Basic Herbs + Alcohol
The most basic of herbal projects using alcohol is an extract. Home herbalists generally use vodka or brandy for making extracts because it is relatively inexpensive and often readily available. Herbal extracts made with alcohol also have a long shelf life, which makes them convenient to have on hand.
Most home herbalists make extracts via a process known as maceration. Dried or fresh herbs are placed in alcohol and allowed to soak for 2-6 weeks before the alcohol is strained and bottled.
There are a few ways to make an extract that can be chosen based on what you want to accomplish and when.
The folk method is a good option when you want a basic extract but don’t feel the need to be precise and aren’t in a hurry. Fresh or dried herbs are placed in a jar, and then your choice of vodka or brandy is added until the herbs are covered. By covered, I usually go by ¾ “ to 1” of alcohol covering the top of the herbs - it doesn’t have to be covered by much. In herb-speak, the process of letting herbs soak in alcohol is called maceration. You will want to make sure your herbal extract is covered with an air tight lid during this process to keep the extract from evaporating.
Each day while the extract is in progress, you will need to shake it for a few seconds to help the process along. It’s also a good time to check if the herbs have soaked up some of the alcohol- in which case it would need to be topped off.
If you are using fresh herbs, you will want to use a 100 proof vodka - the herbs contain water of their own and your finished extract may have a shortened shelf life if you use 80 proof.
Speaking of fresh herbs - another question I am often asked is whether it’s better to use fresh or dried herbs to make extracts. My vote goes to dried herbs, but you can read this article where I explore the topic more fully if you would like more information.
Weight to Volume
If you want to be more precise with your herbal extracts, you can use weight to volume ratios to determine the amounts of herbs and alcohol to use. One of the most common ratios when using dried herbs is a 1:5 extract - one part herbs to five parts water. The Herbal Academy has a fantastic article on the finer points of this process if you are interested in learning more. Weight to volume extracts can be macerated like folk extracts, or you can get a little more technical and create a percolation extract.
Like herbal extracts made with the folk method, weight to volume extracts need to macerate for a few weeks and benefit from a few seconds of shaking each day while in progress.
Percolation extracts require the precise measurements of a weight to volume extract, and they also need a special tool. Besides a jar to collect the extract, you will also need a percolation cone. This can be as simple as a glass bottle that is cut in half to make a funnel for holding dried herbs and the alcohol. The benefit of a percolation extract is that you can make an extract in only a day or two - instead of having to wait weeks for an extract to be ready. The downside is that you will probably need to pack and unpack your herbs the first few times until you learn how to tamp them in correctly. They need to be just right! You don’t want them to be too loose or packed in too tightly.
It’s a little more work than tossing herbs and alcohol into a jar, but not by much. Once I did my first two or three percolation extracts it became my favorite process and I think it’s very much worth exploring at some point if you are so inclined!
Other Herbs + Alcohol Preparations
Two other herb and alcohol preparations that you may run into are elixirs and cordials. Definitions of the two vary. Some sources I’ve seen state that the main difference was that elixirs are made with dried ingredients and cordials are made with fresh. I mainly make elixirs as sweetened extracts - still fairly concentrated and uncomplicated in terms of ingredients. Cordials, on the other hand, I use more for pleasure so herbs and spices are used in smaller amounts for flavoring and enjoyment.
If you start with a basic extract but then blend it with a little honey or simple sugar syrup, you create an elixir. You can experiment with how much honey or simple syrup you use to determine what you like. I find that anything up to a 1:1 ratio can work, but your taste test will help you figure this one out. If you use a 1:1 ratio, just double the amount of extract you would normally use to determine the serving size.
As I see it, the main difference between an elixir and a cordial is that cordials rely on herbal ingredients more for flavoring, rather than being concentrated like an extract. Creativity can be given free reign and spices, herbs, and even dried fruit can be added to the alcohol of your choice to create unique flavor combinations or your signature brew. Kami McBride has some incredible cordial recipes in The Herbal Kitchen that are definitely worth checking out if learning to make cordials sounds like fun.
The main benefit to an herbal extract in alcohol is that it’s very shelf stable. Once it’s strained and bottled in amber glass, you should expect it to last several years if stored away from light and extremes of heat. Consider storing your dropper tops separately from homemade extracts and using plain screw tops to seal the bottles. I’ve found that even if I use coffee filters to strain my extracts my dropper tops tend to clog over time. It’s not a big deal, but it can be slightly annoying. Keeping dropper tops in a clean jar on the shelf with my extracts keeps them clean and handy.
Read on below for today's mission!
Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism: Making Custom Cordials
An amazingly thorough look at making your own cordials, this resource includes so many interesting ideas for different ingredients to try.
Valerian Mint Cordial Recipe
This herbal cordial is made with valerian and mint, and makes a nice herbal nightcap!
Mint and Rosemary Cordial
Several wonderful cordial recipes can be found at this link, but the rosemary and mint cordial recipe is especially handy if you are working with ingredients that you can pick up at a grocery store.