Sunday, January 9, 2011

I should have paid more attention... sixth form chemistry. Today fractional distallation finally made sense to me. I had an afternoon free of guest duties so somewhat guiltily snuck off to a distillation course held at the gorgeous Waiheke Blue Lavender farm. I should have been spending the time tucking the vines into the wires, but this was so much more fun.

To get to the lavender farm you can wander through a 5 minute bush walk, and then suddenly you arrive in this amazing clearing full of lavender, surrounded by native bush. It is particularly stunning at this time of year as the flowers are due to be harvested in about a weeks time so the air is heavy with fragrance, the honey bees are going crazy, and of course there is that beautiful colour.

But this is what I was here for. I've been smitten by these copper stills ever since I first saw them a couple of years ago. They are imported from Portugal by the lovely Jill and Charlie from Alembics. They are beautiful to look at, but also functional allowing you to produce your own hydrosols, essential oils, and to distill alcohol.

 First you need to harvest your plant material. It helps if you happen to be right next to a lavender farm.

Then you fill the bottom part of the still 2/3rds with water and put on top of a heat source - in this case a gas burner. That's the piece of equipment on the right of the photo above. Then you place your plant material in the 'column' which as a sieve at the bottom to stop the plant material falling into the water. Apologies Jill for my mangled version here - I can't remember the technical names for the pieces of equipment!

The you place the top piece on which has a tube which goes to...

....the condenser, which is kept cool by running some water through it. The steam rises from the water, up throug the plant material and then condenses out into the beaker. The essential oil floats to the top, and the water component is known as a hydrosol. Jill started the course by giving us a glass of diluted clary sage hydrosol to drink. That was a revelation - it never occurred to me that you could drink them. It was like a cooled herbal tea, but much, much better. 

Here's the distillate dripping out of the condensing unit. If you look carefully you can see the layer of oil on top. 
Then Charlie showed us how to distill the alcohol out of a bottle of cheap vino. That's where the previously forgotton memories of sixth form chemistry came in handy. I didn't think that this was so much my thing, but the resulting 30-40% proof alcohol was surprisingly nice.

I came back home inspired to grow more aromatics in my garden and have added a still to my Christmas wish list. If you ever get a chance to attend a workshop by Alembics, I highly recommend it.


  1. That still is really beautiful - it would make a great piece of garden art if you ever got tired of using it! I have a monster lavender bush in my garden, perhaps I need a still too so I can do something aside from drying it :)

  2. I would have paid more attention too to 6th form chemistry if we had done something half so interesting. Lavender en masse works really well and suddenly my lone bush looks like it needs company. You're right, fragrance is an important part of a garden and worth paying attention to.