Although I own my own copper still, I am not particularly experienced in the distillation of hydrosols and essential oils as I have so far used my copper pot still exclusively for distilling moonshine and other spirits. I do however know of customers who have used our smaller 1 gallon alembic still for making their own essential oils and hydrosols. So, I’ve also started to look into the process and have assembled some useful information on the topic, in the hope that I’ll get the time to try it myself.
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids containing volatile aroma compounds extracted from aromatic plants. They carry the distinctive aroma or “essence” of the botanicals they are made of, which explains the name. They have been used for centuries for therapeutic, medicinal, culinary or cosmetic purposes and have especially contributed to a rise in the popularity of aromatherapy in the past few years. There are hundreds of plants that contain useful essential oils which can be extracted from their oil glands, roots, flowers, peel, veins and resin. And while some oils or hydrosols are very expensive to buy, they could be rather cheap to make at home, in your own copper pot still.
There are three main methods for making your own essential oils: distillation, expression and solvent extraction; out of which, distillation (and especially steam distillation) is the most common. Expression refers to mechanically extract the oils from a plant, such as the cold-pressing method known for extracting olive oil. For flowers or plants too delicate to withstand expression or the high temperatures of distillation, certain solvents can be used instead for extraction. Most essential oils today are obtained through distillation. Copper alembic stills are great for the process, especially since most only need a single process for extraction, but also thanks to copper’s antibacterial properties.
The first step is getting your botanicals. The quantity of oils in a plant varies depending on season, the origin of the plant and the method of harvesting. So, it’s important to read up on the specific plant you decide on before you start, so that you know when it’s best to harvest it, what part of the plant will yield the best results and when to begin and end distillation. Plants are usually very sensitive and need to be carefully handled in order to not waste any of their essential oils. It’s recommended to go for whole plants, not crushed, dried or powder, and, if possible, to pick them yourself. While distillation, especially in copper, removes impurities, it is best to use your own botanicals or organically grown ones, to make sure they were not contaminated by pesticides or other chemicals. After harvesting, some producers recommend drying the plants in order to increase the amount you can use in your batch. But make sure they are dried slowly, not in direct sunlight and not for too long.
Place your dried plants in the still over clean, either filtered or distilled, water. Once water reaches boiling point, the steam will pass through the plants, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The usual distillation process follows: vapors flow through the coil where they condense back to liquid and then reach the receiving vessel. The obtained recondensed steam is your hydrosol. You can make use of a separating funnel or an essential oil separator to separate the essential oil from the hydrosol. Hydrosols can be used on their own, such as rose water, lavender or pine hydrosol, lemon balm or orange blossom water, or re-used in distilling your next batch.
Result may vary in concentration from plant to plant. You should decide on whether you need an essential oil or a hydrosol would be more useful, and keep in mind that you need a large quantity of botanicals for a small amount of oil. The good news is, although essential oils keep for two years or even more, you most probably do not need large quantities for personal use, as they are extremely concentrated. This is also why it is advisable to dilute the result with other carrier oils or substances, depending on the final use. Almond or grape seed oils are usually preferred for this purpose. Store the oils or the hydrosols in clean colored glass or stainless steel containers, away from direct sunlight.
A very important thing that needs mentioning is that if you do choose to use a copper pot still for making both alcohol and hydrosols or essential oils, it is recommended that, for safety reasons, you use separate equipment. Cleaning the still may not be enough to make the distillation of alcohol safe if the still was previously used for the extraction of essential oils.
Posted by Jason Stone on