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Vanilla - The Only Edible Fruit in the Orchid Family

Vanilla is the most popular flavour in the world mostly enjoyed through desserts, ice cream, custards, cakes or as a flavour enhancement in beverages and or sauces. It has a sweet, perfumed aroma with a woody, leathery almost smoky flavour, that I guess most of us are now familiar with! 

What do we know about vanilla?

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, the largest flowering plants in the world with more than 150 vanilla varieties from which only Bourbon and Tahitian vanilla types are used commercially.  

Vanilla is native to Mexico, the Olmecas were probably the first who used vanilla as a flavouring, before that vanilla was used as a fragrance in temples, its flowers placed inside of amulets. Aztecs used vanilla to enhance the flavour of chocolate drink that was introduced to the Spanish explorer Cortez in the 16th century who brought it to Europe together with jaguars, rubber balls and many other valuable goods.

The tropical orchid plant called Vanilla planifolia grows as clinging vine growing up to heights of 300 feet, from which sprout its greenish-yellow flowers in the size of 4 inches in diameter. Each flower opens up for 24 hours for pollination by melipona bees, special to the local region, or by hummingbirds. The pollination is essential to develop its fruit-filled with thousands of minuscule black seeds. 

Production by pollination is fairly small and can be perceived as a boutique production against global demand. This made me wonder how the rest of the vanilla was produced. In 1841 on the Island Reunion Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave boy figured out how to hand-pollinate the vanilla blooms. His technique helped the quick growth of vanilla plantations across the globe from Madagascar to India, Indonesia and Tahiti. 

Vanilla beans are the long, green-yellow pods which are individually hand-harvested for use in the further multi-step curing process. The curing process which takes up to 9 months, makes vanilla the only edible fruit from the orchid family. But most importantly the result is an aromatic, black pod with up to 500 different flavour and fragrance components that are used across several different industries such as food, perfumery and flavour industry to name a few. 

The demand for vanilla flavour is fulfilled by blending and creating vanillin from other industries such as by-products of the wood pulp and paper industry, from eugenol or component of clove oil extraction.

I love to use vanilla as an enhancer and or contrast to other flavours in cocktails created at IB HQ. Sometimes it’s dominant, sometimes it’s hidden. But because of the woody, leathery, smokey yet sweet, floral and fruity aromatics, it will be always used as one of my secret ingredients. :)

Ile Bourbon Old Fashioned 50 ml Scotch Blended Whisky * 5 ml Vanilla Syrup ** 2.5 ml Peated Whiskey ***

  1. Combine all three ingredients in a mixing glass over ice and stir 8 times. 

  2. Strain into whiskey glass over ice and garnish with lemon peel. Feel free to use orange peel for more sweeter notes.

Note: * Use a fruity style of blended whiskeys such as Monkey Shoulder or Chivas Regal 12 years old

** Vanilla Syrup 300 gm Caster Sugar 150 ml Still water 2 pcs of Bourbon Vanilla pods

  1. Cut the vanilla pods in half and scrape the seeds into a spoon and keep it ready.

  2. Combine sugar and water and cook it into a sugar syrup. 

  3. Once the sugar is dissolved add the seeds and vanilla pods into the syrup and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours. 

  4. Once infused, take out the vanilla pods and bottle the syrup. 

*** Peated Whisky - feel free to use any of your favourites. I like to use Lagavulin 16 years old for its delicate peatiness and honeyed smoked sweetness that complements and contrasts the vanilla at the same time.


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