Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Making Herbal Tinctures

What is an Herbal tincture?

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 extract 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.

The Formula Method of Extraction
Herbalists use this method for consistency of product. You know what percent of alcohol and water you will have in the final product. You also know the strength will remain fairly consistent. 

Herb Class At Wise Acres
When using the formula method you take the amount of herb that you are going to tincture and multiply it by a set number to get the amount of alcohol and water you will be adding to the herb. Once you know the total amount of liquid you will add, you multiply that by the amount of alcohol and the amount of water you want in the final product. This gives you the total amount each of water and alcohol to add. This is fairly straight forward for dry plant tinctures. When making a fresh plant tincture it becomes more complicated as you now have to account for the amount of moisture in the plant. This necessitates, weighing and drying and re-weighing the dried herb and using this figure in your calculations to decide how much alcohol and water to add. I will not explain the fresh formula as it is more complicated than I want to get into in this blog. I find many people in my classes are confused by tincturing fresh plants and we have to go over it a couple times for them to understand it. If you really want to know how to do this you can join my "Becoming An Herbalist"  or you can get my book "Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth."

The Mathematical Formula Method for Dry Extracts
The following information is taken directly from my book "Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth."

Pasting the book data in this blog messed it up a bit and I have tried to neaten it. I could not use the numerous photos or the tables. Sorry it is not perfect. It still gives you very good, detailed, written directions that anyone willing to take the time can follow easily. I have added some additional notes since it is taken out of the context of the book.

Dry plant tinctures are easier to make than fresh plant tinctures. Your first extract using this mathematical formula method should be from dried material to ensure good results.

Implements and ingredients:
•    Finely chopped herbs.
•    Glass containers with tight fitting lids.
•    Alcohol - 190 proof or 95% alcohol.
•    Spring water, well water or filtered water
•    2 strainers.
•    Large pot or bowl.
•    Press cloth like a thin tea towel.
•    Filter:
        Cheese cloth or unbleached coffee filters.
•    Bottles for liquid extract.

1.      Weigh the plant.
2.   Decide the strength of the product, 1:5, 1:3, etc. (See “Herb Chart for Harvesting and Preparation of Liquid Extracts”) - To make it easy for you, use 1:5 for dry leafy and flower parts and anything dense like a root or bark, use 1:3 or 1:4.
3.    Check the percentage of alcohol necessary. (I have a chart in my book or you can go to a local health food store and see what the herb companies are using. The percentage for each tincture is listed on their bottle.)
4.    Calculate the amount of alcohol and water.
5.    Measure amounts of alcohol and water = menstruum.
6.    Combine the menstruum and marc (plant).
7.    Put the mixture in a container with a tight lid:
             • Gallon glass containers or canning jars work well.
8.    Store in a cool, dark place.
9.    Shake daily until ready to press.
10.    Press.
11.    Filter.
12.    Bottle.

The metric system should be used for calculations. This allows conversion between weight and volume. The conversion used is slightly rounded, but it will enable you to convert grams and milliliters equally and give an excellent product as an end result. The conversion factors:
     1 pound = 450 grams = 450 milliliters
Next, the strength of the liquid extract and percentage of alcohol should be determined.
•    Write the strength of the extract in the form: A:B. Below in the calendula example we use 1:5 as our A:B strength.
•    List the weight of the herb (A) in grams.  
Calculate for the total fluid used in this product.
•    Multiply the weight of the herb by the B number.
•    B x plant weight in grams = total fluid in milliliters.
The total amount of liquid in milliliters needs to be further divided into the percent of alcohol and percent of water.
•    The calculation for the amount of alcohol:
    -Total fluid in milliliters x % alcohol.
•    The calculation for the amount of water:
    -Total fluid in milliliters x % water.

Calculations for a 1:5 liquid extract of calendula at 70% alcohol.

Calendula liquid extract 1:5.
1# or 450 grams of herb will be used: 450 grams x 5 = 2250 milliliters of total fluid.
The fluid will need to be further separated into alcohol and water.
For the alcohol in this extract :
    2250 milliliters x .70 (70%) =    1575 milliliters of alcohol.
For the water in this extract:
    2250 milliliters x .30 (30%) =    675 milliliters of water.
To check the math, add the alcohol and water together. The sum total should be 2250 milliliters.

Mixing the marc and menstruum
Measure the alcohol and water and mix together, forming the menstruum. (Technically it is not really called a menstruum until the herbs are added to it but lets not get too picky.) Mix the menstruum and marc (herbs) together. The herbs should be finely cut so that multiple plant cells will come in contact with the menstruum. The herbs can be chopped prior to adding to the menstruum or the entire mixture of menstruum and marc can be chopped together in a blender.  If using the blender method, add the menstruum to the blender, filling it no more than half full. Next add a small amount of marc and begin blending. Keep adding the marc to the blender, finely chopping after each addition. 

Each Herb absorbs liquid differently. The general rule is to have at least three times more menstruum in the container than marc.  This will allow enough menstruum for the dry herb to absorb. Most of the menstruum will be absorbed within 24 hours. After 24 hours, if there is a lot of unabsorbed menstruum, add more herb. There should be a minimum of 1-2 inches of menstruum above the level of the marc at all times. If there is extra herb that cannot be added to the menstruum, save and add later. Usually, fluffy flowers and leaves will absorb more menstruum than a dense root or seed.
The following are some general rules for absorption of liquid:
(1)    Leafy things, like colt’s foot, mullein, lady’s mantle and some roots will expand substantially.
(2)    Small, rock-like roots, like stone root, wild yam and false unicorn, do not expand much.
(3)    Barks and non-rock-like roots will almost always expand. The container of blended herb and fluid should contain 1/3 plant material to 2/3 pure liquid
(4)    Always check a dry extract the next day for expansion. Maintain a minimum of 1”- 2” of fluid over the top of the herb.

Final Stage of Maceration
Shake the container daily until the liquid extract is ready to press. Usually herbs are best extracted without heat. This is not a place to discuss heating herbs and alcohol as it is too complicated and dangerous.

When finished, the liquid extract should attain the color, flavor, and aroma of the herbs. Without herbal experience to know when an extract is ready, wait for a specified time period. If no more herb is to be added, wait for 2 months before pressing. If more herb is to be added, wait one month before pressing. Once ready, the marc is separated from the menstruum by pouring through a strainer. The strainer is placed in a bowl and the menstruum and marc are poured into the strainer. Pick up the strainer filled with herbs, put a second strainer, lined with a press cloth, under the first strainer. Place the herbs from the first strainer into the cloth-lined strainer. Pick up all sides of the cloth and bring them together at the top. Twist the cloth in a circular motion to squeeze the remaining menstruum out of the herbs by hand or use a mechanical press. 

The liquid remaining in the marc is some of the best extract. Care should be taken to press as much liquid as possible from the herbs. If there is more herb to be added, add it to the liquid now and follow the previous directions. This addition of herb should sit for 1-2 months before pressing. Occasionally, herbs are added numerous times before the final product is ready. The product gets stronger with each addition. After straining the marc from the menstruum for the final time, filter and bottle the liquid extract. The liquid extract can be used unfiltered, with little bits of herb, or filtered with a cheesecloth or unbleached coffee filter for a more presentable product. When finished, store the extract in a dark -colored container or bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Most liquid extracts have an indefinite shelf life if kept in a cool, dark area.

For More Information On How to Dry and Store Herbs
Join Dr. Tilgner’s class "Becoming An Herbalist" for in-depth information and experience. 


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  5. I have a question I saw a yutube video online about a herb extract using a blender. He was saying because of the force and heat it created with the herb and alcohol you let it blend for about 10 min then strain and its done no waiting 6 weeks or so ....is this true....I tried it with tepezchouite bark powder I want to use it in a diy face serum now im not sure how much of the extract to use for a 1oz bottle my carrier oil is avocado what do you think...thanks Lisa

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  7. The difference between extracts and tinctures is the amount of herb infused in the alcohol or glycerin. An extract is considered 1 part herb to 1 part alcohol or glycerin. A tincture is considered 1 part herbs to 3 parts alcohol or glycerin.

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