This post is going to combine some history with praxis. If you just want to see how I do this, you can scroll down for directions. It’s interesting though, especially since distillation, which was once probably the most common way of producing home medicines, has entirely been passed over for more modern methods like making tinctures. Which is sad because all you need to preserve plants as distillates is some water and a pot still.
While you might have been told that the Persians invented distillation, that is not entirely the case. Some historians credit the Persians with perfecting the equipment that made distilling alcohol possible, but even that has been a source of great historical debate.
Simple distillation apparatuses used for extracting distillates and oils from plants have been discovered at various archeological excavations including Tepe Gawra (Mesopotamia 3500 BCE) the Mohenjo Daro (Indus Valley ca. 3000 BCE) and several Chinese sites dating back to 2000BCE. Let’s just say that distillation has been around for a very long time. The oldest methods involved simmering plants in liquid and using a lid to collecting the liquid that evaporated off which is referred to as the distillate.
The Alexandrian perfumers’ guild is the one of the first known group of alchemists. In the first century BCE, they were using simple distillation apparatus to distil floral essences which seem to have included rosewater, which the Persians were previously credited. In a 4th century manuscript written by guildmember Zosimus of Panapolis, there was a rough sketch of the equipment they used. This photo is from a French translation of that document. In his manuscripts he credits a woman named Maria Hebraea with inventing the system and instructs people on how to use it.
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 device and Pliny and Dioscórides both wrote about using the process to extract mercury from the mineral cinnabar by placing a helmet shaped vessel over steam to catch it.
There’s no evidence that the ancients made distilled alcohol for drinking. The Persians are given credit for inventing the alembics that were coil-cooled and consequently able to produce alcohol but that’s been a source of debate. It was mostly likely the Andalusians who passed the technology along to the 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. The English were taxing them for making whiskey by 1276.
If you read the previous resource I cited, you will see that there is debate as to what came first Uisce Beatha meaning “water of life” which was distilled from barley mash (whiskey) or the Latin aqua vite meaning “water of the vine” which is distilled from grapes (brandy). The first documentation that confirms the use of barley malt to brew whiskey is in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494, King James IV of Scotland awarded one Friar John Cor a large amount of malt for making aqua vite. I am going to link to a Latin version Rotuli scaccarii regum Scotorum so you can see that text.
The definitive Western European sourcebook was Liber de arte distillandi, written by Hieronymus Brunschwygk in 1500 and translated into English by Laurens Andrewe in 1527. According to this text aqua vite was made by distilling wine made from grapes and he extolled its medicinal values at length. In a very short time, tradespeople took the concept and ran with it as you can see in this painting by Jan der Straat. (1570)
Women of the wealthy classes had still rooms in their homes and used small crude stills made of various materials to make medicines and perfumes for their home use. You will also find receipts for making Usquebaugh (anglicized form of Uisce beatha) in manuscript receipt books.
Not every woman had a still. Here you can see 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.
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.
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.
There’s a reason for this. Most of those old metals were not inert and would react with one substance or another, or they were poisonous like lead. Copper reacts with acids and sulfur bonds. This can be good when using copper to remove sulfites from wine, but eventually exposure to acidity results in copper leaching into your food and copper is poisonous. This is why they still line copper cookware with tin, stainless steel, or silver. Seriously who can afford silver-lined pans? Copper 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. If you aren’t going to use stainless steel from a safety standpoint I would stick with glass.
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 will explain that in my first couple of steps.
General Directions for Home Distillations
- I always place a stainless-steel rack on the bottom of my boiler to keep the plant material from touching the bottom (lower right) and place the plant material in a stainless-steel steaming basket (lower left).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Catch your distillate in small amounts in a non-reactive container with a tapered lid. I use labware made for this.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 dilute them anyway, so I just bottle my hydrosols in 12 oz beer bottles and keep them in a cool place.
- Most of you aren’t going to have bottling equipment so use dark-colored, airtight, glass containers to bottle your hydrosols and essential oils. Clearly label them with the type of preparation and distillation date.
- After the 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. I find it useful to set the equipment in the sun to dry.