Dissecting the Difference Between Corn Vodka and Unaged Whiskey

spvodkaCharleston’s Striped Pig Distillery, which this week released its first batch of spirits, recently dropped off a sample bottle of its Striped Vodka. If you’re wondering how the liquor tastes, imagine a rowdy Saturday night followed by a Sunday family dinner which ends with you face down in a bowl of creamed corn.

The vodka comes by its alcoholic sting and corny sweetness naturally: It’s distilled from Bowman, S.C. corn. The mash bill led an editor here to wonder about the difference between vodka and white whiskey, which is equally clear in color and also made from corn. Since I couldn’t adequately explain, I put the question to distilling expert Matthew Rowley, author of Moonshine!

“The difference between vodka and white whiskey boils down to three things: ingredients, oak, and proof,” Rowley says.

While many drinkers associate vodka with potatoes, the vast majority of well-known vodkas are made from grain. Grey Goose, for example, is a wheat product. But there aren’t any rules dictating what vodka distillers can use to make booze. As Rowley says, “can be made from any material that ferments,” including milk and day-old doughnuts. “In theory, you could make vodka from watermelon,” he continues. “Wouldn’t be the most cost-effective way to go about making vodka, but it’s doable.”

By contrast, whiskey distillers’ choices are relatively limited. They can make their spirit out of anything they like, so long as it’s grain. Oatmeal, quinoa and spelt count: Milk, doughnuts and watermelon don’t. Corn’s commonly used for whiskey, but corn alone does not a whiskey make.

The same goes for oak: I can’t magically create whiskey by putting tequila in an oak barrel (although I might produce better tequila.) But if the spirit doesn’t touch oak, it’s not considered whiskey. According to Rowley, “touch” is the operative word: “There’s no requirement for how long whiskey must age,” he clarifies. “I’ve had cakes in the oven longer than some white whiskeys sit in barrels.”

Proof, though, is a far less squishy concept. “As long as the spirit coming off the still is at or above 95 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and then cut with water to no less than 40 percent ABV, it’s vodka,” Rowley says. Period.

Whiskey, on the other hand, must be distilled at less than 95 percent ABV. Distillers have a bit of leeway – so long as the spirit’s cut with water at bottling to no less than 40 percent ABV, it’s still whiskey – but in order to maintain “the general taste, aroma, and characteristics of whiskey,” they rarely drop below 80 ABV or 160 proof.

In practice, many new microdistilleries prefer to produce vodka because “good vodka is easier, faster, and less work to make than good whiskey,” Rowley says. But Striped Pig is making both, along with a white rum. The spirits are now sold only though the distillery, but spokesperson Juliana Harless says they’ll be available at bars and restaurants next month.

Striped Pig offers free tours of its facility at 2225-A Old School Drive on the top of the hour on Wed.-Fri. from 3 p.m.-7 p.m., and on Saturday from 12 noon -5 p.m. A tasting’s included. For more information, visit stripedpigdistillery.com or call 276-3201.

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