what vinegar means to me

I started making herbal vinegars as soon as I began my studies of herbalism. As a child, I wanted to be an herbalist, and was led back to the path when I stopped drinking alcohol in September 2015. To be able to answer a lifelong call is a gift, but to pick-up the phone and find that the majority of teachers were offering alcohol-based solutions was disheartening. While some vinegars such as Fire Cider are famous, the idea of using vinegar as the primary menstruum for herbal medicine is far from typical.

Why do we rely so heavily on alcohol? I hear a lot of reasons: Convenience. Preservation, especially of rare herbs. More convenience. Vinegar is not used because it is not as effective at preservation. And that’s shared like it’s a bad thing, like we don’t want seasonally-based medicine, like we shouldn’t be a little creeped out by shelf-stable herbalism the same way we’re creeped out by shelf-stable food. Why do we feel compelled to make herbal medicine fit into the allopathic paradigm? What is so very different about a dropperfull of tincture and popping a pill?

Keep in mind that I am not a formally trained herbalist. Not yet, anyway: next month I will begin a six-month program that does, of course, focus on tinctures. I imagine there are nuances that I am missing, and there are very good reasons to use alcohol because of its ability to effectively extract the medicinal properties of herbs. And there are also teas and syrups and food other fun ways to get your herb in. But why is industrial alcohol the basis of American herbalism? (Yes, even your organic tincture booze is industrial… Very, very little distilled alcohol is actually artisanal, let alone local.)

I write this as someone who relapsed last month due to alcohol-based tinctures. It’s extremely difficult for me to share this, but to live a sober life and to continue to offer my services at Heal Yourself, I must live an honest life. I’m afraid that I will not be trusted, that my clients will think I am a fraud, and that no one will want to work with me. I am embarrassed and ashamed that with almost one and a half years sober I let down my guard and let alcohol back in. I certainly don’t blame tincture makers, but rather my own cavalier attitude and, more importantly, my desire to be part of the cool herbal crowd and take medicine made by people I admire.

I’m fortunate that my extensive experience with going into hell and coming back, this spiral path of the witch that I have long walked, enabled me to put down the drink. Not everyone is that lucky. But this relapse has given me something I did not have before: a true commitment to service and to the divine. Since my relapse, my channel has been clear, my spiritual practice profound, and my conviction that I can be useful confirmed. And making alcohol-free medicine is a crucial part of what I have to give to this world.

Ultimately that’s what vinegar offers me: a way to participate in modern herbalism in a time when convenience is prized. I don’t think that my medicine is inherently better than the medicine made with alcohol, but it offers another way. A way that, for many of us, is inclusive, healthy, and truly holistic without sacrificing the convenience that we’ve come to expect. I am honored to make, take, and experiment with herbal vinegars. I’m excited to start making vinegar itself, bringing the practice entirely into my hands. I am thrilled to learn about herbalists who are already doing this work, and look forward to a day when a newly sober person looking for help sleeping won’t be told that the passionflower tincture is fine because “it’s not that much alcohol.”

When we are healers, it is our responsibility to meet all who call on us for help at their level, including those who cannot safely consume any alcohol. Holistic, inclusive herbalism welcomes everyone, addicts and all. 

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