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One of the biggest questions we are asked is "What is a Tincture?" followed by the second biggest question "How do you make one (a Tincture)?". Well, you asked the right people because making liquid herbal extracts is our specialty!
Here, at Prairie Star Botanicals, we believe that "Fresh is Best!" - this means that we believe the highest quality Tincture or Glycerite comes from using locally sourced, fresh plant materials. This being said, one must consider that only certain herbs are available fresh while others are only available from dried sources. Certain herbs, such as Rehmannia or Asian Ginseng, are preferred to be used from dried because they must first be honey-fried or infused with wine in order to be energetically charged.
There is a certain vitality that is maintained when using fresh plant material for making liquid extracts. There are also certain constituents that are preserved from the fresh plant harvests because they are lost or reduced during the drying process.
First thing’s first, what is a Tincture?
A Tincture is an alcohol-based liquid extract of a plant. We like to say our Tinctures are like a vanilla-extract, except we use different herbs instead of vanilla. Herbs soak in alcohol for about 2 weeks and the alcohol extracts different properties from the plants. When the Tincture is ready, we press off the liquid and discard the solids, the remaining liquids are what you use, the Tincture. A Glycerite, is an alcohol-free version of the same thing. Glycerites are used for children, pregnancy, and those who have alcohol-sensitivities or picky taste buds.
Glycerites are also a little more gentle for the body and don’t have the “bite” from the alcohol, great for those who have sensitive constitutions and need to take things slow. Glycerine is also naturally sweet, often making the extract yummy! The sweetness doesn’t come from sugars or carbohydrates, so blood sugar levels won’t be directly affected by the Glycerine.
Prairie Star Tinctures contain both alcohol and glycerine, while our Glycerites contain only Glycerine – each solvent extracts different properties from the plants. MOST Tinctures are used internally, however some can be used topically and others are ONLY for external use, depending on the plant. Depending on the situation, a person may benefit from using herbs both internally and topically, applied directly to the desired area. Tinctures will soak into the skin readily due to their alcohol-based nature, where Glycerites will stick well, but generally penetrate the skin poorly.
The important question, how do you make a Tincture?
First, let’s talk solvents; at PSB, we use the following solvents:
The reason we use various solvents is because each one will extract different properties from the plants and this is important to understand when we produce over 200 different herbs. In order to provide the best possible products for our customers, we must understand each plant and customize their specific recipe for becoming a Tincture/Glycerite. Also, if the wrong ratio of solvents is used, you may encounter problems such as mold growth, herbs falling out of solution, or other similar problems.
Next, let’s discuss solubility:
Each herb has different constituents…basically, various chemical compounds that make the plant what it is, giving it the action that it does. Understanding the chemistry behind these compounds and how they react to various solvents allows you, the Herbalist, to better understand how to make the best Tincture (or Glycerite) possible!
Here are the different constituents to consider:
Alkaloids – present in herbs like Goldenseal and Lobelia
Glycosides – present in herbs such as Licorice and Milk Thistle
Mucilage – present in gooey herbs such as Marshmallow
Polysaccharides – present in herbs such as Astragalus
Saponins – present in herbs like Skullcap and Figwort
Tannins – present in herbs like Ginkgo
Volatile Oils (Essential Oils) - present in fragrant herbs such as Thyme and Peppermint
Water soluble: Alkaloids (slight), Glycosides, Mucilage, Polysaccharides, Saponins, Tannins
Alcohol Soluble: Alkaloids, Essential Oils, Glycosides, Resins
Glycerine Soluble: Tannins (Glycerine holds tannins in solution longer)
Acid Soluble (vinegar): Alkaloids
Oil Soluble: Essential Oils (Volatile oils), Resins
Water Insoluble: Resins
Alcohol insoluble: Mucilage, Polysaccharides
Glycerine insoluble: Nothing is known to fall out of solution when Glycerine is used, however it may not be the best for extraction with every constituent
Here’s the easy part, making your Tincture
Many students and beginning Herbalists are caught in the notion of making tinctures by numbers; needing to measure everything to be very specific and science oriented, often forgetting to put themselves into the herbal magic as well. If you are a manufacturer or practitioner, this is very important because of all the factors that can influence your product and customers (especially when you are regulated by various government authorities).
For those of you who want to make Tinctures scientifically, here are some tips:
- Often times, Tinctures/Glycerites that are made from fresh are made in a 1:2 ratio due to the high water content of the raw plant material. Extracts made from dried plant materials are often a 1:4 or 1:5 ratio in order to compensate for the lost moisture content during the drying process. The ratio numbers relate accordingly – 1 gram of herb to every 4 or 5 milliliters of solvents, in whatever combination of solvents desired.
- When making Tinctures, be sure to use a minimum of 20% alcohol content for preservation. When making Glycerites, be sure to have a minimum of 50% Glycerine for preservation. Change the ratios of solvents when needing to extract specific plants that have obvious constituents; e.g. Rosemary is high in resins, so you may want to give your Rosemary Tincture a higher alcohol content.
- Expose as much surface area as possible for allowing optimum solvent penetration into the herb. We blend our fresh herbs to nearly smoothie consistency, but you may also rough chop them with a knife, rip, tear, or bruise the herb too.
- When making herbs from dried plant material, try adding your water first and the next day, adding your remaining solvents. By adding water first, it rehydrates the dried herb and opens up the pores of the plant material, allowing more solvents to flow into the herb and more constituents to flow out of the herb.
- Various constituents perform better with hot water infusions while others are best with cold; e.g. Marshmallow (and other gooey herbs) extract best with cold water infusions. The heat from hot water breaks down the mucilage, while cool water preserves it.
- For a “quick tincture”, you can make a strong tea or decoction, and preserve it with alcohol/glycerine.
- When making Tinctures, understand what your alcohol proof means. What we use is 190 proof alcohol, which is 95% alcohol and 5% water. The high proof gives you the most control over what ratio of solvents is used. On the other hand, it may be really convenient to use a lower proof, such as 80 proof alcohol, which means you have 40% alcohol and 60% water. The lower proof eliminates your need of adding water as a solvent.
When it really comes down to it, for the at-home Herbalist, if you can make a tincture that doesn’t fall out of solution, doesn’t grow mold, doesn’t smell funky after a few weeks, and has a nice color to it, you did a great job and that’s all the more you need! In my house, we never measure out our solvents nor our herbs; we chop herbs into a mason jar, add some water, glycerine, and alcohol to cover the herb, shake it up and put it on the shelf! I always make mine a little glycerine heavy based on my preferences, I can’t stand the bite of the alcohol and my tummy likes the soothing glycerine.
I always encourage people to utilize the “folk” method (where you don’t measure anything at all) and experiment with making their own tinctures. Sometimes, we learn more from our failures than we do our successes.