A Guide to Alcohol for Herbalists and Herbal Tinctures

Historically, ethyl alcohol has been the solvent of choice for herbalists, allowing for the extraction and preservation of the medicinal and therapeutic properties of plants in our own backyard. This time-honored tradition relies not just on any alcohol, but on selecting the right kind—specifically, undenatured food grade ethanol. Does ethanol quality matter if you are going to soak it for days with herbs? Yes, simple processes have simple rules...Junk in = Junk out.

herbalists hands making herbal tinctures from dry flowers, botanicals, herbs

What is a tincture?

A tincture is a concentrated liquid herbal extract made by soaking herbs in a solvent like alcohol, oil, vinegar, glycerin to extract the active ingredients. This process creates a potent solution that can be used for various medicinal, culinary, or cosmetic purposes.

Alcohol vs Other Solvents for Tinctures

When creating herbal tinctures, the choice of the base—whether alcohol, olive oil, or glycerin—plays a significant role in the final product's effectiveness, shelf life, and method of use. Each base has its unique properties and benefits, making it important to consider your specific needs and goals for the tincture.

Alcohol (Specifically "Food Grade Ethanol"):

  • Effectiveness: Alcohol is an excellent solvent for extracting a wide range of medicinal compounds from herbs, often more so than other bases. It can dissolve both water-soluble and fat-soluble components, making it highly effective for creating potent tinctures.
  • Shelf Life: Alcohol-based tinctures have a long shelf life, often several years, without the need for refrigeration. The alcohol acts as a preservative, keeping the tincture stable and preventing microbial growth.
  • Usage: Alcohol-based tinctures are typically fast-acting, as alcohol can be quickly absorbed by the body. However, the taste can be strong, and they may not be suitable for everyone, including children, pregnant women, and those with certain health conditions or who avoid alcohol for personal reasons.

Olive Oil:

  • Gentleness: Olive oil is a gentle base that is well-tolerated by most people, making it a good choice for topical applications or for those sensitive to alcohol.
  • Nutritional Benefits: Olive oil itself has health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties and healthy fats, which can complement the medicinal qualities of the herbs.
  • Limitations: The primary limitations of olive oil are its shorter shelf life compared to alcohol and its suitability mainly for topical use or as a culinary ingredient. Olive oil cannot extract as wide a range of compounds from herbs as alcohol can.

Glycerin (Vegetable Glycerine):

  • Sweet Taste: Glycerin is a sweet, syrupy substance that can make tinctures more palatable, especially for children or those averse to the taste of alcohol.
  • Versatility: While not as effective a solvent as alcohol, glycerin can extract a range of water-soluble compounds and is suitable for both internal and external use.
  • Shelf Life: Glycerin-based tinctures typically have a shorter shelf life than alcohol-based ones, usually around 1-2 years, and may require refrigeration to maintain their potency.


  • Health Benefits: Vinegar, especially apple cider vinegar, is celebrated for its own health benefits, including digestive support and antimicrobial properties. Using vinegar as a base can add these benefits to the tincture, making it a holistic remedy.
  • Extraction Capability: Vinegar is effective at extracting minerals and other water-soluble compounds from herbs. It's a good choice for those looking to avoid alcohol while still creating a potent herbal extract. However, vinegar's acidic taste may not be preferred by all, and it doesn't extract fat-soluble compounds as effectively as alcohol.
  • Shelf Life and Usage: Vinegar-based tinctures have a moderate shelf life, typically lasting up to a year when stored properly in a cool, dark place. They are suitable for internal use and can be a flavorful addition to culinary creations. 

The choice between alcohol, oil, vinegar, or glycerin as a tincture menstruum (a what? Read our tincture terms 101) depends on factors such as the desired potency and range of compounds you wish to extract, the intended use of the tincture, and personal or recipient preferences. Alcohol, specifically food-grade ethanol, offers a potent, long-lasting, and versatile option, while olive oil and glycerin provide gentler, more palatable alternatives with their own unique benefits.

5 Advantages of Using Alcohol for Herbal Tinctures and Extracts

  1. Efficient Extraction: 200 proof food grade alcohol is an excellent solvent for extracting a wide range of active compounds from herbs and plants, such as alkaloids, glycosides, and volatile oils. This results in a concentrated and potent tincture.
  2. Purity and Safety: Culinary Solvent's food grade alcohol is free from harmful additives and contaminants, ensuring that your herbal tinctures are safe for consumption and retain their natural healing properties.
  3. Preservation: The high alcohol content of 200 proof food grade alcohol acts as a natural preservative, maintaining the potency and shelf life of your tinctures while preventing the growth of harmful bacteria or mold.
  4. Versatility: Food grade alcohol can be used as a solvent for both fresh and dried plant materials, allowing herbalists and naturopaths to create tinctures from a diverse range of herbs and plants.
  5. Customizable Strength: Depending on the desired final alcohol content, food grade alcohol can be further diluted with water, oil, or glycerin, allowing you to create tinctures with varying strengths tailored to specific applications.

Extracts vs Infusions

Herbal Extracts: Concentrated Flavors and Extended Shelf Life

Herbal extracts are created by utilizing a solvent, such as Culinary Solvent's 200 proof USDA Certified organic food grade alcohol, to extract the flavors, aromas, and active compounds of herbs. In this process, herbs are submerged in the solvent, either fresh or dried, and left to steep for an extended period, usually a few weeks to a month.

The result is a highly concentrated, potent liquid that boasts an extended shelf life. Herbal extracts offer a versatile range of applications, from enhancing the taste of dishes and beverages to enriching skincare products. Given their concentrated nature, only small quantities are needed to achieve the desired effect.

Herbal Infusions: Gentle Extraction and Quick Preparation

In contrast, herbal infusions involve the immersion of herbs in a hot liquid, typically water or oil, for a short duration, often spanning from minutes to hours. This method allows for a gentle extraction of the flavors and aromas, producing a delicate and fragrant liquid.

Herbal infusions cater to those seeking instant gratification, as they are easy to prepare and offer an immediate taste enhancement. They are ideally suited for light, refreshing beverages, as well as adding a subtle depth to soups, sauces, or as a finishing drizzle for various dishes.

Tinctures vs Liniments

Herbal Tinctures: Potent Internal Applications

Herbal tinctures are concentrated liquid extracts obtained by soaking herbs in a solvent, typically high-proof alcohol like Culinary Solvent's 200 proof food grade alcohol, for an extended period. The solvent extracts the medicinal properties, flavors, and aromas from the herbs, resulting in a potent solution for internal use.

Tinctures are typically administered orally, either directly or by diluting with water, juice, or tea. They are known for their rapid absorption, long shelf life, and ease of use, making them a popular choice among herbalists for creating effective remedies.

Herbal Liniments: External Use for Targeted Relief

On the other hand, herbal liniments are topically applied liquid preparations designed to provide relief from a variety of external conditions. Like tinctures, liniments are created by extracting the therapeutic properties of herbs using a solvent, often alcohol, but sometimes oils or witch hazel.

The primary purpose of liniments is to deliver targeted relief to specific areas of the body, such as muscles, joints, or skin. They can be used to address pain, inflammation, and various skin conditions, depending on the specific herbs and ingredients used in the formulation.

Selecting Ingredients for Tincture

    Beginner's Herbalist Tincture Recipes

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    Additional Resources for Herbalists

    Search our Alcohol for Herbalist blog - More recipes, inspiration, and discussion about the history and traditions of using alcohol herbal tinctures and other preparations.
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    Best Practices for Sustainable Foraging - Tips for wild explorers on sustainable foraging best practices and environmental stewardship.
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        All About Working with Alcohol and Cannabis

        Expanded information, recipes, and discussion on working with cannabis (THC) and hemp (CBD) for tinctures and extracts, plus more.

        Alcohol and Cannabis Guide

        About Organic Alcohol for Herbalists

        USDA Certified Organic represents the highest quality standard for ingredients and processes. Learn everything you need to know about buying organic alcohol online.

        About Organic Alcohol

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