Category Archives: Distillates and Aromatics

Making Distillates at Home

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.

Medieval Herbal Advice for Today’s Homes

It is time to turn to the fall maintenance of our beloved herb gardens , which provided so generously for us over the summer.  We herbalists are all organizing our overflowing apothecaries and trying to fit in our new harvest of plant allies which often involves displacing last year’s harvest.    I generally won’t harvest perennials past the end of October,  so I am closing in on the end of the season and  trimming back herbaceous perennials for the winter.

If you, like me, are a frugal sort, you are probably questioning what to do with these leftovers as often they still taste and smell very potent.  Juliette De Bairacli Levy recommends tossing old herbs into the compost or directly on your garden, but I think they still serve a purpose in our preventative care measures; guarding our home against  disease carrying pests,   pathogens and other unwanted visitors <—nod to the esoteric uses of protective herbs as Samhain approaches.

Really, what better use is there for herbs that aren’t spent, but aren’t at their peak of freshness?  The real experts on using herbs for household maintenance were those folk who had no alternatives and so much useful knowledge can be gleaned from medieval domestic texts.

Strewing Herbs jpg.Strewing Herbs – Strewing Herbs were commonly tossed about to sweeten the air in a room and ward off pests. These were the predecessor to potpourri but more utilitarian in nature.   Thomas Tusser made these recommendations about which herbs to use for strewing h in his 500 Points of Good Husbandrie,  published in 1557. For want of explanation Baulm  refers to lemon balm, not the monarda spp.  Maudeline  is Tanacetum balsamita var. camphoratum; the camphor plant.

In Medieval Days the herbs were likely strewn around on the floor and crushed by people walking on them or shoved in mattresses.   I still use them under  rugs, appliances,  the boy’s mattresses and between our mattress and box spring, but you don’t often find them just lying around on the floors except in  garage underneath our bulk food storage bins.

I’ve posted this modernized version for carpet cleaning on the blog before.  This is really the only time I use borax and salt in strewing herbs.

Strewing Herb Powder For Carpets and Rugs

1 cup borax
½ cup salt
½ cup powdered mint
½ cup powdered rosemary
½ cup powdered mugwort
anti-microbial or aromatic essential oils of your choice (absolutely optional)

Mix the dry ingredients together and stir in 10-15 drops of essential oils in any combination you desire. Sprinkle the mixture on your carpets or rugs in the evening and vacuum them in the morning.

DSC04276Sachets  –Often referred to in Medieval texts as “sweet bags” Sachet are made by crushing herbs and sewing them up in linen or silk bags.  They were then  hung amongst the clothing to ward off pests.  I have also adopted this practice to protect the bulk dried goods I keep on a shelf in my garage and in other areas where I would simply like to ward off noxious odors.

Once word of advice: Unlike a potpourri, you don’t know want a sweet bag to hold its scent, rather it is the wafting off of the scent that repels insects. I’ve seen directions for sachets which include orris root powder or charcoal. These substances have a habit of absorbing orders thus detracting from their usefulness as repellents.


Most often called “sweet waters”, these were used for scenting clothing and linen by brushing them on or “sprinkling with pine sprigs.  I’ve done this because I am a SCA  nerd.
For the most part,  we use  spray bottles set on the mist setting . I use “sweet waters” to mist on bed linens when making the bed and find them to be quite useful for misting the air in a sick room. My daughter,  has been known to take the bottle and spray it directly toward people when they are ill. I must, of course, recommend against this.

Making a distillate for household use doesn’t  require a still. I find this to be an excellent use for fall trimmings. I have experimented with fresh and dried and oddly enough I have found that ground dried herbs tend to make more aromatic distillates. Any aromatic herb known for  its volatile oils is a good candidate for distillation. Mints, roses, lavender, orange peels are some of my favorite choices.   Conifer needles like pine and spruce work so well for this.

Directions for making a distillate:

  1. In a large pot with a tight fitting lid, place a small inverted bowl,I have a glass nesting bowl set that works well for this. Stainless steel works, too.
  2.  Place your choice of aromatic herbs around the inverted bowl and add water until the bowl is just covered.
  3. Set a larger bowl right side up on the inverted bowl . Place the lid to the soup pot on it in an inverted fashion. I like to throw some ice on the top as well.
  4. The steam from the boiling herbs will collect on the underside of the inverted lid and run into the larger bowl.
  5. Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat, for as long as you like until the water in the pot boils down and most of it is collected in the larger bowl.
  6. Once cooled, this can be bottled and tightly covered. I store mine in our second refrigerator.

 My favorite herbs for strewing or distillates:

The artemisia family are especially known as having strong repellant properties. Artemisia abrotanum (Southernwood ) was once known as “garde robe’. There is an ancient text which talks of boiling together rue and wormwood and then spraying the water on clothes to repel moths. I would hazard a guess that any of the artemisias would be suitable for this purpose.    I tend to use mugwort for the purpose of strewing and sachets.   I think John Gallagher was the first person I heard call mugwort the “white sage of the Northern Europeans”.

Ruta graveolens –  Rue has long been known as a protective herb.   According to M. Grieves “Rue has been regarded from the earliest times as successful in warding off contagion and preventing the attacks of fleas and other noxious insects. It was the custom for judges sitting at assizes to have sprigs of Rue placed on the bench of the dock against the pestilential infection brought into court from gaol by the prisoner.”(Grieves, 1931)   Rue works well  as a sprig for splashing around distillates.

Galium_odoratum – Sweet Woodruff is known to have a high concentration of coumarin, the ingredient in the modern rodent poison warfarin, and was used for strewing and stuffing mattresses to repel disease carrying pests.  I grow it purposely for using in my strewing herbs that go under the stove and in other areas that mite be prone to mice- like under the shelving where I keep my bulk food bins or under the sink behind the bar.

R. Rugosalavendula officinalis , calendula officinalis –  who doesn’t love  flowers?   I tend to put flowers, woodruff and rue in the bags I hang near the clothing and around the beds where I don’t want the stimulating scent of the mints.

Lamiaceae Family –  I pretty open to using any sort of mint due to reading this study about how it repels cockroaches.   Catnip and spearmint are probably more plentiful in my strewing herbs,  but that is because I have so much growing.  I hoard my peppermint as it is just coming back from spraying incident a few years back.

Conifer needles are also often ground up and used in a lot of ways around here.   I am not really fussy about the kind.  I love spruce, pine, cedar, fir.   The kids will tell me if the house starts to smell too much like  a forest.

Tusser, T. (1557). Five hundred points of good husbandry;... (pp. 123-124). Retrieved from hundred points of good husbandry

Grieves, M. (1931). A Modern Herbal. (Vol. 2, p. 695). New York: Dover.