First distillations



Perhaps I ought to really say “First flasks”. Steam-filtered distillation is an ancestral technique. There is nothing technologically sophisticated about it: you heat water until it boils; the steam passes through the plant, drawing out its properties; it is then condensed and ends up as a hydrosol, which in the best of cases has a few drops of essential oil. Explained like that, or even observed up close, it does not seem too complicated, but that is when the subtleties come in, and you move on to another level. It is like when someone explains how to make a typical Spanish potato omelette. You say, “Okay, I know how to do that”. But you don’t. Sometimes the easiest things are the most complex. The final quality depends on small details, and no one is going to tell you what they are. Specifically, when it comes to distillation, no practical manual or publication is going to help you resolve the many doubts you will have. There are quite a few factors to take into account: quantities; the state of the plant and the parts of it you use; the temperature; distillation time; and all these varying with each species.



My first attempts at distillation were really disappointing. If I go back to my laboratory notes I see that everything was a failure, with a lot of block letters and exclamation marks. What I can say for sure is that you can only learn by doing things, and making a lot of mistakes. This is why you need a lot of time and have to be very methodical.There is no other solution for this, when you decide to set out learning on your own, though this is surely what most motivates me.

The first step was to find a good still. I spent a lot of time consulting on the internet and asking known herbalist remedy makers in the area. Once again, there did not seem to be much of a mystery about it, but you can totally err if you buy the wrong equipment. In the end I opted for the still that seemed to be the most serious: an Italian brand of stills and stainless-steel tanks. I chose a compact still with capacity for 30 l, ideal for doing smaller-scale distillations and experimenting with plants gathered on my own.

My first distillation is dated from 13 December, 2015. It was done with rosemary. In my haste (and because I was overexcited) I did not make note of the plant weight, and I forgot to write down the times. It was a total disaster and I only got 0.6 ml of essential oil, with a suspiciously orange tinge.

Primeras destilaciones


My last annotation in my laboratory notebook is from 11 June 2016. I also used rosemary that time, this time gathered near Casa Nova, in Romanyà. I used 2,010 g of young, fresh plants, which were distilled for exactly an hour. The result was clearly satisfactory: 1,180 ml of hydrosol and 14.5 ml of transparent essential oil, with a delicate white wine hue.

Between these two dates I did 56 distillations in the courtyard of my home. Many did not go well at all, although my house has never smelt so well, and so naturally too. Error is part of any learning process, and in spite of the frustration you get from it, it adds an epic touch to any sort of success that may come your way.

There are other traditional procedures plant scents can be extracted by, such as tincture or enfleurage (of which I will speak later), but for now distillation is enough of a challenge, allowing me to accumulate small quantities of top quality, primary materials I can formulate with in my laboratory.