Distilling Herbs

Hello friends,

I have a small copper alembic still that I use for steam distillation of hydrosols and it even yields a little essential oils from my garden herbs. The still is truly a beautiful little work of craftsmanship with a long history of centuries of use.

 The still consists of three parts: The cucurbit or pot which holds the liquid and plant material to be distilled, the anbik cap or onion which fits over the cucurbit and receives the steam vapors- it has an attached tube to carry the steam downward into the coil condenser which is cooled with ice water. Copper is the preferred material for distilling hydrosols as copper is an excellent conductor of heat, improves the fragrance and reduces contamination from bacteria.

Legend holds that in the 10th century, Avicenna discovered how to extract rose and herbal oils and waters by distillation. The practice of the distillation process spread to all parts of the ancient world. Steam distillation of herbs and blossoms resulted in "sweet waters or herbal waters".  This water is the hydrosol, a by-product of extracting essential oils.

Hydrosols are similar to essential oils in that they contain the essence of the entire plant but in such a low concentration they can safely be used straight where essential oils are too strong for use "neat" on the skin. The chemicals of hydrosols are water loving acids. Bacteria do not thrive in acids so properly prepared hydrosols have a long shelf life without preservatives. Hydrosols are astringent which makes them great as skin toners and fresheners.

 While the floral water can be a by product of the process to extract the essential oil, the very best hydrosols come when the distiller works the plant material with the intention of creating a hydrosol. This is because the finest quality hydroflorates form in the early part of the steam distillation process. To get the most essential oil yield, the process continues longer to be sure you are extracting as much of the precious oil as possible but that can result in a lower quality of hydrosol. The early floral/herb distillates are brighter, pleasingly fragrant and more desirable than the later portion.  Since the essential oil gathered in small home distillers is negligible anyway, I process my plant materials and end the process early enough to achieve the highest quality hydrosol.

Steam distillation a simple method of extracting the plant's oils.  You can use fresh or dried botanical materials. Herbs are wonderful because of their essential oil content.  Blossoms are desirable as well. When I use fresh plant material I gather the plants, leaves and stems early in the morning while the plant is at its peak.  I find it useful to apply a rough chop and allow the foliage to wilt a little so you can easily fit more plant material into the still.

 If I use dried components, I soak them for a few hours before loading the pot so the steam process is more efficient. If I use a fine ingredient like dried citrus peel or spices, I often place those in a heat sealed tea bag to keep it from settling at the bottom of the still and burning. You want the botanical materials suspended in the water and the grate that fits in my still has holes that would allow tiny particles to burn.

Herbal distilling floral water
You fill the pot about 3/4 of the way with spring water and place the copper steamer disc on the bottom to keep the herbs, spices, citrus and blossom petals suspended above the bottom of the pot to prevent burning. Add the botanical material, spices, citrus peels etc. so that they float freely in the pot. You don't want to pack it tight.

The onion cap is fitted onto the filled pot and secured with either a rye flour paste or silicone tape.  The onion cap is attached to the condenser coil. Cooling water fills the condenser unit and heat is applied to bring the pot to boil.  

   As the water is heated it creates steam, which rises through the plant material, bursting the sacks containing the essence of the botanical materials. That allows the aromatic molecules to be carried along with the steam through the tubing into the condenser coil.  

 The coil is submersed in cold water which converts the steam back into liquid form resulting in a hydrosol and essential oil.  The water surrounding the condenser coil need to be kept cool. You can add ice to the coil cup but I find it easier to use a simple aquarium or fountain pump to keep pumping cool water into the unit.  You insert the tubing that the draws the cold water into the bottom of the cup and the output tubing is at the top of the cup.

Once the vapor comes into contact with the cold surface of the copper coil it condenses to a liquid state and drips down into the final collection container. You won't want a fast, heavy flow. The most desirable is a slow drip rate so if it is flowing too fast, regulate the heat to reduce the boil.  You can see a good rate on the video at the end of my blog post-it shows spurts of small amounts of the condensed liquid flowing into the collection container.

Allowing the final collection to rest will allow separation of the essential oil and hydrosol. I use a separator funnel to facilitate the process of collection the essential oil simpler.  You only get a few drops of actual essential oil from each batch, the majority of the collection is the hydrosol.   Most essential oils are lighter than water so the oil floats on the surface of the hydrosol.  The hydrosol often has a milky appearance.  The French refer to hydrosols as hydrolats  -' hydro’ water and ‘lat’ milk. Properly stored, I like to use dark violet or amber bottles, these preparations have a good shelf life

You can make a simple single note hydrosol as we often see in Rose 
Water or Witch Hazel but I also like to combine herbs, spices, citrus and florals. Be sure to use organically grown or wild gathered materials without chemical contamination.

Lemon Balm Hydrosol

Many species are suitable for creating the perfect hydrosol whether you are searching for invigorating, freshening, cooling, soothing, toning or relaxing; you can create your perfect distillate.


Rose Petal or Rose Hip
Orange Blossom
Geranium/Rose Geranimum

Mints of all varieties
Lemon Balm or Verbena
Laurel Bay
Clary Sage

Witch Hazel
Ginger root

Orange - sweet orange, blood orange, tangerine
(to increase essential oil, use just the zest of the fruit peel without the pith)

Cucumber is nice in combination with mints. Placing the hydrosol in a fine mister makes a delightful freshening addition to your facial care routine.

You can add a few whole spices like clove or star anise along with your plant materials, but don't over do it as spice oils can be irritating to the skin.

Rosemary Bay Herbal Water

Hydrosols have many uses:

Facial toner
Facial steams
As the liquid in face clay  masks
Bath additives
Linen or iron water sprays

I do not recommend using hydrosols for internal use. While my small still doesn't provide enough product to sell the hydrosols, I do use them in my products - soaps, creams, lotions and balms.

I hope you enjoyed my journey in the art of steam distillation of herbs from my garden.  Thanks for visiting!


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