Tinctures: About and How-To

Tinctures are really useful, and many tinctures can replace heavy medication. But remember – tinctures ARE medicine, and they need to be used with care as such. Just be sure that, if you are continuing with pharma-meds, the tincture you are using will not react badly. When your doctor asks what medicines you are taking, include your tinctures, too!

A close up image of several pots of various herbs. The pots are black and terracotta.

Below, I have written up a basic recipe, followed by some further information about tinctures, a brief history of use as medicine, as well as what the difference is from cordials and infusions.

Note: I personally am not formally trained in herbalism. Instead, I was raised on and with herbal and folk medicine by a woman who is a healer, Wise Woman/spá-kona, and trained as an herbalist and energy healer. These are the “traditions” I was raised with when it comes to healing. I’m currently apprenticing to her in herb lore in addition to this.

Recipe

You will need:

  • A jar or jug that has a seal-able lid. Mason jars that have screw tops work well, too.
  • Enough of the herb(s) ““ powdered or thoroughly cut or crushed and dried or fresh; you should to be able to fill the jar most of the way loosely, though a smaller amount of herb can be used.
  • A distilled alcohol of at LEAST 80 proof (40% Alcohol); 100 proof or higher is better. Some sources say to use Everclear if you can get it. For those who cannot use alcohol, vinegar or distilled water can be used instead, though this is not to my personal taste.
  • Cheese Cloth*
  • Rubber band*
  • Container to store finished tincture *
  • A dark, cool spot that you won’t forget about.

* Optional

Directions:

  1. Put your herbs in the jar so that they sit loosely in it, leaving at least two fingers of space from the lid. Less can be used if desired. Make sure it is crushed if dried, or cut decently fine if not. If you are unable to cut, that is all right; my violet tincture uses whole flowers, but it tends to work best if the flowers are in pieces.
  2. Pour alcohol over the herbs until all of the herbs are completely covered. There should be a finger of air MINIMUM between the alcohol and the lid when closed. If using bitter herbs, using Rum can make it less bitter. Vodka is more typical, though the “higher shelf”/better quality it is, the better. Potato-y vodka + herbs can make a pretty nasty tincture.
  3. Seal the jar. Make sure it is tight – you don’t want the condensation to escape. You don’t have to seal them with wax or anything, though. I’ve seen them done in big glass pickle jars with twist lids, though the tighter the seal, the better.
  4. Put in a cool, dark place away from heat for three to six weeks. Shake it once a day, but DO NOT OPEN until the minimum three weeks has passed. For vinegar-based tinctures, a minimum of six weeks and best of eight weeks sitting time seems to work best.
  5. Steps 6-8 are optional. I leave my tinctures with herbs in the jars they were made in unless I am traveling, in which case I might put only so much as I need in baby food jars or in thoroughly cleaned travel bottles. Leaving them in their jars can increase potency as you use it.
  6. Open the jar your tincture has been sitting in. Spread the cheese cloth over the top and secure with a rubber band.
  7. Carefully pour the liquid into your new storage container. Doing this over a sink is ideal, though use of a funnel can also be helpful.
  8. When it seems like all the liquid has drained off, hold the cheesecloth on, but remove the rubber band. Turn the jar upside down so the soggy herbs fall into the cheese cloth. Squeeze this over your new container to get the remaining tincture into your new container.
  9. Store in a cool, dark place (medicine cabinets are suitable for this) with a resealable lid. Tinctures do not need refrigerated.

How do I use a Tincture?

Tinctures tend to be used in limited doses when used medicinally. While it is best to have someone trained in herb lore or in using a particular recipe to give you an amount for your dosage, typical doses tend to be in “drops” (for example, I have one that is “30-60 drops”) to teaspoons. Most tinctures can be safely taken at 1 teaspoon 1-3 times a day.

My personal daily regimen currently includes 1 teaspoon each of catnip, violet, and turmeric tinctures. I have a tiny shot-sized wine tasting cup that I use to combine them all in to down quickly, sometimes adding a teaspoon of sugar or sweetener if my stomach is upset. Some people prefer to put their doses in their tea or coffee or in juice or another liquid. Turmeric is pretty good in dark roast, for example. I’ve seen it put in smoothie-type things for those who are on liquid diets, or even in milk for one gentleman receiving hospice care.

If you aren’t completely sure about how an herb is used, PLEASE consult a doctor or an herbalist. There are some herbs that can make chemotherapy less effective, and some natural antidepressants like St. John’s wort can cause potentially deadly serotonin storms if mixed improperly with a lot of prescription antidepressants and other psycho-pharma drugs. If you have a particular condition, try looking for an herbalist familiar with that condition if it is one that tends to have complexities.

Tinctures should not be consumed like it is a liquor or as a recreational beverage. Indeed, many don’t taste that great for this use. Instead, you should try a cordial for the recreational intake, which can be used as medicine but is more commonly used as a “special occasion” beverage nowadays.

What is a Tincture?

A tincture is made of an herb soaked in an alcohol that is between 80 and 140 U.S. proof (40-70 ABV). A higher proof or ABV can be used though, and with some herbs can be preferred. It is allowed to steep, and is not heated. It is a way of extracting and delivering the oils or essence of an herb(s).

Note: The Polish Nalewka also technically fits this description, though in the EU, Nalewka can only be called such if made in Poland (or Lithuania I believe) or by a family that is from the region, culturally. Some people allow for specific recipes that were passed down through families in the region to be called this as well. Please respect this – many of the cultural practices of this region were stamped out between the late 1700s and late 1800s by cultural pressure and conquest from Western Europe.

What is the difference from a cordial or an infusion?

A cordial is made in a similar fashion, but it uses alcohol that is under 80 proof. That, technically, is the difference. However, cordials are often sweeter and can be used more in a way that is like dessert wine as far as how it is consumed. Many are made with fruit, though herbs may be used, and a good number use sugar or other sweeteners, such as honey. Brandy tends to be the most commonly used alcohol for a cordial.

An infusion involves heat. Hot oil or water (or a mixture thereof) is poured over the herbs and allowed to cool. For medicinal use, it should sit for 4 or more hours. For non-medicinal/recreational use, “tea” is a good example of a simple infusion. These, unlike tinctures, need to be refrigerated.

What is the history of tinctures?

Tinctures actually date back as far as the thing that makes it a tincture – that is, distilled alcohol. Cordials and infusions had been known for thousands of years, and some might point to ancient Egyptian recipes for cordials as ancient “tinctures.” But tinctures, by the actual definition, had to wait until after 1000 CE.

Title page from the Latin edition of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine Text is in red and black inks, and  there's a floral looking image at the bottom of the page.
Title page from the Latin edition of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine

When Ab? ‘Al? ali-Husayn ibn ‘Abd All?h ibn Sin? (commonly refered to as Ibn S?n?; Romanized in Western references as Avicenna) discovered distilling, he also found that medicine could be made from the distilled alcohol. Along with many other medical topics in his Al-Qanoon fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), published in 1025, Ibn S?n?
wrote down recipes for medicines that would today be called tinctures.

Distilling wasn’t commonly known in Europe until the 1400s, and didn’t become widespread until around 1500, though the Irish and Scottish peoples adopted distillery much earlier than the rest of Europe. However, Ibn S?n?’s Al-Qanoon fi al-Tib was the basis for the teaching of medicine in the West from the 12th”“17th centuries, and so his discoveries around medicine and medicinal uses of distilled alcohol did become ingrained in Western medicine.

By the “Victorian” era in Anglocentric cultures, tinctures were common. Laudanum is a tincture of opium; paregoric, used over the counter in the U.S. until the 1970s, commonly with small children, is a camphorated variety. Warberg’s tincture was a common medicine used in the treatment of fevers, including malarial fevers and was used to treat colds until the 1980s. Until the 1920s, cannabis Indica tinctures were sold in your average pharmacy. Any number of the elixirs and other medicines found commonly advertised were either cordials or tinctures.

It wasn’t until pharmacology moved on to emphasizing pills that tincture usage fell into disuse, though the advent of mail-order purchasing might have led to some decrease in the creation of homemade tinctures.

Links to check out:

Ibn S?n?

Tinctures and cordials in Medieval and Ren Europe

If you have any comments, questions, or corrections, please feel free to comment. I’m all about sharing knowledge!

(Originally written for a private disability group; a version of this is published on my Tumblr.)

Published by

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone. Advocate, Writer, Geek. Multiply Disabled, Queer, and proudly Autistic. Primary Obsession: Institutions, History of Care of people with MH/DDs Also obsessed with: Social Justice, Cats, Victorian Romanticism, and Doctor Who. http://crackedmirrorinshalott.wordpress.com/

10 thoughts on “Tinctures: About and How-To”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post! I recently became very interested in the use of essential oils for my skin woes. I started using the OCM to help with seborrheic dermatitis after numerous dermatologists and thousands of dollars in prescriptions and OTC treatments didn’t work. The OCM worked so well, I started using natural oils for other things. I have had so much more satisfaction using ‘natural alternatives’ for my skin and hair care that I want to branch out to try and use less chemicals in my life and more natural solutions. I will have to look into tinctures!

    1. I am thinking I’m going to be doing more of these, with the herb/folk/natural medicine things.

      I’m encouraging some friends with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities to submit something on scent-free life/solutions, which often overlap with the chemical reduction thing. More and more scent-free in the DISABILITY advocate and activist communities is getting to be seen as an accessibility thing/reasonable accommodation, or at least within certain limits. It would be great to have that spread to those open to it in the wider community.

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