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 - grams to 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 % 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 , cost around NZ$ 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.