At its most fundamental level, tinctures are herbal extracts made using Alcohol as the primary tool for extraction. Long before distillation and distilled spirits or stronger alcohols were available, we used wines and beers rather than the stronger proof alcohols we use today. That’s the root of the Autumnul favorite, mulled spiced cider. In the European middle ages, folks would put spices like nutmeg, allspice, and clove into a metal cage-like device that they would heat in the fire. When it was well heated, they would plunge the device with spices into a cup of small ale or wine, both what we would today consider to be lower-alcohol beverages. Or, they would add spices and wine to a pot and bring them to the boil over the fire. The combination of heat and alcohol extracted the properties of the spices, helping to settle digestion and soothe the nerves.

What kinds of Tinctures are there? What is the difference between a Tincture and an Herbal Extraction?

Due to modern legal language around practicing medicine and selling drugs, we have a lot more complexity around how we label and talk about herbal preparations, and tinctures are no exception. In some areas, it is not legal to sell or dispense tinctures without a licence to practice medicine. Herbal Extracts, however, typically are still considered “food” rather than “medicine” under those laws. Thus, you may pick up an herbal extraction that is actually a tincture. Technically speaking, Vanilla Extract is a tincture of Vanilla bean that’s labeled as an extract.

Marketing practices have taken this further, particularly with the burgeoning cannabis markets. You may pick up an herbal extract that contains very little or no alcohol, too. Medicinal strength herbal vinegars and syrups can also be labeled or called Herbal Extractions. The term Herbal Extract is fairly broad and loose; look at the ingredients label to determine if the product you’re considering is a tincture or some other type of herbal medicine.

Tinctures, at least within professional herbal circles, usually come in two forms. The first is medicinal strength and designed to be taken in doses ranging from one or more drops to doses measured in milliliters. The second is bitters tinctures, which are often less strong but no less powerful in achieveing their desired goal of promoting good digestion. Both are made using the same techniques and many of the same ingredients. Both types can easily be made at home without special equipment, although if you want to dive deeply into tincturing you can expand on both considerably.

What kinds of Alcohol are used in Tinctures?

Today, we rarely mull over an open fire and we are far more likely to tincture for medicinal and daily use formulas using higher-proof alcohols with the benefit of being able to use far less of the resulting tincture to achieve the medicinal strength we desire. Most home herbalists rely on lower-proof alcohols like brandys and whiskeys for the majority of their tincturing needs. These tend to weigh in at about 40% alcohol by volume or 80 proof. For most dried herbs, that’s easily strong enough to both extract the medicinal properties and preserve the results. If you are working with fresh plants, you want to aim for a higher alcohol by volume, preferably at least 75 percent or 150 proof. This is because fresh plants contribute a lot more water than do dried plants, thus lowering the final percentage of alcohol in the finished tincture.

Professional herbalists tend to invest in organic grape or other distillations with as high a proof as possible, around 190 proof or 95 percent by volume, to which they add water as needed to achieve the final alcohol level they desire. This works for the home herbalist who has access to such high-proof alcohols through legal sources. Even the pros reach for a good brandy, whiskey, vodka, or gin when they’re making tinctures destined for certain purposes, like daily use in bitters formulas or as aperatifs. Those lower-proof alcohols tend to taste considerably better than their stronger cousins, even when they’re the least expensive brandys, whiskeys, vodkas, or gins available.

Some folks will make mulled or medicinal wines and beers, too. While these might technically fall under the tincturing category, we rarely refer to them as tinctures. Since stronger distillations are so readily and easily available, we’ve fallen away from taking a daily dose of herb-steeped wine or mulled ale. Tinctures made with stronger alcohols are perhaps a little more troublesome to make initially, they last a lot longer and you can make considerably more at a time. Mulled wines and ales and herb-steeped wines must be made and used relatively quickly, as exposure to oxygen causes both wines and beers of all sorts to oxidize and thus start to taste sour, metallic, or otherwise less good.

Which Herbs are Best in Tinctures?

The super short answer is…all herbs can be tinctured. But, that comes with a but.

Herbs that are highly resinous typically don’t give up their properties to alcohol well. Professional medicine-makers may use a variety of tools and techniques to improve results when they’re tincturing resins, like Frankincense and Pine Pitch. Home herbalists who want to tincture these plants will likely do well to aim to use the strongest alcohol possible, preferably 190 proof or 95 percent alcohol by volume. Resinous plant materials, like Larrea and Yerbe Santa, are more challenging for both pros and home herbalists, too. They do better with higher proof alcohols, too.

Herbs that are fresh tend to give up a lot of their juices to the tincture, which lowers the alcohol level in the finished tincture. They do better when you start with a higher-proof alcohol. Most dried herbs however, tincture well with a lower-proof alcohol, like a brandy or whiskey.

Mushrooms and lichens with their extraordinarily hard cellular structures do better with high-proof alcohols, too. You can heat them or start with a powder…or both. They are a bit more tricky than other fresh or dried herbs to tincture well, but it can be done at home, too.

Is Tincture Better Medicine than Other Herbal Preparations?

Tinctures are not necessarly better or stronger medicine than other types of herbal preparations. Modern herbal practitoners often offer clients tinctures because it’s easy and efficient to tincture herbs, the resulting tinctures are shelf-stable for a long time, and they are super easy to take. In our modern world, it can be challenging to make time to brew even the simplest tea, let alone make a long infusion from a bag of roots and barks. Herbalists often find their clients are more likely to take the full course of plant medicines if they’re easy to take, so tinctures are quite popular.

Popularity doesn’t mean best. Other preparations, like infusions, vinegars, honeys, and oils can all be powerful, too. The best medicine is the one that is used. It’s that simple. If it’s easy to carry a little dropper bottle with you so you remember to take your herbs, then a tincture formula may be best. If you’re going to make tinctures at home, make the best tinctures you can, and you’ll have the best medicine available!

How to Make Your Own Medicine-strength Tincture

Medicine-strength tinctures are those that are as strong as you can make them. Herbalists use ratios to describe the weight of herb to volume of alcohol or liquid of the finished product. You can do so as well, but you don’t have to. You can make good, strong tinctures using what is called the Folk Method, which relies entirely on volume to measure the ingredients. The amount of herbs you use will vary somewhat depending on whether they are dry or fresh and whether they are aerial parts or roots, barks, and berries, which are more dense than aerial parts.

For Fresh Herbs…

  1. Roughly chop enough herb (leaves, stems, flowers) to fill a glass jar to close to the top.
  2. Pack the chopped herbs into the jar lightly.
  3. Pour in the alcohol. For fresh herbs, it is generally wise to use at least 150 proof or 75 percent alcohol by volume.
  4.  Empty the entire contents of the jar into a blender and blend until the majority of the herbs are well chopped. This is optional. It will help the herbs infuse more quickly.
  5. Return the blended herbs and alcohol to the jar if you chose to blend them, and cover the jar with an air-tight lid.
  6. Let the mixture stand in a cool, dark place for at least four weeks and as much as six months, shaking it daily for at least the first two. Note: If you let the tincture stand for considerably longer you will not get a lot more medicinal strength but you won’t harm it either. Also, if you forget to shake it often, letting it stand longer than four weeks is advisable.
  7. Strain the plant material from the liquid once it has stood. Compost or otherwise discard the plant material. Bottle the liquid in an amber or similarly colored glass jar to protect it from sunlight. Be sure to label the bottle, too.

For Dried Herbs…

  1. 1Pour dried cut-and-sift aerial parts of herbs (flowers, leaves, stems) into a glass jar filling roughtly half to two-thirds of the jar. If you’re using harder, more dense herbs (barks, roots, berries), add them to fill roughly a quarter to third of the jar.
  2. Add alcohol to fill the jar to the top.
  3. Cover the jar with an air-tight lid and let it stand in a cool, dark place for at least four weeks and as much as six months, shaking it daily for at least the first two. Note: If you let the tincture stand for considerably longer you will not get a lot more medicinal strength but you won’t harm it either. Also, if you forget to shake it often, letting it stand longer than four weeks is advisable.
  4. Strain the plant material from the liquid once it has stood. Compost or otherwise discard the plant material. Bottle the liquid in an amber or similarly colored glass jar to protect it from sunlight. Be sure to label the bottle, too. Note: While you can use powdered dried herbs, straining them may be a bit of a challenge. They will, however, infuse their properties into the alcohol much faster than their cut-and-sift counterparts.

How to Make Your Own Bitters Tincture

Bitters are tinctures that have been allowed to infuse primarily the bitter components of the herb used. They are potent tinctures for supporting digestion, but don’t taste as strong and sometimes disagreeable as their medicinal counterparts. To control the intensity and qualities of a bitters tincture, we use less time and less herb to create them. For instance, if you plan to make a chamomile tincture at medicinal strength, you may use a ratio of 1:5, or one part dried chamomile flowers to five parts alcohol. For a bitters tincture of chamomile, you may use half the amount of dried chamomile flowers for a ratio of closer to 1:10. For the medicinal strength tincture, you’ll let it stand and infuse for at least a month and potentially considerably longer to get as many of the plant’s properties as possible. For a bitters tincture, you let it stand for up to two weeks and generally not longer. The shorter infusion time decreases the amount of tannins and astringent properties you extract, making the finished tincture more focused on the bitter and aromatic qualities of the herb, both of which have a strong affect on the digestive system.

You can use fresh or dried herbs to make a bitters tincture. If you’re using fresh, you’ll use a slightly greater volume of plant material and you may want to use a slightly higher alcohol by volume, such as a 100-proof whiskey instead of a 40-proof brandy.

To Make a Bitters Tincture…

    1. Add enough dried or chopped fresh herbs to a glass jar, filling it roughly a scant quarter to half-way. If you’re using fresh herbs, aim for closer to half-way. If you’re using hard dried herbs (barks, roots, or berries), aim for a scant to quite scant quarter.
    2. Fill the jar with alcohol of your choice, generally aiming for a lower alcohol by volume. Brandy, Whiskey, Vodka, and Gin work nicely for bitters tinctures.
    3. Let the jar stand for one to two weeks, shaking it daily. Do not let it stand much longer, even if you’re using hard herbs, as the bittering properties you’re aiming to extract infuse into the alcohol quickly while some of the less tasty properties take longer. The aim here is to just get the tastier medicine from the plants and let the tannins and other less enjoyable stuff stay in the plant cells.
    4. Strain the plant material from the liquid once it has stood. Compost or otherwise discard the plant material. Bottle the liquid in an amber or similarly colored glass jar to protect it from sunlight. Be sure to label the bottle, too.

What to do if your Tincure isn’t Strong Enough

After you strain your tincture, give it a good inspection. Does it smell like the herb? Does it taste like the herb? Did you notice a color change to the alcohol you used? If you decide it isn’t strong enough, you can strengthen it by adding more herb and letting it stand longer. I have done this when I’ve made a tincture using the folk method and found the results tasted more strongly of alcohol than of herb. It takes more time, but in the end I’ve found the results worth the wait, as the resulting tincture is stronger and more effective. The more you practice tincturing a variety of herbs, the better you’ll get at recognizing how much to use and how long to let it stand. It doesn’t matter if the tincture has stood in your cabinet awhile before you decided it needs stengthening. One of the benefits of both alcohol as a menstrum and practices is that they give you a lot of space for experimenting and improving.

To Strengthen a Finished Tincture…

  1. Add dried herbs to a glass jar.
  2. Add enough of the original tincture to at least cover the herbs. It’s okay if the liquid is well above the plant material, but it’s not okay if the plant material is highter than the liquid.
  3. Cover the jar with an air-tight lid and let it stand in a cool, dark place for at least four weeks and as much as six months, shaking it daily for at least the first two. Note: If you let the tincture stand for considerably longer you will not get a lot more medicinal strength but you won’t harm it either. Also, if you forget to shake it often, letting it stand longer than four weeks is advisable.
  4. Strain the plant material from the liquid once it has stood. Compost or otherwise discard the plant material. Bottle the liquid in an amber or similarly colored glass jar to protect it from sunlight. Be sure to label the bottle, too.

Recipes to Try

Search Tincture at The Practical Herbalist for more tasty Herbal Remedy tincture blends to try.