What is a Tincture

Understand what Tinctures are.

Tinctures are a method of making Herbal Medications that have a longer shelf life than either Infusions or Decoctions.  The thought of making Tinctures at home often makes people shy away from giving it a try, but Tinctures are easier to make than people think they are.

Ready-made Tinctures can be expensive to buy, possibly because they are usually alcohol based, and can take a month or more to make.  Don’t let this put you off, after the initial ‘putting together’ of a Tincture recipe, it takes very little time each day to keep an eye on it as the Tincture develops; after a month your Tincture is ready for use.  Tinctures have a shelf life of up to 2 years, so it is well worth the effort to make your own, and they are all ready for use when you need them.

The word ‘tincture’ originated from the Latin word ‘tinctura’ meaning ‘to dye, to moisten, to soak’.  This is probably where the genus part of the Latin name originated for some herbs that are suitable for dying cloth, where a herb’s Latin name often contains the word ‘tinctoria’ or similar.   But words evolve, and around the early to mid-1600s with alchemy (chemistry) on the increase, and herbal medications becoming the province of the ‘herbalist’ or alchemist rather than the local cunning man or woman, the word ‘tincture’ evolved into the meaning ‘a solution of medicine in a mixture of alcohol.’  Alcohol is a solvent and a preservative, dissolving the constituents of a herb into the alcohol and keeping it secure and safe, all ready for use.

The most effective way of producing Tinctures is to use alcohol as both an extractor and a preservative, the best alcohol is considered to be vodka as it has no smell or taste of its own, although back in the 1600’s gin, brandy or even whiskey was used according to locality and which was the easiest and cheapest to obtain.

Vodka was the drink of the Russian elite; attempts to control its production by Russian law in 1894 made the production and distribution of vodka in Russia a state monopoly.  This was where export into Europe became a moneymaker for Russia.   Chemists soon latched on to using vodka for making longer-lasting Herbal Medication, because of its purity and strength.

Alcohol by volume (ABV) and ‘proof’ explained

An alcoholic drink we might buy is fermented, after fermentation it can be turned into beer, ales, or wine depending on the method of fermentation chosen.  But another process after fermentation can be undergone, which leads to the manufacture of what are called ‘spirits’.

No matter which kind of alcohol is made, alcohol’s scientific name is ‘ethanol.’

Herbal Fermentation

Fermentation is where sugars are mixed with yeast, (natural sugars are found in and on herbs, fruit, and vegetables) the yeast breaks down the sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide gas.  The carbon dioxide gas bubbles out and away, leaving ethanol (alcohol) and water.

After fermentation, alcoholic spirits such as vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey go through the process of distillation, this is the process of removing some of the water from the ethanol. This is why vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey are called, ‘distilled spirits’.

So what’s the difference between the amount of alcohol in wine or beer and the amount of alcohol in spirits?

If we look at a label on a bottle of wine or beer we will see something like ‘ABV 14%’, meaning ‘alcohol by volume is 14%.’   This means the bottle contains 14% of alcohol and 86% of water and other constituents.

But for making Tinctures, the alcohol we need to use are ‘spirits’ of some kind, and these are labeled differently to the labeling on wine.  On a bottle of spirits, we may see, for example, ‘40% proof, ‘60% proof,’ or ‘80% proof’.  The ‘proof’ of a spirit is a number equal to twice the ABV or (alcohol by volume).   This doubling of the percentage is achieved by driving off some of the water as explained above.  Achieved by heating the liquid to a certain temperature where the liquid turns into steam or vapour, which is then divided off into alcohol and water,  (Alcohol rises to the top of the water and is distilled off.) a percentage of the water being discarded and the resulting alcohol being stronger, having less water and more ethanol content.

So in a bottle of spirit, say a bottle of vodka that is 80% proof, the ABV (alcohol by volume) is 40% - meaning the spirit is 40% ethanol and 60% water and other constituents.

As you can see by the above, a spirit has more’ alcohol by volume’ than a bottle of wine, and that’s because the distillation process evaporates more of the water than does a fermenting process.

vodka for making Tinctures

In reality, any spirit could be used to make a Tincture, but the spirit regarded as being the best is vodka because vodka will not taint any tincture we might make.  Vodka is also the easiest to obtain with a high ABV (alcohol by volume).  It is recommended that a vodka of at least 60% proof is used, and if you can get hold of 80% proof that’s better still, an 100% proof would, of course, be the best, but isn’t really necessary as the content of an 80% or 60% proof spirit is more than adequate to make an effective Tincture, although some would say they can make an effective tincture with a 40% proof vodka, the choice sits with the Tinctures maker.

Alcohol (or ethanol) is an excellent preservative, which is why a Tincture has a much longer shelf life than either an Infusion or a Decoction.  Alcohol is also the best way of extracting all of a herbs constituents, which again makes for a better and more effective Herbal Medication than other methods.  One or two Tinctures in a Herbal first aid box have been the staple of the still room (first aid) for many hundreds of years.

Vinegar Tincture

Another way of extracting an herbs constitutes and preserving them, is to make a Tincture using Vinegar.

What is Vinegar?  To begin, there are many kinds of vinegar: malt, red wine, white wine, balsamic, apple cider, sherry, rice vinegar to name but a few.  But what these all have in common is that they all began with a fermentation process, which, if left under certain conditions, turns into vinegar, the chemical of use here being acetic acid.  A bottle of wine left without its cork or bottle top will sour, resulting in the formation of acetic acid, (a second fermentation causes this) which results in what we know to be ‘vinegar’.  Different types of vinegar depending on the fermentation it began with.  The only exception in the vinegar world is white vinegar, which is produced in a laboratory using acetic acid and water.

The best type of vinegar for making Tinctures is apple cider vinegar or looking at it in a very simple way, apple cider which has gone off, producing acetic acid with would be beyond drinking without a grimace on the face!

Acetic acid has the ability to extract a herbs constituents and to preserve them as a Tincture.  Although a Tincture made by using vinegar (acetic acid) doesn’t have the same shelf life as one made by using alcohol but may be more tolerable to someone who doesn’t drink alcohol in any form at all.  Shelf life for a vinegar Tincture is around 8 to 9 months.

To diverse from the subject a little, vinegar is a household staple that’s not only useful for shaking onto chips, but its acidity also makes it an excellent cleaner for windows and mirrors, and its antiseptic values for preventing the spread of infection has been known about for many, many years, although science has yet to admit to this one.

Glycerine Tincture

Another non-alcoholic way of making an Herbal Tincture is to use the basis of Glycerine, the problem with this method is that it fails to extract all constituents from the herbs in question, making it not as productive as an extraction method using alcohol.  But, if using soft fleshy herbs, the herbs you might use for an Infusion, for instance, then a Glycerine Tincture may be useful.  The shelf life of a Glycerine Tincture is around 6 to 8 months.

Tinctures do not have a sweet taste, they are usually dark brown to black in colour and taste as bad as they look, but, Tinctures are not orally ingested by the spoonful or by the cupful but by a number of drops, which are recommended by the illness being treated and by the particular herb used to make it.  It is usual to mix the drops of Tincture into hot water or it can be dropped into an Infusion of a pleasant tasting Herbal tea. (note: a tea is not the same as an Infusion, and this topic is explored in more detail in Oaken Glade’s Course ‘Infusions’.)

Oxymel

Some herbs have a taste that is stronger in the raw herb than others, such as Garlic, Ginger, Mullein, Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano, Balm of Gilead for instance.  To make these stronger-tasting herbs more palatable in Medications is easily done by making a very old method indeed, called an Oxymel which is made using Apple Cider Vinegar and Honey.  The acetic acid in the vinegar extracting the herbal constituents, and the honey sweetening the taste, and of course adding its own powerful healing abilities.   Oxymels are useful for making cough medications for children, or for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Tinctures really are much easier to make than people think they are, well worth having a go and making your own.