I walk out into the garden in early summer to harvest some lemon balm (melissa officinalis). I take a quart-sized jar and fill it with the herb. I intend to make and intake this lemon balm elixir. But, I stop- My next step is one that requires a lot of thought and holds some unanswered questions. What do I use as a menstruum? To clarify, a menstruum is a substance that dissolves a solid or holds it in ‘suspension’. It’s basically the solvent that you chose to extract the plant with. In this case, my choices I’m giving myself are raw apple cider vinegar or 100 proof vodka. Which one should I use? What are the differences between them?
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is great to use as a menstruum for plants that you are going to use in a tonifying everyday way. Say you wanted to included bitters like dandelion (taraxacum officinale) in your daily diet; ACV would be a great solvent to use because it will extract those vitamins, minerals, sugars, and bitter compounds like taraxcin that you want. Another plant that comes to mind that is great to use in vinegar is stinging nettle (utica dioica). Nettle is mineral rich (to say the least) and would be a nice herb to add to your daily ACV routine (which some people have). I always use raw ACV because its alive culture benefits my gut micro biome. Some herbalists recommend using the pasteurized version of vinegar because the raw vinegar tincture could potentially grow a mother. (A mother is the visible form of the vinegar culture, not the woman that birthed you.)
Did you know that ACV can completely disintegrate an eggshell? Well that calcium carbonate shell dissolves because of the acetic acid in the vinegar. Usually this acid makes up three to eight percent of the vinegar and is responsible for the smell and a lot of the breakdown of the plant. It is also why I cannot drink a plain shot of ACV. It is really hard on mucous membranes and I definitely feel that when it hits the back of my throat. As a precaution, I always add mine to water.
So the facts are that apple cider vinegar does not last as an alcohol tincture. Vinegar lasts two years while alcohol lasts for five. So again, if you are going to make a vinegar, make it with something you are going to take daily, or weekly. This way, you should run out of it before it has the chance to expire. Make an alcohol tincture out of things that you won’t use up very quickly like echinacea root, kinnikinnick, or poke root. Vinegar is also not going to be as powerful as an alcohol extraction, though this does not mean its powerless. Something you can do about the strength of a vinegar or alcohol tincture is something called a ‘double infusion’. This is where you go about making a tincture as normal, and after 6 weeks instead of straining and bottling it, you take more fresh herb and soak it for another six weeks in the same previously herb-infused menstruum.
As well as the vitamins, minerals, sugar and bitter compounds that I mentioned earlier, vinegar also extracts essential oils, alkaloid salts, tannins, glycosides, and saponins. It is also partial to ‘softer’ more delicate herbs as hawthorn flowers and sage leaves. Alcohol is preferred when extracting ‘tougher’ herb material. This would include things like roots, barks, and also leathery leaves like rosemary.
Now remember in the beginning when I halted and began to think about what menstruum to use for all the lemon balm I put in the quart jar? Well I chose a double infusion of raw apple cider vinegar. This is because of the regularity in which I wanted to take it for a general sense of calm. I chose to do a double infusion because it is a very safe herb that I can’t really overdose on, and because I wanted it more concentrated.
If you want more information about proofs of alcohols and types of liquors to make tinctures with, check out my post Choosing A Proof in ‘The Hows and Whys’ category on my blog.