Vanilla 101

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Real vanilla is the fruit of an orchid that grows on a vine, and must be pollinated by hand to produce the lovely spice pod.  Originally from Mexico, the most prevalent species of Vanilla is Planifolia, commonly known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, and the majority of it is grown in Madagascar and Indonesia.  The vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand because the bee that normally does this for Mother Nature doesn’t exist in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean.  The species of vanilla found in the Caribbean, Central and South America is pompona, and exhibits more woody and spicy flavors.

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Tahitian vanilla (Tahitensis) is a less common species.  It is uniquely aromatic.  Compared with Madagascar Bourbon (Planifolia) vanilla, the Tahitian variety is noticeably sweeter in flavor, less woody, and delivers powerful floral aromas.  You’ll know the difference the instant you sniff a fresh Tahitian vanilla bean.  They’re soft and gooey, oily, shiny, and flexible like a licorice twist.  Their scent wafts through the air of Taha’a, Raiatea and Huahine, the major vanilla producing islands of Tahiti.  

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We rum lovers appreciate the subtle flavoring that time in a barrel produces, as it contributes welcome flavor to oak-aged spirits.  But none of the so-called “natural” flavors are the equal of real vanilla beans.  When you encounter the words “natural vanilla” flavor, be doubtful you’re getting the real thing.  Real vanilla – be it Tahitian, Madagascar or Caribbean – beats the sap out of oak and petroleum-derived vanilla extracts.

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The aroma and flavor are common in aged rum because vanillin is a phenolic aldehyde caused by thermal decomposition of lignin in oak.  This process is a natural consequence of aging spirits in oak barrels.  It can also be dramatically accelerated. 

Demand for vanilla flavor far outstrips supply of vanilla pods.  Extracting the true sweet flavor and aromas of vanilla, with over a hundred aromatic nuances, is inefficient and therefore expensive.  Instead, vanilla flavoring is generally synthesized from several sources, some qualifying as “natural” by the US FDA.  Much of what is commercially available actually contains little or no real vanilla bean.  Instead, it can derived from oak lignin, or the castor sacs of mature beavers(!), Tonka beans, guaiacol, etc.  

So next time you consider a vanilla rum, say “Show me the Bean!”

For a deep read and photos of many varieties of vanilla bean pods, please see VanillaReview.com.

© Dave Russell 2017