What is a tincture?
Tincture is the name given to the liquid produced when a herb is extracted in alcohol. Each plant is made up of many different chemical constituents and different ones are soluble in different menstrums (liquid mediums). This means some parts dissolve better in water, some in alcohol, minerals in vinegar etc.
Since prehistoric times, herbs have been associated with alcohol. Nettles, alecost, mugwort and meadowsweet have a long history within brewing because they both flavoured the beer and ensured it didn’t go bad too quickly. Hops replaced other herbs in brewing during medieval times because they had a greater antiseptic effect on the beer. Stephen Buhner also believes it was the first herbal contraceptive encouraged by the church because hops depress male hormones!
Ancient herbalists, such as Galen and Culpepper talk at length about infusing herbs in wine, mainly because wine was cheap and easily obtainable and patients would be happy to drink their medicine if it came in a form they enjoyed. Some herbs were used to ferment and make into wine, which then had a medicinal effect. Coltsfoot flowers were used for asthma and other bronchial troubles, elderflowers make a cooling champagne for summer while elderberries made a deep rich wine to ward off winter infections.
Tinctures as we know them today are normally made with spirits, rather than wine. The spirit most used in the UK is vodka. This is because the quality of the vodka does not affect its ability to extract the herb, so you can always buy the cheapest brand rather than the most expensive as you would with brandy.
How do you make a tincture?
A spirit will extract both alcoholic and water soluble constituents of a herb. You can only buy 100% alcohol in the UK if you have a license from the Government and you have to account for every drop you use. Non-license holders should consider what they wish to extract and how much money they wish to pay to do so. Henriette Kress recommends drying a herb before tincturing and using the strongest alcohol you can afford.
If you are using pure alcohol, such as Everclear, you have to add water to the mixture before you add the herb. The proportions are best found in the late Michael Moore’s table . This is a comprehensive list of herbs which Moore considers extract well in alcohol giving the percentage of alcohol to use and proportion of herb:alcohol as well as the dosage and contraindications.
If you are new to preparing tinctures, percentages and proportions can seem very daunting. If you are making herbal medicines for yourself and your family or friends, there is a simple way which gives fairly consistent results, bearing in mind that the quality/components of a herb will vary year on year depending on growing conditions, amount of sunlight, rain, time of harvest, age and maturity of plant etc.
If you want to make a concentrated tincture, you can dry your herb before tincturing. If you are happy to use fresh plant material, you can either use it straight from picking or leave it to wilt overnight or for 2-4 days, making sure it is not exposed to strong sunlight. Wilting time can be useful to encourage insects to leave your herbs.
To prepare a tincture, fill a screw-top glass jar of any size with your fresh or dried herb. Don't pack the dried herb in too tightly or it will absorb all the liquid and you won't make much tincture. Pour vodka over the herb and “podge” it with a chopstick to get all the air bubbles out, top up the vodka again and screw the lid on firmly.
Leave the jar to stand in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks. Shake the bottle every day. When you decide that it has had long enough, decant the tincture through a plastic sieve into a jug and then pour the liquid into a glass bottle. If the menstrum (i.e. the liquid) is very cloudy, you might want to filter again through a piece of muslin or coffee filter paper. Make sure the bottle top fits securely.
Date and label the bottle so that you know what it is and who made it and when it was made. Tinctures should keep for at least 2 years in a cool dark place, as long as you don't leave the top off and let all the alcohol evaporate.
If you want to reduce the alcohol content of a therapeutic dose of tincture, add boiling water and leave it to cool for at least ten minutes, allowing the alcohol to evaporate.
It is better to make tinctures from single herbs and then mix them with other tinctures rather than try to make a formula with different herbs in the same menstrum.
NB If someone has a compromised or immature liver or an alcohol problem, do not use tinctures. Herbs can be delivered in many other ways such as teas, syrups, vinegars, herbal honey lozenges etc.
Which alcohol should I use?
Some herbs taste better in different kinds of alcohol. Hawthorn berry brandy has a very distinct taste, as has sage brandy. Rum can be useful when extracting very bitter herbs such as motherwort. I use vodka for most of my tinctures and Wray and Nephew’s Overproof Rum which is 63% proof for calendula and Solomon’s seal root.
Making tinctures with glycerine
Tinctures for children and people who do not wish to use alcohol for medicinal or philosophical reasons can be made by extracting herbs with vegetable glycerine. The resulting tincture is called a glycerite. Glycerine does not extract the same range of constituents from a herb and the body has a 20% less efficiency of absorption in the liver.
From "Herbal Preparations and Natural Therapies" by Debra St. Claire:
- glycerin will extract the following - sugars, enzymes (dilute), glucosides, bitter compounds, saponins (dilute), and tannins
- absolute alcohol will extract the following - alkaloids (some), glycosides, volatile oils, waxes, resins, fats, some tannins, balsam, sugars, and vitamins.
Glycerine doesn’t have the same antiseptic effects as alcohol, so will have a shorter shelf life if fresh plant material is used.
For a simple recipe for making glycerites - mix 75% glycerine with 25% distilled water. Fill a jar with fresh herb, packed to medium density, or fill 1/5 full with dried herb. Pour glycerine menstrum over the herb in the jar. Fill to the top of the jar, covering the plant matter. Label and date. Macerate 2-6 weeks, shaking often. Strain and bottle, label and date. Store in a dark place. The shelf life is said to be 1-3 years, depending upon the water content of the fresh plant used.
A helpful discussion about the benefits of glycerine vs alcohol can be found in this online article
Why use tinctures?The popularity of tinctures stems primarily from their ease of use. Once made, a tincture can be accessed immediately and used. If you only have a small amount of a certain herb, you can make a tincture from it and increase the doses available compared with making a tea from the same amount of herb. If your herbal harvest is soaking wet when you gather it and there are real fears that it would go mouldy if you put it to dry, you can still make a tincture or vinegar with it, thereby not losing your harvest!
Tinctures are easy to blend into formulas. When you are first learning about herbs, it is probably best to start by using one herb at a time (simpling), but you may wish to combine different herbs to offer particular help. Michael Moore and David Hoffman provide safe, easy to follow formulae for different conditions and Joyce Wardwell has a section in her book, “The Herbal Home Remedy Book”, giving general principles of how to combine herbs together.
Tinctures are easy to take with you if you are travelling. They can be kept for a short time in plastic bottles, cutting down on weight. If you are flying, tinctures should be packed in hold baggage and be labelled with printed rather than hand written labels. There is a danger than tinctures will be confiscated if taken in hand luggage and dried plant material can also be taken from you.
Tinctures can be added to other drinks to enhance medicinal effects or provide a quick beverage if you don’t have time to make a herbal tea.
Herbal liqueurs are basically tinctures where you macerate (soak) a selection of herbs and spices in vodka or brandy for 6-8 weeks in a warm, dark place before straining and adding ½ to 1 cup of sugar, then leaving to mature in a cool, dark place for several years. When making sloe or damson gin, the sugar is added with the pricked fruit in a wine bottle, filling the bottle half full and leaving to mature for 3-4 months in a warm place before decanting. The resultant gin can be drunk immediately either neat or with lemonade.
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Buhner, SH Sacred and Herbal Healing Beer: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation 1998 Siris Books ISBN 13 978 0 937381 66 3
Green, J The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook Crossing Press ISBN-13 978 0 89594 990 5
Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal 1996 Element Books
ISBN 1 85230 847 8
McGarry, G Brighid’s Healing:Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions 2005 Green Magic ISBN: 0954723023
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Wardwell, J The Herbal Home Remedy Book 1998 Versa Press ISBN-13 978 1 58017 016 1