I love herbs, and I also enjoy alcohol. My dedicated readers know for sure that I adore honey...so it shouldn't surprise you that I generally do my best to combine those three ingredients in as many forms as possible.
My apothecary is packed tight with jars and those jars are full of strange floating herbal bits in colored liquid, waiting for their time to be strained. I have many jars that are medicine, and jars that are for fun, and jars that are a bit of both.
My booze cabinet is stocked with bottles of all sizes and colors, ready for a tipple and a taste by guests. It makes me feel my most witchy to open that cabinet and bring out strange brews to share with friends. There’s a delight in enjoying last summer’s peach harvest in a delicate cordial glass while staring out at the blowing snow outside in the middle of winter!
When you start delving into recipes and techniques for making some of these projects in your own kitchen, you might notice a lot of varying terms: tinctures, elixirs, cordials and beyond! Like the folk names of plants that are attributed to different plants, herbal preparations are called by various names by different cultures. The definitions that follow are generally accepted, but your mileage may vary! I’ll point out some of the differences as we proceed through the boozy vocabulary lesson below.
Let’s start with Tinctures:
Tinctures are medicinal extracts of herbs in alcohol. Tinctures are often made with moonshine or similarly high-test liquors, but vodka, rum, and even brandy can work well. I tend to most often use a medium-shelf, triple-distilled vodka for the tinctures I craft for my household. When I have it on hand, I like to use moonshine or other high-proof booze for tincturing roots or resins.
If you are interested in learning to make tinctures that are alcohol-free, check out this article from the Herbal Academy: The Art of the Alcohol-Free Apothecary
The process for making a tincture is simple:
- Get an herb, fresh or dried.
- Put said herb into a jar – fill the jar completely with fresh herb, or half-full with dried herb.
- Pour enough alcohol into the jar to cover the herb.
- Put a lid on it, label and date it, and give it a good shake every now and again.
- Stash it in a dark cabinet for about 3-6 weeks.
- Strain the tincture into a clean jar or into tincture bottles and label clearly (date, herb, type of alcohol)
- Use as needed for many years – tinctures retain their strength best when stored out of direct light.
This is the most simple way to make a tincture, but that method can be refined once you learn more about the herbs, the ways of preparing them, and how to measure the potency of your creations. Taking an herbal course from a place like The Herbal Academy or Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine can help!
Now, tinctures are potent! When you take tinctures, please do your research before dosing yourself or find a practiced herbalist to give you guidance. Some tinctures, such as poke root or teasel, only need a couple of drops per day to be effective and more than that can cause you harm. Also, some common herbs can interact with prescription medications. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
When taking tinctures, try putting it in some water or juice to make it more palatable. If you are giving alcohol-based tinctures to children you can add it to hot tea and some of the alcohol will burn off. If you’re tough, you might be able to just handle a squirt of tincture straight into the mouth without dilution…but it’ll burn your mouth if you don’t drink straight booze often. (Whisky neat, please!)
Elixirs and Cordials are more palatable:
Elixirs are the sweetened version of alcohol-expressed medicines. I enjoy making “sipping” elixirs out of the tastier herbal tinctures. The sharp tang of elderberry cordial is a lovely flavor, but I try to save my elderberry cordial only for when I’m feeling sick. While it is tasty and sweet, it is still a strong medicine!
These can almost cross the line into cordials, which are mostly just for pleasure and flavor as far as my definitions go. The above Instagram example is made of peaches and bee balm, a delight on the tongue – but bee balm has medicinal qualities as well. I also learned from Lindy Wildsmith in her book Artisan Drinks (read my review here) that cordial often means a non-alcoholic beverage in the UK.
To use an elixir or cordial, just pour a bit into your hot tea or straight into a small glass to slowly sip and enjoy!
Elixirs can also help with the less-than-tasty herbal medicines. Remember, “just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!” Adding a sweetener to bitter or astringent herb tinctures can make ingesting them a more palatable experience, especially with kids. Valerian and Horehound are good examples of herbs that can use a splash of honey to cut their bitter strength (I use them together in my night-night cordial).
Elixirs are easy to make:
Start out with a tincture and make it sweet! You can use the simple syrup recipe below. Add the syrup to tincture a bit at a time, shake or stir to blend, and then taste. Repeat until you feel you have it right.
An important note: remember, this is medicine. Elixirs and tinctures are meant to be taken in small quantities. If you aren’t careful, this sweetening and tasting process can get you loopy!
Simple Syrup Recipe:
- Boil one cup of water.
- Add a cup of sugar (or honey, or agave, or whatever you prefer!)
- Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Let it return to a boil for one minute.
- Turn to low and let it simmer for a few more minutes.
- Allow the syrup to cool down before funneling into a clean glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
- Label and date your syrup and store it in the fridge.
Sometimes I use a lazier method to sweeten my tinctures. Pour a dollop of honey into a strained tincture and give it a shake until it is dissolved (or until your arm falls off). It works, but it will likely end up being super sticky and thick compared to the simple syrup sweetening process described above.
I hope that helps to demystify some of the processes and encourages you to play around in your kitchen and have another way to use your herb harvest before the final frost takes it from you!
Here are some of the cordials that I have made and shared on Pixie’s Pocket:
- Cherry Cordial
- Citrus & Rum Cordial
- Pear Cordial
- Valerian-Mint Cordial (Elixir)
- Creamy Coconut Cordial
- Blackberry Cordial & Simple Syrup
- Spiced Cranberry Cordial
- Earl Grey Cordial
- Damiana Cordial (Love Potion #9)
- Mimosa Flower & Blackberry Cordial