A liquid extract or tincture is a method of preserving herbs in a base of water and alcohol, making them convenient to dispense and take. In addition to preserving the herb for long periods of time, alcohol is better than water at extracting some constituents. Plants with resins or volatile oils need a high concentration of alcohol for thorough extraction while mucilaginous plants and plants high in mucopolysaccharides are better extracted with water. This is the reason mucilaginous plants, like comfrey or marshmallow are made into teas or if necessary to use as a tincture, are preserved with a low concentration of alcohol. Making a tincture generally takes from 4 to 12 weeks to prepare using the maceration method. I will be discussing the maceration method of making a tincture as I like it best and it is a commonly used method. There are other methods that can be used to make a tincture, such as the percolation method.
Sometimes an herbalist will call an extract made by extracting herbs in vinegar or glycerin a tincture but usually the vinegar is called a tinctract or vinegar extract and the glycerine extract a glycerite. Generally when an herbalist says the word tincture they are talking about an herbal extracts manufacturer made with alcohol or alcohol/water.
Making herbal tinctures can be quite easy or very detail oriented and involve a lot of math depending on if you want to be exacting or not. The easy method of making tinctures called the folk method is a system that many beginning herbalists use. If you want to make a tincture that is the same strength each time, you need to use a bit of math and follow a formula to ensure you make the product the same each time. Herbal companies use mathematical formulas to make sure they have consistency. Many herbalists do also.
The Folk Method of Extraction
In the pure folk method people often don’t take into consideration the percent of alcohol the plant would be best extracted with. Often people use whatever they have around and it is often something that is 80 proof or 40% alcohol. Fill the jar about 1/3 -1/2 with fresh or dried plant material. Pour alcohol over the top of the herbs. Realize that the herbs will soak up the alcohol so you may need to add extra later. You can check the next day to see if you need to add more alcohol. The alcohol must stay over the top of the plant by at least 1/4 inch at all times to keep it from oxidizing. If you are adding alcohol to fresh plant you won’t need to add more due to their being water in the plant. With the dry plant extract, the plant will suck alcohol into its dry cells. This is why you have to add more later. If you are adding alcohol to dry plant, you will definitely need to add more the next day. Put a lid on the container and steep for 4 to 6 weeks in a cool, dark place such as a pantry. Shake it often. Then strain or press out the liquid or menstruum. Usually in the folk method you don’t even both filtering it. You simply use as is. This is really all there is to the folk method. It is very simple and you don’t have to know much to do this. In many cases this will work just fine.
Now in its simplest form, you don’t even mix the herb and alcohol. You just pour the alcohol over the herb and wait. However, most people using this method will use a blender to mix the alcohol and the herb together. This breaks up the plant into smaller particles and lets the alcohol get absorbed into the plant quicker and allows it to come into contact with more plant material, thereby extracting more of the goodness from the plant. This can also be accomplished with a mortar and pestle. It is just much slower than a blender.
Improving the Folk Method
The folk method is best use to extract dried plant materials. Fresh plants have moisture in them and as soon as you mix the fresh plant with the alcohol, you are diluting the alcohol. If the plant has 75% moisture in it, you are diluting the alcohol a lot. Fresh plants that have little moisture content or fresh plants that have constituents in them that you can extract with low amounts of alcohol will do well with the folk method. When you want to use this method with plant material that needs high amounts of alcohol or that has a lot of moisture in it, herbalists using the folk method will often use 190 proof (95%) alcohol. Doing this will allow you to get a good extraction from plant material such as resins. If the plant being tinctured is fresh and it has a high moisture content and has constituents that necessitate a moderate to high amount of alcohol to extract them the 190 proof alcohol would be needed again.