How to Make a Scientific Herbal Tincture

Path of the Herbalist Part 2

How to Make a Scientific/Measured Tincture

Introduction

(note: if you are a new herbalist and have not completed part 1 of this series, I recommend going here first)

There are two types of ways to make an alcoholic macerated tincture. One is the folk method, and the other is the scientific/measurement method. This article will focus primarily on how to correctly implement the scientific method. An “alcoholic macerated tincture” is created by combining a chosen herb with an alcoholic menstruum (a “menstruum” is the combined alcohol+water solution (e.g. the menstruum of vodka is 40% alcohol + 60% water)), usually combined in a glass jar, and then allowed to macerate/soak for several weeks in order to extract all of the desired phytochemicals. Alcohol is a more powerful solvent than water, and although water is superior at extracting certain chemicals, many phytochemicals require a certain percentage of alcohol to become bioavailable. For that reason, as well an excellent shelf-life, alcoholic tinctures are a popular and effective medium of herbal medicine.

Materials needed: high % alcohol spirit, water, a measuring vessel, a sieve, cheesecloth, a scale, glass jar, label/tape, herbs.

The Folk Method

The folk method is not a bad way to make a tincture, but in my opinion it is best suited for either the absolute beginner in herbalism, or the most advanced. For an advanced practitioner, it may be that they are able to use their intuition and other subtle arts to create a more efficacious tincture than a scientifically measured one, or a virtually incomparable one; and for the beginner, the level of ease may serve as a good emollient into the pleasant world of herbalism.

The folk method requires no measurements. You take a mason jar, fill it half way with dried or fresh herbs, and fill the jar with vodka or a similar spirit until all of the herbs are covered plus an inch or so. Then you label it, put it in the closet, and shake it twice a day for 4-6 weeks. After 4-6 weeks have passed, use a sieve to separate the liquid from the marc (the marc is the ball of leftover physical herb matter), enwrap the marc in a piece of cheesecloth, and squeeze out as much juice as you can with your hand. Store the liquid in an air-tight, preferably amber bottle, and put it in a dry, cool place out of the sun. If you do all of that, you’ll have a tincture, and it’ll probably be a fine and useful tincture. But there are some disadvantages to the folk method.

Disadvantage #1: A 40% alcohol menstruum isn’t an ideal concentrate for many herbs, and most spirits found in a liquor cabinet will be 40%, or some other number which is not perfectly suited for the type of phytochemicals we’re looking to extract. Disadvantage #2 is that you won’t know what the herb:menstruum ratio is, and most likely it will be a high amount of menstruum, meaning a weaker tincture.

As you can see from the disadvantages, they aren’t very serious. For most herbs, you might get a somewhat weaker tincture, with perhaps fewer phytochemicals, but usually you’ll still have something relatively good. But for the serious beginners and intermediates, we still need to learn what percentages of alcohol will extract which types of phytochemicals from each of the herbs we’re using, what herb:menstruum ratio is superior, and why, so that one day when we are advanced, we’ll be able to safely and effectively use the folk method again if we choose to. 

 

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The Scientific/Measured Method - Preliminary Research

Just as you wouldn’t eat a random plant in the wild without first
properly identifying it, you cannot brazenly consume herbs without first researching them. Most herbs are completely harmless, and so are most of the plants in the forest; but a few of them are poisonous. Some herbs are medicines at a certain dose, and a poison at another. Do the best research you can about the herb itself, using the best sources you can find. You need to figure out: 1) the proper herb:menstruum ratio (e.g. 1:5), 2) the proper alcohol % of the menstruum (e.g. 60%), and 3) contraindications, cautions, and proper dosage.

Warning: You want to be very careful about contraindications and interactions, because certain phytochemicals in herbs can significantly impact certain pharmaceutical drug effects or complex health conditions. A common contraindication to look out for is pregnancy or breastfeeding, and include anyone who might be trying to get pregnant in that category. Be careful, and take the time to do this step properly, using at least 2 sources. The second source will often have a useful piece of information the first didn’t. Be bold with your own health if you want to, but if you’re trying to help someone else, watch your karma. Serious mistakes can happen if you’re not careful!

 

One good source for finding general information on medicinal herbs is Marisa Marciano’s website. Search for Hawthorne, or whatever herb you’re thinking of making, and learn about the herb.

After reviewing uses, contraindications and interactions, look at the ‘pharmacy’ section. There you’ll find a phrase that looks something like this: (Hawthorne) Tincture (1:5, 45%), 1-2ml TID. Let’s unpack the meaning:

1:5 refers to the herb-menstruum ratio; so in this example, if you have 100g (grams) of herb, you’ll combine it with 500ml (milliliters) of menstruum. (note: this is for dried herbs, a fresh-herb tincture is almost always a 1:2 ratio)
45% refers to the alcohol content of the menstruum.
1-2ml TID means that the dosage is 1-2ml “three times a day” (TID is Latin for: “ter in die”); so the therapeutic index is 1-2ml, three times a day, of a tincture made within those parameters.

You should check at least one other source as well. For example, in researching Hawthorne berry, I found another source (Michael Moore) who recommends a 1:5, 50-60% tincture; and whereas the first source had no contraindications listed, Moore suggests that it should not be used in bradycardia (low heart rate), or with beta blockers (common blood pressure med that can lower heart rate). Most heart-related problems involve a high heart rate, in which case Hawthorne would be effective, but looking deeper, we see that there are exceptions (hence the imperative of multiple sources). 

Now that we know we need a 1:5, 45% alcohol tincture, and have done all the precautionary work, we can get into the math.

 

Measurements & Equations

For most tinctures vodka is not going to work, you’ll usually need a higher percentage of alcohol. The higher the better, because by blending the alcohol with water we can have any percentage of alcohol menstruum we want, so long as the % is lower than the original spirit. I use a 96% grain alcohol from Stratchona Spirits Distillery, but a large liquor store should have a comparable option. Ask the liquor store worker what their highest proof alcohol stock is. (Alcohol proof describes the percentage of ethanol (alcohol); just divide the proof number by 2 and you’ll have the percentage of alcohol. For example, a 180 proof is 90% alcohol, a 190 proof is 95%.)

Let’s go through an example:

I want 500ml of Hawthorne berry tincture, with a 1:5 ratio and at a 60% alcohol content. I have 96% alcohol spirit.

The math for the ratio is easy. 500/5 is 100, so 100g of Hawthorne berry to 500ml of menstruum. The challenging math is figuring out what combination of water and 96% alcohol (or whatever you’ve got) will make 500ml of 60% alcohol. The equation is as follows:

(% desired alcohol / % of alcohol you’ve got) x 100 = percentage of spirit to use.

This looks like:
(0.60/0.96)x100= 62.5% spirit
Then:
100-62.5 = 37.5% water

So 62.5% of the menstruum needs to be the 96% alcohol spirit, and 37.5% needs to be water (highest quality water you can find). We then figure out what 62.5% of 500 is:

500×0.625=312.5ml spirit
500×0.375= 187.5 water

In this example we would mix 312.5ml of spirit with 187.5ml of water, and create a 500ml menstruum with a 60% alcohol content.

Combining & Storing

In a glass jar combine your menstruum with the proper amount of herbs. From the example above, combine 500ml of the created menstruum with 100g of Hawthorne berry. Create a label, including at least the following information: type of herb, date, % of alcohol, and ratio. Put an airtight lid on it, and you have the beginnings of a tincture. Shake the jar two times a day for 4-6 weeks to increase extraction (among other things), and store in a cool, dark place.

After 4-6 weeks have passed, separate the marc (physical herb) from the liquid, using a sieve. Then, wrap the marc in a piece of cheesecloth, and using either your hand (least effective), a potato ricer (medium efficacy), or a hydraulic tincture press (most effective), squeeze as much liquid out of the marc as you can. Compost the marc, pour the liquid into an amber/tinted, air-tight bottle, and label it again. You now have a scientifically measured tincture.

A tincture will degrade by four factors: light, heat, air, and a high water content. The alcohol is the solvent and the preservative, so the more alcohol the longer the shelf-life. 25% alcohol as a minimum is a good rule of thumb, though some tinctures call for 20%, or a bit lower. But generally if the tincture has an air-tight lid, is kept in a dark place (or at least in an amber bottle which deflects most light), and at a relatively cool (20ºC or lower) temperature, an alcohol tincture should last 3-5 years, maybe longer depending on % alcohol.

(note: beer bottles are a cheap and environmentally friendly way to store a finished tincture. Just ensure you wash them with a proper cleaner, and get bottles with a twist-off cap. The cap will twist back on and creates an air-tight seal.)

 

If you've followed all the steps so far, well done! You're well on your way to mastering the art and science of Herbalism. Follow us on one of our social media for video content and updates, and I hope to see you again in Part 3 of the "Path of the Herbalist" series by Plato's Garden.
Justin McArthur
Herbalist

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