Alcohol Distillation and Its Role in Folk Medicine

Apothecary techniques that incorporate herbs and distilled alcohols date back centuries. Wild-gathered botanicals were once an integral component of early healer satchel of curatives, with many herbal and flower remedies, including tinctures, still being utilized today.

Distillation is the process of extracting various components from a liquid mixture such as water, alcohol and plant matter to separate their individual constituents. Distillation relies on physical laws like Raoult’s Law and Dalton’s Law which assume that at any given temperature the vapors will rise to their respective boiling points; then directed towards a condenser – usually made up of copper tubes in a countercurrent heat exchanger or water jacket – where they are separated out to collect an alcohol-rich distillate.

Every spirit begins as an infusion of sugar-containing materials such as grains, fruit or root vegetables – known as mashing – into which alcohol-producing yeast feeds to create alcohol. During this step of mashing preparation, sugars become available for fermentation into alcohol production.

Ethanol (CH3OH), commonly found in beer, wine, vodka and whisky production processes is also what forms tinctures. Tinctures consist of alcohol mixed with water and plant matter dissolved into solution; alcohol acts both as preservative and solvent to extract compounds from this dissolved matter.

The tails are the residue from distillation processes consisting of higher order alcohols such as propanol and butanol as well as amyl and furfural. They often get bad press for having unpleasant aromas; however, their chemical composition and insolubility in water make them ideal for preserving herbal oils that can then be used in perfumes and medicinal preparations.