An Introduction to Tinctures

Note: I made a correction to my fresh plant tincture example in the last paragraph of the Standard method section, that should have been 10 ounces not 25. Thanks for spotting that, Susan! 

To make a tincture, you need only a few ingredients: an herb, a menstruum and a container with airtight top. Optionally you might want a three beam scale and a glass measuring cup. Some herbalists like to have all kinds of fancy stuff, like beakers, industrial grinders and tiny funnels (very nice to have). I have a weird menagerie of tools that include a turkey baster, several different sized funnels and some chopsticks but I keep it pretty simple. Tincture presses can also be nice, but they are another subject for another post.

Processing the Plant

For fresh plants, just chop it up good first. For dry plants with leaf or flower matter, chopping is easy too. For roots, they usually come cut and sifted if you buy them commercially. If you harvest your own roots, you should remember to chop them up when they’re fresh if you know they’re going to get hard (like Redroot, which is herbal steel when dried). Some people insist that you must grind your dried herbs to coarse powder before tincturing to expose more surface area, but I don’t like ground up herbs much, and they get powdery stuff in your tincture that can be annoying to get out. It all depends on how precise you need/want to be. Being a folk herbalist, don’t see/fee much need to get too worried about it. My tinctures work as well or better than most commercial tinctures I’ve bought.

Simpler’s Method for Fresh Plant Tinctures

This is the easiest method and probably one of the most common for folk herbalists. Basically, you fill a jar with chopped fresh plant matter, then you cover it with alcohol of some kind (whiskey, rum, brandy, vodka etc depending on who you learned from and what part of the world/country you’re from). Cover it with an airtight lid, let sit for 2-6 weeks and then decant, reserving the liquid. It’s that easy.

I know that there’s a method of preparing dry plant tinctures this way too, but I only learned with fresh plants.

Standard Method for Fresh and Dry Plant Tinctures

This method is a bit more exacting. You don’t have to do it this way, but it’s useful if you’re working with a new plant or one with delicate constituents that you want to be sure to extract. And if you happen to enjoy math, then it can be kind of fun too. I like playing with the scale, but I usually do an herb by the book one time and then approximate the next time.

Now, glance at a basic herbal. They will tell you that you will use a ratio of 1:2 for fresh plant tinctures and (usually) a ratio of 1:5 for a dry plant tincture. It’s generally accepted in Western herbal medicine that it is most ideal to use 95% alcohol for fresh plant tinctures and varying percentages (with an average of 50%-65%) for dry plant tinctures depending on the constituents in the plant and the kind of medicine you want to make.

So, what exactly do these ratios mean anyway? They are weight of herb to volume of menstruum. That means that if you are preparing a dry plant tincture with a 1:5 ratio, and you have 1 ounce (by weight) of dried herb, you’ll want five ounces (by volume, in your glass measuring cup) of menstruum (alcohol or alcohol/water). If you are preparing a fresh plant tincture at a 1:2 ratio and you have 5 ounces (by weight) of fresh herb then you will need 10 ounces (by volume) of mentruum.

Issues

It’s easy to get confused by this in the beginning, and think they mean something like filling your jar a fifth of the way up with herb and filling it all the way up with alcohol/water. I’ve seen/heard that quite often, and remember being confused by it myself when I was younger.

Another issue is mass of plant to weight of plant. Some herbs are rather bulky and fluffy and very very light. Trying to smush enough herb into the jar to get the proper ratio can be mind boggling and sometimes impossible. If that happens, you have two basic choices: learn to percolate or just get over it. I’m not really excited about the math of percolation, so I usually smush as much as I can in and then just see how it works out. So far so good, and haven’t made an inert or uselessly weak tincture yet.

Step by Step

So, here’s a step by step tincture. You have some dried Yerba Mansa root and you want to make a tincture. This is what you can do:
1) Weigh the Yerba Mansa and discover you have about two ounces.

2) Look up or mentally note that dried Yerba Mansa makes a good tincture at a 1:5 ration and 60% alcohol.

3) Measure out ten ounces of menstruum (60% alcohol and 40% water) in a measuring cup.

4) Place plant matter (you can bang it around in a mortar and pestle too if you think it needs to be broken down more) in suitably sized jar (you want to avoid have much air space in the bottle when everything’s in).

5) Pour alcohol over plant matter.

6) Seal jar with airtight lid.

7) Store in cool, dark place for two to six weeks. I have variously decanted an herb at three weeks and once, two years later. Both tinctures worked well :)

8 ) Being a dried plant, shake once every day or so. Fresh plants when tinctured with a high percentage of alcohol do not need to be shaken, they will simply be automatically deprive of all of their liquid bits by the alcohol.

9) At the end of the designated time, decant (and squeeze squeeze squeeze all the tincture out of the plants) and reserve the liquid.

10) Store in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. Don’t open unless you need to as air exposure seems to speed up breakdown time. And don’t forget the LABEL, where you want to include what the plant is, usually both botanical and common names when you’re first starting out so you’re not confused later on because you only used some obscure folk name found in a book and now you don’t know what it is. You’ll also want ration, alcohol percentage, date you began the tincture, and perhaps date/location of harvesting. If you didn’t harvest it yourself, then the name of the place/date you bought it.

So there you have it, a fully functional and very useful tincture. There are further variables of course, like if you’re using an herb with lots of tannins you might want to add some (usually 10%) glycerine to the menstruum in order to enhance extraction and avoid precipitations of said tannins. Or you could also add an herbal honey for flavor and medicinal value and so on. There’s also various exceptions for the standard ratios like doing a fresh plant tincture of Lobelia at 1:4 instead of 1:2.

I love medicine making, and I value simplicity and straight-forwardness a great deal, so I keep my medicines basic for the most part. I only tincture one plant at a time (with rare exceptions), I don’t use percolation (there’s nothing wrong with it of course, I just haven’t gone there) and I’m not real concerned about things like fluid extracts or other super concentrated forms of medicine. I like herbal baths, simple tinctures, teas, decoctions, honeys, vinegars, oils/salves, nourishing infusions and FOOD as medicine. For me, good medicine is about integration and our individual journey towards wholeness. Healing should happen on every level and in every aspect of our lives. It’s not relegated to just a dropperful of tincture in the morning or a couple of capsules with lunch, it’s in every motion and word. Our intent to heal -to be well and whole- is most effective when it permeates each and every moment.

31 Comments

  1. Amanda Abronson
    Apr 6, 2008

    Yay! I guide to tinctures just for me! How does it make things different to use different alcohols?

  2. Kiva Rose
    Apr 6, 2008

    Well, there’s this post that I just wrote on alcohol http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=303 but I’ll also write about using brandy etc in the near future. In general I recommend using alcohol with the least additives, that would be 95% grain or grape alcohol. Many brandys and vodkas have weird stuff (preservatives and so on) added which is probably less than ideal for medicine. And then there’s herb infused wines, but that’s another post too LOL.

    Hey, did you get my email with the books attached? I sent them yesterday.

  3. Bev Brian
    Apr 7, 2008

    Kiva,
    I am a neophyte and have just started making tinctures, which I am loving. If I have a tincture and do not have the fresh or dried plant at this time, can I make salves/ointments using the tincture? Is the finished quality of the product made, good or just adequate, using the tincture?
    Thanks, Bev

  4. Kiva Rose
    Apr 7, 2008

    Hi Bev…. well, I don’t recommend it. I think you would basically have to dehydrate the tincture into a solid extract in order to be able to add enough for an effective salve. Some people do add tinctures to salves though, I just haven’t found it to be terribly effective and certainly not efficient money wise.

    That said, it’s possible and effective to use a tincture externally (dilute with a bit of water usually). What are you wanting to do exactly?

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Jennifer
    Apr 7, 2008

    Hi Kiva,
    I am a little confused where you mention this step (3) Measure out ten ounces of menstruum (60% alcohol and 40% water) in a measuring cup.) If you are using a 40% alcohol then it is 80 proof (Ithink) and 20% of its water (again i think) so are you using a 120 proof alcohol and then adding 40% water or are you using a 30% alcohol and adding some water over and above the water thats in the alcohol. I so APOLOGIZE if I am making this more difficult than it should be.
    I am also interested on why it is different for the fresh lobelia tincture (I am very interested in making that one in the future.)
    Thanks!!!

  6. Kiva Rose
    Apr 7, 2008

    Hi Jennifer,

    If you are using 80 proof alcohol, its alcohol percentage is half that, 40%. That makes its water content to be 60%.

    If I want 60% alcohol, then I would use 190 proof alcohol which is 95%, this is the highest proof of alcohol you can buy. I round up to 100% for simplicity’s sake. I then use six parts alcohol to four parts water to get the amount of menstruum I desire.

    In the example above, that would be six ounces of 95% alcohol (appr) and four ounces of water.

    I can only purchase either 95% alcohol or 40% alcohol where I live so usually end up buying the high proof stuff and diluting it down to the appropriate percentage with water.

    With Lobelia, I think it’s because the fresh plant is so strong, but I have limited experience with the plant, and my understanding of the ratio comes from Michael Moore. I believe this only applies to the official Lobelia, whose name escapes me at the moment. Most of the other Lobelias, like the Cardinal Flower, are weaker and you can make a stronger tincture, most likely a normal 1:2 fresh plant tincture.

    Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as complicated as it seems once you start doing it. And if the numbers are just annoying and taking the fun out of it, just go for the simpler’s method, tinctures made that way almost always work out fine.

  7. Bev Brian
    Apr 8, 2008

    Kiva,
    Thanks for the info! I didn’t have anything special in mind. My first project is assembling a herbal First Aid Kit. Am unsure where to go from there, since our family is very healthy (so far!). If I feel like I am coming down with a cold, I just take my echinacea tincture and the cold never comes to fruition. :)
    Bev

  8. LaShay Canady
    Jul 9, 2008

    I just tinctured some fresh Motherwort but it has lots of thorns on it. Does this mean my tincture will not be as strong? Should I just let it tincture longer? What is the difference between the energetics of the herb with or without the thorns? Thanks!

  9. Kiva Rose
    Jul 9, 2008

    Hi LaShay, by thorns do you mean the pricklies that develop in the flowers as they age? If so, I’d say that’s an integral part of Motherwort’s protective medicine, that nourishing but fierce energy that certain plants have. I’ve never tried Motherwort without the pricklies as I think they’re an important part of what the plant has to offer.

  10. Rita
    Jul 28, 2008

    Hi there,

    I have a question regarding the alcohol used.

    Does the alcohol have to be a grain-based alcohol? Can you make/distil your own Vodka which would be suitable to use?

    Thanks

    Rita

  11. Kiva Rose
    Jul 28, 2008

    Hi Rita,

    Doesn’t have to be alcohol based, high proof grape alcohol is available commercially. You could potentially distill your own spirits, but that would be illegal in every state I know of.

  12. Claire
    Nov 5, 2008

    I like Thyme tincture….I have been making it in the past with Raw Apple Cider Vinegar. I would like to make it with alcohol. Can I use Everclear for this? Do I have to add water or can I just macerate the Thyme in the Everclear? I use dried Thyme. Thank you.

  13. Claire
    Nov 5, 2008

    Forgot to ask, what do you recommend so far as ratio for dried Thyme? (Thymus Vugaris)

  14. Kiva Rose
    Nov 5, 2008

    Claire, dried thyme is a dried plant, so probably 1:5, as I stated above. You might want to re-read my post above to understand about the Everclear. Then go to Michael Moore’s SWSBM website and download his free materia medica to find what might be an appropriate alcohol percentage for that particular plant.

    Thanks for reading,
    Kiva

  15. Claire
    Nov 5, 2008

    I went to the SWSBM but i couldnt find it. I read what you said about the Everclear, but I am not sure I understand. Please forgive my ignorance.

  16. Kiva Rose
    Nov 5, 2008

    Here’s the link to the SWSBM page on manuals http://www.swsbm.com/ManualsMM/MansMM.html it’s the first link, just download it and look up Thyme by its botanical name. It’ll probably say something like 65 or 70 percent because of the high percentage of volatile oils in the plant. Everclear is 95 percent alcohol, so you need to add enough water to make it 65 or 70 percent before pouring it over your plant matter.

    Or, if you want it to be simpler, just half fill a jar with crushed dried Thyme and then fill the jar to the top with 100 or 80 proof vodka (100 is better but you can’t find it everywhere). It’ll still works totally fine just won’t be as terribly strong as the other in most cases.

    Don’t overthink it, tincture making is really an incredibly simple process for the most part (except for percolation, and that’s not really necessary in general).

    ~Kiva

  17. Marie
    Jan 1, 2009

    Beautiful and informative site. So glad to have found it. I have a question that has been almost impossible for me to find the answer to. I am trying to find an herb grinder/pulverizer that is suitable for grinding herbal barks and roots and might also pulverize same. A coffee bean grinder and a food mill doesn’t work. It has to be heavy duty enough to do small amounts of bark and roots too.

    Was hoping that you with your wisdom of herbs could advise me.

    Thanking you in advance.
    Marie

  18. Kiva Rose
    Jan 1, 2009

    I don’t have electricity (beyond enough solar power to run the laptop and satellite internet) and so am usually unable to powder herbs on my own… usually I settle for grinding them as fine as I can with a mortar and pestle or with a nut grinder. Most people though, seem to really like vita-mix blenders for herb grinding, they’re industrial strength and seem to be the machine of choice for such things.

  19. Helena
    Feb 24, 2009

    Kiva,
    I make my tinctures with the alcohol, but it has come to my attention that some people are sensitive to the it. What would be the proportions of using vegetable glyceryn and/or can you use both alcohol and glycerin together.

    Here in NY, Everclear is not available for sale, but I was able to talk to the liquor store owner who’s wife orders me a vodka at 120% proof called Devil Hills or something like that. They don’t normally carry it but have found that there are people like myself who make herbal tinctures. It costs less than the brand name vodkas on the shelf.

  20. Kiva Rose
    Feb 24, 2009

    I’ve talked many time on here, especially in my Elderberry elixir recipe, about combining alcohol and glycerine (or honey), it works fine. I really don’t like glycerine by itself for most things for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, but if people can’t deal with the tiny amount of alcohol in tinctures (it really is tiny, in normal dosages) then I just have them use teas, pastilles or herbal honeys, depending on the plant and person.

    BTW, there’s no such thing as 120% proof, you probably mean 120 proof, which is 60% alcohol.

  21. Helena
    Feb 24, 2009

    My bad, I meant 120 proof. I agree, I personally don’t care to use glycerine and would prefer to use the alcohol. I’ve tried the organic apple cider vinegar, which is an acquired taste to say the least. Also the teas, but you can’t match the strength of a tincture.

  22. Kiva Rose
    Feb 24, 2009

    Vinegar doesn’t extract herbs the same at all and I don’t find it suitable for making most tinctures, I think it works better as a food/nourishing kind of thing.

    Actually, sometimes tea can kick a tinctures ass for strength of effect (you couldn’t drink enough dropperfuls of skullcap tincture to equal a cup of tea for helping one sleep). Although, of course a tincture is the most efficient way to go for most herbs on a plant mass to dosage level. Grinding the whole herb up and making a pastille with honey though, is a time honored and very effective way to administer medicine, up there with tinctures for many things in my opinion (Paul Bergner talks about this a lot too on the various lists and groups he’s on), especially for people who can’t do alcohol.

    I do make lots of elixirs though, that are combos of alcohol, glycerine or honey and sometimes some hydrosols. Tends to be tasty and very effective.

  23. rachel
    Sep 6, 2009

    hi, i started an apple cider( raw) tincture but didnt put it in an air tigh container. i left it in my other house and will see if any mold grew on it. does it have to be air tight? thankyou

  24. Kiva Rose
    Sep 7, 2009

    rachel, it does need to be covered, not just because of mold but because it will weaken the tincture over the long run.

  25. Beanie
    Sep 28, 2009

    Hi, I started a dandelion root tincture last week, the simplers way, with 80 proof vodka. The tincture looks kind of cloudy to me, is this normal? I would hate to have to throw it away, it is very time consuming digging all those roots!

    • Kiva Rose
      Oct 30, 2009

      Yes, it is normal, it’s just the way the inulin is pulled into the tincture.

  26. katya
    Oct 12, 2009

    hi kiva-

    question on my echinacea tincture, when shaken it has the hints of a cloudyness to it. It sat for a week w/ only 1/2 amt of alcohol till i purchased more. there does look like there are a few vermiculite pieces in there…not sure..what do you think..goddess of the gila?

  27. DrMom
    Sep 29, 2010

    This is a pretty old post, but I have a burning question about the simplers method. If a formula recipe includes 4 parts dried red clover, 2 parts dried burdock root, 1/2 part milk thistle seed and you use volume measurements (1 part being 1 cup, lets say) you would have much more burdock by weight than red clover. If the intent of the recipe was to have more red clover than burdock then using volume measurements doesn’t seem like it would work. You have more red clover by volume, but certainly not by weight. If you did the same recipe by weight (1 oz being 1 part), you would have a much greater volume of red clover, and a a very small volume of burdock. Do you get my meaning? I’ve never seen this problem mentioned when it comes to choosing your device of measurement using the simplers method. Only consistency throughout the recipe is mentioned. But the same recipe using two different measuring tools would be vastly different. What to do???

    • Kiva Rose
      Sep 29, 2010

      I don’t generally tincture multiple herbs together (for many reasons), thus bypassing this issue. Tincture each herb separately, then make your formula with parts (by volume) of each tincture. This allows you more flexibility in fine tuning the formula anyway.

      • DrMom
        Sep 30, 2010

        That makes sense. Thank you. Do you use single herbs for teas and infusions as well? Those are two things I see formulas for as well using parts (thinking of Rosemary Gladstar’s books).

  28. Love Moore
    Apr 20, 2012

    Thank you so much, for sharing your experiences with herbs, I am attempting my first batch of yerba mansa tincture, and info is really helpful.
    Peace and Beauty abounds!
    Love

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