10 Flavors that Make Magic with Vanilla
How did vanilla become a literal stand-in for the word “plain”? Somewhere along the line, the delicious and exotic (that’s right, exotic) flavor had its most prominent trait, “popularity,” unfairly transformed into “plainness.”
In one sense, that’s understandable: Vanilla is everywhere, and when you see something every day you start to become numb to its actual characteristics (quick: Who’s on the $20 bill? See?).
But in another, wider sense, it’s crazy: Vanilla is genuinely extraordinary, in several ways. It’s got an epic history, it’s the only orchid out of more than 25,000 varieties that produces an edible fruit; it’s the second-most expensive spice in the world; and it’s only cultivated in a select few spots around the globe. As for its flavor, vanilla is the world’s most-preferred scent in perfume, and, despite the bad rap it’s gotten over time, it remains the most popular flavor of ice cream in the US.
Vanilla is also complex (chemists have isolated some 200 flavor compounds in vanilla beans), and amazingly versatile. When it comes to cocktails, vanilla can play Ginger Rogers to a dizzying array of Fred Astaires on the flavor spectrum.
Here are just 10 of the dozens of ingredients that will dazzle your taste buds and level up your drinks in tandem with vanilla:
Cherry + Vanilla
Plays well with: whiskey, bourbon
Barrel-aged spirits like bourbon get much of their flavor profile from vanilla-like compounds in the charred wood of the barrels they’ve matured in. So it’s no surprise vanilla works well with the brown liquors, and cherry adds a delicious complementary sweetness. Vanilla and cherry both figure in extracts, syrups, and bitters that can go into cocktails, or as flavors infused directly into spirits.
Fig + Vanilla
Plays well with: whiskey, bourbon, gin
At first blush, gin seems like an unlikely match for this duo. But blogger Sarah Hauser developed an intriguing fig-and-vanilla-bean simple syrup that she matched with gin, orange bitters, and tonic for an outside-the-box cocktail. As for whiskey, it’s tailor-made for the fig-and-vanilla combo, as more than a few craft cocktail bar menus will attest.
Chestnut + Vanilla
Plays well with: rum, bourbon
Chestnut liqueurs are widely available, and frankly, underused in cocktails. Get yourself a bottle of one and refashion your Old Fashioned by swapping out the simple syrup for chestnut liqueur, and the regular bitters for vanilla bitters. The pair shines equally well alongside rum, too.
Almond + Vanilla
Plays well with: whiskey, rum
Vanilla and almond extracts are key players in egg nog; orgeat, aka almond syrup, is one of the building blocks of Tiki, where it’s ably supported by vanilla syrup.
Cinnamon + Vanilla
Plays well with: whiskey
In a perfect world, the words “cinnamon and vanilla” would always be followed by the words “Hot Toddy.” The combination is enough to make you actually look forward to the weather turning cold.
Grapefruit + Vanilla
Plays well with: with vodka
Vanilla rounds off the sharp edges of grapefruit in this matchup, while the grapefruit, in turn, adds citrusy brightness to the vanilla. Mix them with vodka and you get a very pleasing tipple that’s tart, sweet, and smooth.
Orange + Vanilla
Plays well with: tequila, rum, vodka, or whiskey
There’s a reason there’s an iconic frozen treat involving these two flavors: the combination is truly classic, and has been iterated in cocktails in more ways than you can imagine (not all of them good, tbh). But considering the versatility of the pairing, and its general deliciousness, it’s pretty easy to find a vanilla-orange drink that suits you. It can work in coladas, slushies, floats, margarita riffs, and stirred classic-cocktail variations.
Ginger + Vanilla
Plays well with: vodka, whiskey + honey
Ginger and vanilla make a killer vodka Martini variation, and, with a balancing dollop of honey, they excel in whiskey, too.
Mango + Vanilla
Plays well with: rum or vodka
You know what’s a delightful cocktail with an equally delightful name? The Vanilla Mango Mojito. Fans of Indian food would appreciate a Mango Lassi cocktail, which can be made with vodka or rum, and includes mango (obv) and vanilla. The options are many with this versatile combo, which will make you feel like you’re on vacation whether you actually are or not.
Coconut + Vanilla
Plays well with: rum, vodka
While coconut often took a starring role in cocktails from the height of the Tiki era, vanilla was a very solid supporting player, in both syrup and extract form. (Vanilla extract, btw, has a 35% abv.)