How to Make an Elderberry Tincture for Colds and Flu

elderberry tincture and berries

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

Elderberry, specifically the subspecies Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis, has been used for centuries to fight colds, flu, and viral infections. In recent decades, a new interest in the plant has led to several large studies to determine its efficacy. Impressively, it turns out that elderberry stimulates the body's immune system, is a potent antioxidant and really can shorten and decrease symptoms of colds and flu.  

You can make syrup, jelly, and other goodies with the elderberry, but our project focuses on making elderberry tincture, an alcohol-based extract of elderberry that has medicinal properties.

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Gather Supplies

glass jars and supplies elderberry tincture

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

You'll need these supplies to make elderberry tincture:

  • Clean canning jars. Wide-mouth jars work best because it's easier to get the berries into them, but you can use whatever jar you have. They don't even have to be proper mason/canning jars; anything with a tight-fitting lid will work. Use glass, not metal.
  • A source of elderberries. Fresh, local berries are best, but you can also order dried berries in bulk. If your berries are frozen, let them thaw and then continue with the instructions.
  • A fork for removing the elderberries from the stems.
  • A bowl and a colander to store and wash the elderberries.
  • 100-proof vodka. 100-proof vodka is typically used in tincture-making because it is 50 percent water and 50 percent alcohol, comprising a standard solution. You can use regular vodka or even brandy in a pinch, though.
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Pick Elderberries

hand picks berries from bush

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

If you have planted your own elderberry bush, that's great. Otherwise, identify the elderberry bush before picking anything, as it's easy to confuse elderberry with the toxic water hemlock, Cicuta mexicana. You can tell the difference because water hemlock's stems are hollow with purple stripes. All parts of the water hemlock are toxic, so don't touch the plant. Remember that raw elderberry can cause nausea, so resist the urge to sample the berries.

Pick only ripe elderberries. The berries are ripe when they are a deep purple-black color and slightly soft to the touch. Use scissors to snip off the purple berry clusters with stems intact. This makes it easier to strip the berries from the "umbels"—the umbrella-like, delicate stems that the berries grow on. Use the large central stem as a handle while cleaning off the berries.

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Remove Berries From Stems

hand scrapes berries off with fork

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

Use a fork to gently pull the berries off the umbels. Start at the bottom of the cluster and work your way up toward the main stem.

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Wash the Berries

washed berries in sieve

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska  

Remove any bits of stem that got into the bowl, and place the berries in a large colander. Rinse well with plenty of cold running water and drain the bowl.

Optional: Take a potato masher or put the berries in your blender and mash them a bit. This applies only to fresh berries, not if you're using dried.

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Pack the Jar

add berries to clean glass jar

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

Spoon or pour the washed elderberries into a clean, dry canning jar. Fill the jar loosely with the berries up to about 1 inch from the neck of the jar.

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Add Vodka

adding vodka to tincture

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

Pour 100-proof vodka or another spirit of your choice over the berries, covering them completely. Fill the jar almost to the brim with alcohol.

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Label the Tincture

labeled elderberry tincture

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska 

Close the jar with a tight-fitting lid such as a fresh canning lid and ring. Use a permanent marker to label the jar with:

  • The date you made the tincture
  • The plant used
  • The type of alcohol used
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Once Made, Steep and Strain the Tincture

straining tincture

Treehugger / Ulyana Verbytska  

Allow the tincture to steep for two to six weeks. Shake the jar each day. For the first week or so, unscrew the lid each day and check to be sure the berries are covered with vodka. Top off with additional vodka as needed.

After six weeks, strain the tincture through a colander into a bowl, pressing as much tincture out of the berries as you can. Rebottle the resulting liquid in a clean jar, label it, and store it in a dark place. Discard the berries.

Herbal tinctures will stay good for one to two years; they will slowly lose potency after this time. If you ever see mold or notice an "off" smell, discard the tincture.