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Small Town Vanilla

Looks like medicine, works like a charm. (Bill O-Leary -- The Washington Post)

Bakers who live in the small Virginia town of Warrenton (pop. 8,877) have an especially sweet life. They can walk into Rhodes Gift and Fly Shop on Main Street and pick up a bottle of freshly made, secret-recipe vanilla extract.

The story of how this came to be starts with pharmacist J.W. Rhodes, who devised the formula and began selling his own extract in 1938, at his Rhodes Drug Store. It was only available during the late fall and winter holidays, when the need to make cakes and cookies was at its peak. It was packaged in medicinal bottles that made it seem like a tonic for whatever might ail a pudding or eggnog. Rhodes kept the recipe to himself, and started a tradition that has lasted more than 70 years.

After he died, a man named Russell Herring owned the store (from the mid-1960s to mid-’70s); he inherited the recipe and kept making the extract. Warrenton resident Duane Thompson worked at the drug store as a pharmacist for a few of those years, moved away and returned to buy it in 1976. The extract has been solely his to produce since then. One other person knows the recipe, he says, but that person's promised not to tell.

Due to demand, Thompson began making it year-round, but always in small batches. When visitors came through and bought bottles of extract to use at home, a small mail-order business was born. He remembers when “a lady from Seattle called me and asked, ‘Can you send me six bottles?’ ” He did. A short time later, she called and ordered six more; she was giving them to her friends as gifts. “Then she sent me the check and a nice box of chocolates,” he says.

Thompson “semi-retired” in 2005; the Rhodes Drug Store ceased to be. The gift shop that had been upstairs moved downstairs and store manager Amy Leach bought the place in January 2009. “People walked in with checkbooks when they found out I was closing,” he says. “They were ready to buy every bottle I had left.”

The gift shop offered to sell the extract for him, so Thompson agreed to keep making it, maintaining his exclusive, one-man operation. Customers have asked for other flavors (non-negotiable) and for clear vanilla extract to make white wedding cakes and confections (he will leave out the caramel coloring, upon request). He reckons his annual production was more than 80 gallons, and slightly more than half that now.

The bottles are plastic, still medicinal-looking, and can be found in a homey basket at the store’s front counter with a sign that says, “Rhodes Drug Store Famous Vanilla Extract.” Google doesn’t know much about it.

Thompson lists five ingredients on the label: vanilla, glycerin, caramel, water, alcohol. (In comparison, a bottle of Nielsen-Massey’s Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract lists water, alcohol, sugar and vanilla bean extractives.) “Dusty’s original recipe card had 'cumadin' [a drug used to thin the blood] written on it,” he says. “It might have been a flavor enhancer. But I guess that ingredient was dropped long ago.” The ex-pharmacist will be 62 in December, but sounds like a politely stubborn kid when pressed about the main ingredient. Is it the scrapings from vanilla beans grown in Tahiti? Common chemicals?

“I have a supplier,” is all he’ll say about that. “I had to get a special permit from Virginia to get the grain alcohol, though. And this stuff is nasty to taste all by itself.” Kept in a cool dark place, Thompson says his extract can remain potent for half a decade.

Leach is a devoted fan. She uses his vanilla extract in cooking and baking, to flavor her coffee and in oatmeal. “It’s really good, and the price makes it a deal,” she says. “It tastes genuine to me.” Thompson has stuck a small list of suggested uses in the gift shop basket that include placing a drop of extract on top of a light bulb; the heat from the bulb will “send out” the fragrance. A dash added to a can of paint will take away the paint’s strong smell. And so on.

Unscrew the cap and the aroma is instantly there — not as insistent or harsh as imitation vanilla, not as complex and deep as pricey imported extract. The color’s a soft brown, and the consistency seems soft, too; the extract clings ever so slightly to the lip of a measuring spoon. It flavors a pound cake and panna cotta admirably. Sold at relatively bargain price for vanilla extract, it’s easy to see why people want Thompson to continue making it. Plus, a bit of Virginia-grown, locally made pride is always in style.

Rhodes Drug Store Compound Extract Vanilla, $7 for eight ounces, available at Rhodes Gift and Fly Shop, 77 Main St., Warrenton. (It is sold at the store on consignment; do not call the store.) To order by mail, call 540-270-7412.

— Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  September 17, 2009; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Warrenton, shopping  
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Be grateful that Cumadin is no longer included in the recipe. It's a brand name for Coumarin, a blood thinner that lends vanilla aroma to those big cheap bottles of synthetic Mexican vanilla you see in border towns. It's an extract of the tonka bean and according to the FDA's web site: "Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the United States."

Posted by: fluxgirl | September 17, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Glycerin? Caramel? Yuck. It's easy to make vanilla extract using only a couple of vanilla bean and vodka. Put them in a bottle and let it sit for a month and there you have it -- vanilla extract.

Posted by: margaret6 | September 18, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I have gone shopping in Old Town Warrenton for years with my Mom and I just now learned something new. I did not know that Rhodes Drug Store sold homemade vanilla extract. I am glad the gift shop stills sells it, I will have to try the vanilla extract.

Posted by: granite3 | September 18, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

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