Making Herbal Tinctures: Part I

Mortar and Pestel - Copyright 2012 Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

In the world of herbalism, tinctures are the star of the show.  For those who grow, gather or use herbs for healing purposes, learning to make tinctures is one of the most important – and easiest – skills to learn.

Unfortunately, many people believe that all they have to do to make a good tincture is to pour alcohol over herbs packed in a jar.  But the truth is, tinctures made this way are almost always inconsistent in their potency and effectiveness.   In this two-part series we will examine the right way to make tinctures so that you can be assured of obtaining the best, most healing tinctures possible.

As you probably know, tinctures are liquid extractions that contain the medicinal properties of herbs and plants that are most often taken orally, either by placing several drops directly under the tongue or adding them to water or tea. When taken internally, tinctures make the healing properties of herbs readily available to the body.  But tinctures can also be used externally or added to a plethora of healing, soothing and nourishing products for the skin and hair.   While various methods are used to extract the healing compounds found in plant material, tinctures are by far and away the most versatile and effective.

Sometimes referred to as herbal extracts, tinctures are prepared by soaking herbs in a solvent, which extracts and concentrates the healing compounds found in them.  Aside from high-quality herbs, the solvent (menstruum) is arguably the most important ingredient in the tincturing process.  Most of the solvents used in tincturing are either ethanol (drinking) alcohol, vinegar and 100% vegetable glycerin.  Each type of solvent extracts and preserves specific medicinal constituents, therefore, it is important to choose the right type of solvent in order to make the most out of every herb you tincture.

Alcohol solvents create the most potent and shelf-stable form of tinctures. Alcohol extracts alkaloids, balsams, glycoside compounds, organic acids, resins, and tannins.  Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol can be used to make tinctures for external use, but it is highly toxic if taken internally and should be avoided whenever possible to avoid accidental ingestion.

Select an alcohol solvent based on the percentage of alcohol it contains, its quality, and in some cases, its flavor. Using solvents that have an alcohol content below 45% will produce a short-lived tincture of low quality.   Most herbs should be tinctured using 180-proof (95%) alcohol such as Everclear®, especially if the herbs are very fleshy or juicy.  Almost everything else can be tinctured using 100-proof (50%) alcohol, such as vodka.

Wine or brandy tinctures are often called aperitifs or tonic wines and are most often used as appetite stimulants, pre-meal digestive stimulants, or after-dinner digestive aids. They are also used as sleep aids, antispasmodics, and decongestants.  Tonic wine and brandy often include alterative or adaptogenic herbs, such as ginger and are taken regularly to maintain good health. Brandy usually has an alcohol content between 35% and 60% and wine, less than 10%.  With such low alcohol contents, these types of tinctures need to be kept refrigerated.  Brandy tinctures kept this way will last for about 6 months, while wine tinctures should be used within three months.

Vinegar is the next solvent in line for its extractive properties and shelf life.  It is a good choice for every day use, especially for those who can’t or don’t wish to consume alcohol.  Vinegar tinctures may be used internally, externally, or added to other preparations.  Because of its ability to restore pH balance, vinegar tinctures are often used in emulsified preparations for the skin and hair.

Unopened vinegar tinctures will keep for several years. Once opened, they should be used within six to twelve months. Although any vinegar, including white, rice, wine and apple cider vinegar, may be used, the latter is often the vinegar of choice because it has an agreeable taste and contains naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.  Choose a high-quality, organic apple cider vinegar and avoid any that are “apple flavored,” which are nothing more than white grain vinegar with some flavoring added.

Vegetable glycerin is another option for tincturing, but is often overlooked as a solvent because it makes the least potent and shelf-stable product. But glycerin dissolves minerals, vitamins, and mucilage, among other more subtle phytochemicals, and it imparts a sweet taste to the finished product. Often referred to as glycerites, glycerin tinctures are essential to diabetics, children, and those who can’t or don’t wish to consume alcohol. They are the only tinctures that can be used in making hard soap because when alcohol is used the soap mixture tends to “seize,” or curdle.  Unopened glycerin tinctures stored in the proper environment can last up to one year and, if citric acid (vitamin C) is used as a preservative, the shelf life can be extended to almost two years.

Glycerin works especially well with delicate herbs and flowers. It may be taken internally, externally, or added to many herbal preparations.  Because glycerin is a natural humectant (drawing moisture to itself), it makes an ideal ingredient in products for dry skin.  When preparing glycerin tinctures, be sure that you are using 100% vegetable glycerin.

Now that we have a better idea of the types of solvents used in the tincturing process, we can move on to the bones of making quality tinctures at home.  Next week, I will discuss the physical process of making tinctures, including how to measure herbs and solvents to produce reliable and consistent results every time!

You can read more about herbs and herbal tinctures in my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs.  See you next week when we continue with Making Herbal Tinctures: Part II

© Jill Henderson
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz

THPOKH Cover New Med 3x5 72 dpi jpegThis article excerpted from
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

Be prepared for the changing times with The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs. Packed full of useful information on growing, harvesting and utilizing 35 of the world’s safest and most medicinal and culinary herbs! Each herb has its own detailed dossier describing everything you will ever need to know, including using herbs wisely, starting and propagating herbs, growing herbs both indoors and out, how to deal with pests and diseases, harvesting and storing herbs and how to use them for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  This is one book no herb-lover – or survivalist – should miss!  Available in print and ebook in our bookstore!

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9 responses to “Making Herbal Tinctures: Part I

  1. Looking forward to part 2…

  2. Thanks for such wonderful specific advice. Claire 🙂

    • Thank you, Claire. I’m so glad you found the article helpful. Part II will include specific information on the proper way to measure out herbs and solvents to make the best, most consistent tinctures possible. Hope to see you then! Jill

  3. I just love this site and this article is so vital for famlies, ladies, in this period of time. Learning how to make preparations that enrich our families is very important to the Circle of Life.

    • Thank you so much, Darlenr. You are so right – it is important to know the many ways in which to care for ourselves and our loved ones and I’m so happy that I could be a part of that journey for you and yours. Best wishes, Jill

  4. How can I know what is the amount of herb per ml?

    for example with 1:5 menstruum, with 50 grams of a dried herb…with 100 proof vodka, what would be the quantity of herb in grams or mg, per ml?

    • Hi BieraK. Good question. I suck at math, but there are several methods you can use. I would approach it by converting grams to ounces. In your case, 50 grams is converted to ounces using an online conversion calculator. The result was 1.7637 oz, so I rounded it to 1.80 oz. for simplicity. Once you’ve got the conversion done, multiply it by 5 to come up with the amount of menstruum needed. (1.80 x 5 = 9) So, for 50 grams you would use 9 oz of menstruum. Keep in mind that a 1:5 ratio is primarily used for dry herbs and 1:2 or 1:3 is used for fresh herbs. Thanks for the great question.

  5. Pingback: Healthful Ginger for the Holidays | Show Me Oz

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