Tincture Making Basics

What is a Tincture?

I've been sitting here trying to come up with a simple definition of a tincture.

For a nice, longer answer, see this Mountain Rose blog post:  https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/guide-tinctures-extracts

And here is my short answer:  

A tincture is a concentrated herbal extraction that can be taken internally.  A true herbal tincture uses alcohol (drinkable) for extraction.  Different parts of plants are used including roots, bark, leaves, flowers, seeds, or sometimes the entire plant.  Either fresh or dried plant material may be used. It is important to know which part of the plant to use and the optimum time for gathering said part, if using fresh (my preference).  I will provide this information through this growing season.

Why Alcohol?

Alcohol contains both water and alcohol. Both are needed to extract the full spectrum of constituents that a plant has to offer us.  Water (example: making tea) extracts only those compounds that are extractable by water. However there are other bio-active compounds that require alcohol to break down the cell walls of the plant cells to release those, which are then effectively stored in the alcohol.  Typically these compounds extracted by alcohol are considered the more "medicinal" compounds.

Any alcohol can be used. It is generally accepted that the alcohol should be 80 proof or higher to preserve the tincture safely.

What Type of Alcohol Do You Use?

My preference in most instances is 100 proof vodka for several reasons:

1.  Vodka is clear and tasteless so you can appreciate both the color and taste of the plant.

2.  Many herbalists and herbal companies use 80 proof vodka, which is 40% alcohol.  I prefer 100 proof (50% alcohol) as I feel it pulls out more of the "medicinal" side of the plant with the alcohol portion.  I've compared using 80 proof tinctures that I have made at the same time as 100 proof with the same plant/time and have experienced better results with the 100 proof.  

3.  Alcohol is an excellent preservative - most tinctures will stay effective for years, perhaps decades if stored well (dark, cool place).

4. It simplifies my tincture making to always use 100 proof alcohol and I'm all about simplifying!

Is Making a Tincture Complicated?

No.  Very simple.  Here are the basic steps.  

1. The most important step is to make certain you are gathering the correct plant.  A good way to become more familiar with local plants is through plant walks, which I plan to offer (no cost) through the summer, 2019.

2. Know which part of the plant to use.  In some cases it is the bark; others the leaves or flowers or seeds or roots or…  I plan on posting that information as different plants are ready through the summer, also.

3. All you need is a clean glass jar, alcohol of choice, and a tight fitting lid (if metal would come in contact with the tincture, use wax paper as a barrier).  

4. You simply place the plant material in the jar (see tips on different parts below), fill with alcohol, lid tightly.  That’s it!

- Another great idea is to label it right away with a label or masking tape or post-it.  If you end up with more than one tincture going at a time, they all begin looking alike.  I write from experience here!

5. Set jar aside on a counter or place you will pass it daily and give it a little shake occasionally to encourage even more extraction.

6. Wait 6-8 weeks (some say only 4, so no set time here).  

7. Strain, squeezing out every bit of moisture that you can get out of the plant material.

8. Compost spent plant material and bottle tincture in a glass jar or bottle.  Label.

There are several other methods and many opinions about how best to make an effective tincture. I use this method as I find it both effective and easy enough for us folk herbalists to do at home with no need of a scale or calculator! Once again, I'm all about simplifying - as long as it is effective in this case.

When To Gather Different Parts of Plants:

Bark:  late winter/early spring before sap starts flowing is best.  At this point, all the energy is in the bark, which is what we want. I fill a jar about ¼ full with bark that I’ve peeled off and fill rest of the way with alcohol. If using dried, use a bit less.

Leaves:  Before flowering, when all the energy is in the leaves. Tear or cut tiny pieces of the leaves, the smaller the better as more surface area is exposed to the alcohol.   Check alcohol level after a day or two and top off again. (If using dried, fill ½ full).

Flowers:  As the flowers are coming into bloom and fresh.  Once they start producing seed, the energy changes as it shifts into the seed. Again, tear up into little pieces if they are big flowers and continue as above. (If using dry, fill ½ full)

Seeds:  When they are ready.  Duh. Fill jar ¼ full of seed and top off with alcohol.

Roots - In the fall after the tops have died back so all the energy has gone into the roots.  Dig, clean, cut up, dry a day or two to let the moisture that was absorbed during washing to evaporate off a bit, fill jar ¼ full, top off with alcohol. (If using dried, fill 1/5 full with roots)

More Tips:

* Take your glass jar with you and fill as you gather your plant material. That way you will gather only what you need, leaving the rest of the patch strong and able to provide well in the future.

* Other than roots, do not wash plant material – this removes the medicinal properties which are on the surface of the plant, of which there are many.  So make sure you gather aerial parts when they are not dirty, such as after a hard rain. If they are simply dusty, I just give them a little shake...

* Be sure to tear plant material into small pieces or chop the herbs finely. This will help in the extraction of all of the active principles from the plant tissue.

* I prefer and always use fresh plant material. I have no "proof" but feel that something of the plant is lost in the drying process. Just my opinion.

How Do I Use My Tinctures?

There are many opinions on dosage and frequency of taking tinctures.  You can do an online search for different options. I have been schooled on and agree with using small doses, typically 1-3 drops (drops, not dropperfuls) under the tongue.  The tincture is then absorbed quickly and completely into the bloodstream, speeding up its absorption. There is thought that small doses are more effective at gently nudging the body into health/balance.  I agree.

There, that is the basics.  I will give more details as the season goes along.  

Coming next - making tinctures with barks - it’s time!

Elderberry tincture example.  Maceration, storage, and dropper bottle for use.
The 3 stages of making an elderberry tincture. Extraction, storage, and dropper bottle for using.

Here is my elderberry tincture in it's different stages. Because I was using the berries, I filled the jar about ½ full. of fresh berries. I reused my glass vodka jar for storing the strained tincture. And then use a dropper bottle for everyday use.

It's that easy!