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The Gin vs. Vodka Debate : The differences you need to know

If you’ve ever ordered a martini, you’ve heard the request, “Gin or vodka?” And you may have wondered aloud, “Which is best?”

Which is best? A gin or vodka martini?

The short answer is, “it’s a matter of taste.” More like your personal preference rather than our judgement. While yes, we are gin distillers here, we can’t discuss martinis or gin or vodka without acknowledging the U.S. taste preference is for vodka. But, it’s important to explore why this wasn’t always the case … and truly, why we convert so many vodka drinkers to gin with Conniption.

We all taste things differently, which is why there are 11,381 types of hot sauce, and over 6,000 gins produced worldwide. The reason some people like the taste of cilantro and others can’t stand it thinking it tastes like soap -- is due to our individual DNA sequences. Yep, our DNA guides the way messages are sent to the brain for how we taste and smell and what we find delicious or well, soapy.

Whether or not we like the taste of something is also impacted by our experiences. The first question we ask on a tour here at the distillery is: “Have you had a bad gin experience?” While it’s an odd question that invariably raises some eyebrows, are you shocked to hear that well over 50% raise their hands? Every time. So yes, in college, when we bought that lower level gin because that’s what we could afford and then we mixed it with Sprite (of all things), it doesn’t tend to bring back happy memories of days gone by. No, we remember that icky sensation of over imbibing on not-so-great-quality alcohol. There is no shame here.

The majority of people have had a bad experience with gin. Conniption Gin is here to fix that.

How do we move ahead to rediscover a love of gin?

Well, your taste buds are the answer. Just as you can now afford those higher shelf gins, the 10-thousand taste buds lolling about on our tongues, (bonus points if you knew that they are also located on the roof of the mouth and back of the throat) change the way we taste as we age.

Tongue Map. How you taste salty, sour, bitter, sweet and conniption gin.

When we were young, taste buds replaced themselves every two weeks. But as we do not judge by taste buds alone, as we sip a [Negroni], chemicals travel up to our nose, moving in on the olfactory sensors, and this heady combination creates our perception of taste. As we get older, not all of those taste buds revive themselves, and by the time we hit retirement age, we might be batting around maybe 5,000. This helps explain why we hated coffee when we took a sip from our parent’s mug at age six and now can’t go by that fancy coffeehouse without craving it.

Is the tongue map a real thing? Most of us have heard that different parts of the tongue pick up on different flavors: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. But have you heard that theory was disproved – not surprisingly by an experimental psychologist named Professor Boring. (We seriously did not make this up.) Seems the graphic artists who illustrated both the original 1901 theory by German scientist David Hänig and later version in this Boring guy’s book, took a little artistic liberty explaining areas “most sensitive to” and made them look like the sole receptors for specific properties, when really all parts of the tongue can discern all tastes to some degree.

So let’s get back to the fundamental questions at hand: gin or vodka? Are they the same? How are they different?

Gin, with its predominant flavor derived from juniper berries, will have a slightly woodsy, peppery taste. It has a known presence on the palette and juniper’s strength is solely from that particular category and brand of gin you are drinking -- and even more explicitly what that gin distiller wanted to focus on, especially with selecting the other ingredients or botanicals to complement.

Today, Gin is not just the London Dry Style that you recall from your grandparents’ liquor cabinet. In fact, there are more styles of gin than many realize including compound, contemporary, matured (aged), old tom, sloe, and navy strength. Today’s gin distillers explore an infinite range of botanical blends and distillation techniques for flavor nuance and cocktail versatility. Conniption gins are categorized as contemporary gins.

Juniper berry used to make gin.

Vodka, on the other hand, is judged by its neutrality. Think of it as the Switzerland of spirits. It’s there but more often than not, it isn’t meant to impart a specific taste in a cocktail (do not confuse with flavored vodkas as those are a different category all together and are meant to be flavorful). Vodka is not meant to have much character. That isn’t to say that there aren’t taste preferences of vodka, especially if it is made from corn or potato or even from grapes. But is vodka discernable in cocktails? We may raise some debate here but no, it really isn’t. Vodka is mainly a vehicle for alcohol in cocktails – and that’s the taste difference here between a martini with gin or a martini with vodka.

Did you know? Both gin and vodka are lower in congeners (a substance produced during fermentation) than whiskey or bourbon which translates to less intense hangovers. Just think, “clear liquor equals less hangover. The darker the liquor the darker the dawn.”

Back to our distillery tour – the second question we ask is “What makes a gin a gin and what is the difference between gin and vodka?” This question is often answerable by only one or two in the group because it’s not well known. Vodka and Gin are siblings. They’re not far distant relatives that you only hear about through your grandmother (“Don’t you remember so and so? You know. You met them when you were four at that reunion!”)

The only difference is that juniper berry. And here’s the kicker and the absolute crazy thing about gin: it’s flavored vodka. Yep, that’s right. Gin is made from vodka and flavored with botanicals. In fact, if the juniper berry is removed as a botanical, it can no longer be labeled as a gin. The federal government (TTB) would now require that spirit to be labeled a flavored vodka.

Melissa Katrincic Co-Founder of Durham Distillery and Conniption Gin.
Conniption American Dry Gin

"A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy." -Noel Coward, English Playwright

Bottom line: Can you rewrite your bad gin memory?
Yes, yes you can – and we’re here to hold your hand. So, if you think you don’t like gin, give it another try with Conniption American Dry (we’re proud of ourselves right there). The world of gin has changed and so have you. Check out some of the hottest gin cocktails.

"My main ambition as a gardener is to water my orange trees with gin, then all I have to do is squeeze the juice into a glass." -W.C. Fields, American Comedian

Can you swap gin for vodka or vodka for gin? You could. But, it really depends on the flavor goal of that cocktail. Most gin cocktails call for it for a reason. A mule on the other hand? It’s beautiful with vodka and we think equally divine with gin.

Can you combine gin and vodka?
But of course you daredevil, risk-taking connoisseur of beverages. Try some of these tried-and-true combos listed below.


Credited to Ian Fleming, in. his book Casino Royale, the Vesper is three parts gin, one part vodka, and a wisp of Lillet ( French wine aperitif) and The Reverse Vesper is three parts vodka, one part gin, and Lillet.

Vesper Cocktail using Conniption Gin.

Long Island Iced Tea

The origins of the 5-shot Long Island Iced Tea remain under dispute. Some attribute it to bartender Robert Butt, who claims to have stirred it up in 1972, during a mixology contest in The Hamptons. However the LIIT’s origin may go back to the 20s, when making your own hooch was common during Prohibition. Now we all know how ubiquitous iced tea is in the south, so it makes sense that bootlegger, Old Man Bishop, would disguise the cocktail as a southern staple. Combining tequila, vodka, triple sec, gin, and rum to reach 22% alcohol concentration, very few who drink it are likely to disagree with the source of this drink coming from Bishop’s community of Long Island in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Night Flights

We must come to the present to avoid controversies of origin when we can quote the inventor herself. “Use vodka to boost the flavors in cocktails where you have already perfected them,” Andra Johnson says of Night Flights. She uses creme de violette to give the cocktail its dark amethyst, gemlike appearance.

Texas Hurricane

You can see a hurricane coming from a long way off and it can take ages to recover from one. The same can be said of the Texas Hurricane. Hurricane drinks (known for being served in the swervy-shaped hurricane glass) date back to post World War II New Orleans. With an excess of rum, and a dearth of whiskey, bar owners concocted this rum-based drink to get some of that rum out of their storerooms. By the time the drink hit landfall in Texas, it had picked up gin and vodka in the recipe.

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