Erin is the Communications Manager at Mountain Rose Herbs and a graduate of the Columbines School of Botanical Studies. She spends her days photographing flowers, creating herbal treats, and wildcrafting medicinal plants in the magnificent Oregon Cascades.
Navigating the world of alternative herbal medicine can inspire a hungry fascination. Finding wellness through herbs often leads to an experience that's transformative and empowering. This experience can also bewilder our curious minds! We are lucky to have an incredible wealth of information about plant medicine at our fingertips today, but the beautiful complexity that comes with herbal healing makes learning the nuances a lifelong task. A sip of herbal tea or a dropperful of tincture can easily unlock the door to herbalism. Most of us begin our studies making these simple and effective preparations. However, basic concepts sometimes become muddied when juggling Latin binomial nomenclature, formulation considerations, physiological effects, historical research, and other pursuits within the art. The most common mix-ups arise from misused terminology. One term that tends to be applied to a variety of preparations is tincture. What is a tincture, is there any difference between a tincture and an extract, and is making herbal tinctures easy?
All tinctures are extracts, but not all extracts are tinctures
Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts that have alcohol as the solvent. If you are using water, vinegar, glycerin, or any menstruum (solvent) other than alcohol, your preparation is an extract—not a tincture. Although, there are exceptions to every rule and sometimes an acetum is defined as "a vinegar tincture" in the tomes.
Making tinctures is easy. I learned to make tinctures deep in the coniferous woods along green river banks that glitter throughout the Oregon Cascades. Unless you have some sort of handy-dandy collapsible scale contraption that fits in your pack, using the folk method is the way to go when making medicine in the forest! Simple, practical and efficient, this method allows you to estimate your herb measurements by eye. Here are a few important tincturing tips I learned during those years, while apprenticing with the Columbines School of Botanical Studies.
• Finely chop or grind clean herb to release juice and expose surface area.
• Fill jar 2/3 to 3/4 with herb. ~ OR ~ Fill jar 1/4 to 1/2 with roots.
• Pour alcohol over the herbs. Cover completely!
• Jar should appear full of herb, but herb should move freely when shaken.
• Use finely cut herbal material.
• Fill jar 1/2 to 3/4 with herb ~ OR ~ Fill jar 1/4 to 1/3 with roots.
• Pour alcohol over the herbs. Cover completely!
• Roots will expand by 1/2 their size when reconstituted!
40 percent to 50 percent (80 to 90 proof vodka)
• "Standard" percentage range for tinctures.
• Good for most dried herbs and fresh herbs that are not juicy.
• Good for extraction of water soluble properties.
67.5 percent to 70 percent (1/2 80 proof vodka plus 1/2 190 proof grain alcohol)
• Extracts most volatile aromatic properties.
• Good for fresh high-moisture herbs like lemon balm, berries, and aromatic roots.
• The higher alcohol percentage will draw out more of the plant juices.
85 percent to 95 percent (190 proof grain alcohol)
• Good for gums and resins.
• Extracts aromatics and essential oils that are bound in the plant and do not dissipate easily.
• The alcohol strength can produce a tincture that is not quite pleasant to take.
• Often used for drop dosage medicines.
• Will totally dehydrate herbs.
Extraction Time and Bottling
Store jar in a cool, dry, dark cabinet. Shake several times a week and check your alcohol levels. If the alcohol has evaporated a bit and the herb is not totally submerged, be sure to top off the jar with more alcohol. Herbs exposed to air can introduce mold and bacteria into your tincture. Allow the mixture to extract for 6 to 8 weeks.
Now it's time to squeeze. Drape damp cheesecloth over a funnel. Pour contents of tincture into the funnel so the liquid is strained into an amber glass bottle. Allow to drip, then squeeze and twist the cheesecloth until you can twist no more! Compost the spent herb. Optional: Blend herbs into a mush and strain remaining liquid.
The last step is perhaps the most important of all! Once you've strained and bottled your tincture, be sure to label each bottle with as much detail as possible. You will be so happy to have this information to play with next time you tincture the same herb. Don't plan to lean on your sense of taste or smell alone—regardless of how well honed your organpleptic skills may be. Skipping this step will surely lead to a dusty collection of unused mystery extracts.
Keep in a cool, dark place and your extracts will last for many years.
That's it! Making your own tinctures is simple and rewarding. The process allows you to form an intimate relationship with both the plants you study and the medicines they offer. If you are interested in learning more about medicinal preparations, here are a few great books to have in your herbal library:
• The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook by James Green
• Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner ND
• Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech