Tinkering with Tinctures


Ellen Zachos: I first learned to make tinctures years ago as a botany student at the New York Botanic Garden, but it wasn’t until I dove deep into foraged mixology that my interest in tincturing was renewed.

Historically, tinctures were medicines. Originally, herbs were macerated in wine, and as people learned to distill alcohol, they used spirits as the base for their medicines. Preserving herbs in alcohol extended their shelf life without refrigeration, and meant that herbalists had access to healing herbs even when those herbs weren’t in season.

A tincture is a hydroalcoholic solution made by steeping one or more plants or mushrooms in spirits. (For people who’d rather not consume alcohol, vinegar and glycerin based tinctures are viable alternatives, but let’s face it: if you didn’t consume alcohol, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.) Both the water and the alcohol in the spirit are important, because some compounds are only soluble in water, while others are best extracted by alcohol. Spirits with an ABV of at least 80% (40 proof) are recommended for tincturing; those with a lower alcohol level may not preserve the tinctures as long.

Tincture with chopped licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

Commercial tinctures are made with alcohol levels specifically chosen to best extract the medicinal properties of each plant or mushroom. The ABV that best extracts the medicinal properties of elderberry may be different from the ABV that most efficiently extracts the medicinal properties of burdock root. Fortunately, making tinctures for your own enjoyment is slightly less technical.

Here are the basic rules:

1) The base liquid is measured by volume (fluid ounces), while the solids are measured by weight (ounces). Yes, it’s a little confusing, but that’s the accepted industry standard.

2) A good general ratio to use is 4:1 (liquid:plant/mushroom) for dried material, and 2:1 (liquid:plant/mushroom) for fresh or frozen material. Dried plants and mushrooms have more concentrated flavors than their fresh or frozen counterparts, since the water has been removed. As a result, you need less of them. (Note: You may find tincture recipes with very general instructions, i.e., “fill the jar half full with herbs, then cover with vodka.” That’s fine if you’re a wing-it, fly-by-night kind of herbalist. But I like to measure my ingredients so I can repeat my successes and avoid repeating my failures.)

3) Anything you tincture, whether it’s roots, seeds, leaves, stems, or mushrooms, should be finely chopped. Exposing as much surface area as possible will improve the efficiency of the extraction.

4) During maceration (the process of soaking material in liquid), keep your bitters in a closed container, out of direct sun.

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