How is vodka distinct from “white” whiskey?  They’re both clear and unaged, so what’s the actual difference?

How are vodka and white whiskey different from “moonshine”? And what is “moonshine” really?  Is it a vodka, a whiskey, or something else entirely?

As pertains to the first question, it seems the difference between vodka and white whiskey boils down to three things: ingredientsoak & proof. Categories are basically a slight deviation in the production process.

vodka—unlike whiskey—can be made from a wider range of ingredients, and it doesn’t need to be aged (in oak barrels), and it’s distilled at a higher proof. Simple enough?!?

Most well-known vodkas are made from grain.  But vodka is also popularly distilled from potatoes or fruit. 

Unlike whiskey—the production process and ingredients which are regulated by law—there are no similar rules dictating or limiting what ingredients vodka distillers must use.

(In the United States, the Code of Federal Regulations defines vodka as “neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color”).

But whiskey distillers’ choices are limited, as whiskey must be distilled from a grain. 

There’s another critical restriction on whiskeys.  In addition to being distilled only from grains, a grain spirit MUST “kiss” the inside of an oak barrel if it’s to be qualified as a whiskey.  If it doesn’t, the spirit cannot legally be considered whiskey. Instead, it would likely just be classified as a grain-based vodka!

There’s no requirement for how long whiskey must age in an oak barrel to be considered a whiskey.  White (clear) whiskies are merely the result of pouring the distilled alcohol from the still into a barrel… taking a deep breath… and then immediately pouring it right back out, to be bottled.

There’s one final attribute that distinguishes a spirit as a vodka vs. a whiskey:  proof. 

If the spirit coming off the still is at or above 95% alcohol by volume (ABV), and as long as it is then cut with water to no less than 40% ABV when bottled, you’ve got a vodka.  That two-part determination is what classifies a spirit as a vodka. 

With whiskey, on the other hand, the spirit must be distilled at less than 95% ABV.  But like vodka, as long as the spirit is then cut with water during the bottling process such that it’s still above 40% ABV when bottled, it’s a whiskey. 

When it comes to proof, the spirit must exceed the 95% ABV threshold during distillation to be a vodka, whereas it cannot exceed the 95% ABV threshold during distillation to be a whiskey. (In fact, the same exact corn “vodka” could be called whiskey if it came out at the 95% ABV and then was placed in oak barrels.

What the heck is moonshine?

Products sold today that utilize the word moonshine do so for the sake of nostalgia, tradition, and mystique. ~Cheers