Many people use tinctures as a way to reap the medicinal benefits of herbs. Today on the blog, we take an excerpt from The Artisan Herbalist by Bevin Cohen, which briefly introduces tinctures and how you can prepare them in your home.
Excerpt from the Book
What Are Tinctures?
Tinctures are extracts, similar to herbal teas, but they are created by steeping plant matter in alcohol as opposed to hot water. There are many benefits to crafting herbal medicine in tincture form. Tinctures are quite potent, so only small dosages are typically needed; thus, tinctures can be packaged in small bottles, which makes them more portable and convenient. Alcohol also acts as a preservative, so the herbalist’s tinctures will have an extended shelf life, especially when packaged in dark glass and stored in a location away from direct sunlight.
Additionally, tinctures are made using a cool-temperature infusion method, unlike teas, which are brewed using hot water. Many of a plant’s most delicate constituents can be damaged or lost to evaporation when exposed to heat. For this reason, tinctures tend to retain more of the potent medicinal compounds found within the plant material. Tinctures are also absorbed into the bloodstream faster than herbal teas, allowing the user to experience results sooner and, quite often, more intensely.
Preparing Herbal Tinctures
When the herbalist is ready to craft their first tincture, the list of equipment they need to gather is actually quite short. Although tinctures are considered to be very potent herbal medicines, making them is a very simple task. Of course, the first thing needed will be the herb or herbs that the medicine maker plans to use. While there are many tinctures available that are crafted with multi-herb blends, it is always wise for the novice herbalist to begin their studies with single-herb formulas. Making medicines with individual herbs will allow the practitioner to properly experience the truest essence of their chosen ingredient. As one becomes more familiar with the herbs in their apothecary and develops deeper relationships with their medicinal plants, creating herbal blends for tinctures will be a more valuable practice. But first, they must take the time to truly understand the benefits and potential risks of each individual herb. The use of single-herb tinctures is a particularly beneficial practice for the herbalist that has just begun their studies. Making notes of extraction time, coloration, aroma, and flavor—as well as the medicinal effects of each tincture—is a vital step in building the knowledge and experience needed to craft safe and useful medicine. Along with the chosen herb, the herbalist will also need a container for infusing their tincture as well as alcohol for extraction. For a container, any glass jar with a lid will do, the most popular choice being a canning jar. For the alcohol, there are a number of choices available depending on the herbalist’s particular need or preference. In many traditional herbals, the alcohol chosen for the recipes is brandy, which is usually made from distilling wine. Brandy is a dark and strongly flavored liquor. In modern herbals, the typical alcohol called for is usually vodka or even a higher-proof grain alcohol. Many herbalists prefer vodka because the liquid is clear and the flavor of the liquor is very light. This allows the color, smell, and flavor of the herbal extract to come through in the tincture, heightening the experience for both the medicine maker and the consumer. Vodka is also typically a less-expensive alcohol, which can be an influential factor for the herbalist on a budget.
Regardless of the type of alcohol that is used as the solvent, or menstruum, what’s important when making a tincture is the percentage of alcohol in the liquid. In the United States, this is referred to as proof. Proof is defined as twice the alcohol content by volume in a liquid. For example, a vodka that is 50% alcohol would be considered 100-proof. In Canada and most other places in the world, alcohol content is labeled by ABV (alcohol by volume).
For making quality tinctures, the herbalist should strive to use a menstruum that is at least 80-proof (40% ABV). This strength will suffice for a majority of the herbal tinctures that the artisan herbalist will choose to craft, yet it is still dilute enough to sufficiently extract the water-soluble constituents of the plant material. If the herbalist is working with fresh, high-moisture herbs such as berries or roots, they may want to consider using a more potent solvent of around 70% ABV. This can be accomplished by mixing a blend of half 80-proof vodka and half 190-proof grain alcohol. For tincturing gums and resins, the herbalist can use pure 190-proof grain alcohol.
About the Author
Bevin Cohen is the owner of Small House Farm and an author, herbalist, gardener, seed saver, and educator. He offers workshops and lectures nationwide and serves on the boards of the International Herb Association, the Slow Food Ark of Taste Seed Bank, and the Community Seed Network. He lives in Sanford, Michigan.