Author Archives: Stephany

Distilling my Holiday Greenery

Pot distillation has been around for a very long time and the oldest methods involved simmering plants in liquid and collecting the liquid that cooked off them which I refer to as the distillate.  Simple distillation apparatuses were discovered at both the Tepe Gawra (Mesopotamia 3500 BCE) the Mohenjo Daro (Indus Valley ca. 3000 BCE) excavation sites.

The Alexandrian perfumers’ guild (which was actually a group of early alchemists) was using simple alembics to distil floral essences beginning in the 1st century BCE.   There is actually a very interesting story that alchemists sometimes tell about their discovery of a malleable glass that has been lost to time.   In a 4th century manuscript written by Zosimus of Panapolis, he shares a pictures of their system. He is a good person to study if you are into alchemy and its history.  In his manuscripts he tells each of his students they must obtain an alembic and instructs them on how to use them.

Another  early illustration of a glass vase holding simmering liquid placed over a fire and covered with a conical top comes from a tablet found in the Keos, Crete excavation. The Arab word alembic is derived from the earlier Greek word ambix that described this vessel with its cone top.  Aristotle wrote instructions on how to distil sea water using this method and Pliny and Dioscorides both wrote about using the process to extract mercury from the mineral cinnabar.

There’s no evidence that the ancients used distillation for making consumable alcohol. The Persians are generally given credit for inventing the alembics that were coil-cooled and consequently able to produce alcohol and that knowledge spread throughout their empire.  It was mostly likely the Muslim Andalusians who passed the technology along Irish during trade. We don’t know exactly when, but we do know that the Irish  were at it long before the rest of Western Europe.  It was reported by the Anglo Saxons during the reign of King Alfred and the Irish were already being taxed by the English for making whiskey in 1276.

We have these directions from a French manuscript for making rosewater without an alembic from 1393.

Take a barber’s basin, stretch a kerchief over the mouth and fasten it, covering the basin completely like a drum. Put your roses on the kerchief and above them set the bottom of another basin containing hot cinders and live coals.[i]

Alternatively, the author says to do the same with two glass basins but to sit them in the sun and let its heat do the work. Several years back I posted another alternate method in this post.

The definitive Western European source on distillation was Liber de arte distillandi, written by Hieronymus Braunschweig in 1500 and translated into English by Laurens Andrewe in 1527.  By this time, tradespeople involved in the sale of distilled products had taken the concept far beyond the small copper alembics as you can see here.

Illustration from the English translation of Liber de arte distillandi 1527.

Women of the wealthy classes had still rooms in their homes and used the smaller alembics, however they were no longer exclusively copper.   In his chapter on distillation in Delights for Ladies published in 1600, Hugh Plat mentions pewter, brass, copper, glass, and lead as materials for “limbecks.” Plat had preferences about which material he used for making each preparation.   For example, he recommended copper for making cinnamon water but used pewter for Usquebath, Irish whiskey.[2]

There’s a reason for this.  Most of those old metals were not inert and would react with one substance or another.  Copper reacts with acids and sulphur bonds. This can be good when using copper to remove sulfites from wine, but eventually acidity results in copper leaching into your food and copper is poisonous.  This is why they line copper cookware with tin, stainless steel or silver (seriously who can afford silver-lined pans?) although jam pots are an exception to that rule because the high concentration of sugar in jams and jellies prevents that reaction.

 I decided that I don’t want to have to think that hard and picked a small stainless-steel still that can just be used on the stove top. Stainless steel is a nice modern metal that is inert even if it doesn’t conduct heat as well as copper. I always place a stainless-steel rack on the bottom of my boiler to keep the plant material from touching the bottom and place the plant material in a stainless-steel steaming basket.

Some stills like mine come with a column that has holes in the bottom and attaches above a boiler. If yours does not have this and you feel strongly about using a column, you can improvise.  I don’t really feel that the column set up offers many benefits when making distillates.

You can invert another basket on top of the rack and then set your plant basket on that to elevate the plant material above the water.   I’ve done it both ways, but I sort of like having the strong decoction leftover to take baths in and make syrups. And it’s safe for me to do that because my boiler isn’t copper.

I’ve heard a few people say that you don’t want to boil the plant material because you don’t want it to cook. That’s ridiculous, because the steam is hotter than boiling water and degrades the material more quickly that boiling. That’s why steam distillation is faster.

General Directions

  1. After you have placed the plant material in the basket this way, fill your boiler about half full of water. The exact amount is going to vary depending on the amount it holds.  If you are not distilling something acidic, it helps to add just a bit of citric acid to your water because you want it to be slightly acidic. An ideal pH is somewhere between 5.5 and 6.
  2. Attach the condenser to your kettle. Connect the water lines to the condenser. The top line should then be connected to your faucet.  The bottom line is your return line. If you hate wasting water like I do, you can collect the water in a bucket and use it for watering plants. Steve is investigating making me a recirculation system.
  3. Place your boiler on a heat source and turn it on.When the temperature on the boiler temperature probe reads around 180°F, turn on the cold water slowly until the water in the condenser are covered.
  4. Catch your  distillate in small amounts in a non-reactive container with a tapered lid. I use labware made for this.  You can see it the background of the picture below.  If you can compare it to the picture above you can sort of see the evolution of lab equipment.
  5. Pour the distillate into a larger airtight container to settle. I am not going to lie to you. This is a time intensive project.  I usually have a secondary thing going on that I can work on while it’s distilling.
  6. You should be able to hear when your water is getting low in the boiler. Then remove your still from the heat. When the liquid in the boiler cools, you can strain it and use it for baths or making syrups.
  7. Cap the container that you are consolidating your distillate in tightly to prevent evaporation. It will appear cloudy at first but as it cools the aromatic constituents will mostly be floating on top.
  8. After your still cools, clean the entire unit with vinegar and water. These aromatic constituents are very strong and can linger, so you want to be sure to thoroughly clean the unit.
  9. The essential oils will separate from the hydrosol as the solution cools and you can just use a dropper to siphon it off the top. I am not really into essential oils.  I generally dilute them anyway so I just bottle my hydrosols in 12 oz beer bottles and keep them in a cool place.
  10. Most of you aren’t going to have bottling equipment so use dark-coloured, airtight, glass containers to bottle your hydrosols and essential oils. Clearly label them with the type of preparation and distillation date.

So I hope that helped answer some of the questions about the way I distill my holiday greenery, these days. If you go to my Instagram there are a couple of short videos in a post about it.

[i] Montigny, Guy. Le Ménagier de Paris. Translated by Hinson, Janet, 1393.

[2] Plat, Hugh, Sir, 1552-1611? Delightes for Ladies, to Adorne Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories. VVith, Bewties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters. Read, Practise, and Censure.. Early English Books, 1475-1640 / 2300:10. At London, : Printed by Peter Short., [1600?]., 1600.

2020 Goals

I know. I know.  It’s another one of those posts.

It’s not really though, because I am not going to ramble on. This year I am setting goals in three areas.  I don’t honestly care if anyone reads it or not, I am finalizing my brainstorming in a way that helps me hold myself accountable.

Building Systems of Mutual Aid

I am not going to go into an explanation of mutual aid in this post except to say I looked into volunteering with a couple of local organizations this fall, only to find that they are a lot the same-old, same-old. I haven’t been into the liberal interpretation of charity since I went to Goddard.  #solidaritynotcharity will be the guiding theme of my year.

This blog post that explains the differences between “mutual aid projects that provide direct aid as part of radical movements trying to get to the root causes of problems and charity or social services organizations that provide direct aid in ways that often supplement, stabilize, or sustain violent and coercive hierarchies.”  I’d really love to run through the syllabus and class discussion questions in some sort of asynchronous format with local people who are interested in this topic.  I have friends who took the class in Chicago and they said it was amazing.

You can definitely expect to see the Iowa City chapter of Herbalists without Borders working pretty closely with Millennials for Climate Action as there can be no health justice without environmental justice.  An overlapping focus of  both groups is food security and building local food systems, so I expect that our joint projects might focus on that.


One thing I have figured out is that I have to structure my day differently.  I get so much more done in a day when I do.  If I hop on the computer in the morning, even if it is just to check a list,  I will invariably get sidetracked. I am better off waiting until my hands on work is done for the day.  So instead of returning correspondence first thing in the morning, it will be later in the day before I sit down to to my computer.  Hopefully it will break me other my other bad habit which is swiping  away a message because I am hyperfocusing on another task and forgetting to come back to it.

Moving back to a paper organizing binder is going to help with that, too.

Remember back in the Xanga days when we were all making our pretty household  organizing binders? I remember that Kristine Brown’s was particularly lovely. The other day I found myself wondering why I stopped that?

I think it was because I thought using the online organizers like OneNote and Cozi would be more efficient, but didn’t end up being due to online distractions.  I  still like Cozi for menu planning and communicating to the family,  but honestly it is not the best system for me personally, because if I have to come back to the computer to check a list, chances are I am going to get sidetracked by something that could wait.

The one thing that I am really good at is keeping up with the cleaning schedule in my stillroom, because I have a paper checklist hanging on a clipboard in there.  So I went out to the garage and dug out an old binder I kept because I needle felted the cover.  I am redesigning my household notebook.  I had all of this stuff on Cozi lists already so it didn’t take me long.  I don’t love wasting paper, so I laminated the weekly chore lists. 

Self Sufficiency

Finally we will continue to learn how to break the cycle of consumer dependency, by learning new skills. There are some things I haven’t been doing much of lately because finances get in the way.  For example, my sewing machines need serviced, so I haven’t been sewing as much as I used to, so I bought some new tools and am going to learn how to  service my sewing machines.

Bread for Dressing or Stuffing

A few people wanted this recipe.  It’s the bread I made yesterday to dice up for stuffing.  I make it with strong broth and a lot of fresh herbs from the garden.  In other words, don’t eat it.  I mean I like it, but it’s seasoned strongly.  I would imagine most people would think it a bit much.

1 cup lukewarm water
1 tsp sugar
1 packet dry yeast
1 1/2 cups turkey or chicken broth
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup chopped sage
1/3 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
2 tsp salt
4 cups bread flour
2-3 cups unbleached flour

Combine lukewarm water, sugar and yeast in a glass container and let in proof (sit and bubble) for ten minutes.
In a mixing bowl, combine the broth, olive oil, herbs, and salt then pour in the yeast mixture. This is important because you don’t want to pour the yeast directly on the salt. You can kill it. Add the bread flour until you can’t stir it any longer and then turn it on to the kneading board and knead the rest in.  Knead in the unbleached flour until it is smooth and elastic
Place dough in greased bowl, cover and let rise until it is doubled in bulk.
Form into 2 loaves and place in greased loaf pans.
Let the loaves rise until doubled in bulk.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes until inner temperature of the bread reaches 190 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell loaf should make a hollow sound when you thump the bottom.