Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tinctures


Tincturing is the age-old practice of using high-proof alcohol to extract key ingredients from herbs and spices for medicinal use. This method also served as a very effective means of preserving the extraction. Today, the practice has largely been sidelined due to the widespread availability of pharmaceutical product. Despite this, the practice enjoys a considerable following, particularly among medical herbalists. There is however, new found interest from a most unexpected quarter: bartenders and mixologists.


Scan the drinks menu of high-end British and American bars and you'll see tinctures, along with house-made infusions, syrups and bitters, gracing their pages. Tinctures lend themselves to cocktail making because of the wide variety of flavours that can be had - think of a particular herb or spice, and chances are it's able to be made into a tincture. Tincturing is also a convenient means of extending the shelf life of herbs and spices by capturing their very essence. In this form, it can be used very sparingly; just a few drops in sugar syrup will deliver a tremendous intensity of flavour and aroma. Conceivably, a bar with a range of tinctures could quite easily produce a dazzling array of flavoured syrups during the course of service.

How are they made? The process is very simple, but time consuming. Basically, a particular herb or spice is macerated in high-proof alcohol for a time, the ethanol component acting as a solvent upon the material. Eventually, the liquid is filtered to remove any solids and then bottled, ready for use.

The ratio of herb/spice to alcohol is 50-60 grams to 250 ml of alcohol. The time spent in maceration depends on the density of the material - cinnamon quills will take much longer than say, saffron threads; roots will take longer than dried flowers - but generally speaking, it takes between two to six weeks. Colour and odour are good indicators of readiness; the liquid should be the same colour as the material being steeped; the scent should be overwhelmingly of your herb or spice, not of alcohol.

A big factor from the outset is the strength of your alcohol - the higher the level, the more effective the rate of extraction (not to mention a lengthened shelf life for the final product). I used a cheapie, a budget brand vodka rated at 40% alcohol. Vodka is ideal, having little in the way of flavour with which to interfere with the final taste of the tincture. Don't worry about it being cheap either; you're not going to be chugging it down - again, just a few drops in sugar syrup is all that will be needed.

Place your spice into a jar, pour over the alcohol and seal. Labelling with the spice's name and the date's not a bad idea either. Place somewhere cool and dark. Remove every so often and agitate gently, just to assist the extraction. Once it's ready (you'll have to use your own judgment here), pass through a jelly bag or folded muslin (I use a deep fryer fat filter - they're like a large coffee filter but more dense, come in packs of 50, cost around NZ$25 from Toops and are perfect for filtering jellies, too).

Budget permitting, the filtered product should be kept in dark coloured glass jars, which serves to keep light from degrading your product; otherwise, ordinary, sterilised glass jars will do just fine. Again, when not in use, keep your tinctures in a cool, dark spot, safe from your littlies, too. I've read conflicting notes on the length of time tinctures will keep, from two years to ten, even decades. I'll have to get back to you on that one...


So why am I interested in this? I have a new-found fondness for cocktails, which has become a little more involved now that I make syrups and cordials for the bar. In the process of seeing what people are drinking abroad, I came across tinctures, which intrigued me. I've only recently started making them, and now want to use them to create bitters. I aim to establish a wee database of tinctures, comprising bittering agents and flavourings using native plants and materials, with the aim of creating a uniquely New Zealand bitters. So, it'll be a case of mixing, matching and then blending until I come upon something...special.

Some of my tinctures pictured are (from the top) cinnamon, rose hip, and above, (left to right) saffron and orange zest. I have several others on the go, too - some non-herb and spice: peppercorn (the liquid is as black as pitch - the flavour should be interesting), rhubarb (nice and tart), Granny Smith apple skin (bittersweet, I'm hoping), with more to come (unripened oranges from Gisborne, ginger, tamarillo - not entirely sure which part of that to use, actually).

If you're interested in possible medicinal uses for tinctures, there are a whole raft of sites on the internet that will show you how to get started - I won't link here, simply because this is a food blog and you kids know how to use search engines. Be careful of what plants you use - if in doubt, ask an expert, not a blogger...unless they're an expert blogger.

13 comments:

Alessandra said...

This is something I really like making, many Italian make them at home, and liqueurs and so on...but...

In Italy I can buy the 90C alcohol in many shops, in NZ is not possible, illegal (unless you are a wine maker) so I also use grappa and wodka, but the clearer and stronger is the alcohol the better the results.

I am drinking some mirtillino now, (like limoncino but made with blueberries - I am from the north!). The mum of a friend of mine made it and gave me a bottle.

Nothing in comparison with the one I can make at home.

Maybe we should find a way to buy pure alcohol from Fonterra...are you with me???

ciao
A.

PS
Amazing photos! Bravo!

Nigel Olsen said...

Alessandra! Yeah, it's nigh on impossible to find seriously high-proof alcohol here. Consequently, it takes so much longer to process material. I envy the European tradition of making liqueurs, aperitifs and so on, so lucky you!

Rhiannon said...

I'm not sophisticated enough to ever make, or find a need for, tinctures but this post was fascinating. Thank you!

sasasunakku said...

My friend here makes a lot of Limoncello but she has to go to Italy to get the hard stuff...Love the post Nigel, you focus on such interesting stuff - I take it you're back home?

Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

I'm currently incubating some quince brandy (cheap brandy and slices of quince in a kilner jar for a couple of weeks) but this is making me want to get all kinds of combinations on the go! Rhubarb sounds particularly good :)

Isa Ritchie said...

I have some very strong alcohol from a private still. Last xmas I made essences of cardamom, anise and clove to give to family - the cardamom is especially nice in baking. I used to make liquors from soaking fruit and coffee etc in alcohol. They tasted great and seemed to have more pleasant morning-after affects. I hypothesised that this was because I was essentially drinking fruit tinctures full of nutrients which made up for the loss that alcohol can inflict on the body. Nice post!

Alessandra said...

Hey, just link you on a chain in my last post.

ciao
A.

Nigel Olsen said...

Rhiannon - If you're into herbal medicine then tinctures are well worth exploring; otherwise their application is kinda limited. On the otherhand, you could use the technique to make limoncello or similar sorts of beverages. It's fun, tasty & you end up with the satisfaction of having made something, a feeling you're no doubt accustomed to - love your stuff!

Sasasunakku - No, I haven't left yet, won't do for a few months yet! Just been doing a bit of research (picked up some OLD American cocktail book, too) that I thought would come in handy developing stuff for work. Ta eversomuch - I just wish I had more time to write & do more research. Holding done two jobs to pay the bills takes its toll.

Laura - That sounds good! I just picked up a native food guide off Trademe to see if I could create some kind of NZ-type sloe gin. As for my rhubarb, it'll go into the vodka raw - I'm going to use it as one of the bitering agents for my as-yet undeveloped bitters.

Isa - Awesome. I'd love a still - it would be so much cheaper & I could produce really high proof alcohol for this project. they cost so much though... I like your theory regarding the minimal hangover effect :)

Alessandra - Whoohoo! Thank you :)

Johanna said...

Oh, and all the best with your NZ bitters - that's an awesome idea!!

Johanna said...

I love this post! Coming from more of a herbalism perspective, I hadn't even registered that tinctures were regularly used in cocktails. (I don't get out much, sad but true.)

I did make meringues with rose tincture once, and that was pretty yum, but you've opened up a whole lot more possibilities for me!

Yeah, I'm desperate for a still too ... Have my eye on one ...

Nigel Olsen said...

Cheers, Johanna! Stills pop up on Trademe on a regular basis, and I have my eye on a couple of cheap models at the moment, priced at $300+. Still a little too much for my budget (especially when you see my latest power bill), but I might just bite the bullet & grab one.

Johanna Knox said...

winter power bills, yeah, ::sigh:: In theory the woodburner and all the logs we are chewing through here should be reducing our powerbill, but I dunno ...

I've recently got interested in tincturing from the cosmetic/fragrance point of view too. (Currently working on conifer cones, rose geranium, and vanilla pods).

Seems to be a bit of a resurgence going on in home tincturing for all purposes! I suspect the tincturing for flavour has a lot in common with tincturing for fragrance because of the high number of changes. (Don't think medicinal tinctures usually change the ingredient so many times?) I've put six lots of rose geranium through, and not sure how many more times I'll have to do it to get it smelling really strong ...

Nigel Olsen said...

You should grab a copy of this from the library http://amzn.to/bHxrBn I'm not sure if it'll be of any use, but it's quite comprehensive (1000+ fragrances reviewed) & it looks at ingredients & processes, too. At the very least, it's a pretty book to have!

Developing your own fragrance sounds amazingly complex, but wow, the things you could do, & the fact that you're creating something unique makes it all the more worthy of pursuing.

By the way, my first batch of tinctures are ready! I'll be filtering rose hip, black peppercorns, cinnamon quills, saffron & orange. The next batch are still a wee way off.