How to Use Base Alcohols in Botanical Perfumery
By Jessica Ring
Photo Above: Various colored tinctures in my perfumery
When we are blending a perfume using 190 proof alcohol as our base, we are not limited to simple wheat alcohols from the liquor store any longer. Just as there are artisinal essential oils distillers selling unique distillations of botanicals, there are licensed alcohol distributors selling high grade artisinal alcohol from many different fruit and grain bases. As long as you are in a state where it is legal, you can buy clean alcohol for your medicines and perfumes.
It is extremely important to examine the source of alcohol in our products and how we use it. Inorganic distillates of high proof alcohol are often laden with heavy metals and pesticides, which concentrate during the distillation. People pretend that the ingredients added to the base that are "active" when the alcohol usually makes up the majority of the blend or tincture. As a botanical perfumer I felt extremely lucky to be able to purchase my alcohol from a local company for the last 13 years. I use a significant portion of that alcohol like many herbalists do; to tincture aromatic plants for community medicine. For herbalism and perfumery have always gone hand in hand; there is just an illusion that industry separated us, and a bad false rumor circulating that to make natural perfume is to "waste" plants. I would argue that the real carbon loss is lost to people not caring about their alcohol bases and how the plants are grown upon the land which should be considered first. Botanical perfumery, is no different than herbalism, we simply have different end uses for our products. You can tincture a jar of roses for medicine, or you can tincture it for perfume, and both are helpful and healing in their own shared and unique ways. Perfumes will often last many many years, while tinctures may expire or be forgotten. We need to remember that people have distilled essential oils and hydrosols as medicine for far far longer that we have made alcohol. Aromatic extraction goes back 3500 years and is an ancient tradition stored in our hearts and shared senses.
Photo: Holding some Flowers of Jasmine and Clary Sage in my garden
Tincturing aromatic plants is an extremely simple, energy efficient way of creating a local, unusual perfume base for your personal cosmetics or product line. There is no heat involved in this "cold process." (PLEASE DO NOT heat your alcohol up unless you are a trained professional! It is FLAMMABLE) Botanical material is placed in a jar (flowers, or leaves, or roots, or resins, etc.) Depending on the freshness of the material and how much water it contains the material may stay in the alcohol for anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 years. Fresh flowers are full of water. For the first 24 hours of an extraction in alcohol, the essential oils, resinous components, waxes, and pigments are drawn. After this first day of tincturing the alcohol begins to grab a hold of the water molecules inside the plant and draw them out. This dilutes the tincture with water, and starts to lend a boggy pond water aroma, which is not desirable. The dilution of the tincture with water is avoided by filtering out the flowers, and adding more flowers from your garden to the same alcohol. Every time you filter and add more, we call this a "fold." Thus a 'folded tincture', is an aromatic alcohol extraction. In the commercial industry, alcohol-extracted essences are further rendered into "absolutes" by evaporating off this alcohol. Personally, I feel this to be an enormous waste, as the alcohol is as precious, as the essential oils mixed into it. It is like throwing away a precious essential oil for no reason.
Photo Above: Garden herbs about to be tinctured
The production of grain alcohol and other 190 proof alcohol is a land-intensive effort, like all agricultural endeavors. Non-organic alcohol plant production requires large amounts of pesticide, fungicide and herbicides, and effectively abuses the land. So when we purchase organic alcohol it is first and foremost to honor the land and help restore it with organic crop production. Our second goal is to reduce the exposure of ourselves and our customers to toxins. So this is an important ethical issue. Lastly, we need to remember that the cannabis industry has put an enormous demand on the high-proof liquor industry to pump out thousands of gallons of non-organic and organic alcohol for cannabis extraction.
Photo Above: Wild Ginger and Native Conks in cane and grape alcohol
I have felt proud and lucky to be able to access clean alcohol for my perfumes, which I have always felt are medicine for the soul, from the gardens and forests I gather from.
Many suppliers sell alcohol with a rank odor or bad "still note." Perfumers then have to go through the long and wasteful process of re-filtering their alcohol through charcoal. There are many organic alcohol suppliers and almost all are helping with the current global pandemic; many distillers of drinkable spirits are shifting over to producing higher proof alcohol to meet the demands for hand sanitizer and sprays.
Photo: L:Blue Tansy Perfume R: Strawberry Tincture Perfume
I think as a community of herbalists we need to treat our base alcohols with much more respect and reverence: they contain the condensed presence of so many acres of plants. A beautiful base alcohol is not a neutral component in a perfume and it serves many purposes beyond simple carrier. Here is some more information about how you might use these lovely plant medicines.
Orange Alcohol - When I make citrus perfumes I will often use the Orange alcohol because it already is imbued with this exquisite, clean mandarin note. I use less citrus by picking a proper base, and the scent in this base is more stable than the essential oil itself. By the same token, those creating tinctures can blend the flavor of the orange with appropriate medicine mixes; vanilla beans dropped into orange alcohol create a "orange dream" effect.
Grape Alcohol- For light fruity floral perfumes I like to use the grape 190 proof alcohol. This alcohol has a soft tangy echo of tart grapes in the sun, and really holds the beauty of similar ingredients well. Allowing the alcohol to shine as an ingredient amplifies the power of the perfume, just like using clean water in a drink bases the product in purity and quality.
Sugar Cane Alcohol- Sugar can alcohol has a sweet, round flavor as well as a soft sugary scent which I personally like to exploit for candy accords and sugar addict perfumes. Lovely for cookie and cake scents as well as a very soft and neutral base for tinctures. People tend to prefer the flavor of the cane alcohol for medicine.
Honey Alcohol - An intoxicating and ethereal experience. Blending flower essences from my garden into honey alcohol is a bit like kissing the sun while the moon has her back turned.
Blackberry Alcohol - Smells of caramel and is the most divine essence to my nose - a perfume in its own right. Blends with anything bearing coumarin or dry grass notes, rich fruity notes, wine accords, pretty much anything.
Corn Alcohol - For my agrestic smelling barnyard cologne and perfumes I use corn as a base, and I also like to use corn for my southwestern blends and my garden social aromatic concoctions.
Wheat Alcohol - Wheat is just good....it is a wonder to imagine it blowing in the bottle across and august field, and I try to utilize every drop without waste.
Lychee Alcohol - I would say that my favorite alcohol base of all to work with is Lychee. Over the last few years I have basked in the glow of that delicate, creamy, fruity base. It smell like pure, true fruit and heavy cream, with almost no alcohol scent at all. Now this is a wonder when you consider that fruit is the most difficult essence to acquire without ruining the scent. You can tell that whoever distilled it is an absolute master devoted to their craft. I like to extract my baltic amber chips into this alcohol and add my most expensive and delicate florals to it because it just supports and amplifies their inherent beauty so well.
Codistilled Floral Alcohols - Many distillers are masters at integrating flowers into their alcohol distillations creating unique and precious blends that are never the same. From rose to geranium, plumeria and pansies, distillers in areas that allow alcohol distillation are fusing the wisdom of essential oil distillation with that of alcohol production....or should I say remembering the wisdom - as this is all ancient stuff we are just rediscovering in our need to find joy and healing.
Freeze Dried Cherries Being Dropped into Sugar Cane Alcohol
I do not use rubbing alcohol to clean my droppers, I simply rinse my droppers as I blend in a small beaker or shot glass of the same alcohol I am blending into. At the end of the blending session, I label the perfume and bottle it, and I also label the alcohol I rinsed the droppers in as "RINSE." This gives me a nice ounce of alcohol to use as a base for another perfume for a friend, give to a student to study, or use for my own studies as an echo or light cologne breath of the stronger, more concentrated original perfume.
All of these alcohols have their own way of radiating off the skin; this is called "sillage." Wheat holds a little tighter to the aura than the grape or lychee which I feel glide of the skin in cloud-like layers. The orange alcohol base is extremely vibrant and jovial, and is awesome as a hammock for those wild love potions you want to sing and attract. I typically blend in a base of mixed sugar cane and grape and am so excited to share more about how I use these alcohols to not only extract essence, but as the most foundational element of my perfume line.
There are many, many applications for these alcohols in artisinal cosmetics making. I dissolve resins into the alcohols to add color and tenacity to my perfumes and also sometimes to make special ink with the colored aromatics and resins.
For those of you who wish to further explore some tinctured perfumes and their descriptions: https://www.ringbotanicals.com/collections/all
For those of you wishing to check out some of these bases you can discover some of them at the Organic Alcohol Company HERE