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Can I use cheap booze for my homemade extract or will it be terrible?
December 3, 2010 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I am making homemade vanilla extract for christmas presents. I was planning to use smirnoff, but money is tighter than I anticipated this month. If I use bottom shelf vodka, will it be terrible? What is the least crappy brand of bottom shelf vodka? I don't have a brita filter to purify the vodka unfortunately, but if there is another cheap way to make it better I could do that. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
No, Cooks Illustrated did their thing with homemade vanilla extract and determined that vodka quality has no real effect (September/October 2009 issue). They used Smirnoff (not the best link, sorry). I used bottom shelf plastic bottle vodka and the extract turned out great.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:00 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you haven't bought the vanilla beans yet, saffron.com has a pound of vanilla beans for 20 bucks.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:06 PM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Svedka is a fine brand to drink and to make vanilla extact without breaking the bank.
posted by jadepearl at 7:14 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


My stepmother uses cheap rotgut vodka to make liqueur (don't remember the brand, unfortunately), and it's delicious.

If your main concern with quality is the concentration of alcohol, you might try sticking the vodka the freezer. The alcohol will freeze last (and melt first), so you can just pour it off and re-dilute if necessary. That won't help if it's funky tasting vodka, but even cheap vodka tends to be pretty neutral.
posted by kagredon at 7:16 PM on December 3, 2010


The best tasting cheap vodka I've had is "Poland Springs." (Their gin is quite decent too). I'd be willing to bet it's not the same Poland Springs that is owned by Nestle. If it's available in your area, certainly better than Rubinof and the like.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:19 PM on December 3, 2010


My stepmother's chosen brand is Popov, which is apparently universally reviled for actually drinking.

It occurs to me that you might be able to replicate the Brita effect with activated charcoal, which is apparently sold as a health supplement now. You could buy some capsules (which I'd assume are food-grade), cut them open and empty them into a cheesecloth. I've never actually tried it, but it seems like it would work.
posted by kagredon at 7:28 PM on December 3, 2010


I use the cheapest stuff I can find for my extracts and they taste and smell great.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:36 PM on December 3, 2010


Seconding Svedka, good stuff for the price. That's what I would use even if money was not tight.
posted by token-ring at 7:47 PM on December 3, 2010


Cheap vodka is fine for this but I'd be a little concerned about having enough time to steep things right. I started mine in late October [and made some vanilla sugar too which is likewise pretty straightforward and even more bulletproof] and it's just starting to get to that "looks like vanilla" stage though I'm sure I could give ti to friends with "don't open til Valentine's Day" stickers on it and it would be fine. I had a lot of luck getting totally decent vanilla beans off of ebay [MeMail me if you'd like details] and my plan for this week is to find some adorable jars. The only caveat I'd give you is that totally bottom shelf vodka may be "light" vodka so I'd make sure you are buying whatevewr the cheapest actual vodka is. I almost made this mistake.
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 PM on December 3, 2010


No one on earth will ever know (in a blind taste test) whether you paid $10/fifth or $50/fifth for the vodka, after it's turned into vanilla flavoring.

Anyone who thinks they can is huffing pride fumes.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:54 PM on December 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


If your main concern with quality is the concentration of alcohol, you might try sticking the vodka the freezer. The alcohol will freeze last (and melt first), so you can just pour it off and re-dilute if necessary.

What? That's not what happens when you put vodka in the freezer. The alcohol and non-alcohol definitely don't separate, ever. Also, all vodka has more or less the same concentration of alcohol (35 - 40%), regardless of quality. I fail to see how this would be an issue.
posted by item at 7:56 PM on December 3, 2010


This may be an ignorant question, but why not use Everclear or another kind of pure alcohol (provided it's available for sale in your state)?
posted by Nomyte at 8:07 PM on December 3, 2010


@item: Yeah, you're right. I didn't think it through too clearly (I guess I was trying to do distillation in reverse or something?), but since water and alcohol are perfectly miscible, that won't work. Disregard that, OP (and thanks for catching that, item.)
posted by kagredon at 8:10 PM on December 3, 2010


I agree with most of the above. Unless you're drinking it straight, the quality of the vodka won't make a difference. It doesn't matter whether you're making extract or a mixed drink.

That said, nthing the Svedka suggestion. That's my preferred vodka in general (unless someone wants to buy me a bottle of top-shelf...).
posted by fishmasta at 8:15 PM on December 3, 2010


Potter's is a very acceptable brand of cheap vodka. The label claims three or four purifications. To my taste this hooch competes with others triple its price.
posted by telstar at 8:22 PM on December 3, 2010


Nomyte: you wouldn't think so, but Everclear is actually WAY more expensive than bottom-shelf liquor for some reason (leastaways in PA/NJ). I wanted to buy some for a science project once and was stunned. Vodka might also be preferable for another reason - if any of the flavor components in the vanilla beans are water-soluble, they'd be lost in a strictly-Everclear extract.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:54 PM on December 3, 2010


Just a note: I've been doing this for years, and it doesn't absolutely have to be vodka. I guess you'll get a purer vanilla flavor with vodka maybe, which you might detect in really simple recipes like shortbread or whipped cream, but I've used rum and bourbon as well, and they work beautifully. You can get some kinds of whiskey really cheap. If anything, these other alcohols give even a richer and more complex taste to recipes and they do just as good a job extracting vanilla essence. The alcohol is basically just being a solvent, so it doesn't so much matter what it is as long as it's distilled spirits without too aggressive a flavor (like, liqueurs such as Chambord or Amaretto would probably be too flavorful), and the brown beverages have a nice color. Not sure whether this will save you any money, but it might allow you some flexibility/creativity.
posted by Miko at 8:56 PM on December 3, 2010


What? That's not what happens when you put vodka in the freezer. The alcohol and non-alcohol definitely don't separate, ever.

It may not work on vodka, since the concentration of alcohol is already fairly high. It definitely works in some mixures of alcohol and water, though - it's how they make ice beer.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:06 PM on December 3, 2010


This may be an ignorant question, but why not use Everclear or another kind of pure alcohol (provided it's available for sale in your state)?

Not an ignorant question at all. Alcohol is a chemical means of transferring aroma and flavor from one medium to another. That's it. Chemicals aren't brand-aware. For these purposes, Grey Goose=Smirnoff=Ketel One=Everclear.

Use Everclear for vanilla extract and propolis tincture--anything meant to be consumed in small quantities.

Use cheap vodka for making infusions of ginger, lemongrass, mint, poblanos--anything meant to be used in a mixed drink.
posted by dogrose at 9:06 PM on December 3, 2010


I do this all the time, everclear is the way to go. Yes it costs about a third more, and yes it is cheaper. I use it because I get a cleaner better smelling extraction out of a higher proof liqueur. A 750ml of everclear will make a full handle of extract if you dilute it with a simple syrup (for mixing drinks).

If you are using it as a extract for baking or whatnot using everclear will let you use WAY less and still have a much better aroma.

For me it does not depend on my needs, I always use the highest proof flavorless alcohol I can find and then dilute AFTER it has been extracted. Oh, and do not try to extract fresh spearmint, it smells like death after a few days.
posted by Felex at 9:52 PM on December 3, 2010


A few reality checks: You could freeze vodka in the freezer to try to concentrate it, if you have a freezer that goes down to ~-30C. Activated charcoal for nutritional supplements is usually very finely powdered (I burped once after trying an activated charcoal gel cap and was surprised by the cloud of 'smoke' that came out). I doubt you'd have much luck containing it in cheesecloth, or even a coffee filter.
posted by Good Brain at 9:56 PM on December 3, 2010


The problem isn't so much the alcohol content, but the other stuff content. Cheap vodka has other stuff in it. Good vodka tastes neutral, bad vodka tastes like aftershave.
posted by gjc at 12:04 AM on December 4, 2010


jessamyn: I'd be a little concerned about having enough time to steep things right. I started mine in late October ...

FWIW, this instructable is the most comprehensive source of vanilla-making info I've found. I was surprised to learn that it takes about six whole beans to make one cup of extract (based on FDA guidelines of what can legally be sold as vanilla extract; less, and it's just vanilla-flavored liquor). So I chopped up six beans, immersed them in a cup of Svedka, and got dark, potent vanilla within a couple of weeks.
posted by jon1270 at 2:25 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Trade Joe sells a very nice vodka for $10/liter. Unfortunately I don't remember the name right now but it's a square bottle with white label.
posted by anadem at 7:53 AM on December 4, 2010


If there's a Trader Joe's near you, Luksusowa vodka is remarkably good quality for the low price. (Note, I would strongly disrecommend the Monopolowa vodka. There's a reason one is named "Luxury" and the other is named "Monopoly".)

And nthing the recommendation for Vanilla, Saffron Imports (saffron.com). If you happen to be located near San Francisco, just get yourself to Xanath Ice Cream on Valencia, which acts as saffron.com's physical storefront. Ridiculously low prices on quite good quality vanilla and saffron. The ice cream is worth trying, too.
posted by Lexica at 8:26 PM on December 4, 2010


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