Phytochemical coevolution theory posits that specialist herbivores will be less sensitive than generalists to the defensive compounds of their host. On the other hand, both types of herbivores should allegedly be similarly sensitive to ‘quantitative’ defences, such as tannin compounds. In this paper, we critically examine the biological effects of two types of tannins: vescalagin (a quantitatively dominant hydrolysable tannin of Quercus robur), and a mix of condensed tannins. In a phylogenetically controlled design, we compare the response of two specialist moth species (Dichonia aprilina and Catocala sponsa) and two generalist species (Acronicta psi and Amphipyra pyramidea) to four artificial diets: a control diet, a diet with 50 mg g−1 vescalagin, a diet with 15 mg/g condensed tannins, and a diet with both 50 mg g−1 vescalagin and 15 mg g−1 condensed tannins. Overall, we find drastic effects of vescalagin and pronounced differences in the responses of generalist and specialist herbivores, but no detectable effects of condensed tannins, and no interaction between the two types of compounds. More specifically, vescalagin reduced the growth of generalist species to one-half of control levels over 72 h. The compound served as a strong feeding deterrent to generalists, reducing ingestion rates by two-thirds. Vescalagin also reduced the metabolic and growth efficiency of generalist species to between 16% and 56% of control levels – effects which were lacking or even reversed in specialist species. These patterns suggest that vescalagin forms an important part of the oak's defence against herbivores, and that specialist species have adapted to deal with such substances. In terms of biological effects, condensed tannins seem much less important. Given a quantitative dominance of hydrolysable tannins over condensed tannins in oak leaves, and a seasonal decline in overall tannin levels, these findings contradict the previous notion that widespread spring feeding among oak herbivores could be attributed to tannins.