Hey folks I wanted to share with you some of the work I have been doing as of late. I have been deeply diving into the art and science of herbal aromatics. This is a really large field that encompasses a lot- but in my mind it really begins with the distillation still.
About a 1000 years ago Avicenna (Ibn Sina) added a refrigerating coil to a classic still and began the process where humans could easily distill volatile oils from plants. Its pretty easy to think of how a still works- you put plant matter either in water or in a steaming “basket above the water. Heat warms the water and causes the volatile oils and aromatic constituents to evaporate. These rise as steam and then condense back into liquid when it goes through a coil that is cooled externally by water. As the temperature rises in the still, the water evaporates as steam and also condenses out as distillate. Using tools like an essencier, one can then divide out the essential oils from the aromatic water known as hydrosol.
Though this process is relatively uncomplicated, the actual preparation of good essential oils and hydrosols is deeply complex and really an art form. Some of the factors that must be taken into consideration are:
- Where to gather plants (ethical harvesting, the “terroir” of the land, etc.)
- When to distill (waiting for the plant oils to be at their height during the year)
- The temperature of the still and the condenser.
- Whether to steam or hydrodistill (place the herbal matter directly in the water), or both
- The length of time to distill. As distillation continues, the constituent profile of what comes across changes. Sometimes harsher notes can come through that one wants to avoid. Sometimes its important to allow for a more broader spectrum.
- The time of the day and month. Alchemists and astrologers of yore would take this into special consideration to help produce the best quality preparation.
- One’s own mood and state of mind. Yes just as someone cooking in an angry frame of mind can make a poor meal, the emotional state maters in the process of distillation as well.
When we think of the distillation still, we are really talking about the nexus point of a number of disciplines. Lets take a look at a few of those:
- Recreational liquor. The process of making concentrated high proof spirits from a still really took off in the Renaissance. In modern times, only licensed and taxed distillers have been allowed to legally operate. Moonshining is still extraordinarily popular in underground circles.
- Medicinal liqueurs and cordials: Traditionally distillers would gather aromatic plants from the countryside and in gardens and farms to make specialized preparations that were medicinal in nature. Think of Chartreuse and Strega, liqueurs that are replete with dozens of aromatic herbs gathered locally. Digestive bitters also traditionally started with making alcohol from the still.
- Essential oils and Hydrosols: These are preparations from distilling plants that then form the basis of many disciplines such as perfuming, cosmetic herbalism and aromatherapy.
- Perfuming: A number of modern natural perfumers wok with the still to make what are known as “co-distillations”, essentially combining a variety of plants into the still at the same time to make a complex woven scent that is particular to that moment, the plants and the land at the time of distillation. Perfumers also play with extracting out hard to dissolve oils through the use of a gathering medium like frankincense or sandalwood.
- Alchemical preparations: Variants of the still such as the modern soxhlet- a closed loop still that allows for greater distillation through recycling the solvent- are used often in alchemical preparations known as spagyrics. These are herbal alchemical preparations that gather the volatile oils, the tincture and the cooked base material (salts) and combine them into one medicine.
In modern times – most of these disciplines have become dominated by large scale mass manufactured preparations. Often times those involved in these disciplines have lost touch with the actual process of making these preparations themselves or having direct contact and relationships with the plants that are at the core of these preparations.
The idea of traditional aromatics is to reconnect to the lost art of artisan distillation that are at the core of these many fields of aromatherapy, perfuming, making aromatic liquors, cosmetics and alchemy. In the last 20 years some incredibly brilliant people have helped revive the lost art of working with the still at small scale. In the liquor world, numerous small scale distillers have started distilleries to emphasize a close connection with the land, the plants and the arts of making really wonderful spirits.
Artisans such as Dan Ziegler, Jessica Ring, Ann Harmon, Jeanne Rose, Christa Obuchowsky, Cathy Skipper, Jade Schutes and Erika Galentin and many others too numerous to mention have done a lot to help revive the traditional practice of working with copper stills to produce oils and hydrosols.
Aas an herbalist and therapist I have become deeply involved in this world as well, working with two different stills and spending a lot of time practicing and honing my skills. One of my key areas of interest is in helping people work through trauma and emotional suffering. The process of connecting to aromatic plants, gathering them in a good way and then distilling with groups of people has showed me how deeply these traditional arts can help people top heal. Distillation is more than a technical practice. Done with care and reverence, it becomes a way to reconnect with the land and its plans, to connect with friends in the process of distillation and finally to reconnect with our own good heart. Distillation becomes both an outer and inner process. In that way the process of building those relationships with the land and each other is as important as the actual preparation that is made from the still.
I will leave you with a few pictures from my recent adventures distilling with some amazing wizards out there.
Follow me on Instagram