Whiskey vs. Tequila vs. Vodka: Which to Choose?

A night out presents a challenge: What feels good, what tastes good, and how much can you have while being responsible? Whether you’re into cocktails or drinking things straight-up, there are many ways to enjoy spirits, most of which come down to which spirit’s flavor profile is compatible with your taste buds. Perhaps you wonder, “Is there a liquor store near me?” The production and aging processes have a major effect on how drinks taste, so let’s start there.

How Is Whiskey Made?

There are four steps a distillery takes in order to create whiskey. The first step is “mashing.” During this step, the grain that the distillery grows is mashed into a very fine meal, mixed with water, and reduced to its sugars. Next, during the “fermentation” step, yeast is added to the mixture, converting the sugar to alcohol. The result of this process is virtually beer, but the “distillation” step moves it along. To distill the “beer” into whiskey, the beer is placed inside a still and heated. Because the boiling point of alcohol is so low, it evaporates while leaving water and heterogeneous fragments of grain behind. When whiskey is removed from the still, it’s actually clear, which brings this walkthrough to the final step of “aging.” One must age whiskey in some kind of oak container in order to market the beverage as whiskey. Most of the time, these oak containers are barrels. This aging process creates the brown color people know and love. 

Whiskey is a complex drink, offering the tastes of beer, barrels, and time. Not all brown liquor is the same, but all distilleries perform at least these four steps in some capacity. For example, half the mash in bourbon is made out of corn in particular.

How Is Tequila Made?

Many refer to tequila as “cactus juice.” Indeed, it’s made from agave, a small round succulent that resembles a cactus. There are dozens of species of agave, but the only species that can be used for tequila is Agave Tequilana Weber Azul. Many refer to it as “blue agave,” and it thrives in fairly hostile soil. Tapping into agave’s succulent property is what allows for the production of tequila.

Harvesting is involved, requiring the assistance of jimadors, wielders of special knives who chop the agave and prepare it for extraction of the juice. Agave fruits may be halved or quartered to expedite the cooking process. Once the starch in each agave fruit is converted into sugar that is capable of fermentation, the fruits are removed from the cooking device and mashed further for purposes of juice extraction. The sugary juice is then extracted from the bottom of the mill. As with whiskey, yeast is added to the juice in order to ferment the sugar into alcohol. After fermentation, the distillation process is also similar to that with which to make whiskey, except tequila must be run through a still twice to be called tequila. At about 60 calories per shot, tequila is one of the purest forms of alcohol, maintaining a slight sweetness as it ventures from distillery to bar.

How Is Vodka Made?

First of all, the mash for vodka consists primarily of grain, which is usually rye. Water is mixed in with the mash, and the entire concoction is heated. Again, yeast initiates the fermentation process, turning the mash’s sugars into alcohol. The goal of the distillation process is to remove all flavor. Yes, vodka is not meant to taste like anything.

It is meant to offer a pure, almost bitter flavor. Many enjoy it cold or in cocktails. Only in the past few decades have distilleries expanded into flavored vodkas to complement different cocktails.

A Final Comparison

Everyone likes different things, but here’s a breakdown of how these things taste. If you enjoy cocktails, and you want only to spike a cocktail’s flavors with alcohol, then vodka ought to be your liquor of choice. If you want something sweet, smoky, and mossy, then you should try whiskey or any type of brown liquor. Also, one might suggest that brown liquor offers an especially pure drinking experience because nothing is meant to be added to it. A cocktail with brown liquor, like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, is meant to accentuate the flavors of whiskey, not to mask those flavors. Tequila is good for those who want a subtle sweetness and tang with their vodka. Tequila is a lot like vodka, though there is a subtle sweetness to it that ultimately makes it different from vodka. Many cocktails swap vodka for tequila, so tequila might also work for the cocktail drinkers out there. Try a Bloody Maria instead of a Bloody Mary to enjoy a sweeter, tangier, and more complex cocktail.

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