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I put my first potions of the season up today: the first step for orange-mint liqueur, and lemon balm vinegar.

Liqueur is an easy but seriously time-consuming process.  It’s similar to making “tincture,” which is basically extract of fresh herb in alcohol.  (Glycerine tinctures are available as well, and they are good, but they don’t get as many of the alkaloids from the plant as the alcohol.)

Herb Tincture Recipe

chop up enough clean fresh herb to fill a clean jar 2/3-3/4 of the way full. (I use a food processor for this–one of the only things I use it for.) 

(Note: what part of the herb you use will depend on the herb itself, and what part of it has the medicinal qualities you are looking for.  St. John’s Wort is usually “flowering tops,” which means the top part of the stems and leaves that mostly include the flowers.  Lemon balm and mint and such are herbs where the virtue is mostly in the leaves, and you want to get the leaves when they’re still basically young and tender.  Echinacea is debated–most agree that the root is the most medicinal part, but I personally have always preferred the “whole plant” echinacea extract–flower to root, all tinctured together. This is a subject for a whole bunch of other posts, but I wanted to at least mention it…)

Over the chopped herb in the jar, pour 100 proof alcohol of some kind–easiest and cheapest route for this is a half and half combination of 190 proof grain alcohol (i.e. Everclear or Spiritus) and distilled water. (Yes, do use distilled water rather than tap.) If you can find 100 proof vodka, that’s fine too.  And honestly, if you’re making the tincture in order to make liquer, rather than for trying to squeeze every last bit of medicinal alkaloid out of the plant, 80 proof  vodka will work just fine.  Try to fill the jar all the way to the top; the less air it has to react with, the better.

LABEL YOUR JAR.  Write what you put in it, and most importantly when you made it.  Be as completely obsessive about labelling your potions as you possibly can, or you will forget.

Let the herb/alcohol mixture steep in a cool dark place for about 2-4 weeks for liqueur grade, 6-8 weeks for medicinal grade tincture. Shake the jar every couple of days; this will keep any of the herb that emerges over the top from oxidizing too much and/or growing things you don’t want growing there. (It has to sit a long time for that to happen, though–remember, your herb is pickling in pretty strong alcohol in there.)  It’s not an exact science, just kind of try to remember to give it a turn every once in a while.

After your preferred steeping time is up, drain the liquid through a coffee filter, cheesecloth, or muslin; squeeze out every last bit of liquid from your herbs.

You now have tincture–herbal extract.  Medicinally, you can put a few drops into water or juice; some tinctures (lemon balm, lavender) are okay to just drip into your mouth onto your tongue, but some can be too strong for that, so be careful.

To make it into liqueur, you now have a few more steps and a couple more months:

Make a simple sugar solution, equal in amount to the amount of tincture you want to make into liqueur. As in, if you have 2 cups of tincture, make a solution by mixing 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water over heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Let cool.

Mix together sugar solution and tincture in equal parts in a bottle or jar. Label it. (If you wish, you might note on the label that what’s in there is about 45-50 proof.) Let it cure for 6 weeks to whenever, tasting it periodically to see how it’s doing.

By Christmastime, if there’s any left, pour into pretty bottles you’ve saved from liqueurs or vinegars or whatever you think would be nice, put pretty labels on, and give as gifts.  If you really want to do that. These liqueurs are pretty good.

For vinegar, you basically do exactly the same thing–chop the herb, let it steep in vinegar for a few weeks, drain, and re-bottle.  Lemon balm and Tarragon are great for this…

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This afternoon I got a buttload of work done on the garden, mostly the herbs.  I'm feeling very tired and very satisfied. (I can't believe how heavy and yet how small 40 lbs of dirt is!) Here's what's in the ground:

Backyard raised bed:
2 hidcote lavender plants, 1 orange mint, 1 lemon balm.
All three of these plants are very hardy and very invasive.  In the past when I've planted these near my other herbs, they've squeezed them out of the garden entirely.  (Note: I've never done the orange mint before, but I've tried other mint and it spreads with great fervor and aggression.) The lavender gets big and rooty enough that the balm can't take it over, and the balm will spread anywhere you let it.  Mint has this sneaky way of sending out underground lateral roots and springing up half a yard away, which is sort of embarrassing when that half a yard turns out to be your neighbor's and he has a beautifully manicured lawn and all. So I'm hoping the raised-ness of the raised bed and the swampiness of what's not raised over there will result in it staying put.

Over in the side, by the walkway to the kitchen patio, I've planted most of my culinary herbs there so it'll be easy to grab them mid-meal-prep. The inventory there:
2 chamomile (I think roman, but it could be german, I took a chance since the Latin name wasn't on the plant. I probably won't know till next spring when they either come up or don't.)
1 English thyme
1 orange spice thyme
1 French tarragon
1 Greek oregano

I've also started basil in some pots, since they hate the cool weather. 

I learned a few summers ago how to make herbal tinctures and potions, and they've saved me a lot of money. Once Nancy gives me the echninacea plants she promised me, I'll save even more--I can make a quart of echninacea tincture for maybe ten bucks and six weeks, whereas buying 4 oz. costs about $30+  Ditto the other tinctures.

Lemon Balm--tea, tincture, and liqueur.  Lemon Balm is a good natural relaxant and decongestant.  The liqueur is both refreshing and relaxing, and its general "aura" sort of depends on when you got the leaves from the plant--it's lighter and sweeter when you use young leaves, and gets a heaviness when you use leaves that've been on the plant for a long time.  The trick is to get the leaves before the plant flowers, because as soon as that happens they lose all their flavor. 

More later...


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December 2012

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