Let's talk about the alcohol that you can use in vanilla extract making for a few minutes. This is a question that we receive quite often. "What is the best spirit to use and why?"
We talk about this generally in another article about using different spirits for extract making, but we want to get even more specific here. We are going to talk about specific brands of alcohol that we have tried and the different outcomes we have experienced. Vanilla Extract making is all about trial and error, and we have tried and failed a LOT in our experience and we're starting to get pretty good at getting it right.
First of all, if you are new to extract making, we recommend that you begin with multiple samples. Why? Because it takes at least 90 days to make extract and, after 90 days, you only have one extract to try. If there is something that you don't like about it, you will need to wait another 90 days to try another single version. So, start with 5 or 6 (or maybe more!) small, 2oz bottles. You can then try a few different beans and a few different spirits, so in 90 days you will have multiple results to compare all at once.
In short, if you are new to extract making, then your first job is to create an extract tasting experience 90 - 180 days after you begin. The more you taste at once, the more you will be able to determine what you like and for what application.
We will be looking at three different spirit categories below: 1) Rum, 2) Bourbon and, 3) Vodka. If you are interested in just one of these spirits, simply scroll down to find a summary of different brands used. We grade each spirit based on its vanilla taste after extraction and its ability to be used across multiple application.
Remember: When selecting your spirit, "Pure Vanilla Extract" must always be made with 35% alcohol, so you need to buy 70 proof spirits (or greater than 70 proof) to maximize vanilla bean extraction.
Kirk & Sweeney 23-Year Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: A+
This is obviously a top shelf rum. It's pure, clean, rich and sweet. It's stored in a sherry cask, and its production yields a taste that includes hints of caramelized sugar, honey and vanilla. We start with this rum, not because we recommend that you use it. For most extracts Kirk and Sweeney is cost-prohibitive. However, a good vanilla extract will only be as good as the spirit used for extraction. We couldn't believe the rich, deep, bold flavors that came out of this extract after six months of extraction. The spirit only enhanced the natural taste of the beans, which makes this one of the best extract experiences we have ever had. Is it worth it? In some cases such as vanilla flan, vanilla creams or cream pies, a bold extract really enhances the taste. We set the bar very hight with this delightful extract. It's clearly a top shelf, A+ experience.
Captain Morgan White Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: A-
We like white rum for two reasons: 1) It is sugar-based which means you will get a sweeter extract, and 2) It is mostly tasteless, which means that after 3-6 months of extraction, you will primarily just taste the vanilla beans. This makes white rum a great kind of alcohol to use when experimenting with different beans. Try a white rum with a Tongan vanilla bean vs. a white rum with a Madagascar vanilla bean and you will smell and taste the dramatic difference between those beans almost immediately. As such, white rum's application are almost universal. A Mexican vanilla extract made in a white rum can be used in almost any dessert, making this our favorite choice. Captain Morgan white rum specifically is a little less strong and more subtle, which results in a creamy and smooth extract.
Bacardi Superior White Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: B+
Given our affinity to white rums, we have tried multiple versions. Bacardi is sometimes a little more expensive than Captain Morgan and we typically find that more expensive spirits yield better results. We did not see much of a difference in this case. The finished vanilla was fantastic but not clearly better than the lesser expensive Captain Morgan, so we felt that an B+ grade was appropriate. We also noticed that Bacardi had a stronger rum taste after six months of extraction. Perhaps a slight kick, or burn from its bold default taste, whereas Captain Morgan was a little softer. So, any of you rum connoisseur's out there may appreciate the bold taste of a Bacardi over a Captain.
Captain Morgan Spiced Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: B
Spiced rum will evoke memories of holiday egg nog or pumpkin spice cookies...and that is exactly what a spiced rum vanilla extract can be used for. Banana bread, zucchini bread, ginger bread, etc. are all great applications for for a spiced-rum extract. Everyone should have at least one bottle of spiced rum vanilla extract in their cabinet just for the holiday season because it accentuates the taste of those familiar holiday flavors. If it weren't for a the holiday-only niche, we would give this rum an A+.
Bacardi Gold Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: B
Bacardi Gold is a very unique rum. We could almost place this in the bourbon section below. It has bold, smokey, charcoal tones that are reminiscent of a scotch or whiskey, but it's sugar-based so it still errs on the side of sweetness. As such, an extract made with Bacardi Gold needs to be used for "darker" applications. We used Indonesian vanilla beans because they are inherently dark, smokey and sweet. The result was a very rich and creamy extract that could be used in brownies, chocolate cakes and chocolate frostings. Perhaps even fudge or double-chocolate-chip cookies. This is certainly a unique extract and its taste deserves an A, but its applications are limited, so we gave it a B.
Captain Morgan Dark Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: D+
Dark rum is powerful, rich and smokey. So powerful that after six months of extraction, it was hard to notice the vanilla. There were definitely vanilla undertones, but they weren't bold or pronounced enough to overcome the rum itself. That being said, this could make the perfect vanilla extract to add a little kick to caramels, toffees or dark creams, but that's a very specific niche. Still, it may be worth a try. If you have a great experience with dark rum, please let us know and we may change the grade. Given its limited application, we felt that a D+ was the best we could do.
Blue Chair Bay Coconut Rum: Vanilla Extract Grade: B-
Like cooking and baking new treats for the first time, vanilla extract making should also be fun! We couldn't help ourselves when we made our first ever vanilla extract using coconut rum. You know what? It was DELICIOUS! Something about the coconut and the vanilla that made the experiment and the outcome absolutely a delight. So why the B- grade? Because, outside of using it for coconut cream pies or pineapple up-side-down cakes, its applications were fairly limited. If you really love coconut and you really love vanilla, then you should absolutely give this a try!
Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Vanilla Extract Grade: A+
As we did with the rum, we are going to start at the top. A common theme that you will see at VanillaPura is quality. When developing a quality extract, you can't overlook the spirit any more than you can overlook the importance of the vanilla bean itself. We recommend bourbon, because it is regulated by the government and is pure and consistent, more than whiskey. (See the bottom of this article to understand why we believe that bourbon is better than whiskey when making extracts.) Woodford Reserve is one of the best bourbon's in America. It has dark and smokey undertones, and since it's 51% corn based, it's sweet. A bourbon extract made with an Indonesian or Mexican bean is the perfect dark chocolate, rich extract for darker desserts. We have had several customers use bourbon-based extracts in their BBQ sauces and protein glazes to add a hint of sweetness. This particular bourbon adds sweet, spicy floral notes to its rich flavor profile.
Maker's Mark Bourbon: Vanilla Extract Grade: A
For its price, Maker's Mark is a great bourbon to begin with. It's made with a soft, red winter wheat instead of rye, which softens the bold tones found so often in most bourbons. What that means to you as an extract maker? It means that the vanilla has room to shine through and present itself within the complicated overtones of the bourbon. Simply stated, it's a perfect mixture of smokey and sweet and allows for a pure, rich bourbon extract experience. We recommend this bourbon as a great starting point for new extract makers.
Four Roses Bourbon: Vanilla Extract Grade: C
This is one of those instances where price and final quality did not match up. Four Roses is a nice bourbon and a little more expensive than Maker's Mark. But something about its bold spice and honey tone made it a difficult marriage with vanilla beans. The final taste was too complicated and hard to find an application for. While it wasn't the worst bourbon extract that we ever tried, it certainly didn't meet its mark in our experiment.
Old Crow Bourbon: Vanilla Extract Grade: F
We went there. The bottom shelf. The cheapest bourbon that we could find. We purchased the bourbon, added beautiful, high-quality Indonesian vanilla beans...and we waited a full year. We presented this extract to a team of chefs at a local culinary institute to see their reactions. Our goal was to determine if the quality of the spirit really did matter in extract making. Or, is it all about the bean and only about the bean? The result was immediately apparent. This was absolutely the worst extract that we ever made. It was horrible. Perhaps good as a fire starter at a BBQ, but certainly not something that could be used in food. Avoid the bottom shelf in the bourbon/whiskey category. You can sometimes get away with it using vodka or even a white rum, but with bourbon the bottom shelf is a risky venture. Quality matters with bourbons and whiskeys.
Grey Goose Vodka: Vanilla Extract Grade: A+
We hear that vodka is vodka and, since it is largely tasteless, who cares what vodka you use? Well, that is mostly correct. We have tasted many different extracts with many different types of vodka and they truly are quite similar. This makes vodka the perfect kind of spirit to begin with because it's hard to mess up your extract based on the kind of vodka you use. However, we did notice a clear difference in vodkas that have been distilled 5 times and those that have not. We also noticed a difference over time in the top-shelf vodkas vs. the bottom shelf. Grey Goose (a more expensive top-shelf vodka) became even more rich and creamy with time. The vanilla bean taste became much more pronounced making it one of the most fully-rounded vanilla extracts that we have ever made. If you're going for a bold vanilla taste and an aged vanilla extract that you allow to rest for more than a year, this is the vodka you should use. Made in France with a winter wheat blend that is truly unique.
Svedka Vodka: Vanilla Extract Grade: A
While this is not a top-shelf vodka, it will provide a wonderful final product that you will be proud of. Also a winter wheat vodka like Grey Goose, but it originates from Sweden. Svedka will provide a bold vanilla extract taste that becomes smooth and creamy with time. These extracts can be used with virtually any dessert or other food applications. The price is a little less than Grey Goose and the result is almost identical.
Smirnoff Vodkas: Vanilla Extract Grade: B+
We listed Smirnoff Vodkas as plural (vodkas) as opposed to the singular. Why? Because Smirnoff is the flavor leader of all vodkas. They have multiple vodka flavors, all of which can be used for vanilla bean extraction. The grade of these vodkas is B+ not because of taste. (The taste of a regular Smirnoff vodka vanilla extract is definitely an A) It's a B+ because there are specific flavor applications available through Smirnoff that will make extract making fun, but will limit your application. They have vanilla-infused vodka that will make your extracts an even more pronounced vanilla. They have fruit vodkas that can be used to extract your vanilla beans that will all result in fun (but limited) vanilla use. Smirnoff is the fun vodka. Give it a try, make something unique and tell us about it!
Vanilla extract making is simple and fun. It's creative and allows the maker to express him/herself in a million different ways. The result is often a taste that the world has never seen before. With multiple vanilla beans (all with different flavor compounds) and thousands of spirits on the market, there are literally billions of vanilla extract combinations that the world hasn't yet seen.
Titos Vodka - Vanilla Extract Grade: A
Made in Texas, very affordable and surprisingly great! While not as smooth and velvety as a Grey Goose, this vodka proved to be a great medium for vanilla extraction. We used Mexican vanilla beans with our Titos vodka to see if you could still taste the mocha and caramel that are inherent in Mexican vanilla beans. An alcohol that is too strong will sometimes overpower the subtle notes of a vanilla bean. In this case, Titos was gentle enough to allow the softer elements of the bean to shine through. This is a great vodka for the price.
Here's a recent review of vodka's for extract making that includes the vodka's listed here and a few more:
Here's a review of rums and the pros/cons of different types of rums:
We can't wait to hear about what you have created and we hope you share the good and the bad with us! We love being part of your vanilla extract journey!
What spirit is best with what kind of vanilla bean? This clip from our extract making party might help:
Visit our comprehensive extract-making guide center for more essential extract making tips and ongoing education.