Tinctures… and Why I Don’t Do What the Books Say

Simplicity

I’ve always had a hard time with authority. I’ll freely admit it. I’m stubborn. I also have a hard time following a recipe… or directions of any kind, really. Throw some unnecessary complications at me, and I’ll blow my lid. I will go straight “ain’t nobody got time for that” right up in yo’ face. What can I say? God made me how he made me.

That’s why I struggle with the most popular advice on tincture making.

Guys, I just don’t think it needs to be as complicated as some Herbalists make it seem to be. Let me break it down for you.

The prevalent instruction today is that you MUST use high proof alcohol (i.e. -Everclear or similar… like 95+% alcohol) in tincture making. Then you must use complicated math to dilute it with water to a slightly lower percentage (but still high proof) of alcohol depending upon the herb you are tincturing and whether it is fresh or dry – so don’t forget to keep a chart or reference book handy. Then you must further dilute it after it is finished tincturing, in order to make it an appropriate level of alcohol for regular consumption – generally anywhere from 25-50% in the final product, depending on your source .*Insert my best mom side-eye here*

So here’s the thing. I buy this lovely, certified gluten free, organic, gmo free vodka that is 45% alcohol. It’s a beautiful thing – it’s already pre-diluted to the perfect percentage. A little high even, for a finished product. Consuming it in reasonable amounts won’t shut down my internal organs, which is a definite up-side for me. It’s legal in my state without a permit, unlike Everclear (which, by the way, is made with gmo corn… yum).  I also get to avoid complicated math, which if we’re all being honest wins bonus points. Also, it’s delicious.

But wait, there’s more.

Most herbs contain both alcohol and water soluble compounds. In other words, beneficial things that you want in your finished tincture – some of which are extracted best in alcohol, and others which are extracted best in water. You need both. If you are extracting in high proof alcohol, you are missing out on a lot of beneficial aspects in your tinctures that needed water to be effectively extracted.

I tend to be of the opinion that using a whole plant is best; that the various compounds in a plant work together harmoniously, and that those relationships are what make those plants work! If you look through pharmacological history, you can find case after case where we isolate some magical active compound in a plant, go all Tim the Tool Man on it, and think “Hey, if a little is good, more is better!” … then take 1000x what a naturally occurring amount would be, and end up baffled when we have a negative outcome. Then we’re told that obviously the problem is that the plant is bad. Wait, what? *confused head scratch* Many times, we later discover that there is another compound in that plant that controls the action of that first compound in some way. Sometimes controlling it, sometimes enhancing it, sometimes working alongside it in some way. It’s about the whole plant… and, yes, it’s also about using reasonable dosages.

See, another argument that the high proof alcohol proponents will make is that high proof alcohol results in stronger extracts. Yep, they do. In some cases, pharmaceutical strength. I’m not trying to re-create prescription strength pharmaceuticals in my kitchen. I am trying to use plants to keep myself and my family well. The stronger you make your extract, the more likely you are to have a negative reaction… just like with allopathic medicine. I want my tinctures to be strong enough to heal, not strong enough to harm.

But you can have a finished tincture in 10-14 days with high proof alcohol! Yep, you can. You can have a very strong tincture, lacking most, if not all, of the water soluble compounds ready in 2 weeks. I have to wait longer. I prefer to wait 8 weeks for most, and a fair bit longer for things like Usnea. I’m ok with that. It’s worth it to me to have a well-rounded, fully extracted, safe and effective tincture. It’s a classic tortoise-hare scenario. If having a finished product fast and strong is the goal, I would argue that many Herbalists have forgotten the point! The point is to support your body and to nourish and heal gently. We aren’t trying to re-create prescriptions, and I would hope that we aren’t pushing an inferior product in the name of misguided efficiency.

Now, there are some exceptions. There always are. Resins and gums are virtually impossible to extract in lower proof alcohol. They contain few, if any, water soluble compounds. Usnea can be extracted in lower proof alcohol, but needs either heat, or a much longer extraction time. Those are exceptions. But you know what? They tend to be things that you aren’t going to use regularly. Things that you actually might want to be done quickly and to be potent. They aren’t just exceptions in their biological makeup, they are also exceptions in their uses. Funny how that works, right?

Here’s the summary. This isn’t complicated. You need to know 3 things: First, which plant you need, and why. If you’re a beginner, make sure it’s a safe plant – don’t go messing around with poke root straight out of the gate. Second, that you actually have the right plant. Third, that you are capable of putting said plant in a jar, covering it completely in alcohol, putting a lid on it and waiting a minimum of 6-8 weeks. That’s all.

Now, I’m not saying all of those other guys are wrong, per se, I’m saying I think simplicity is best. You decide for yourself.

In middle school, all the smart mouthed tweens and young teens used to love to tell everyone to “keep it simple, stupid” (K.I.S.S.). When we over-complicate simple things, we put people off. If someone is intimidated by complicated formulas and calculations, they may never try something that could have benefited them tremendously. Furthermore, when we over complicate things, we introduce more potential for mistakes. Guys, even with herbalism, mistakes have consequences… sometimes serious ones. No one wants that.

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