How I Make Tinctures

I suppose I should start this out by saying that I am not wild about fluid extracts or tinctures. The term “folk tincture” annoys me very much because it implies that at some point “the folk” used tinctures when they are in fact, a standardized product of professional medicine and industrial pharmacy.

I much prefer getting plant medicine into my clients using methods that the folk truly used such as a hot diaphoretic yarrow infusion, or a cold mucilaginous Irish moss lemonade. 

Steams, chest rubs and poultices are the kind of medicine my people used. External preparations (especially those made with saturated fats) work better to bring relief to the avascular parts of the body. I recommend broths, hydromels (syrups/cordials), oxymels (shrubs), or even just a good old-fashioned wine decoction.

There are times though, especially in today’s “take this pill and get back to work” society when these preparations are useful, especially for a clientele who are conditioned to TID-type prescriptions and are unlikely to go to the extra work to make the medicines I have listed above.

I mentioned my spreadsheet in a group the other day and then became self-conscious about sharing it. My tinctures are quite a bit different than a lot I see for sale at conferences these days.

This is partly to do with my early training away from the “herbal community” that I am a part of today and the fact that some of my teachers at school were trained in the UK.  So, I thought I would just offer some background about my methods. I am not at all invested in people agreeing with my approach, nor are people likely to change my mind about it.  It’s been working for me for an exceptionally long time.

The first thing I would advise is not to use canning jars with traditional lids to make or store your tinctures. Rings/bands are not airtight and if you are using them to store tinctures, your alcohol is evaporating away. 

If you are going to jump into this, I recommend getting a proofing hydrometer so you can test the potency of your preparation and bump it up, if necessary before it gets too weak.   Proofing hydrometers take so much math out of medicine-making. There’s an idea out there that you can’t use a hydrometer to test solutions. I talked to a friend who owns a distillery and he said that’s but that’s not the case, they must test all liqueurs sold on the market before they are marketed this way and they all have dissolved solids in them.

US Method vs. UK Method

Here in the US herbal extract making is often approached with a “go big or go home” attitude which has been very much influenced by pharmacologists in the profession, such as the Eclectic physicians.

The goal of today’s medicine maker is often to extract large amounts of the most biologically active constituent in a plant, but how can we be sure that in this process we aren’t missing out on the synergistic effects of a preparation that might capture a more complete chemical profile of the plant?

British tinctures aren’t quite as bracing. Take a barberry tincture made by Baldwins in England which starts with 45% alcohol and a 1:3 plant ratio.   A lot of Americans will tell you that preparations of barberry made this weak are inferior because it fails to extract as much pure berberine. Pharmacologists are pretty hung up on the idea that one isolated constituent is the one we “want” from the plant.

Most Brits seem to think their weaker preparations work fine.  I should point out they generally use standard 3-5mL dosing which is more affordable when you use less alcohol.

Fluid Extracts

A fluid extract is a hydroethanolic extract made at a 1:1 ratio.  
1 ml of a fluid extract  = 1 gm of the dried herb.

Fluid extracts are useful because they are somewhat standardized and help to deliver large daily doses of plant constituents in a concentrated form.   You use equal amounts of dried plant material and strong ethanol.

These are most often produced by cold percolation, although there is a cheater’s method I will mention below.  I sometimes dread making percolations because I think there is a lot of waste involved. I will sometimes recycle the marc, as I mention below.

My British Physick garden curator friend who gets me all the fun seeds, says that hardly anyone in the UK makes percolations, probably because the process entails using stronger alcohol than they can easily get their hands on.   This is a cheat he taught me that I use sometimes because I might harvest small amounts of a plant several times over the course of the summer.

 Cheaters Fluid Extract

Macerate 125 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol. If you grind your herbs well and have a good press you won’t lose much. It is usually just short of 500 ml of 1:4 tincture. You can top it off if you would like. Use this tincture to macerate a further 125g of herb and you are at 1:2. Do this until at the end, you have macerated 500 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol.

It may not make for an Instagram worthy picture but this is how finely you must grind your herbs if you are going to work with my proportions.

Why Use Tinctures?

If we have fluid extracts which deliver a uniform-ish amount of concentrated plant constituents every time, what is the purpose, or usefulness of making tinctures?   I was taught that tinctures are useful in sampling a more complete profile of a plant. Making a tincture is a process that recognizes that we can’t catch all the useful constituents of a plant, with high-potency alcohol nor is it necessarily desirable.

My Tincturing Spread Sheet.

I take a kind of middle-of-the-road approach based on what I learned in phytochemistry and decades of fiddling around. I have attached a printout from my Excel sheet where I keep most my notes.

If you don’t see something on here it is likely because I only make it as a fluid extract OR I don’t make an alcohol preparation with certain plants such as marshmallow, astragalus, Irish moss, and so on.  Some plant constituents just don’t extract in ethanol and they are not for tincturing.

There are also some plants there that you might be surprised to see.  I work with historical herbs, and I don’t advise that people without advanced training make these tinctures or use them.

I work mostly with fresh herbs I’ve grown myself. I usually fresh-wilt my herbs for 24 hours because I can’t buy 95% alcohol in Iowa. It is illegal. I work with all resins the same way, so I don’t repeat them.

Finally, when I am making tinctures, there are a couple of tricks I use to save money on alcohol, while at the same time making more potent preparations.

Recycling Tinctures

You can use the previous year’s tincture as a menstruum for this year’s batch of tinctures if you have checked the alcohol content and it has a sufficient amount. This does not produce uniform preparations from year to year.

So, you must keep good records to adjust your dosing strategies.  Most people don’t want to bother with this, but it can save money for people on a budget due to running a free clinic or working on sliding fee scales.

Secondary Extracts

You can also use a spent marc to make a secondary extract that will be used as the menstruum for next year’s primary extract or for a percolation of the dry plant material if you run out during the winter.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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