Sure, vodka and gin may look the same, all clear and crisp in the glass. They’re used in some of the same drinks, too—notably, the iconic martini. But bartenders have strong opinions about which spirit is best. To put this age-old debate to rest, we reached out to pros to answer the all-important question: Would vodka or gin be victorious in a smackdown?
It is going to be quite the fight. Let’s get ready to rumble!
Vodka vs. Gin: What’s the Difference?
In a word, the main difference between vodka and gin is juniper. There’s more to it than that (we’ll get to the deep-dive details later), but at a minimum, vodka usually tends to have a neutral flavor profile, while gin is flavored with pine-y juniper berries, among other botanicals. Often, the difference in those flavors dictates how bar pros select bottles and mix them in drinks.
“Vodka is versatile and mixes well with most ingredients,” explains David Velasquez, beverage manager for Miami’s Roystone Bar. Further, its “clean, crisp taste appeals to many palates.”
By comparison, gin’s dominant flavor is juniper—as required by regulations in the U.S., England and elsewhere. If you don’t love juniper, you won’t love gin. But many bartenders favor it.
“Juniper is a flavor unique to itself,” says Matt Chavez, bar manager, of New York City’s Ci Siamo. “It’s satisfying in its intensity by itself and enhances most other flavor it plays with,” including bitter, floral, sweet, herbal and citrusy flavors.
Vodka vs. Gin: How Are They Made?
Like most spirits, gin and vodka start with raw materials (both can be made from just about any base ingredient), to which yeast is added to start fermentation. After fermentation, the liquid is distilled, transforming it into a spirit.
Both gin and vodka producers have a great deal of latitude. They can be made in any country and use pretty much any raw material and type of still. But after distillation, that’s where things start to diverge.
Vodka often is re-distilled—sometimes multiple times. It’s filtered, often multiple times with different materials and techniques in pursuit of absolute neutrality. (That said, some distill and/or filter minimally.)
Gin, by comparison, is all about the flavorings, aka “botanicals.” Juniper, of course, is number one with a bullet. But it’s rarely the only botanical in the mix. Coriander, citrus, angelica and orris root are among the most frequently-used gin botanicals. However, producers use ever-more-complex formulas, deliberately engineering gins to have pronounced floral, citrus, vegetal and even briny notes. Add to those styles like piney London Dry or lightly sweetened Old Tom, and the diversity of gin becomes clear.
“There are so many botanical breakdowns, gin is never boring,” says Jena Ellenwood, cocktail educator at New York City bar Dear Irving and self-described “gin girl.” “Depending on the base distillate, the amount of juniper, the rest of the herbs, spices, citrus or floral elements used, you can really have fun with this category.”
Point: Gin—because there are so many options.
Vodka vs. Gin: Martinis
Here’s where it starts getting heated: Which is better in a martini, vodka or gin?
Ellenwood echoes this sentiment. “Sign me up for a gin martini any day!” She’s also a fan of 50/50 variations (equal parts gin and vermouth) and Gibsons, the signature drink of Dear Irving. (“I’m currently pickling ramps at home to make Gibsons,” Ellenwood confides.)
Velasquez, meanwhile, roots for vodka-based martinis as “a popular variation.” However, “I still prefer my martini stirred (most vodka martinis are shaken) rather than shaken to ensure that the ingredients are properly combined without dilution.”
Point: Gin. The classic martini rules.
Vodka vs. Gin: Other Drinks
Naturally, martinis only represent a fraction of the cocktail universe.
When it comes to mixing, vodka shines, argues Velasquez. “Vodka mixes well with a variety of other ingredients, including fruit juices, sodas and syrups,” he notes. “It can also be used to create infused spirits, adding flavors like citrus, berries or herbs.” He name-checks several specific drinks to try, including the Cosmopolitan, Bloody Mary, Moscow Mule and Lemon Drop. He’s also used it in a number of his own originals, including La Consentida (a mix of vodka, honey cordial, elderflower liqueur and lemon juice).
Of course, gin has its own cocktail canon, with the gin and tonic (G&T) being the most ubiquitous.
“Tonic was made to pair with gin,” says Ellenwood. “The quinine and chinchona [two bittering agents found in tonic] are actually made sweeter by the juniper.” Similarly, Chavez describes the pairing of G&T as “sublime.” He likens it to the pizza paradox—namely, that even “bad” pizza is still good. Similarly, there’s no such thing as a “bad” G&T, he reasons: “The gin and tonic is my most satisfying safe bet.”
Point: Vodka. Versatility wins the day.
Vodka vs Gin: Calories
According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put forth by the National Institutes of Health, vodka and gin both have 97 calories in a 1 ½-ounce serving, assuming both are 80-proof. (See also the NIH’s Alcohol Calorie Calculator for further detail.) For those counting calories, the portion size and what’s mixed with the spirit makes a greater difference than selecting vodka or gin.
Point: Stalemate. If you care about calories, go to the gym.
Vodka vs Gin: And the Winner Is…
We needled the pros a little bit, asking, “what’s your objection?” to whichever spirit they did not favor. While they didn’t take the bait, their reactions were revealing.
“I don’t have a personal preference or objection to any type of alcohol,” says Velasquez, a diplomatic response. However, “it’s worth noting that some people may not enjoy the taste of gin due to its characteristic juniper flavor, which can be quite strong and distinctive. Additionally, some individuals may have adverse reactions to certain botanicals or ingredients commonly used in gin.”
Similarly, Chavez voiced “zero objection” to vodka. “I adore vodka and respect its place in our cocktail ecosystem,” he continued. In fact, sometimes “a neutral item” is necessary. “A vodka soda is a cocktail for those who want to forget you’re having a cocktail,” he says.
But Ellenwood’s response stung harder. While she praised vodka as “a blank canvas” and a key component for espresso martinis her next quip went even further: “It’s great for cleaning and deodorizing, too!” Ouch, tell us how you really feel.
The ultimate winner in our vodka vs gin smackdown? Gin, by a hair. Yet, vodka remains the world’s most popular spirit (until it’s usurped by tequila, anyway). Still undecided? May we suggest mixing a Vesper, which includes both vodka and gin.
Last Updated: June 6, 2023