Posted on
Feb 10, 2011

To heat or not to heat…

To heat or not to heat!

I have been working for some time now on developing a new process of tincture making which combines elements of the usual cold-maceration with infusion, decoction and distillation. I would like to explain more about this process and put forward my reasons why I believe this to be a superior way of making tinctures.

HEAT – the essential element

In all herbal traditions heat has been used in the extraction of plant remedies, mainly to produce infusions, decoctions and distillates. A good example within the Western tradition is the generation of the active chamazulenes by infusing or distilling the flowers of chamomile or yarrow. These essential therapeutic compounds are not present in a cold macerated tincture. However, it has been argued, quite rightly so, that cold maceration in some cases preserves heat-sensitive constituents.

I would suggest that one way to solve this problem is to combine hot and cold extraction.  This has the benefits of both methods and results in a more whole extract with better therapeutic qualities.


As I mentioned earlier, the heat element can be provided by infusion, decoction or distillation. This will depend largely on the physical and chemical properties of the plant material in question. For example, roots, barks and berries need to be decocted while aromatic herbs need to be distilled and non-aromatic herbaceous plants require infusing etc. Infused and decocted tinctures are quite simply prepared by infusing or decocting half the amount of herb then, when cool, adding the required amount of alcohol plus the remaining portion of herb. The tincture is expressed after one month of cold maceration. Incineration is the final process and is briefly explained at the end of this lecture.

However, the process for producing aromatic tinctures is a little more complicated. Aromatic herbs, which contain a substantial amount of essential oil, are best extracted by the method of water distillation, followed by cold maceration.


Distilling the herb in a stainless steel still produces a distillate – the aromatic water. This water is saturated with the finely dispersed essential oil of the plant. Furthermore, the aromatic water also contains the water-soluble volatile constituents such as carboxylic acids and hydroxy acids.

The distillation process is of vital importance to the quality of the resulting aromatic water. The still should be designed specifically for the production of aromatic waters and not the essential oil. The production of aromatic waters should not be seen as a by-product of essential oil distillation as two different techniques are used.

Over the past ten years I have experimented with various still designs, using both copper and stainless steel stills. After numerous trials, I have now produced aromatic waters that I believe are of high medicinal quality. The important aspects of the technique of distillation that I have discovered are:

Water distillation. This involves immersing the plant material in water and then bringing it slowly to boil. This is in contrast to the much harsher, but commercially cheaper method of steam distillation that involves the injection of super-heated steam into the plant material placed inside a dry still. This latter method is faster and more energy efficient but is really geared up to the commercial production of essential oils that are not intended for medicinal uses. The hydrosols or floral waters that are a by-product of this process are of inferior medicinal quality.

Immersing the whole plant in water protects vulnerable molecules from disintegration and somehow feels much gentler and more appropriate. It is also the way of long-established tradition such as the distillation of rose, orange flower and sage water in the Mediterranean countries.

Gentle distillation. This is achieved by carefully monitoring the temperature of the still condenser, and even more importantly, that of the emerging distillate that should be in the range of 20-25 degrees Celsius.

Long distillation. This requires patience and that can only come from love and commitment. In the commercial steam distillation of essential oils, speed is desired as it reduces fuel consumption. One or two hours of steam distillation are usually sufficient to carry over the majority of the small molecules of the essential oil into the distillate. These molecules contribute mostly to the characteristic smell of the oil, and waiting longer to bring over the heavier components of the oil is not cost effective. The distillation is therefore  incomplete. On the contrary, when distilling for aromatic waters, the process may take up to 12 hours or more. This allows the heavier and more complex volatile components of the plant to come through into the distillate, thus enriching the medicinal quality and wholeness of the resulting aromatic water.

Passion and love. For me, these feelings permeate the whole process, from germinating the seeds to growing the herbs, and right through to cherishing the smell of the trickle of distillate leaving the still. Distillation is an art and there is more to the final product than the sum of all its ingredients. Finally, one should remember that we are dealing with the most ethereal parts of the plant, and the process sometimes feels like ‘preparing the spirit’ of the herb.


Once the aromatic water is produced, and then a specific amount of alcohol is added to bring it up to the required strength. Now more of the herb is added to this mixture and left to cold macerate for a period of one month.


The tincture is then expressed under pressure using stainless steel equipment and a suitable press.


The pressed marc is spread out to dry and then incinerated at 600 C for six hours in a specially designed oven. The heat is maintained until all organic matter is oxidised and only the mineral content of the herb remains. Water is added to this ash and shaken intermittently for three days. The insoluble matter is filtered out and the water is evaporated, leaving the soluble plant salts which are then added to the tincture. These ‘Plant Tissue Salts’ are valuable components, which enhance and complete the tincture.


Aromatic tinctures should be stored in amber glass bottles in a cool dark place. Like good wine, if stored properly, they do improve with time.

Copyright Joe Nasr D Phyt, DO, MNIMH