge rules: final and winning point goes to vodka.