An herbal tincture is an alcohol-based liquid into which the properties of one or more herbs have been infused. Tinctures (also called herbal extractions) are one of the most popular herbal preparations used by clinical herbalists in our modern culture. Tinctures can be taken on the tongue, just like a flower essence, or can be added to a cup of water or tea. I have made mouth tonics, which are a lot like a mouthwash, from mainly tinctures and I often use tinctures as part of my cough syrup formulas because of the preserving nature of the alcohol in the tinctures.
Alcohol is a powerful preservative and does a good job of extracting many herbal properties. Some herbalists, clinical herbalists included, like to calculate the herb to mensturum ratio for their tinctures, and alcohol makes this quite easy because all alcohol bottles are labeled with the percentage of alcohol they contain.
The amount of alcohol contained in the final tincture is generally relatively low, and opinions differ on the amount of tincture to use at any one time. Some herbalists suggest using as little as a few to ten drops, three times a day, while others recommending using a dropperfull or more at a time. If you’re concerned about the amount of alcohol that will be ingested, start with the smallest possible dose and see how well that works. Also, you can take the tincture in a cup of hot water or tea; the heat will cause much of the alcohol to evaporate while leaving behind the herbal properties you want to consume. Conversely, you can try a different method of extraction, such as a water infusion (also known as a tea), an herbal vinegar, or a glycerite.
I often use 100 proof vodka for my tinctures but have also used 80 proof scotch. Occasionally, I use 200 proof alcohol for resinous herbs such as myrrh or chaparral that require a particularly high alcohol concentration to tincture effectively. If you choose to use 200 proof alcohol for any reason, be very careful with it because it is flammable. You can use grain alcohol and add water to bring the proof to desired point. You can also add grain alcohol to low proof spirits such as brandy to increase the extraction of oils in your herb of choice.
Tinctures can be made with fresh or dried plant materials. Some plants, such as Gallium aperine (cleavers), don’t dry well. Those plants should always be tinctured from fresh plant material. Many plants, such as calendula and nettles, dry well and make a fine tincture.
This is a basic procedure, not a recipe. I haven’t included specific measurements but have instead described the process and what to look for as you’re working. For specific recipes using this technique, see The Practical Herbalist Recipes.
Equipment you’ll need to make a tincture:
- A cutting board and sharp knife (if you’re using fresh herbs)
- A glass jar with a tightly-fitting lid (or a similar jar made from a non-reactive material)
- A blender (optional)
- A rubber scraper or spatula, preferably one that is made of a material that can be thoroughly cleaned and does not hold any odors, such as a heat-proof plastic one
- A label for your jar
After the herb is tinctured, you’ll need:
- A straining bag or several layers of cheese cloth and a strainer
- A bottle for the finished tincture
- A label for your bottle
Ingredients for making a tincture:
- A quantity of herbs or plant material, fresh or dried
- A quantity of alcohol such as scotch or vodka
- Distilled water (if you are diluting grain alcohol)
Procedure for Making a Tincture:
- Prepare your herbs. If you’re using fresh herbs, you will need to clean or shake any dirt from them, although unless they’re really, really dirty you don’t need to wash them with water, and you’ll need to chop them. If you plan to use a blender (see step 4), then you’ll only need to chop them roughly, but if you do not intend to use a blender, chop them as finely as you can. If you’re using dried herbs, you will need to crush them as finely as you reasonably can.
- Place the herbs into your jar. Pack them down gently and fill the jar about three-quarters of the way full with the plant material. You need to leave enough room to fill the jar with alcohol, to have room to shake the contents regularly, and to let that alcohol penetrate through all of the plant material. If you’re using roots or barks, you can fill the jar only about a third to half-way full.
- Pour the alcohol and water mixture over the herbs, filling the jar until you’ve covered the herbs by just under a quarter of an inch, or if you’re using barks or roots fill the jar until it’s about three quarters or so full.
- Blend the mixture by pouring it into a blender and blending until it looks like a smoothie then returning it to your glass jar. (This step is optional and not recommended if you’re using dried or hard herbs, such as dried roots, seeds, or barks.)
- Cap your jar tightly.
- Label the jar and then store it in a cool, dark place. A cabinet where you’ll see it each day is ideal.
- Shake the jar daily, even several times a day. This is highly recommended, although I’ve forgotten to shake jars for weeks and still have had good results.
- After two to eight weeks, strain the herb material from the alcohol. Your tincture should smell and taste of the herb. As you strain it, be sure to squeeze out as much of the tincture from the plant material as you can. I like to use a small, fine-mesh brewing bag to strain mine, but several layers of cheesecloth and a good strainer will work well, too.
- After you’ve strained the tincture once, wash the original jar and return the tincture to it. If it was weak (tasted more of alcohol than herb), now is the time to add more herb. If this is the case, you’ll need to let the tincture stand another few weeks then strain it again. If not, then cap it tightly and let it stand for a few hours or overnight so any remaining sediment will fall to the bottom of the jar.
- Once the sediment has all settled, carefully pour the clear tincture from the jar into your bottle. The sediment won’t harm the tincture, although it will make it cloudy and potentially could eventually contribute an off-taste to it.
- Label your jar and store it in a cool, dark place. Be sure to include the date, the kind of herb you tinctured, and uses so that others will also know how to use it.