January is all about alcohol. Alcohol and wild food. Is there any better combination? This post is going to cover a few of my favorite cordials as well as some tinctures and elixirs. First however, I want to cover alcohol; what it is and what it does.
From an herbalist perspective alcohol is almost indispensable; it acts to preserve herbs, capturing their essence and making them stable for years on end as well as being a powerful and effective way to give medicine. While all alcohols will differ somewhat, from beer and wine to straight up ethanol, it can generally be said that all alcohol is warm-hot in action and energetically dispersive, that is to say quick acting yet often short term in effect. Unlike water, which must pass through the digestive tract all the way to the large intestine to be absorbed (and thus absorbing the medicine therein), alcohol is absorbed by capillaries in the mouth as well as being absorbed in both the stomach and intestines. This is part of why alcohol makes such a good medium for delivering medicine to cells in a quick and efficient manner. Being composed of varying amounts of water and ethanol, alcohol also makes a superb solvent. Unlike water, ethanol is able to extract both fat-soluble and (depending on water content) water soluble molecules. It is not, however, a good solvent for extracting starches.
Amongst herbalist, the argument that herbs extracted in alcohol is a relatively new phenomenon is common and to a point, true. The use of tinctures and fluid extracts can only be traced back to the 1800’s, the time of Eclectic Medicine. However, consumption of ethanol can be traced back to at least 10,000 BC if not before. While the ingestion of tinctures as we know it today, that is to say the standard amber glass bottle with dropper tops made with high proof ethanol, is scarcely a few hundred years old, ingestion of herbs in alcohol is far older. Ancient alcohols were mostly either some form of wine or beer. Alcohol itself was often seen as medicine but there is no doubt that hundreds of cultures around the world added various herbs, roots and seeds to enhance and extend the medicinal properties of various alcoholic preparations.
Though there are both advantages and disadvantages to alcohol, its effectiveness and practicality make it one of the most common forms of medicine used by herbalists and everyday people alike. Tinctures, or alcohol extracted herbs are especially practical because they are easy to use and easily transportable. I find myself suggesting tinctures often because, well, frankly because it’s easy. Before I hear cries of outrage at suggesting ease let me explain. It’s all well and good to tell someone to take a handful of herbs, put them in a jar and cover with boiling water, strain…blah blah. Sometimes this is exactly what I think a person needs but it’s no good if they won’t do it. You see one thing I have realized over the past year is that despite me thinking I know best and coming up with the best (read complicated) treatment plan possible…none of it matters if they won’t do it. So that brings us back to tinctures: reliable, effective and easy. As mentioned above they are also easy to transport. You can tuck them into your purse or man bag or what have you. You can take them on planes in your carry on (yes you read that right, I do it all the time). So we have medicine that is both easy to use and transportable.
So with all that in mind how about we get to some recipes! Below are a few of my favorites in the moment. Some are medicinal, some for pure pleasure and some a little bit of both. Enjoy.
½ cup dry fragrant wild rose petals
1 Tb. Cloves
Zest of 1-2 oranges
2 large knobs fresh ginger, chopped
3-4 sticks of cinnamon, crushed
2 vanilla bean pods, seeds scraped.
Fill a jar a little more than halfway with brandy. Add herbs and vanilla pods along with scraped seeds. Top off with honey and shake. Let sit for at least a month before bottling and then letting rest for another few months (if you can wait).
Goldenrod, Hemlock, Rose elixir and tincture
This delicious combination is both medicinal and pleasurable, especially as an elixir. It’s a great formula for mild UTI’s as well as symptoms of SAD. The goldenrod is antimicrobial, diuretic and astringent while the hemlock lends anti-inflammatory and more diuretic components. Rose is astringent and anti-inflammatory and overall cooling, balancing the warmth of the goldenrod and hemlock. I typically make formulas separate and then combine but I like this to infuse together. I like 2 parts goldenrod, 2 parts hemlock needle and 1 part rose, all dry and infused 1:5 in brandy for 2-4 weeks. Add honey if desired.
Fill a jar half full of rose hips, add a bit of fresh grated ginger and fill ¾ full with brandy. Top with honey and let infuse 2-4 weeks. This tangy warm elixir is great in teas, cakes and by the spoonful J
Spicebush, a member of the Lauraceae family, is a lesser known relative of the well known cinnamon and bay plants. It is said to have an allspice like taste but instead of comparing them, try them! This is a delicious combination of wild cherries, spicebush berries and leaves and calvados, an apple liquor. I think it would make a good mead as well but I haven’t yet gotten around to it. Fill a jar half and half with 2 parts cherries, 1 part spicebush berries and ½ part of spicebush leaves. Top with calvados and enjoy! Use in apple pies, cherry pies and coffee.