Alcohol Intermediary Herb-infused Oils (& why understanding herbal constituent solubility matters)​

Are you ready to kick your oil infusion skills up a notch? An alcohol intermediary oil infusion harnessing the solvent powers of alcohol might sound a bit intimidating, but it’s surprisingly simple to do.

Before we get to the hows of making an alcohol intermediary oil infusion, let’s take a quick look into the whys.

First, some essential resources

Creating an effective herbal infusion depends on matching your herb’s constituents with their preferred solvent(s). In chemistry, like dissolves like, so it’s useful to know a little about solvent polarity and the corresponding polarity of different plant constituents. But when you’re working with a whole herb, you’ve got something a lot more complex and synergistic than a simple isolated constituent, so these concepts become generalities rather than hard-fast rules.

Fortunately, there’s a whole lotta of resources out there that can help you to figure out which solvents are most effective at extracting what constituent – without revisiting your sophomore year chemistry class.

It’s essential to have trusted source (or two) for determining the specific phytochemicals in the herbs you’re working with. I bounce back and forth between David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine and Kerry Bone’s Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Both books contain extensive, detailed herbal monographs, including a list of primary constituents for each herb. If I can’t find an herb in one book, I’ll almost certainly find it in the other.

Now that we know the primary phytochemicals in our herb, which solvent(s) are best to pull them out? Richo Cech has a helpful section in chapter 5 of his book Making Plant Medicine, “Solubility Factors” that covers some major categories of constituents such as alkaloids, volatile (essential) oils, polysaccharides, resins, etc., examples of herbs that contain them, and what solvents will best extract these constituents. There’s also an extensive chapter on Solvents and which constituents they affect in James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook.

For the more advanced herbalist, if you really want to geek out on the chemistry of herbal constituents, Lisa Ganora’s Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry is a goldmine of information. While it’s a good mix of conversational and technical writing, be warned that this is a chemistry text book and is definitely not light reading.

Solvents & solubility

When you infuse an herb in oil, it will draw out some the oil-soluble bits such as gums and resins, some of the volatile oils, certain oil-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), plant sterols and terpenes (oil-soluble carotenoids give plants their orange or yellow pigment). 

A vibrant red (fresh) St. John’s wort-infused jojoba oil:

Compared to alcohol, water and vinegar, though, oil is a relatively weak solvent. Adding a bit of alcohol to the process will free more of a plant’s alkaloids, resins, flavonoids, glycosides, terpenes, and volatile oils, camphors and vitamins. Alcohol also tends to do a better job of capturing certain plant pigments. Chlorophyll, for example, is captured quite well by ethyl alcohol, giving your infused oil a more vibrant color vs. one made without the alcohol intermediary step.

Alcohol intermediary

So to draw out a more complete array of constituents in an oil maceration, ethyl alcohol can be used to do a quick pre-infusion before covering the herbs in oil. This added step draws out the alcohol soluble constituents in addition to the oil soluble ones, effectively increasing your infused oil’s potency.

Simply place your dried herbs in the vessel you’re going to use for the oil infusion. If the herb is in larger chunks, grind or crush into smaller bits using a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Barely moisten the herbs with a shallow layer of high-proof grain alcohol (the highest you can find, preferably 190 proof *). An easy way to evenly moisten the herbs without drenching them is to place your alcohol in a clean spray bottle and mist the herbs until moist. Loosely cover the jar/vessel with a lid or use a rubber band to secure a scrap of cheesecloth, and allow the herbs and alcohol do its thing overnight.

In the morning, most of the alcohol will have evaporated, and you can proceed with a normal oil infusion. The alcohol intermediary method benefits from a heated oil infusion method, because the heat will ensure that the last bits of alcohol and water evaporate out. This is particularly true if you used a lower proof alcohol. 151-proof Everclear is about 75% alcohol, which means the remaining 25% is water, and you really don’t want water in your final oil maceration. But if you used 190 proof (95% alcohol : 5% water) and you’d rather do a warm or solar infusion, though, that’s okay too. The teensy amount of water left in the infusion should not be significant.

In addition to the added potency, an alcohol intermediary infusion should also improve your infused oil’s shelf life. There will be no appreciable alcohol content left in the oil once the oil maceration is complete, but the extra alcohol step reduces the microbes introduced into the oil. Remember to label your jar with the herb, type of oil used and date (a note about it being an intermediary infusion might also be useful) and store in a dark, climate controlled location. It should last well beyond the estimated 2-year lifespan of a regular dried herb-infused oil.

* We can’t buy 190-proof anything here in Idaho, but I’m fortunate that we live within a pretty easy drive to the Washington border, where 190-proof spirits are a thing. Each time I pick up a few bottles of 190-proof Everclear, I always feel compelled to make sure the checkout clerk understands that I’m NOT drinking it, I swear! I’m not that kind of an alcoholic thankyouverymuch… I’m TINCTURING! ♥


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