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, or 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 everyday use, especially for those who cannot or do not 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.
(I used vodka to make the black walnut hull tincture shown in the picture above.)
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!
See you next week when we continue with Making Herbal Tinctures: Part II
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Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide! From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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