I do enjoy a drink, I make no secret of this fact however not all the Vodka in this house is bound for mixing with Coke or Cranberry juice on a Saturday night! Some goes towards one of my other favoured applications, Herbal Tinctures.
A herbal tincture is made by steeping herbal components (leaves, bark, roots etc) in strong alcohol for 2-3 weeks. The alcohol extracts all the beneficial goodies from the plant material which can then be administered in a suitable dosage either mixed in water or directly into the mouth for example. Alcohol absorbs very quickly through soft tissue!
I use 45% vodka for the majority of the tinctures I make. Brand wise, the blue label Smirnoff is 45% proof and costs about £25 for a litre which generally lasts me a while (depending on how many Saturday night tipples drop into the equation!) I tend to follow a 2 : 3 ratio (2 parts herb to 3 parts alcohol) although I have occasionally made stronger or weaker ones by playing with the ratios a little but 2:3 works for me in the majority of instances.
I always grind my herbs as fine as possible using either a pestle and mortar or an electric coffee bean grinder for tougher barks and roots. Grinding the herbs to a powder provides a larger surface area to volume ratio which basically means more area for the alcohol to extract over!
I pour my fine powder into a spacious glass jar or bottle. I measure (with a ruler or educated eye balling!) how high up the jar the dry herb material comes to and I call that 2 parts. So I want half that again in height of vodka up the side of the jar (i.e. 3 parts). Some herbs are highly absorbent or float and so you’ll find it hard to get this exact all the time… you can always add a little more liquid if you think it needs it. Experience will teach anyone making tinctures a damn sight more than a person, a blog or a book!
So all that’s left to do is replace the lid of the jar (ever so important) and shake. Then the jar can be labelled and kept in a cool, dry and dark place for the next 2 – 3 weeks. Give your tincture a good shake every day.
In 2 – 3 weeks’ time I filter my tinctures through unbleached filter paper (the sort that’s used for coffee machines) supported by a funnel. I filter them into amber glass dropper bottles which can be purchased here (along with lots of other useful tools). The droppers usually hold approximately 1ml of liquid and depending on the tincture and the use; I take 1 dropper full in a small glass of water 2-3 times a day or as required.
So that’s the basics, but it’s certainly not all there is to tinctures. Here are some titbits of info I have learnt over the last couple of years:
- Tinctures aren’t just for internal use! I have successfully used surgical spirit or rubbing alcohol to extract the fragrance from resinous material such as benzoin or frankincense. When paper is coated in these tinctures and left to dry you have magically fragranced paper for petitions etc. They also release the aroma when burnt. I use surgical spirit because it evaporates really quickly but obviously you don’t want to be using that internally.
- There is nothing in the rule book that says you MUST use Vodka. Anyone familiar with Bach flower remedies and the old favourite Rescue Remedy will have recognised the taste of Brandy. Brandy is preferred for milder tinctures or to extract from more delicate parts such as flowers.
- Start Small! The first time I make a new tincture I make around 10 – 20mls. I loathe waste especially when it comes to herbs and perfectly good vodka! Once I know a tincture has worked, has the required strength and gives the desired effect then I scale up!
- Which leads me onto….Keep notes, they will prove invaluable!
- Blending tinctures is perfectly OK. However I think it’s far better to make the pure tinctures (one herb only) and then blend the liquid tincture rather than blend herbs and make a tincture from the blend… it’s much easier to control certainly in experimental work where you are not sure of amounts etc. (just my opinion!)
- Once you can make tinctures, you can make Ink! Most Ink really is just a strong tincture of various components containing pigments. Dragon’s blood ink is easily made with Dragons blood resin and clear spirit such as vodka. Add the liquid slowly until you get a suitably inky consistency.
- Tinctures last virtually forever, being alcohol based they will last a while however I tend to keep mine for a year max and then make fresh. The trick is making only as much as you think you will need… far better to whip up more if necessary, than keep chucking stuff away!
- Given that tinctures need at least 2 weeks to steep in the alcohol, consider tying the manufacture of tinctures into the moon phases.
If you are just starting to experiment with Tinctures here are some suggested tinctures to start with.
Benzoin Tincture – This is an essential in my apothecary. Benzoin is a natural preservative and can be added to any number of herbal creations such as salves or incense to help them keep longer. Grind up the resin, make up in 2:3 ratio with Vodka.
Echinacea Tincture – This a personal must have. I generally make half a litre at the start of the cold weather and take a 1 ml dose in water 3 times a day. I’ve not had a cold, sore throat or even a sniffle this year or last! I use powdered root (Echinacea purpurea) and vodka. It has a really distinctive smell and taste which I actually quite like. The added benefit is not only has it kept the winter sniffles at bay but my skin is clearer and the eczema on my hands has gone and never returned.
St John’s Wort Tincture – Another for the winter. I take this with my Echinancea tincture to fight off the winter blues. I use all areal parts (those growing above ground) of St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) dried and powdered in a 2:3 ratio. This should not however be taken with prescription sedatives or anti – depressants!
Valerian Tincture – For all you insomniacs! Made as per standard instructions I use the Valerian Root (Valeriana officianalis) and take approx. 1 ml of tincture in water 30 minutes to an hour before bed. It also helps with pre meditation relaxation etc. I warn you now the smell is quite something…any one with cats will recognise it instantly!!
Anyone seriously interested in the craft of tincturing will hopefully find this useful. I’m not (yet!) a qualified herbalist; however my experience has been that tinctures are one of the best ways to administer herbal constituents.
Note: I would like to emphasise again I am not a qualified herbalist. Please do your research, check with a qualified practitioner in conjunction with your own doctor before taking any form of herbal medicine. There are many hobby herbalists out there who take a rather irresponsible view on discussing this vast and complex subject. I am not an expert, I do not treat patients and all information presented here is for introductory purposes based on personal experience.