Bob, it's a premium grain vodka. I don't drink (migraine trigger), but I bartended at an upscale casino bar once and was privy to all fine spirits and liqueurs. There is such a huge difference in the smell and the taste of vodkas (and all others). People always say it doesn't matter, but, of course, it matters a lot. Just like with drinking it, the quality of the vodka is going to have the most impact on the flavor. I use the 80 proof bottle and the beans from JR Mushrooms on Amazon. The beans actually come from my favorite extract company, Olive Nation. The combination of these two ingredients is consistent between batches. The taste is smooth, incredibly vanilla, but like no vanilla I've ever had. I use all 16 beans in the two cups. Inferior products could not possibly produce this. The taste is like something you would not have imagined existed. I'm heavy handed with vanilla, as with most flavorings in baking. I use the homemade in conjunction with some paste. The paste adds the large amount of seeds (so does the homemade if you shake and use a long spoon) plus its own individual flavor. It takes a great baked good to another level. In the end, the price is equivalent to NM VBP.
I bake with about 40 types of alcohol. In every case, the product features top shelf brands. In my opinion, I would not consider adding an inferior brand to any product. It would be better to leave it out. With so many top shelf brands available as minis, most alcohols can be used for the same price as a bottle of store bought vanilla.
After I split and cut them in half, the seeds come out over time and float in the vodka.
The site I used for my recipe was an FDA site. All sites actually say to use the canning process of sterilization. I just happen to have my hot water set rediculously high, but I should boil them if not for that. I know you want to argue the process, but every site says the same thing. It's not about the beans being sterilized, it's about not letting impurities spoil the extract. For anyone going to the trouble, it would be prudent to follow the cleansing directions since they are so simple. I make sure my spoon is immaculately clean before I put it in the jar every time. This is a 2 c, $40.00 jar. I'm not spoiling it. I am not going to go against all of my research and say that sterilization isn't important. You are only going to get out what you put in.
I don't know about the cork, but no site suggests it. My guess is that the canning jar lid can be cleaner. When I shake it weekly, the vodka does hit the lid.