An alcohol extraction is just one of many ways to preserve the medicinal properties of herbs in a usable form. It is not always my favorite way to use herbal medicine. I often prefer teas, and sometimes another method is just best for the plant at hand. However, alcoholic extracts, or tinctures, have many advantages over other preparations.
Alcohol is an excellent preservative. As long as your alcohol to water ratio is high enough, your medicine will have a shelf life of many years. For preservation, the alcohol content of the extract should be over 30%. If using fresh plants to make a tincture, the water content of the plants will also need to be factored into this calculation.
Alcoholic extracts are easy to travel with and dose. Those little dropper bottles can be thrown in a bag and taken with you. No additional preparation is required, just take your drops when you need them, either directly or in a little water.
Also, making your own tinctures will save you a lot of money. Buying those little bottles can really add up over time. If you know you will be using an herbal tincture for an extended period of time, or if there are just some herbs you like to keep on hand in tincture form so that you have them when you need them, then making your own tinctures will be more cost effective.
A Few Different Methods
The Folk Method
Most folks start out learning the folk method of tincture making. I teach this method in my foundations course. It is easy and empowering and gets people making medicine without feeling too intimidated.
The folk method simply involves filling a jar with freshly chopped herbs (or filling a jar halfway with dried herbs) and then pouring in alcohol (must be at least 80 proof) to fill the jar. This jar is then shaken once a day for 4 weeks. Then it is strained, bottled, and labeled. Easy peasy. You now have a tincture!
The folk method works fine for many plants and gives people a way into herbal medicine making that is practical, easy to fit into their lives, and empowering. You can make beautiful combination extracts with this method, and even sweeten it with some honey for a truly delicious medicine. It does have some drawbacks though.
It is not great at producing extracts of consistent strength. We are not really measuring anything with accuracy in this method. There is no weighing of herbs or measuring out the alcohol. We are just eyeballing it. And although we do fill the jar to a certain level, the amount of herbs it takes to fill to that level can vary widely depending on how fine they are chopped, or how tightly they are packed. As a result, the required dosage for the finished tincture may be much different from the last batch a person made.
Another drawback of the folk method is that some herbs are extracted more effectively with higher proof alcohol, or with a higher herb to menstruum (that’s your alcohol/water solution… fancy herbal terminology) ratio.
When someone is comfortable working with herbs and making tinctures using the folk method, but ready to refine their process, it’s time to move on to the weight to volume method of making tinctures.
The Weight to Volume Method
For this method, we will be weighing out the herbs (in grams) and measuring out the menstruum (in milliliters). For most herbs, recommended ratios of herbs to menstruum are 1:2 if using fresh plants, and 1:5 if using dried plants. Recommendations can vary in some cases though, so it can be helpful to research what other herbalists recommend first and to keep notes.
We also control the percentage of alcohol more closely with this method. If we are using a grain alcohol that is 190 proof, we can add water to get a menstruum with a specific alcohol percentage. In this way we are not confined to the 40% alcohol found in most brandy or vodka. This allows us to use a higher percentage alcohol in cases where that would be more effective for our extracts.
Once herbs are weighed and the menstruum is mixed and measured, the process is very similar to the folk method. We combine the herbs and liquid in a jar and mix together (a blender is usually needed if using fresh herbs here, as the amount of herbs to alcohol is usually much higher than it would be in the folk method). Then we shake our jar once a day and strain in four weeks. The result, however, is a much stronger tincture that is easy to reproduce the next time we make it.
But what if we didn’t want to wait four weeks for a nice strong tincture?
Tincture by Percolation
Four weeks is a long time to wait for a finished tincture. And while it is absolutely possible to dip into those macerations (another fancy herbal term, meaning extraction by soaking in a solvent) before they are finished, there is a method that allows us to have a completely finished, consistently strong tincture in just two days.
Making a percolation requires the same weight to volume ratios and alcohol percentage measurements as a maceration, but also requires a few pieces of equipment. Instead of letting time extract the medicine from our herbs while they sit in a solvent, we will be using movement as the menstruum slowly moves down through the ground and pre-soaked herbs (percolation). To do this we need a percolation cone (I use a glass bottle with the bottom cut off, turned upside-down), a valve for controlling drip flow (this can be the cap of the bottle), a filter (cotton ball), and some way of holding the cone (lab stand or even a large jar works here).
Before we set up the percolation, the herbs must be ground to a powder and pre-soaked with some of the menstruum (only enough to dampen the powder). After about four hours we are ready to pack the cone. The cone is packed firmly, but not too tightly with the soaked powder. Then, with the valve opened, the menstruum is poured gentilly on top and allowed to filter down through the herbs. At this point we close our valve and let it rest for 12 hours (overnight). In the morning, the valve is opened and set at a slow and steady rate. A collection vessel is placed under the valve to collect our finished extract. Depending on the amount of herb in the cone, this process could take a few hours to all day. But in any case, this is much faster than waiting four weeks.
If you are interested in a more in-depth, step-by-step walkthrough of the percolation process, I will be teaching an online class about this method on February 28th for all my patreon subscribers. We will go over how to make a percolation cone and valve, talk about the weight to volume method, and then walk through how to set up and run a percolation. To get access to the class, you can join my page An Herbalist’s Journal, at any level (subscriptions start at only $3 a month!). You’ll also get instant access to all previous content at that level, as well as regular posts each month about medicine making, harvesting, formulating and more. Come check it out at www.patreon.com/nettlejuice