Vanilla is a flavoring derived from the vanilla bean which is not a true bean but rather a seedpod produced by certain members of the Vanilla genus of orchids. Bourbon vanilla is a specific variety of vanilla that comes from vanilla seed pods grown on Madagascar. It gets its name from the original place that it was cultivated, a small island near Madagascar called Reunion Island which was once called Bourbon Island. Bourbon vanilla is prized as the best quality vanilla and is known for having the highest average concentration of vanillin, the active component of vanilla flavor.
All of the plants in the Vanilla genus are native to Mexico and Central and South America and more than 30 species are known. Only three species, however are used in the commercial production of vanilla. Vanilla planifola is the primary commercial vanilla orchid species and the source of "true" vanilla. Vanilla orchid cultivation spread to many areas of the world after the European exploration and conquest of North and South America. One particular variety of Vanilla planifola noted for the quality of its product was brought to Bourbon Island for cultivation. It was later shifted to Madagascar where bourbon vanilla is now produced. Today, vanilla sold as bourbon vanilla is usually a product of Madagascar, although some bourbon vanilla comes from other islands in the Indian Ocean or from India or Indonesia.
Vanillin (C8H8O3), an aromatic compound, is the source of vanilla flavoring and scent. It is produced in the seed pods of the vanilla orchids which are dried and cured after harvest. This process causes crystals of vanillin to form on the outside of the seed pods. Bourbon vanilla is available in a number of different products, primarily extracts which are tinctures of bourbon seed pods and contain vanillin, water, alcohol and sometimes sugar. Bourbon vanilla is available as whole beans, infused sugars, and powdered vanillin crystals.
The flavor of bourbon vanilla is considered to be superior to other vanillas, even those produced from the same vanilla orchid variety. This is due to a number of factors, including cultivation methods, growing environment, cultivar genetics, and processing methods. The vanillin content of bourbon vanilla is consistently higher on average to any other vanilla, and its flavor is improved by superior processing methods, especially proper aging which is not always done with Mexican or Central and South American vanillas.