Both tequila and vodka have strong regional ties to their respective origins, tequila is the national drink of Mexico, and vodka is a huge part of the culture in Eastern Europe.
Tequila and vodka are two of the most popular spirits available, especially in the US. These spirits have a fair few differences but also a lot in common. Tequila and vodka are produced in different ways, from different ingredients and from different regions. However they are both beloved regional drinks, they are generally the same strength alcohol and they share the same calorific content. They also each work great in cocktails or drunken straight.
I’ve tried to cover a few angles for comparison between tequila and vodka with some key difference upfront and more details further on.
Tequila and Vodka Key Differences
- Tequila is always made from one type of agave, vodka can be made from almost anything, especially wheat, rye, potato, corn and sugar beet
- Tequila is only made in parts of Mexico, vodka can be made anywhere in the world
- Vodka is filtered and distilled more to remove most flavors, resulting in a neutral spirt. Tequila still carries agave flavors.
- Tequila must follow strict rules to be called tequila. There is no single set of rules for vodka production.
- Tequila is much more often aged in oak barrels compared to vodka which is hardly ever aged.
- Flavored tequila is very uncommon while flavored vodka is quite common.
- While consumption of tequila is growing, vodka sales still far outstrip tequila sales, particularly outside of North America.
- The average tequila is twice the price of the average vodka.
Tequila and Vodka Key Similarities
- Both tequila and vodka are distilled from a base of fermented sugars.
- Tequila and vodka are most often bottled the same alcoholic strength: 40% ABV (80 proof).
- Neither tequila or vodka contain any sugar or carbs (flavored varieties do).
- Both spirits are generally lighter in flavor and can be used as substitutes in a range of cocktails.
- Both drinks have strong cultural associations – Tequila in Mexico and Vodka in Eastern Europe.
- Tequila and vodka both have very cheap options and super premium options.
Table of Contents
Tequila production primarily uses blue agave, where the pinas are roasted to convert starches before fermentation and distillation, often undergoing aging in oak barrels to influence flavor profiles. In contrast, vodka is typically derived from grains or potatoes, undergoing multiple distillations for heightened purity, and emphasizes filtration to achieve its signature clarity, with aging being a rare step in its process.
Tequila is made from only blue Weber agave, Vodka can be made from many things
The primary ingredient in tequila is one kind of agave while vodka can be made from any fermentable starch.
Tequila can only be made from a majority blue Weber agave (this species is Agave tequiliana). However up to 49% of the sugars used for fermentation can be from other sources, typically sugar cane. Most premium tequila comes from 100% agave.
Most vodka is made from grains, potatoes and sugar beet molasses but can also be made from fruit like grapes.
Examples of vodkas made from different ingredients:
- Wheat: Grey Goose, Ketel One
- Rye: Belvedere, Wyborowa Wodka
- Corn/maize: Tito’s, Crystal Head
- Barley: X Muse, Kirkwood
- Potato: Luksusowa, Monopolowa, Chopin Potato Vodka
- Grape: Cîroc
Tequila production follows tight rules, vodka does not
Tequila is a product regulated by the CRT, with production following a set of published rules known as the NORMA. These internationally recognized rules govern where and how tequila must be made to be called tequila. For example, tequila can only be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco as well as certain municipalities in the other states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacan. If it’s not made in one of these areas, it’s not tequila.
Other rules for tequila include:
- Alcohol percentage (must be between 35% and 55% alcohol by volume)
- Proportion and type of agave used (must be from at least 51% blue weber agave)
- Minimum aging requirements for labeling (for instance, it must be aged at least 2 months to be called reposado, and at least 12 months to be called añejo)
There is no recognized governing body for vodka however different regions apply general rules. For example, vodka (and any spirit, including tequila) must be at least 40% ABV in the US and 37.5% ABV in the European Union. Vodka not made from either grain or potatoes (considered the traditional ingredients) has to display what it is made from in the EU.
Vodka is usually filtered and distilled many times to remove flavor
Vodka relies on intense filtration, distillation or both to get to its desired “clean” flavor. Tequila is usually distilled just twice. Most vodka is distilled at least three times, but more commonly four or five times. Tito’s is distilled six times. There’s even the brand Purity Vodka that is distilled 34 times.
A higher number of distillations, or use of a column still which results in continuous distillations (like Absolut uses) results in a more neutral taste closer to industrial ethyl alcohol. The flavors of the ingredients will be less observable.
Vodka producers also use filtration to further remove “impurities”. Carbon filtration, otherwise known as charcoal filtration is typically used to filter vodka.
People are more likely to drink tequila because they actually like the taste of agave and don’t just want a neutral spirit. For this reason almost all tequila is distilled only twice. Enough to bring the alcohol up to a good level, but not enough to lose the desirable flavors.
There are certain brands that use three distillations and claim a “smoother” taste, such as Tres Generaciones and Pura Vida. Patron recently released its El Cielo line which is distilled four times but this is uncommon. Most tequila drinkers, myself included, feel that you lose too much agave flavor by distilling more than needed. However, if the tequila is rough to begin with, maybe this isn’t a bad thing.
Recently, charcoal filtered aged tequila has become more popular. This is known as cristalino tequila – aged tequila that looks clear and colorless.
Tequila and vodka are usually the same strength alcohol
Most tequilas and vodkas sold have the same strength alcohol (40% ABV) but the highest strength vodkas are stronger than the highest strength tequilas. Tequila and vodka must be at least 40% ABV (80 proof) to be sold in the USA as a spirit. All of the top 10 brands of tequila are 40% ABV. The top selling vodka brands are also all 40% ABV.
Some tequila brands offer higher proof bottlings at around 48%-50% and the highest strength by regulation is 55%. High strength vodkas at 50% are very common and there are vodkas that go much higher than this. Spirytus is the highest strength vodka available at 96% ABV.
Vodka is more often flavored
Flavored vodkas are very common while flavored tequilas are not. Tequila has enough essential flavor of its own, which vodka as a neutral spirit goes well with added flavors.
Flavored vodka accounts for about 15% of vodka sales in the US according to IWSR. Similar data for tequila is not available, but according to online retailer Drizly, flavored tequila makes up just 1% of their sales.
Popular flavored vodkas include Pink Whitney by New Amsterdam and Ketel One Botanical Grapefruit and Rose. Absoult has long been known for its flavored variations including Citron and Vanilla. Lower alcohol flavored vodkas with around 16%-22% ABV are gaining popularity, and have the benefit of being lower calorie.
Tequila is only made in Mexico, Vodka can be made anywhere
Tequila can only be made in Mexico in a certain regions covered by its protected appellation, or denomination of origin. Similar to how Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France. Vodka has no protected regional status and can be made anywhere around the world. However, vodka is most connected with the “vodka belt” countries like Russia, Poland, Sweden and Finland.
100% of tequila is made in Mexico, while vodka production is more dispersed. According to the IWSR Russia is the largest producer of vodka with around 30% of global production.
Vodka is drunk more widely around the world, tequila is concentrated in North America
The biggest market for vodka is Russia with around 30% of global demand. The US is the second largest market for vodka consuming about 20% of the total market according to IWSR. Russia also has the highest vodka consumption per capita, followed by Poland and Ukraine.
The biggest market for tequila is the US (52% share), followed by Mexico (36%). North America consumes 89% of all tequila produced according to data from the CRT. Mexico has the highest per capital consumption of tequila, with the US in third place behind Latvia.
Differences in Drinking Tequila vs Vodka
Vodka has a neutral taste, tequila is more complex
There is some overlap in the flavor notes of tequila and vodka but tequila has a much stronger flavor driven by agave. Different vodkas have different tastes depending on what they are made from but overall the taste is subtle. To the average drinker, vodka just tastes like “alcohol” with different vodka having more or less of a burn. Vodka is mostly drunk chilled which further tones down any flavor.
Tequila has a wider range of possible flavors than vodka due to how it is made. Firstly, the taste of the baked agave is much more prevalent than the taste of whatever the underlying ingredient for the vodka is. This is both due to the distinctiveness of the agave in relation to say grain or corn, as well as the reduced filtration and distillation that tequila goes through.
Aged tequila also takes on the flavors from the oak barrels, similar to whiskey, cognac and aged rum. Vodka is almost never aged.
Primary flavors of tequila:
- Baked agave
- Black pepper
- Oak, vanilla, caramel (aged)
Primary flavors of vodka:
Both tequila and vodka are commonly drunken straight and in cocktails
In Eastern Europe vodka is most commonly drunken straight, in shots. In the US vodka is more likely to be drunk as part of a cocktail. Tequila is commonly drunk in shots, sipped and in cocktails.
Tequila and vodka usually have the same number of calories
As distilled beverages, the calories in tequila and vodka come from the alcohol percentage. Distilled beverages of the same strength have the same total calories.
Shot of tequila vs shot of vodka calories
- 1.5 oz shot of standard tequila has 96 calories (40% ABV / 80 proof)
- 1.5 oz shot of standard vodka has 96 calories (40% ABV / 80 proof)
- 1.5 oz shot of overproof tequila has 121 calories (50% ABV / 100 proof)
- 1.5 oz shot of overproof vodka has 121 calories (50% ABV / 100 proof)
Tequila and vodka are both carb free and contain no sugar
While you may assume alcoholic drinks contain sugar because they are made from sugary ingredients, the truth is that distilled spirits like vodka and tequila contain no sugar or carbs. The sugars and carbohydrates are fully converted into alcohol as part of the fermentation and distillation process. This doesn’t mean that they are low in calories. Alcohol is high in calories, and will be converted by your body back into sugars as part of your digestion.
Tequila and vodka are probably just as healthy/unhealthy for you
You may have read that tequila is healthy because of certain properties of the agave plant, like agavins, are nutritious. That’s only half true which pretty much makes it false. Yes agavins from agave are healthy but they are destroyed in the distillation process and so are not present in tequila.
Some also claim that vodka is healthy because it is somehow “pure”. Compared to drinking poison its healthy but compared to drinking water or nothing at all I don’t think this claim stands up.
Drinking either tequila or vodka straight is definitely better for you than drinking sugary cocktails. Tequila and vodka may be better for you than drinking lots of beer or wine which can be higher in calories per standard drink.
Tequila and vodka will get you drunk at the same pace
You physically get intoxicated at the same rate if drinking vodka and tequila with the same alcohol percentage. However you may experience a different feeling based on the social context and your expectations of how you should feel. Essentially there may be some placebo effect.
The effects of drinking alcohol come from both physiological (actual changes in your body chemistry) and psychological (following the expectation of change). Studies show that people who think they are drinking alcohol that is actually non-alcoholic start behaving as if they were drunk.
If you look at the contexts when tequila is drunk vs vodka this may explain why you may feel different. Compare drinking tequila shots in a celebratory context, together with a group, and after having already consumed a few drinks. Now compare this to how you might feel after sipping a vodka soda.
The expectation of how you should feel after a group shot of tequila may help explain you feeling differently. Plus comparing a shot vs sipping, more alcohol will be hitting your system at once which will be more noticeable.
Vodka sells over 7x the volume of tequila
Global vodka sales in 2022 were 341.5 million 9 liter cases compared to 47.2 million cases for tequila. Global vodka sales are 7.2x that of tequila by volume. This is understandable given the fewer restrictions on the production of vodka including where it can be made (anywhere) and what it can be made from (almost anything).
Tequila sales are growing much faster than vodka
In 2022 global tequila sales grew by 14% compared to sales growth in vodka of just 4%. While vodka has reached market maturity, tequila is still very much expanding.
Tequila vs vodka sales in the USA
Vodka is the number one selling spirit in the US by volume and value. Tequila is the number three selling spirit by volume (behind American whiskey) but the number two selling spirit by value. Vodka outsells tequila by 2.6x when it comes to volume, but by just 1.2x by value. This reflects tequilas much more premium price point than vodka. The average bottle of tequila sells for more than twice as much as the average vodka in the US.
Top selling brands globally
The market for tequila is more concentrated compared to the market for vodka. The highest selling tequila brand (Jose Cuervo) has almost 20% market share, compared to less than 9% for the highest selling vodka brand (Smirnoff). The top 5 tequila brands represent 46% of total volume compared to 21% share for the top 5 vodka brands.
The top 5 selling brands of tequila by volume globally are:
- Jose Cuervo (19.5% share)
- Patrón (7.4%)
- Don Julio (6.8%)
- Casamigos (6.8%)
- 1800 (5.3%)
The top 5 selling brands of vodka by volume globally are:
- Smirnoff (8.6% share)
- Absolut (4.0%)
- Żubrówka (3.2%)
- Khortytsa (2.9%)
- Hlibny Dar (2.6%)
Top selling brands in the US
The top selling tequila brands in the US are similar to the global figures, reflecting the Americas dominance of the tequila market. The top selling vodka brands in the US differ from world figures and reflect more premium brands. The top vodka brand in the US is Tito’s, which is produced domestically. The top selling vodka brand sells twice as much as the top selling tequila brand in the US by volume.
The top 5 selling brands of tequila by volume in the US are:
- Jose Cuervo (5.1M cases)
- Patrón (2.9M cases)
- Casamigos (2.4M cases)
- Don Julio (2.1M cases)
- 1800 (1.7M cases)
The top 5 selling brands of vodka by volume in the US are:
- Tito’s (11.6M cases)
- Smirnoff (8.8M cases)
- New Amsterdam (5.3M cases)
- Svedka (3.8M cases)
- Absolut (3.1M cases)
Use in Cocktails
Both vodka and tequila are widely used in cocktails. Tequila is the main ingredient in America’s most popular cocktail, the margarita. Tequila also features in the Long Island Ice Tea, Tequila Sunrise and Paloma (all part of the IBA’s list of official cocktails).
Vodka is used for vodka martinis, Cosmopolitans, Moscow Mules and Espresso Martinis (and also Long Island Ice Teas alongside tequila as well as gin, rum and triple sec). As a neutral spirit vodka tends to add a kick to cocktails without imparting much flavor. Tequila based cocktails more often take on an agave taste.
We saw above that the price of the average tequila in the US is twice that of the average vodka. Both sprits have options at the very low end ($10-$15 per bottle) as well as super premium offerings. When looking at the top selling brands, a 750ml bottle of Tito’s vodka goes for around $22 versus the average Jose Cuervo Especial Gold which sells for $21.
Premium vodka brands sell for less than premium tequila brands. A bottle of Patrón tequila sells for around $50, compared to Grey Goose vodka which sells for around $35 per bottle.
The most expensive tequilas are more expensive than the most expensive vodkas. Crazy expensive tequilas are more often distinguished by their barrel aging and limited edition nature, similar to whiskey. There are many tequilas for sale at above the $1,000 mark. Some closer to $20k. There are only a couple of vodkas in this range, including Beluga Epicure (about $10k per bottle). It’s harder for vodka to distinguish itself as worth thousands of dollars given its method of production.
History of Vodka and Tequila
Vodka has been produced for longer than tequila, with evidence of production going back to the 8th or 9th century. Distilled spirits similar to Tequila have been produced since the 16th century following the Spanish colonization of Mexico. Prior to Spanish arrival indigenous Mexicans were drinking fermented beverages made from the agave plants for hundreds or thousands of years.
Vodka traces its roots to Eastern Europe, with both Russia and Poland claiming its origination. The name “vodka” is derived from the Slavic word “voda,” which translates to “water,” reflecting its clear appearance. Records indicate that vodka production began in the 8th or 9th century in Poland. In Russia, production started slightly later, around the 9th or 10th century. Initially, vodka differed significantly from its modern counterpart, often being used for medicinal purposes and having a flavor profile closer to whiskey or brandy.
By the 14th century, vodka’s popularity surged in Russia. Prince Dmitry Donskoy of Moscow utilized it as a revenue source for the state. Advancements in the distillation and filtration processes throughout the centuries led to the refined and purer spirit known today.
Tequila’s origins can be traced back to the indigenous peoples of Mexico, long before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. The native inhabitants, including the Aztecs, produced a fermented beverage from the agave plant known as “pulque,” which served both religious and social purposes. The distillation process was introduced to the region by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. They began distilling agave to produce a spirit, which was the early precursor to modern-day tequila.
The town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, became the center of tequila production by the 17th century. The region’s unique volcanic soil provided optimal conditions for blue agave cultivation, leading to the distinct flavor profile of the spirit. By the 19th century, tequila’s popularity began to spread beyond Mexico’s borders, and its production was industrialized. The spirit gained global recognition in the 20th century, and regulations were established to protect its authenticity, including the designation of “Tequila” as a denomination of origin, ensuring that it is produced only in specific regions of Mexico using established methods.