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Whisky vs vodka: what’s the difference?

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Arguably two of the most popular alcoholic drinks, vodka and whisky can be found behind any bar and are the key ingredients in some of the most famous cocktails in the world. They are both distilled spirits and can be produced in any country. They can even be made from the same grains such as wheat and rye.

However, when it comes to whisky vs vodka, you generally find that vodka is made from either wheat or potatoes whereas whisky is made from fermented barley and malt. There are plenty of other things that make them distinct from one another too. Aside from the obvious difference in appearance, they vastly vary in flavour. Whisky has a complex profile with notes ranging from vanilla sweetness to smoky spice, compared to vodka which is far more neutral and subtle in taste. Then there’s the fact that whisky is matured in oak barrels and vodka is not; it’s typically bottled after distillation.

The main differences between vodka and whisky are:

  • Vodka is clear whereas whisky is am amber coloured liquid
  • Whisky is made from fermented grains and vodka uses starch such as potatoes and wheat
  • Vodka has a lighter subtle taste, while whisky has more pronounced depth with notes of spice, warmth and vanilla
  • Vodka isn’t typically aged whereas whisky is matured in wooden barrels

It’s about time we talked you through the differences between vodka and whisky in more detail, so read on to find out in our go-to guide. By the end, you’ll be in the know as to why a classic Cosmopolitan wouldn’t be the same without vodka and why only whisky will do for a Rob Roy.


The origins of whisky are a little murky but are thought to have sprung from distillation processes that arose in ancient civilizations and were refined by Scottish and Irish monks in the 1400s. It is believed that the first ever written record of whisky appears in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise from 1405. Whisky production became incredibly popular by the 18th century, with Scotland becoming a prominent producing country. The Ballantine’s story begins around this time, with our founder, George Ballantine opening his own grocery shop.  

The roots of vodka are also somewhat debated but it is believed this colourless spirit was invented over a thousand years ago in Russia and Eastern Europe. The first documented production of vodka occurred in the 9th century in the region, but the first known distillery is said to have been situated in the Russian town of Khylnovsk in 1174.


If you were to place a glass of whisky and a glass of vodka side by side, it’d be easy to tell them apart. After all, vodka is clear, like water, whilst whisky is characterised by a beautiful amber hue.

They are, however, similar in consistency. Each fluid moves in much the same way, meaning there isn’t a noticeable difference in how they pour from a bottle or swirl in a glass.


The taste differences between whisky and vodka will depend on the brand and the nuances in each variety’s production. However, there are some generally agreed on remarks about their flavours.

For instance, vodka is often described as having a subtle taste and it used to be defined by The United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as a neutral spirit without ‘distinctive character, aroma, taste, or colour’.

Whisky, on the other hand, is considered to be muskier, with a more robust and rich flavour. Its tastes and aromas vary depending on where and how it is produced but common descriptors of whisky include smoky, fruity, nutty, peaty, oaky, sweet, and spicy.


Both vodka and whisky are produced via a method called distillation, but the ingredients used and the steps in the production process differ quite considerably which is why the resulting spirits have such unique characteristics.


When it comes to how whisky is made, the primary ingredient is fermented grain mash. Common grains used include barley, corn, rye, and wheat. The choice of grains significantly influences the flavour and style of the whisky. Single malt whisky is made exclusively from malted barley, while blended whisky can include a mix of grains.

Vodka can be made from any starch. This can come from grains including corn, rye, and wheat, or other ingredients such as potatoes, molasses, rice or even soybeans. Vodka is known for its neutral flavour, and the choice of the raw ingredients has less impact on the final taste compared to whisky.


The fermentation process for whisky involves allowing the mashed grains to ferment, converting sugars into alcohol. This process can take several days and contributes to the development of unique flavours and characteristics in the final product.

In comparison, the fermentation process for vodka aims for high alcohol content and a clean, neutral flavour. Fermentation times in the vodka production process are typically shorter compared to whisky, and the focus is on achieving a high level of alcohol content.


Whisky is usually distilled in pot stills or column stills and the shape of the still affects the character of whisky. The distillation process is designed to concentrate the alcohol and separate it from impurities while retaining some of the flavourful compounds that contribute to the whisky’s character.

Vodka is distilled to a much higher proof to achieve a neutral spirit. Distillation of vodka is usually done using a column still, but some distilleries do use copper pot stills. After heating the still, the liquid vaporises, and the droplets are collected. This liquid becomes the vodka we drink after being diluted with water and bottled. Vodka can be distilled multiple times and the more times it is distilled, the smoother the finished spirit will be. Vodka can be distilled anywhere from twice to ten times or more.


Maturation in wooden barrels is a hallmark of whisky production. The ageing process allows the whisky to interact with the wood, gaining colour, flavour, and complexity. The duration and type of barrels used significantly impact the final product. For whisky to be classed as a scotch, it not only has to be produced in Scotland but legally, must be aged for a minimum of three years. Of course, many whiskies are aged for far longer than this, remaining in casks for decades.

In contrast, vodka is not typically aged. Some premium vodkas may undergo a short ageing process, but the focus is on maintaining a clean and neutral profile.


Filtration is a critical step in vodka production to remove impurities and achieve a smooth and clear spirit. Common filtration methods include charcoal or activated carbon.

Not all whisky is filtered but some varieties do go through a process called chill filtration. It isn’t a necessary process but is done to prevent the whisky from hazing, which is when adding water to whisky or serving it on the rocks causes it to go cloudy. Chill filtration involves lowering the temperature of the whisky to around zero degrees Celsius before passing it, under pressure, through barrier filters. These filters collect oils and fats present in the whisky and also remove any sediment or other impurities leftover from the cask.

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Whisky Guide

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Whisky vs vodka-producing countries

The origins of vodka are somewhat debated but it is believed this colourless spirit was invented over a thousand years ago in Russia and Eastern Europe. The first documented production of vodka occurred in the 9th century in the region, but the first known distillery is said to have been situated in the Russian town of Khylnovsk in 1174.

Vodka production is still incredibly popular in Europe and due to this, an area of the continent has become known as the Vodka Belt. The Vodka Belt includes countries such as Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, and Sweden. In these countries, vodka is an important part of their culture. However, vodka can be produced anywhere.

Whisky can also be produced worldwide but there are some well-known whisky-producing regions. Scotch whisky, like Ballantine’s, can only be labelled as such if produced in Scotland, for example. Canada, India, Ireland, America, and Japan are also known for their distilleries. The whole whisky vs whiskey conundrum comes into play due to this geography but that’s another lesson for another day.

Whisky vs vodka cocktails

So now we know more about the humble beginnings of vodka and whisky, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what this means when it comes to actually drinking them.

Vodka is a favourite for cocktails because of its neutrality. It makes a great spirit base that can be layered with other ingredients. Basically, it can enhance the boozy flavours without being the star of the show. Popular vodka cocktails include the Bloody Mary, White Russian, Screwdriver and Espresso Martini.

But with whisky cocktails, the intention is not to hide the flavour of the liquid. Instead, the idea is to complement the complexities of the whisky with carefully chosen mixers, juices, and other alcohol. We (unsurprisingly) prefer this – if you’re going to shake up a cocktail you might as well enjoy the flavours of your chosen spirit. 

Some of the most popular whisky cocktail recipes have very few ingredients. A whisky coke, for instance, has just three; whisky, cola, and a lime wedge. Its simplicity is what makes it perfect. The same goes for an Old Fashioned. The addition of just orange bitters and cane sugar allows the sweet notes of the whisky to sing. With that said, whisky is also complimentary to more complex drinks, adding a smooth warmth to cocktails such as summer pitcher or our beloved Berry Beer.

ballantines finest summer pitcher drink

Summer Pitcher

Summer time, and the living’s pitchin’. Add lemon slices and halved green grapes, Ballantine’s Finest, fresh lemon juice, Lillet Blanc, and top with Lemonade. Give it a good stir and pour out a round.

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ballantines B7 old fashioned

Old Fashioned

Our favourite way to enjoy an Old Fashioned is with Ballantine’s 7 Bourbon Barrel Finish, with a couple of dashes of orange bitters to complement the sweet notes of the whisky.

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Do vodka and whisky mix well?

Vodka and whisky are both enjoyed on their own, served in a shot glass or neat over ice. Yet, when combined, they can create some fantastic cocktails.

A cold brew cocktail, for example, is a great way to merge a whisky cocktail with a vodka-based classic. The inclusion of blended scotch whisky adds a touch of spice and notes of chocolate but you can also add vodka to make it more like an espresso martini.

Our cranberry whisky sour is another cocktail that can work well with the addition of vodka. This is because both orange and cranberry are classic flavour pairings for vodka.


The question of whether vodka or whisky is ‘better’ is subjective and depends on personal preferences. Both spirits have unique characteristics, and people often choose one over the other based on their individual taste inclinations and the occasion.

Both spirits can be served neat, but whisky offers more variation and complexity of flavour across varieties and brands. Vodka lends itself to mixers and cocktails as it is a neutral base, but whisky offers interest, allowing you to create matches or contrast to its smoky, sweet, spicy, and fruity notes.  

Both spirits have allure and for good reason. What we are really trying to say is that it doesn’t have to be whisky vs vodka; they can be enjoyed together. 

Our whisky cocktail recipes can give you some ideas to get started. Also, check out our light whisky cocktails and apple whisky drinks for more inspiration.

Find out more about whisky in our whisky guide or discover how other spirits compare such as brandy vs rum.

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