Tincture Making Part 1: Macerations Using Dry Herbs
I’ll be honest. I’m a tincture guy. I love tinctures. When taking herbal medicines orally, they are hard to beat. Compared to other oral herbal modalities, they have these benefits:
- They are concentrated. To get a medicinal dose of herbs, you often need to take a lot and you often need to take it often. To get the equivalent dose of powdered herb, you would have to take several capsules.
- They are generally standardized. A good tincture will have the herb:menstrum (we will define menstrum later in blog) ratio which gives some indication of the strength of the tincture. Getting an effective and safe dose involves knowing the strength of your medicine!
- They last a very long time. Most tinctures measure shelf lives in years. Although there are some exceptions, I generally don’t think twice about having a 3 or 4 year old tincture.
- They are easy to formulate. Again, with some exceptions, tinctures generally blend readily. Taking one blend is much easier than taking a variety of single-herb capsules.
- They are generally quite bioavailable. Since you don’t need to digest capsules, and further break down plant material, they are readily absorbed.
- Unlike many stripped down herbal extracts in capsule form, tinctures are ‘full spectrum’ extracts that retain much of the original chemical balance of the plant. The beautiful and complicated interplay of plant chemicals is a big part of the effectiveness (and safety) of herbal medicines.
So do tinctures sound like a good option to you? I thought so. Let's keep going.
What is a Tincture?
A tincture is a rather concentrated water/alcohol extraction of an herb. It is similar to teas (aka infusions) in that water is used to extract phytochemicals (i.e. plant chemicals). But major differences between teas and tinctures are that they are far more concentrated and they also use alcohol (usually between 25% and 75% by volume). The use of alcohol is for two important reasons:
- Alcohol is a highly effective solvent. That is, it is really good at pulling all those phytochemicals out of herbs. For most chemicals, alcohol is an even better solvent than water. For some chemicals, water doesn’t work so well, if at all. Examples include some terpenes, resins, some alkaloids, and waxes. In these cases, high alcohol content tinctures are utilized. However, alcohol is not a perfect solvent and some plant chemicals just don’t play nicely with it. These chemicals include long chain saccharides found in mucilaginous herbs like the mallows (Althea spp), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), echinacea (Echinacea spp), mushrooms (e.g. Ganoderma lucidum), and more. In these cases, lower alcohol content is used (about 25%).
- Alcohol is a great preservative. Once ethanol content is about 20-25%, the solution becomes inhospitable for most bacteria and resists going bad. This is why the shelf life is so long for tinctures.
Variations on Tinctures
The Use of Vinegar
You might notice that some tinctures contain a small amount of vinegar, usually 10% or less. This is to help keep alkaloids in suspension. Alcohol is usually pretty good at extracting alkaloids, but after floating around in your tincture for some time, they can bind with other chemicals (like tannins) and form alkaloid salts, rendering them non-bioavailable. Vinegar helps keep them from binding, thus increasing tincture effectiveness and shelf life. The presence of vinegar in a tincture usually indicates that a plant was extracted with high alkaloid content (e.g. Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Corydalis (Corydalis yanhusuo)). Fun Fact: high tannin content herbs (e.g. black tea, witch hazel) can sometimes be used to remedy alkaloid poisoning.
Another variation on tinctures are glycerides (or glycerites). Although technically not tinctures, these extractions utilize vegetable glycerin (typically at 100%) as the solvent. Vegetable glycerin is, technically, and alcohol and shares many of the characteristics of ethanol. It is a strong solvent and it preserves tinctures. However, it is not as strong a solvent, so glycerides are not generally as strong. Additionally, the shelf life is not as long. I generally recommend using glycerides within 2 years. However, perhaps the most beneficial quality of glycerides is that they contain no ethanol. This has obvious benefits for some individuals. Finally, since glycerin has a natural, sweet flavor, glycerides generally taste good; a obviously beneficial quality for use with children. For this reason, glycerides make excellent candidates for kid’s formulas.
Dried vs. Fresh
Tinctures can be prepared from dried and fresh herbs. In most cases, it does not matter to a great deal which type is used. However, keep in mind that there are some herb species in which this distinction is important. For example, yellow dock prepared when fresh is a potent laxative. Other herbs are best prepared when fresh; Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and Milky Oat Tops (Avena sativa) both being good examples. In this article, we will discuss the preparation of a tincture from dried herbs only. Using fresh herbs requires an additional few steps in order to quantify the amount of water present in the herb and work this into the formulation of the menstrum; a simple, yet important, step that will be discussed in an upcoming companion article.
Two Tincture Making Methods
There are two common ways to prepare tinctures: macerations and percolations. The simpler method is, decidedly, macerations. They make reliable, easily quantifiable, and high quality tinctures with nothing more than your herbs of interest, water (sometimes), alcohol, a large jar and a strainer… and time. Time is the main drawback to macerations. They take 3-4 weeks to ‘soak’. Tincturing via maceration is the technique that a vast majority of a-home medicine makers will employ and what we will be addressing here.
Percolations, on the other hand, can be made in as little as 48 hours. The tradeoff is that they require more equipment (herbs, alcohol, water, percolation cone and cover, receiving container, filter paper or coffee filter, a packing rod, and a stand), they can only be prepared from dried herbs, and that they can be tricky to assemble. Percolations are a topic we’ll tackle in a future companion article. They certainly deserve a more detailed discussion to master, so stay tuned!
Tincture Making Basics
First, let’s define a term we’ll be using a lot: menstrum. Menstrum is simply the liquid part of a tincture. It is what does the extracting and will eventually become your finished tincture. It is generally a combination of water and ethanol, but may also include a bit of vinegar and/or glycerine, as discussed earlier
To make a tincture, there are three pieces of information you will need to collect/calculate in order to start the process:
- The strength of the tincture you’ll be making, which is mostly based on the herb:menstrum ratio.
- The amount of menstrum you’ll need, which is determined by three factors: (1) the amount of herb you’ll be tincturing, (2) the strength of the tincture, and (3) the anticipated loss of menstrum.
- The ethanol content (and possibly vinegar or glycerine) of the menstrum.
Let’s go over each of the three items:
The Strength of the Tincture
The strength of your tincture is largely determined by the ratio of herb to menstrum you’ll be using. For example, if you are working with 1 oz of herb, and you extracted it into 3oz of menstrum, you get a stronger tincture than if you extracted it into 5oz of menstrum. In the first case, one ounce of herb extracted into 3 ounces of menstrum would be shown as 1:3. In the second case, one ounce of herb extracted into 5 ounces menstrum would be 1:5. So, 1:3 is stronger than 1:5.
You can make any ratio you’d like but, generally, a ratio of 1:5 is considered standard for standalone tinctures and 1:3 is nice for tinctures that you’ll be blending together. There are important exceptions to this generalization, such as drop dosage herbs. Some very strong herbs need to be made more diluted in order to make overdosing more difficult. Examples include Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and Poke root (Phytolacca americana).
The Amount of Menstrum Needed
Now you need to establish the amount of menstrum needed for your tincture. For this simple calculation, you’ll need to know (1) the amount of herb you’ll be tincturing, (2) the strength of the tincture, and (3) the anticipated loss of menstrum. The amount of herb you’ll be using is simple enough. This number will be measured in weight ounces. The strength of the tincture (see previous paragraphs) is given in a form like 1:5. In this case, you would need 5 fluid ounces of menstrum for every 1 weight ounce of herb, or 25 fluid ounces of menstrum for every 5 weight ounces of herb. As an additional example, if you are using a 1:3 ratio and want to tincture 8 ounces of herb, you’d need 24 ounces of menstrum.
As a final consideration, you’ll want to keep in mind that you will inevitably lose some menstrum. Once it soaks into the herb, you’ll never get it all out again. If you don’t have a press, you can usually expect about 25-40% loss. If you have a press, expect somewhere between 10-30% loss. Now you can go about this in one of two ways: (1) don’t worry about this complication and go about making your tincture. In the end, you get what you get, which will be less than the amount you started with. (2) Or, adjust the amount of herb and menstrum used to account for this loss. For example, if you need 16oz of 1:5 tincture in the end, and you anticipate losing 25%, then you’ll need to start with 20oz (16*125%) of menstrum. But to keep the right strength, you’ll need to bump up the amount of herb used too, from 3.2 weight ounces to 4 weight ounces.
Ethanol content of the Menstrum
As we touched on earlier, the ratio of ethanol to water will vary depending on the type of herb you are tincturing. For mucilaginous herbs (e.g. astragalus or reishi), you’ll want to use lower ethanol content menstrums (about 25%). In these cases, the water is doing most of the heavy lifting and the ethanol is mostly there to act as a preservative and stabilize the extraction. On the other hand, herbs high in resins, alkaloids, and terpenes (essential oils), you’ll want a higher ethanol content because these chemicals simply aren’t very water soluble. For most of these herbs, you’ll generally want a target of 50-70% ethanol. In some rare cases, tinctures of resins like myrrh and propolis, you want to use straight everclear (95% ethanol).
Despite this nuance, many herbalists may opt for a ‘middle-of-the-road’ technique and use a 50/50 blend of water and ethanol. For most herbs, this generalization will work fine. You can usually get away with using vodka, which is 80-90 proof or 40-45% ethanol and 55-60% water. Just keep in mind that this is not an ideal blend for some herbs. But, it is easy.
An alternative to using vodka is to blend everclear, which is 190 proof, or 95% ethanol and water. When utilizing this method, you have the ability to blend whatever ratio you want. As a bonus, it is usually a little more cost effective to water down ethanol than to use vodka. We will discuss how to ‘water down’ everclear (or any other high proof spirits) to your desired ethanol concentration in the upcoming steps.
Making your Tincture
You’ll need the following equipment to make a macerated tincture:
-glass macerating vessel: a jar and lid ranging between 16oz and 1 gallon in size, depending on the size of your tincture.
-a kitchen scale
-an accurate measuring cup, preferable capable of measuring fractional ounces.
-a straining setup; which is commonly a metal mesh strainer with a few layers of fine cheesecloth on top. Alternatively, this can be a nut milk bag. Either way, you’ll want fine cheesecloth or a nut milk bag as part of your setup so you can wring out your herbs.
-funnels are very nice to have but not necessarily required
-coffee filters are optional
-you might possibly need a pair of kitchen scissors or a knife to cut the herb
Preparing the Herb
Herb preparation is simple. As discussed earlier, we are only discussing the use of dried herbs here. Make sure that your herb is chopped or cut into fairly small pieces. It does not need to be powdered or pulverized for a maceration. When using leaves or flowers, I generally find it easiest to use a pair of kitchen shears to cut the herb into small (~⅛” or smaller) size pieces. For tougher herbs, like barks, roots, berries and mushrooms, I usually throw the herb in a blender and break it up without powdering it. If you make tinctures often, and especially if you make percolations, you will find a commercial style blender (e.g. Vitamix) an indispensable tool.
Preparing the Menstrum
In order to blend the menstrum you’ll put together the three pieces of information you’ve assembled, as discussed above. You’ll need to:
- Establish the water:ethanol ratio you want. Consult texts or credible online resources for this info. (see sections above for discussion)
- Establish the total volume of menstruum needed (see sections above)
First, calculate how much ethanol you’ll need. To do this, we will assume you are using everclear (190 proof, or 95% ethanol + 5% water). Multiply the percent ethanol you want by the total amount of menstum needed. For example, if you want 20oz of total menstrum, at 60% ethanol:
0.6 * 20 oz menstrum = 12 oz ethanol needed
Since everclear is not 100% ethanol, we need one final adjustment. Divide the amount of ethanol needed, from the last step, by the concentration of your alcohol; in this case, 95%.
12 oz ethanol / 0.95 = 12.6 oz everclear needed
Now the rest is simple: since we need 20 oz of total menstrum, and 12.6 oz of everclear then just subtract 20 from 12.6 for the amount of water needed.
20 oz menstrum - 12.6 oz everclear = 7.4 oz water needed
Simply combine the 7.4 oz water and the 12.6 oz water and, voila, you have exactly 20 oz of menstrum at 60% ethanol!
Creating your Tincture
Now simply combine your menstrum and herb in an appropriately sized jar. You’ll want to gently shake your tincture about once a day for the duration of the infusion, which should last at least three weeks. Keep in mind, the rate at which your extraction proceeds decreases with time, so most of the extraction is done within the first week. The difference between a tincture that macerates for one versus two weeks is substantial while the difference between a tincture that macerates for four versus five weeks is substantially less. Most herbalists agree that under normal conditions, a tincture is ready after 3-4 weeks of maceration.
When ready, simply pour your tincture mixture into your straining device. Again, I recommend a few layers of cheesecloth draped over a metal mesh strainer or a nut milk bag. Let it drain for a bit. Then, with clean hands, wring out as much liquid as you can using the cheesecloth or nut milk bag. If using a press, then press. An optional step is then to strain through a coffee filter. This produces a tincture that minimizes the ‘sludge’ that inevitably settles after a while, but can be a tedious process if it clogs the filter. Use your discretion. Mucilaginous extractions are typically problematic to strain in this way.
After you are happy with your strained tincture, simply bottle AND LABEL. No self-respecting herbalist makes herbal preparations without labeling. At a minimum, include the date of manufacture, herbal species used, the herb:menstrum ratio, whether fresh or dried herb was used, and the alcohol content. This information will allow anyone with access to dosing guidelines, to take the tincture safely. Even better, I suggest journaling your efforts. Documenting certain information, like the amount of menstrum loss, will greatly refine your future tincturing efforts.
Keep your creation near room-temperature and out of sunlight and you’ll get at least a couple of years out of your tincture. Storing in glass is a must as the alcohol and plant chemistry can break down plastic. Furthermore, amber glass helps resist degradation of your tincture by UV light.
Finally, I highly encourage you to consult reputable sources for dosing.
Disclaimer: This information is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This content does not provide format recommendations, dosing, toxicity levels, or possible interactions with prescription drugs. Accordingly, this information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk.