Tinctures are herbal
preparations that use something beyond water as a solvent. The advantages of
moving beyond water are two-fold: first, you can extract a greater spectrum of
the whole plant this way; second, the extra solvent usually functions as a
preservative, allowing this herbal extract to keep much longer than an infusion
or decoction. The word ‘tincture’ comes from the Latin tingere, which means ‘to
dye’, or add color to something. The most common tinctures are made from alcohol,
vinegar, glycerin, or a combination of any or all, usually mixed with water.
For now, we will discuss the simple alcohol tincture.
There are two basic parts to an alcohol tincture: the herbs, either fresh or dry, and the menstruum, or solvent, which will be a combination of distilled water and pure alcohol. You can use any amount of herb, or any alcohol percentage you want: but for consistency, it’s important to somehow record what decisions you’ve made during the tincturing process.
The herbs should be clean, vibrant, and have all extraneous parts (like stems, fibrous seedheads, etc…) removed from them by garbling (more on this later). The reason for this is that fibrous plant parts tend to have lower concentrations of medicinal qualities, being made up primarily of insoluble fiber and water. Weigh the herbs once they’re garbled (in ounces), and record this. It will determine the weight-to-volume ratio for your tincture. Then chop or break up the herbs as best as possible.
The menstruum can be any type of alcoholic preparation, although most often vodka or grain alcohol is used. You can use any type of alcohol that you want, like brandy for example, but the first two are usually employed because they have the least amount of other ‘stuff’ dissolved in them; therefore, more herbal material can go into solution before the tincture reaches saturation. For fresh plants, 100 proof vodka (or 50% grain alcohol / 50% water) does very well. For dry plants, 80 proof (or 40% grain alcohol / 60% water) is fine, although 100 proof wouldn’t be bad either.
As a convenient shorthand for remembering how much herb went into a specific tincture, herbalists use the weight-to-volume ratio. That’s the pair of numbers you’ll see on tincture bottles, written something like 1:2, or 1:4 (as a ratio). It’s a comparison of the weight of plat material (first number) to the volume of menstruum used. Tinctures usually range in strength from a 1:2 to a 1:10; more often than not you will make tinctures that are 1:3, 1:4, or 1:5. The concept of saturation comes into play again here, making it almost impossible to extract much past a 1:2 ratio.
All of the weight-to-volume calculations are done in terms of ounces. Remember the weight of garbled herbs? This is your starting point. If you want to make a 1:3 tincture, take the weight of herbs you recorded and multiply it by 3. For a 1:6, take that same weight and multiply it by 6. This operation will give you the number of fluid ounces of menstruum you need. It is easy to see, therefore, why a 1:3 tincture is stronger than a 1:6 (although not necessarily twice as strong…).
Now that you have the herbs and the menstruum, you will need to find a suitable glass or ceramic container that can be sealed shut. Once again, the mason jar to the rescue! Size is important here, because you’ll want everything to fit. As a rough rule, I take the amount of menstruum and add the weight of the herbs to it to get an idea of what size jar I need; for example, 2 pounds of Echinacea roots (32 ounces) tinctured at a 1:3 (96 ounces of menstruum) would require a 128 (32+96) ounce jar, which is a gallon jar. Perfect!
Place the herbs in the suitable jar, and slowly add the menstruum to them. Seal the lid, and shake the whole jar vigorously for at least 30 seconds. This helps the menstruum reach every corner of the herbal material – and is a great opportunity to ‘breathe into’ the new tincture, connecting to the Vital Force you have captured, nourishing it with your intent. During this time, you can recall harvesting the herb; you can think back to a story about that plant, or to a message you may have received; you can visualize the interplay of energy between the world, you, and the tincture. Whatever method you feel most comfortable with, is best.
I like to put the whole jar in a sunny window for a day or so, then off to a hidden spot to steep for at least 4 weeks. In an emergency, 2 weeks is ok – but not ideal. Remember to ‘shake’ the tincture often while it’s steeping. At the end of steeping, simply strain the tincture through a fine mesh, and store in a cool, dry place out of the light. Discard the marc, or spent herbs, into the compost. Kept this way, alcohol tinctures can last 5-10 years.
One final note: it’s good to keep records of the tinctures you’ve made. Be sure to label the jar with the name of the herb, the date, the % alcohol ( ½ of the ‘proof’), and the weight-to-volume ratio. I like to record this information in another source as well, in case the label gets lost or if someone has a question long after the tincture is strained and bottled.