Sunday, May 15, 2016

How to Make an Fresh or Dried Herbal Tincture: A Step By Step Guide

I love looking at my rows and rows of fresh plant tinctures, lovingly prepared, each one carefully labeled in their mason jar on my herbal apothecary shelves.  They are like old friends, waiting for me each time I, or another, is in need.  I remember how each was gathered and prepared, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the plant material, the delight of the process of creation. At this point, I have over 100 different tinctures, preserved indefinitely, and I make more each year, replacing those as I need to do so.  These tinctures are the single most important thing in my herbal medicine chest--and today, we will talk about tincture making and provide everything you need to know to get started including the basic process, ratios, choosing the right plant matter, storing your tinctures, pressing your tinctures, and more.

My Tincture Shelf with Colorful Labels

Herbal Tinctures Overview and Materials

A tincture is plant matter preserved in a high-proof alcohol.  Tinctures have the longest shelf life of any of the herbal preparations; their shelf life is indefinite (by comparison, most other preparations and/or dried herbs will only last a year).  Both dried and fresh plant matter can be tinctured, as can a few other things (like propolis from beehives) -- all will be covered in this guide. 

In order to effectively tincture we need to:
  1.     Gather/purchase high quality plant matter
  2.     Choose the right alcohol based on the plant matter that we want to tincture
  3.     Prepare the plant matter correctly
  4.     Use the correct ratio of alcohol to plant matter
  5.     Put a label on it
  6.     Give time for constituents to extract
  7.     Store and/or press your tincture

We will cover each of these steps in this guide.  You will need the following materials:
  •     Fresh or dried plant matter (see #1)
  •     Alcohol appropriate for that plant matter (see #2)
  •     A mason jar for your plant matter
  •     Something to label your plant matter
  •     If you want to weigh ingredients to ensure consistency of your medicine, a small kitchen scale and a liquid measuring cup
We suggest reading through this guide fully before getting started!

1.  Gather or Purchase High Quality Plant Matter

So many medicinal herbs can be found right outside your door.  In our ecosystem in the upper Midwest and Northeast, this would include--in your yard (dandelion, ground ivy, plantain, yarrow, chickweed), on wild edges and fields (st. john's wort, blackberry, raspberry, goldenrod, queen anne's lace, stinging nettle, elderberry/flower, rose), in forests (hawthorn, oak bark, ghost pipe, various medicinal mushrooms (reishi, chaga, birch polypore, turkeytail), sassafras, stoneroot, skullcap, blue cohosh).  For a locally-based herbalist who gathers fresh herbs—it's best to gather and preserve when they are in abundance!  I strongly advocate using fresh plant matter to tincture when at all possible.

You can also prepare dried plant tinctures if fresh material isn't available--but for this, I would strongly suggest selecting the freshest herbs you can.  Fresh herbs have a strong smell, they have a bold color, and most importantly--they have a good effect!  When you go to buy the herbs, either get it from a reputable source, or sniff the jars yourself, checking for smell, taste, and color. 

The medicine is only as good as the herbs you select.  Also make sure that you select herbs that are free of chemicals or that were grown in areas that are not polluted (pay close attention to where roads are, where spraying takes place, what is upstream, etc). 
In my case, I'm working with some freshly harvested Yellow Dock (Rumex Crispus) roots...

2.  Choose the Right Alcohol

Proofs and Percent Alcohol: To understand how to tincture, we have to understand a few things about alcohol. Alcohol has two properties—the alcohol itself and the water.  Proof is double the percent of alcohol contained within the container, so 80 proof means that you have 40% alcohol, while 160 proof is 75.5% alcohol, and 190 proof is 95% alcohol.  When you are tincturing multiple things, you generally need a few different kinds of alcohols and proofs: I would recommend three kinds (if you can get them): an 80 proof bottle, a 150 proof bottle (or so), and something as close to 190 as you can manage.

Plant Constituents and Extraction: Certain plants extract their constituents in water, while others extract their constituents in alcohol, some are fine with either, and some need both; alcohol acts like a solvent for these plants (for a good overview of every plant's needs for extraction, we highly recommend Richo Cech's Making Plant Medicine).

Percent Alcohol and Preservation: Fresh plant matter, especially wet plant matter (like hawthorn, chickweed) has water, and therefore needs a higher proof (150-190). You use 150 for many, and 190 for plants that are particularly resinous (or those mushrooms you are doing a double water-alcohol extraction). Alternatively, you can dry and/or wilt fresh plant matter before tincturing and then use 80 proof rather than 150.  Wilting is simple--you leave it on the counter for a few days and it slowly loses it's moisture.  Dried plant matter requires a bit more water, so standard 80 proof (40%) alcohol is excellent for this.

The key for preservation is to ensure a minimum of 25% alcohol or more for preservation. I personally like to get at least 40% alcohol content for preservation.

Neutrality and Purchasing Alcohol:  Grain alcohol (like Everclear, moonshine) or vodka are the most neutral of the alcohols and are thus best to tincture in. Another common tincturing alcohol is brandy; this is especially good for elixirs (sweet herbal preparations with raw honey and herbs). Rum is another common choice (made from sugarcane).  If you select other kinds of alcohol, you will be getting the constituents of whatever it was made from along with your herbs--which you may not want.

For high proof spirits (190), grain alcohols are the best, especially if you can get organic high quality ones (the best are from Alchemical Solutions, but they are extraordinarily expensive!).  Everclear is the most readily available high proof spirit (151 or 190 proof) but its very strong and harsh in tinctures--your tinctures will not taste very good tinctured in alcohol.  But sometimes, beggars can't be choosers (especially if you live in certain states with strict liquor laws). Your tinctures will not taste good in Everclear, but they certainly will be effective.   Rain Vodka is one of my personal favorites (80 proof).  If you can find Devil’s Springs 151 Vodka, that’s another one of my favorites because it has a much nicer flavor.  Mixing spirits or diluting them down is also an option!

3. Prepare the plant matter correctly

If you have gathered plant matter wild, you want to "garble" it, that is, sift through it carefully to ensure that you haven't got anything that isn't the plant you gathered (like pieces of grass, etc).  You should also look for small bugs and make sure they end up safely outside, not in your tincture jar.  Wash the plant matter if necessary.

Plant matter should be chopped up finely to allow for the alcohol to penetrate the surface area of the plant--the more finely chopped, the easier it will be for the alcohol to permeate all of the surface of the plant.  A food processor is really useful for this, especially for a lot of plant material. If you are working with fruits with seeds (like hawthorn) you should remove the seeds if possible.  Many plants in the Rosacea family have cyanide in the seed (apples, hawthorn, cherries, etc).

If you only have a lower proof alcohol available, make sure you wilt juicy plant matter prior to adding it (chickweed, hawthorn, ghost pipe, etc.) 

My yellow dock, ready to tincture!

4. Use the Correct Ratio of Plant Matter to Alcohol

The “folk method” of herbalism suggests that you simply put your herbs in a jar, pour in some alcohol to cover the herbs and wait. This is a perfectly fine method and one many herbalists use!

If you want to get a bit more consistent (and make consistent medicine), however, a bit more work is required.  Specifically, you will want to weigh out your ingredients. If you are making a lot of tinctures, it is useful to get a smalls kitchen or postal scale for weighing.

The standard dried herb ratio is 1:5, meaning you will use 1 oz (weight) of herb for every 5 oz of menstruum (alcohol, by volume).  The standard wet herb ratio is 1:2, meaning you will use 1 oz (by weight) of herb for every 2oz (by volume) of alcohol.

Here’s where the tricky part comes in:  if you use these ratios and you use standard canning jars with lids (best); your alcohol will not cover your herbs.  This is where small, smooth, and round stones come into play—stick some clean stones in the herbal blend and ensure that the plant matter is fully submerged!  I learned this approach from Herbalist Jim McDonald and it is a wonderful trick that works well!

The rock that weighs down a tincture = priceless!  Just make sure you have a nice, clean rock.

5.  Put a Label On It

Please, please put a label on your tincture, or at some point in the future, you'll forget what is in there! Your label should include the following:
  •     Plant name (include the Latin name if possible, since many folk names can refer to more than one plant)
  •     The date you created the tincture
  •     Where the plant matter came from (wildharvested, location; purchased, location; etc.)
  •     Tincture method used (Folk method, ratios (include ratio)
  •     Any other pertinent info (I like to include info on if the tincture is low-dose, like Lobelia, or not)
An old yellow dock tincture on the left and my fresh tincture on the right.  The alcohol is already quickly extracting the roots, producing a yellow that will deepen to brown as the extraction process continues. See my label?  This label is just some scrapbook paper, but you can use anything. 

6.  Give it time

Tinctures, in progress or finished, should be kept in a cool, dark place.  Your tincture will be ready after 4-6 weeks of maceration (that is, soaking).  You can press it and bottle it up, or, if you are like me, you can leave the constituents in there indefinitely and pour off what you need before pressing the last little bit out!  

7.  Store your Tinctures

Your tinctures should be stored in a cool, dark place.  I have mine in a shelf that has a cloth cover over it (see photos).  You shouldn't hide them away where you won't remember them--keep them somewhere that is easily accessible to you so they are there when you need them. 

The same shelf I showed above, but this time with its cover to keep out the light.

8.  Use your Tinctures

We will have another post that will go more in depth about how to use your tinctures.  For now, however, you can take tinctures straight (although they are intense because of the higher proof alcohol), you can put them in some water to dilute and then take them like a shot (which is what I often do).  If you are making an herbal tea, you can add it to the tea and the heat will burn the alcohol off.  You can also add them to various other kinds of medicinal preparations.

We hope you've enjoyed this article on tincture making--and we would welcome your comments and insights! 

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