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Learn about cocktail tinctures, and you too can become a hipster mixologist

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Tinctures are the second most fun you'll ever have with cocktails

If you’ve been out for cocktails recently — and I mean out for cocktails at a place that doesn’t have a lunch combo — you may have noticed that your bartender seems to be making more than just the usual drink.

Besides the customary rows of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and tequila, you might have spied an array of little, strangely colored bottles fitted with droppers and dasher caps and handwritten labels. No, Atticus with the handlebar mustache, the flow-and-comb hair and full beard isn’t running an illegal apothecary out of your favorite bar; he’s mastering craft cocktails, and those bottles may just be tinctures.

The cocktail comes full circle

If you tend to associate the word "tincture" with folk medicine and not a raucous night out on the town, you’re right. And wrong. While herbs have long been combined with alcohol to concentrate and preserve their healing properties, our modern cocktail actually evolved from the early apothecaries. The elixirs, remedies and cure-alls were the only choices for the sick who lived in a world where their best chance for a lifesaving surgery wasn’t their doctor but their barber (who also happened to be your manicurist and dentist as well).

More: Kombucha in your cocktail? It works, and you'll love it

It is formerly medicinal bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s that we mix with our modern cocktails to this day. In fact, a popular remedy for an upset stomach during that period — and some say the origin of the word "cocktail" itself — was America’s first real cocktail, the Sazerac.

Today, inventive bartenders and mixologists are embracing the rich apothecary history of the cocktail to rejuvenate the classics and invent some new drinks all their own. So next time you’re out looking for craft cocktails, be on the lookout for those oddly shaped and labeled bottles — they’re at the heart of the craft cocktail renaissance.

More: DIY spiked coffee bar will make you the coolest host on the block

What is a tincture?

Simply put, a tincture is just a concentrated alcohol infusion. Basically you put whatever herb, fruit, flower, vegetable or spice you want into an airtight container, and cover it in alcohol. Seal the jar, let it steep, shaking it up occasionally, and strain. Boom! You’re ready to mix. How long you let the tincture steep depends on the proof of your alcohol and what you’re making into a tincture. Fresh herbs can take as little as six hours to get the flavor you want, whereas something like cinnamon can take weeks.

Try this Lapsang Souchong Loose Tea tincture recipe for a little smoke, or this green cardamom recipe.

What is the difference between a tincture and bitters?

A tincture is a subtle and consistent concentrated component of the drink. It is meant to be one pure flavor designed to enhance the cocktail, either by reinforcing a single characteristic of the cocktail or to introduce a playful complexity or surprising element to the drink. It should never be overpowering. Bitters, as the name suggests, uses a bittering agent and is usually a blend of different flavors. Bartenders will sometimes mix tinctures on the spot to make an impromptu bitters.

More: 12 simple syrup recipes for cocktails that will knock your socks off

Using a tincture

Tinctures pack quite a punch, so use a dropper or atomizer to add only a small amount to the cocktail while you’re mixing. Powerful flavors like chilies, horseradish and smoke can become overwhelming quickly.

Tincture-making tips

  • The higher the proof, the more flavor can be extracted, making grain alcohol or high-proof vodka a terrific choice, though other alcohols like rum or bourbon can work very well, too.
  • Mixing dried botanicals with fresh can produce some amazing results. Just remember that dried items are much stronger than fresh.
  • Taste your tincture every day, as many botanicals can become more like perfume very quickly. Others, like cardamom, will become unexpectedly bitter.
  • For fruit, different proofs extract different flavors from the fruit, so you’ll need to experiment to find what you’re looking for.
  • Citrus fruit has a tendency to turn bitter when using the peel. Always avoid the pith.
  • If stored properly in a cool, dark place, your tincture can last for years.
  • It isn’t unusual for tinctures to change color over time, and they often do not have any smell (it's masked by the alcohol).
  • Experiment by combining your tincture with different syrups.
  • Toast spices and chilies before using to bring out the essential oils.
  • Straining the tincture with a mesh strainer is fine, but a paper or metal coffee filter or a cheesecloth works best.
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