Disclaimer: This article assumes you know a little bit about how alcohol is made (i.e. yeast eats sugar and poops out alcohol).
For over half my life I thought gin was a type of spirit made from juniper berries. Meaning, I thought it was ONLY made from juniper berries and didn’t question what that meant. I know I wasn’t alone in that thinking. Everyone probably remembers asking, “What’s the difference between vodka and gin?” Then someone smart would reply, “Vodka is made out of potatoes and gin is made out of juniper berries”. And then there would be some oohs and nods of understanding.
This is one of those partial truths, that has somehow permeated society and become accepted as general knowledge.
It’s interesting to me how little us people seem to know about alcohol, especially when we continually consume it in large quantities. Double especially since consumers are becoming more diet conscious and concerned about the ingredients and processes of the foods we shovel in our mouths.
When we give tours at our distillery, we like to spew off our “fun” facts about gin and vodka and see eyes open wide in astonishment or mouths tighten in disbelief. Definitely fun for us.
So, for you explorers who have decided to seek out information about the spirits which you love, I hope you find the below information educational and enjoyable. Let’s begin with vodka, since it’s the most widely drunk spirit in the world.
Despite one of the more popular misconceptions,
VODKA IS RARELY MADE FROM POTATOES.
The bare bones definition is that Vodka is a filtered and proofed neutral spirit. The key term there is Neutral Spirit: a colourless spirit made from a fermentation that has been distilled to at least 95% alcohol. The fermentation can be made from literally anything that has sugar in it. You can ferment straight sugar, potatoes, corn, or even milk! No joke, there are vodkas made from dairy. However, most producers use grains as their base ingredient for the following reasons:
Grains (i.e. corn, wheat, barley, etc.) are usually more readily available and affordable than other raw ingredients.
Grains have the highest alcohol conversation out of any other raw ingredient.
Grains contain tastier flavonoids which creates a higher quality product.
As a craft distillery, we make our neutral spirit from scratch to produce our vodka. Confluence Distilling vodka is made from 100% wheat, grown in Alberta. We are super lucky to be in Alberta and have access to many locally grown, premium, delicious grains.
That being said, you can definitely still find potato vodkas, but it is rare, since potatoes are an inefficient source of sugars. Potatoes have almost never been the main base for vodka, so now you might be wondering, “Why does everyone think vodka is made out of potatoes if it isn’t!?”
The History Lesson
Back in the start of the 1900s, there were two major world wars, WWI and WWII. Hopefully you’ve heard of them. During these wartimes, grains were invaluable as food for soldiers, as it is easy to store and transport in large quantities. Therefore, most grains were diverted towards war efforts, and any business that wasn’t considered wartime essential were SOL to purchase grains. This included the liquor production industry.
This is where potatoes gained their foothold. They had already been a major crop in Europe for hundreds of years, and since they weren’t shipped out to the frontlines, there were enough potatoes for general use. The savvy distillery owners were able to pivot their production to use potatoes instead of grains to make vodka, a staple for all those wartime parties. However, after war was over, and as rations became a thing of the past, most distilleries switched back to grain. The theory is that the public, for some reason or another, held onto that idea that potatoes were the main source for vodka, because of the few years in times of war that they were. And I guess no one corrected them.
Now that you know about vodka, we can get into gin. Gin is Confluence’s bread and butter, and one of our original passions for starting a distillery. It is a versatile, creative spirit that is usually the key ingredient in our favourite cocktails. In North America, there are two defining qualities for a spirit to legally be considered a gin:
GIN IS MADE FROM VODKA or, more specifically, gin is made from a neutral spirit. But in layman’s terms, we usually just say vodka.
Gin has been distilled in the presence of juniper berry.