Fact or Fiction? Removing alcohol from tinctures

Image by Julian Low from Pixabay

Herbal lore maintains that you can remove virtually all alcohol from a tincture by dropping the preparation slowly into a cup of boiling water, with the idea that the alcohol will evaporate off and leave the active herbal extract behind. You’ll find this information being taught in classes across the country, and in numerous herbal books. I myself have been known to say the very same thing. It makes sense, right? Everyone says so.

Is it true? Will alcohol evaporate from a tincture when added to boiling water?

If you’ve ever actually tried this relatively tedious method (drip…drip…drip…), you may be both relieved and mildly irritated to find that it probably makes no difference at all. Check out this post on OChef.  The relevant information:

  • After adding alcohol to boiling water removed from heat, 85% of the alcohol remains.
  • Storing the preparation overnight with no heat (presumably in open air) will leave 70% of the alcohol.
  • If you stir the alcohol into the mixture and bake it, you will be left with anywhere from 40% of the alcohol (after 15 min) to 5% (after 2.5 hours)

Okay, so I’m not entirely sure how that last bit would be relevant to herbal medicine, but it does go to show that even after HOURS in the oven you’ll still have some alcohol left over.

The short answer: not so much.

Looks like it’s time to change my tune and stop perpetuating misinformation!

While the clinical/biomedical significance of the amount of alcohol found in a typical dose of tincture (on average 3-5 ml or approx. 1 tsp) is negligible in most cases, this information is still important for those who are taking larger doses, those who are sensitive to small doses, and those who choose to avoid alcohol for reasons such as addiction, religious beliefs, etc.

While the water-dropping method may help remove some alcohol, from this point forward I’d be hesitant to say that it will remove a significant amount – possibly not even enough to make it worth the effort.

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Thoughts? Add your comments here. 

  • So maybe if you let it set open for 8 or 9 hours and then pour boiling water on it you might get rid of a little more of the alcohol? Right now, I just put my tincture in a giant cup (12 oz. at least) and pour boiling water up to the top which is a lot of water to tincture and it does seem to make a difference to the alcohol left in the tincture. I was letting it sit out for hours before in a large bowl, and the boiling water is much faster to deal with all told, but if I can do both and get even less alcohol, that would be worth experimenting with, I think!

    • Yes, if you let it sit out long enough most of the alcohol would evaporate. The video posted by Fred in the comments also has a technique for removing alcohol. You could also look into using solid extracts to start with, which might be easier in some cases :).

  • could you not use the co2 extraction method on the herb and then mix it with oil to have an oil tincture? this is how they extract hemp and cannabis

    • Depending on what you’re trying to extract, you may be able to use a CO2 extraction; however, by definition a tincture is an alcoholic extraction of a plant, so if you made a CO2 extraction and added oil it wouldn’t be a tincture 🙂

  • How about not putting alcohol in the tincture in the first place? Who’s selling alcohol free or very low alcohol tincture extracts?

    • A tincture is, by definition, an alcoholic extract of an herb :). That being said, you can buy extracts that use a glycerin base from many different companies. The problem is that glycerin doesn’t seem to extract the constituents as well, so you may need to adjust dosing accordingly.

  • I thought I’d comment here for others to have the info. Alcohol boils at 173.1F (78.37C for those of you on metric). If you add alcohol to boiling water it will evaporate away. The problem most people are experiencing is that this isn’t an instant process. The key question was mentioned earlier (would boiling cause degradation of the chemicals extracted from the herbs). I know some chemicals are extremely volatile, and break down into useless compounds easily. The question I’m looking to find an answer for is what is the general rule of thumb? What works for most might not work for all herbs, but I’m looking for a good starting point. Seems like the author doesn’t have the answer here, which is OK, but maybe someone in the future will stumble across this with some references I can read.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, if you boil the tincture itself for long enough, the alcohol will evaporate. The problem as I see it is that most herbalists are recommending that people add their tincture to boiling water *after* it has been removed from the heat.

      As you mention, even if people were recommending adding the tincture to water over the heat we don’t know how long we’d need to boil the tincture to remove the alcohol. I would love to see data on how long this takes & how the process affects the constituents. In the meantime, though, I still don’t think this is a method I’d recommend to clients who are trying to avoid alcohol :).

      • I use a water distiller and recover most of the ethanol so it can be reused. I turn off the distiller before it completes the process to avoid burning of the tincture and finish the purging process on a hot plate (coffee warmer plates work great for small quantities) at a warming temp if I want all alcohol purged. Hopefully, at the low temps of the distiller and warming plate, it doesn’t denature the herbal properties too much. I then combine the finished product in mct oil, coconut oil or olive oil warmed together to combine and to make a dosable tincture.

    • Thanks for sharing this link! Unfortunately, I don’t see any references listed. I have my doubts about this method, simply because there are so many factors to consider. Many herbalists – myself included – have told others that you can remove the alcohol using similar methods, but I’m not sure that’s accurate (although I do think it will remove *some*.) For example, if you’re using a tincture that contains 50% alcohol (pretty standard) does the volume of the initial amount decrease by about 50% when you use this method? If not, then you’re definitely not removing all of the alcohol (!).

  • I have been taking herbal tinctures for months and I cannot consume any alcohol so I simmer the tinctures in water in a special pyrex/glass pot over very low heat for 5-8 minutes. This method is recommended by master herbalists.

  • Oh, a question about another method. I’ve read about lighting the tincture with a flame that theoretically consumes the alcohol (like you’d see in a restaurant). Any truth to this method?

    • Ah, tincture flambe! It looks like this process is unlikely to burn off all of the alcohol, but even if it did I have to say it doesn’t sound very practical to me. I definitely would not recommend this method to my clients, that’s for sure… See more about the flambe process here – he states that a short flambe will leave 75% of the alcohol – doesn’t cite a reference, and unfortunately I don’t have time to look it up right now. Interesting stuff!

  • Thank you for this post (I just found it.) There is plenty of folklore about removing the alcohol, which I was suspicious of. Wouldn’t boiling a tincture possibly break down or alter the medicinal properties of the herbs anyway?

    • Hi Leslie – Sorry for the late reply; I’ve been away on vacation! The method I’ve heard recommended involves slowly adding tincture to boiling water drop by drop. You wouldn’t actually be boiling the tincture itself this way, although who knows if even this would alter the medicine. I haven’t seen any research at all on how – if at all – boiling a tincture would affect its properties, but my guess would be that there would be some deterioration of the secondary metabolites that are active here, too. Great question! We need so much more research on medicine making strategies.

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    Camille Freeman (she/her)

    Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and reproductive health. I faciliate the Monday Mentoring community of practice and offer continuing eduation programs for highly trained herbalists & nutritionists. I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.