Why Don’t You Buy Vanilla Extract in a Liquor Store?

The bizarre story involving an upstate New York woman who buzzed in at three times the legal blood-alcohol limit after allegedly downing a bottle of vanilla extract led us to ask the question: If it’s same proof as rum or vodka, why isn’t vanilla extract regulated like liquor? (Jägermeister is 70 proof, or 35-percent alcohol, while most vanilla extract hovers between 35 and 40 percent.)

People getting drunk or trying to get drunk on household products containing ethanol (the kind of alcohol we mean when we talk about booze) is hardly uncommon. Poison centers and emergency rooms around the country regularly report patients who have to be hospitalized because they downed mouthwash, cough syrup, or alcohol-based flavorings in their attempts to get loaded. In 2004, doctors in Seattle reported a notable case of intoxication in a 16-year-old boy who’d gotten drunk after his friends dared him to down a 12-ounce bottle vanilla extract.

So vanilla extract’s the same proof as Captain Morgan rum, enough to get naive teens and irresponsible middle-aged women into enough trouble to land them in the E.R. or jail. And yet we can buy it in a supermarket next to the giant kiddie-birthday-cake number candles. How does that make any sense?


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For that answer, you have to go back to the years just before Prohibition, when trade groups and manufacturers, seeing the writing on the wall, realized that the only way to save their industries was to lobby politicians to write in legal loopholes that would allow them to continue operating.

Vanilla extract doesn’t just rely on alcohol to extract the essential flavors and fragrances from the vanilla bean and suspend them in a stable solution—it’s also required by law to have an alcohol content of at least 35 percent. (Vanilla extract is also the only flavoring deemed important enough for the federal government to officially define standards for.)

Vanilla extract has a lot of thanks to give to the Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association, founded in 1909 (69 years before that other FEMA). FEMA spent much of its early years showering state and federal legislators with thousands of letters arguing that unless the alcohol used in flavor extracts were exempt from the looming Prohibition, their industry, and thus the food industry, would suffer.

(Meanwhile, of course, because ethanol was used as an ingredient in so many different products, other trade associations were making similar arguments for their products. “The joke during Prohibition was that you could never lose your cough and needed your cough syrup,” says John Hallagan, FEMA’s senior advisor and general counsel. “There were lots of ways of claiming exceptions to get around the laws.”)

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In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was made the law of the land, and the U.S. was, at least on paper, now an alcohol-free country. But the actual legal mechanisms for enforcing the amendment weren’t in place yet. Seeing their last chance to avert disaster, FEMA flooded congressmen with telegrams reading, “We call your attention to the fact that all prohibition [sic] bills now before Congress as worded would destroy our legitimate business.” By the time the Volstead Act went into effect the following year, it included a clause that made an exemption for flavor extracts—as long as they were deemed non-potable and a reasonable person wouldn’t want to drink them straight.

Though Prohibition was repealed, the groundwork that era laid for defining vanilla extract as a completely different animal than liquor is still solid. Vanilla extract falls mostly under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration as a food product and not the stricter governmental regulations for spirits or liqueur, even though an alien chemist might be hard pressed to tell you what the physical difference between the two is.

A lot of the reason that’s still the case is the money. Alcohol used in liquor is taxed at $13.50 per gallon by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (better known as the TTB), the offshoot of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that was formed during federal-bureaucracy shuffle that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Flavor-extract manufacturers pay that amount too, but because their product isn’t ultimately going to become an alcoholic beverage, they’re entitled to a “drawback,” or refund, of $12.50 per gallon.

So while liquor behemoth Diageo pays the U.S. government $13.50 per gallon of Captain Morgan rum it makes with an alcohol content of 40 percent, manufacturer Nielsen-Massey effectively pays a much more attractive $1 for every gallon of vanilla extract it makes with the same percentage of alcohol.

The vanilla-extract guys would have to shell out a ton more money if they (for whatever reason) decided they wanted to be treated like the liquor guys.

That deal still comes with a catch, though. To qualify as a flavor extract and get that big drawback, a vanilla extract still has to be judged non-potable. The unenviable job of testing vanilla extracts to make sure that no sane, mature, or mentally and emotionally healthy person would want to drink them straight?

Yep, that falls to the TTB too, which subjects flavor extracts to a series of tests to make sure they’re not going to end up the next big thing at high-school post-prom parties across America.

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Which brings us back to the poor souls who drink vanilla extract to get drunk, who probably safely fall outside the common standard for a “reasonable person” by that point. Legislation and obscure tax regulations aren’t going to help someone like that, but a good substance-abuse counselor, psychiatrist, or rehab clinic might.

Can minors have vanilla extract?

Is vanilla extract bad for children? The National Capital Poison Center warns against consuming vanilla extract. Because it contains the same alcohol as beer, wine and spirits, children are particularly prone to alcohol poisoning.

Is it illegal to drink vanilla extract?

The flavor extracts, however, had to be non-potable and something a reasonable person would not drink. Because vanilla extract is not an alcohol beverage, it falls under the control of the Food and Drug Administration as a food product rather than the TTB.

Can kids get drunk off vanilla extract?

Ingestion of vanilla extract is treated similarly to alcohol intoxication and can cause alcohol poisoning. The ethanol will cause central nervous system depression, which may lead to breathing difficulties. Intoxication can cause pupil dilation, flushed skin, digestion issues, and hypothermia.

Is there alcohol in vanilla extract?

By FDA standards, pure vanilla extract contains a minimum of 35 percent alcohol, the same proof as Captain Morgan rum. You can’t buy it in liquor stores, but it’s sold in grocery stores and for many, it is a household staple. As the newspaper reports, naive teens getting drunk off of vanilla extract is nothing new.

Can you buy vanilla extract under 21?

Vanilla extract can be purchased by minors because it would be pretty much impossible to keep down enough of it to get drunk. Jason, you give the best advice. Vanilla extract is 70 proof (35%) by law in the US.

How much alcohol is in a teaspoon of vanilla extract?

How Much Alcohol in One Teaspoon Vanilla Extract? One teaspoon of vanilla extract contains 1.73 milliliters (0.058 ounces) of ethyl alcohol. Vanilla extract contains not less than 35% ethyl alcohol. In other words, 35% of any amount of vanilla extract is ethyl alcohol.

How much vanilla extract does it take to get drunk?

According to Kitchen At The Store, one typically needs to drink about four to five ounces of pure vanilla extract to start feeling drunk.

Can you take a shot of vanilla extract?

“One four-ounce shot of vanilla extract is equal to drinking four shots of vodka.” The alcohol proof in vanilla extract is the same for most pure flavoring extracts you buy at the store. When used for cooking, the alcohol dissolves, so the risk of getting drunk goes away. Most stores also offer alcohol-free options.

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Do you need ID to buy vanilla extract?

Today, instead of the classic bourbon, I am using another high-octane alcoholic ingredient: Vanilla extract. You do not need identification to purchase this, as it’s mainly used for cooking and baking. It is legally required to have a minimum of at least 35% alcohol by volume.

Can vanilla extract harm you?

Can too much vanilla hurt you? No, drinking vanilla extract won’t hurt you. But when you drink it in large enough amounts, you might end up feeling uneasy and drunk. Some people might end up with a headache and disturbed sleep as a result of strong exposure or drinking it in large amounts.

Is it dangerous for a toddler to eat vanilla extract?

Alcohol can be a dangerous additive substance and potentially lethal if a toddler gets hold of a product which contains alcohol. Vanilla in its purest form doesn’t contain alcohol. However, the process used to produce vanilla extract is called distillation and uses alcohol as a dissolving agent.

Is it possible to get drunk on vanilla extract?

You can get drunk on vanilla extract. But don’t. Extracts are usually alcohol based. Some are now manufactured with a non-alcohol base. Look in the baking or spice section and you will see what percentage alcohol is in the different extracts.

What is the alcohol content of vanilla extract?

Interestingly enough vanilla extract does depend on alcohol to extract the essential flavors and fragrances from the vanilla bean. And, it’s required by law to have an alcohol content of at least 35%. But vanilla extract is not regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB).

Is the vanilla extract regulated by the TTB?

But vanilla extract is not regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB). During Prohibition the Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association lobbied politicians to allow them to keep operating under the alcohol ban.

We cannot prove that you can get drunk on vanilla extract, but we can tell you that the alcohol content in vanilla extract is high enough to make it a good ingredient to use in recipes. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits. Some think that the flavoring extracts have no alcohol and they are safe to use. Vanilla Extract is allowed by law to contain at least 35% alcohol by volume (70 proof). If you only add just one drop of alcohol into something it can cause serious harm to yourself.

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