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Preparation of Chinese herbal medicines – medicinal wine

Last post I talked about preparation of decoction. Another form of medicine are called tonic tinctures, or medicinal wine ("Yao Jiu" in mandarin). Occasionally you'll see them on display in Chinese herb shops held in bottles or big jars full of herbs immersed in a dark liquid. The ancient practice of aging herbs in alcohol is the simplest and probably the oldest method known for making medicines. In the preparation, herbs are immersed in an alcohol solution allowing the herbal properties to be drawn out by the alcohol. The wine itself is believed to possess nourishing, blood-invigoration properties that enhance the therapeutic effects of the herbs inside.

Alcohol is the second most popular solvent to use in herbal preparation other than water. There are other solvents such as milk, vinegar and even infant's urine are commonly used (I know, don't "yuck" me), and vinegar is more common than the others, probably rank after alcohol.

When medicinal wine is prepared for internal consumption, sweet rice wine, fine brandy or vodka are the best choices. For external use to prepare liniments, ethanol or rectified turpentine is used.

Making medicinal wine isn't rocket science. Other than the quality of the ingredients, the most important thing is the environment condition. The best would be like most conditions found in commercial wine cellars, which is dark, cool, dry and neutral.

A medicinal wine is made by adding 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of fresh herbs to about a liter of alcohol. Honey can be added to improve taste, especially when vodka is used. For internal consumption, the alcohol used should be no more than 40% in the liquor.

Instruction of preparing a medicinal wine:

1. Uncap a bottle of alcohol and pour some off so there is enough room for the herbs; or use a jar if you like to have more produced;

2. Immerse the herbs into the alcohol and recap the bottle;

3. Store it in a dry, cool and dark place for at least 60 to 90 days.

4. Gently shake the bottle once a week.

When the aging process is done, leave the herbs in the bottle until the wine is all consumed. The longer the wine is aged, the more potent it will become. It's pretty usual a medicinal wine is aged for more than a year. Some herb shops sell these wines that are over 10 years old and these are very valuable wines because of the value of time.

Once the wine has aged well enough, a standard dose should be one ounce of wine at room temperature 3 times daily. (Morning, afternoon and evening) You may dilute the wine in 4oz of tepid water or just drink it straight up.

Tonics, on the other hand, are mostly for seniors. These tonic formulas were developed centuries ago and benefits proven by modern Chinese medicines. Tonics or tonic tinctures are usually not for healing, they're for consumption everyday to maintain good health, nourish the blood and promote longevity.

1. Tonics require uninterrupted use over a period of time to show the benefits, just like bodybuilding;

2. Herbal tonics should be taken after meals;

3. Herbal tonics should never be taken when you're starting a cold or a flu, it's going to make the cold and flu worse. (driving these sickness deeper into your body)

There are also herbal wine sold in retail store. You can find them in most Asian/Chinese supermarket, and Chinese herb/drug store. These are made by factory with a formula that work for years and get mass produced. Be cautious on the directions though, many medicinal wines are not suitable for particular people like ones that are pregnant or with certain diseases.

And yeah, there ARE snake wines prepared with live Cobra in Asian culture, especially Vietnamese. It is said that it can heal everything and can last for as long as 500 years. I found a scary picture (actually more than one from different sites) in a blog that talks about how Vietnamese herbalist prepare a snake wine. Visit here if you're interested and here to see more. I even found lizard wine, scorpion wine and many unbelievable medicinal wines in different Asian cultures in my research as well. But just remember, most medicinal wines are made of plants.

(sources: Chinese Herbal Medicine made easy by Thomas Richard Joiner, Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle)