Notes on Alcohol for the Beginning Herbalist
There’s this little herbal misunderstanding that has become a pet peeve of mine. Some people seem to think that grain alcohol (also known under the brand-name of Everclear) is somehow evil or unsuitable for medicine because of how strong (evidently this is equivalent to harsh). But really, it’s only as strong as you make/need it.
So, that cheap vodka you buy. It’s usually either 40% or 50% alcohol and the rest (60% or 50%) is water. That makes it Everclear with with a bunch of water added. Expensive water, eh? You can sometimes buy high quality vodka from potatoes or some source besides grain but it’s a pretty penny in most places.
So, you could buy yourself some Everclear (if it’s legal in your state) or you could buy organic grain or grape alcohol from Alchemical Solutions and have it shipped to you. It’s 95% alcohol.
Now, to make a fresh plant tincture I prefer a high alcohol percentage. I’ve used every kind of percentage from 40% on up, and I have to say that in most cases, I far prefer a higher percentage (from 75%-95%) because it tastes more like the plant and takes a very low dosage for effective medicine, and seems to preserve better. Now let’s be clear, your fresh plant tincture WON’T be 95% alcohol because the fresh plant itself contains water (how much depends on the plant of course), so it’s not quite like taking a dropperful of Everclear or something. Some plants have tons of water in them (think of juicy plants like Plantain or Wild Mint). And hey, if you want to only use 50% alcohol for your tincture, well then hell, just use half water and half grain alcohol.
For dry plant tinctures, you’ll rarely use 95% alcohol but it makes it really easy to calculate the exact percentage that you do need. So if you need 45% alcohol for your dried Ashwagandha, why then just add enough water to the alcohol to make that (again, appr. half and half, I personally usually just eyeball it). If you want to know some good recommendations for the various percentages of different dry plant tinctures, head over to Michael Moore’s site and download his free Materia Medica. I won’t get into the math of tinctures here, I just want to dispel the evil Everclear myth and show useful it really is. Otherwise you’re forever stuck with 40% tinctures, which is ok for many herbs, but when you have lots of aromatics or resins, it’s really less than ideal and is fairly evident upon tasting or using the medicine.
You don’t have to get all uptight and scientific about measurement, just approximate and you’ll usually do fine. Practice and experience will make it much easier. And yes, the people at the liquor store or bar will think you’re an alcoholic. And if you tell them you’re making medicine with it, they’ll just nod knowingly and roll their eyes at each other over your head. Eventually though, you’ll be in there selling THEM little bottles of tincture because they can’t get rid of last winter’s lung grunge. Poetic justice, I say.