Why Does Vanilla Extract Smell Like Alcohol?
We have been contacted by customers asking about the strong smell of alcohol in our pure vanilla extracts. So we thought we’d address this question.
There are good reasons and a simple fix for this.
1. The FDA requires alcohol in vanilla
The FDA Standard of Identity for pure vanilla extracts requires that there must be a minimum of 35% alcohol in pure vanilla extract. The alcohol may be made with grain alcohol or sugarcane alcohol. In the case of our vanilla extracts, we use sugarcane alcohol because it is both gluten- and gmo-free.
2. Sugar helps to soften the smell. Sugar free doesn’t help.
Most extract companies include sugar or corn syrup and caramel color in their blends. All three of these are sugars; the caramel color also darkens the color of the extract. While these should be mentioned on the labels, they usually aren’t. Added sugars vary in volume depending on the company.
Sweeteners, especially sugar and corn syrup, help to soften the smell of the alcohol. They also assist in starting the aging process.
Here at the Vanilla Company, we do not use sugar in our Rain’s Choice extracts as many customers want sugar-free extracts.
3. Small craft vanilla extracts have less time to age thanks to the high cost of vanilla beans.
Because vanilla bean prices have been unusually high for several years, most companies purchase vanilla beans in small volume. Instead of buying in tons, they’re buying in kilos.
First, the cost; secondly, prices are bound to drop and no one wants to be sitting on vanilla beans that are suddenly worth far less than they cost when purchased.
As a result, extracts are currently made in small volume and shipped before they’ve had time to age. This means the extracts have had no time to start the aging process and become more mellow unless they contain sugar or corn syrup!
What about Mexican vanilla? It has no alcohol smell.
If you are accustomed to purchasing vanilla in Mexico, you may be surprised to learn that there is no comparison between so-called Mexican extracts and the pure vanilla extract you’ll find in the U.S.
This is because Mexican vanilla is not pure vanilla. It’s 100% imitation. Why is that?
Mexico no longer has enough vanilla beans to make extracts due to the changing climate. Further, even when they did, most Mexicans couldn’t afford the high cost of pure vanilla. Mexico began producing imitation vanilla in 1893, and has done so ever since. It’s cheap, it smells good, and tourists and locals like it!
Because it’s imitation, Mexican vanilla doesn’t need alcohol for the aging process, and so it has, at most, only 2% alcohol used solely as a preservative. In addition, it is made from chemical vanillin and may contain red dyes banned in the U.S.
So not only does Mexican vanilla not have the smell of alcohol, it is very different from pure vanilla extract in other ways as well. Good news is you don’t have to sacrifice purity to get an alcohol-aroma free vanilla. Read on.
Is there a way to soften the alcohol smell?
We sell only pure vanilla here at the Vanilla Company, and we also buy our beans in small quantity, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the smell of alcohol accompanies our extracts. But there is a way to eliminate that aroma.
It’s simple. Just add sugar.
For 1 pint of extract, add up to a tablespoon of cane sugar; for a quart, add 2 tablespoons. This will soften the harsh smell of alcohol and initiate the aging process. This comes out to about 3% sugar in the extract.
Within a week or two your extract will smell far more mellow.
Final Note: With Alcohol Comes Longevity
Vanilla extracts have no expiration date thanks to the high alcohol content.
Extracts are similar to liquor, given they are at least 70 proof. Because of that, vanilla will age for two years or longer. Then it stabilizes, and will remain flavorful for a long time if stored in a cool, dark cupboard.
So next time you’re met with the aroma of alcohol when you open one of our bottles of extract, you can add a small amount of sugar, and know that your investment in pure vanilla will not expire before you use it up.