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DIY Distillation-Frankincense Dalzielii

Another home-made still

Continuing with the theme of DIY and home distillation, this is my latest easy-to-make distillation unit showcasing today’s distillation of Frankincense Dalzielii from Nigeria. A gorgeous looking resin that yielded a superb essential oil.

It is important to note that this distillation yields 3 valuable products.

  • The essential oil.
  • A hydrosol that can be used on its own or incorporated in the water phase of cosmetic cremes.
  • A pure resin extract which is a perfect base for medicated oils salves, (moustache waxes), and the oil phase of cremes. This part contains all the resin acids of Frankincense including the Boswellic acids which studies show are anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer in the laboratory.

If you don’t have a distillation unit and want to utilize the medicinal properties of Frankincense in cremes, oils and salves, you will find easy instructions for working with the fresh resin here.

And here are instructions for making your own resin extract without the need for distillation.

Easy to find materials

 

Frankincense dalzielii, DIY distillation, Frankincense essential oil
A distillation of Frankincense Dalzielii from Nigeria.
A home-made pot still with an air-cooled condenser.

The distillation is performed with a 70-litre high-end kitchen pot, 40-litres of water, 4 Kilograms of fresh Frankincense Dalzielii and an air-cooled condenser.

Thick high-quality stainless steel, a particularly thick bottom and a snug fitting lid are what differentiate it from a low-quality pot and make it worth the extra couple of hundred dollars.

The gasket I used is taken from a much smaller diameter pressure cooker. I trimmed 1/8 ” off the spine which allowed it to easily stretch around a much larger circumference.

The pipes leading from the lid to the condenser are 1 1/2 inch copper plumbing pipes. The nut used to affix the copper pipe to the lid is from a standard North American bathtub drain assembly. Only the first 2 sections are soldered, the rest are hand fitted.

Frankincense dalzielii, DIY distillation, Frankincense essential oil
A distillation of Frankincense Dalzielii from Nigeria.
A home-made pot still with an air-cooled condenser.

Atmospheric pressure only

The beauty of using a wide gauge pipe is that it creates no back pressure or pressure in the pot. This is important because

  • Pressure=higher temperatures and I believe the quality of the essential oil is degraded when the temperature goes above 100 degrees Centigrade. I think it is a magical number in nature and more important in Apothecary/distillation work than we realize.
  • No pressure means there was no need for a clamping system to seal the lid to the pot. The weight of the condenser assembly was more than enough to keep all the vapours in the system.
  • Most of the external copper joints were sufficiently sealed with only a twist and a push. Without pressure, steam and volatiles were gently conducted to the condenser. Not forced.

Frankincense Dalzielii-Nigeria

I have been very fortunate to find spectacular materials like this Boswellia Dalzielii to work with. There is no doubt that the high quality of the material contributes directly to the brilliance of the essential oil.

 Frankincense dalzielii, Boswellia Dalzielii Nigeria
Boswellia Dalzielii Nigeria

Boswellia Dalzielii is known as Janawhi and Cricognimun and in Nigeria, the Hausa speaking people refer to it as Hano or Harrabi. (Reminiscent of the Haramy of Madagascar, Canarium madagascariensis/Madagascar elemi.)

The locals use it as chewing gum and as incense. Though I can’t find much on traditional uses of the resin, there is extensive research on the medicinal value of the tree’s bark and roots.

Frankincense Dalzielii has the expected Frankincense oleo-gum-resin composition and likely contains the Boswellic and other resin acids in proportions similar to B. Sacra and B. Carterii. Both the fresh and the spent resin are perfect for use in incense, oils, salves, tinctures and cremes.

It bears an eerie resemblance to the Royal Hojari Frankincense of Oman but distinguishes itself from the Hojari with a trademark fragrance of Orange/Citrus and Mint with earthy undertones.

The essential oil and hydrosol are gorgeous.

Field distillation in resource-poor and remote areas.

A decade or so ago I found 4-foot long 1-inch aluminum finned copper pipes in a surplus shop. I could only afford 2 at the time and have gotten a lot of use out of them. They have taken a beating over the years but still work like a charm.

Though the condenser is unique and requires a bit of scrounging or googling to find, anyone can acquire one or two of these air-cooled units which create an elegant and economical solution, especially in cooler climates.

Frankincense dalzielii, DIY distillation, Frankincense essential oil
A distillation of Frankincense Dalzielii from Nigeria.
A home-made pot still with an air-cooled condenser.

This type of heat dispersion unit is used in HVAC heating and cooling systems and could be an important element in the design of distillation units for remote, hot, and resource-poor areas where many of our aromatic resins grow. Places where water, electricity and gas are difficult to come by.

Passive cooling systems

Designing a passive field distillation unit has been on my mind for over a decade. The distillation/condensing systems we use in the West are not only resource hungry, needing huge amounts of electricity/gas and water which are not available in the bushland and mountains of Africa and Arabia, but they are technologically sophisticated and require specialized parts and repairs that make them impractical in these remote areas.

What we need is a hardy, simple still design that utilizes the resources that are abundant in these areas. heat, sunshine and air. Something that can be operated independently by anyone with some basic training, easily repaired with a minimum of tools and technical know-how, will produce essential oils of a consistent quality and ultimately benefit the communities that steward these trees and collect their resin for us.

Boswellia Carterii trees in the mountains of Somalia. Water and fuel are scarce.

If, (as is the case), all the processing of these natural resources takes place in other and richer countries, little of the monetary benefits reach these communities and countries.

Easy to build, easy to repair, easy to operate and clean, sturdy and durable. With a little basic training, remote communities could operate these stills and raise the bar on ethics, quality, sustainability and fair trade in the industry.

A growing demand for Frankincense essential oil

The demand for Frankincense essential oil is growing by the day while in many areas the Frankincense trees are in sharp decline and estimates indicate we will lose them within the next 50 years. Now is the time to address these issues,  to acknowledge and empower those who are best positioned to steward these precious resources.

We have developed a nasty self-serving approach to the resources of the world and those of poorer countries. Not only do the communities in these countries not share in our Western abundance, the resources we take from them are dwindling due to our shortsightedness and unwillingness to think beyond the immediate profit margin.

I think its time for a change. Before it’s too late.

For more information on building your own essential oil still see my posts in the Distillation drop-down menu at the top of the page or in the links below.

If you have any information on the traditional uses of Boswellia Dalzielii resin in Western Africa or want to contribute in some way to the design/creation of a novel new field still for Frankincense harvesters, leave me a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Dan

 

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Make your own kitchen still for essential oils and alcohol-Easy instructions

I have been told on occasion my instructions here could be clearer.  Though I’ve been meaning to rewrite some of them or do video tutorials, I just haven’t found the time.  Luckily, my Aromatherapist friend Robin Schiller-Kessler took the initiative, built my “Magical Couscousiere” still, and recorded the process step by step.

An essential oil distillation with the Magical Couscousiere. Atmospheric pressure and gently sealed with Teflon tape.
A distillation with the Magical Couscousiere. At atmospheric pressure and gently sealed with Teflon tape.

I named it the Magical Couscousiere because it can do so many things.

  • With it you can distill essential oils and alcohol.
  • The bottom pot can be used as a traditional water bath or Bain Marie.
  • Using the insert one can gently warm formulations using the steam from below.
  • You can perform hydro distillation by adding your aromatic material directly to the water.
  • And you can run steam distillations using the basket.
  • It can produce high-quality essential oils and is a great introduction to the art of distillation where one can learn from experience before choosing an appropriate ready-made still.

Here is a link to her PDF in which she explains clearly where to get the materials, how to construct and how to operate this versatile little still.

Easy instructions for Making your own essential oil still.

Thanks, Robin.

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Botany for the Distiller-Ethics, Intelligence, and the Pursuit of Quality

Botany for the distiller.  A workshop series at the Bozarth Mansion in Spokane WA 12-14 June 2017

Distilling essential oils is a simple process that echoes the evaporation and condensation of water in Nature. We load the still with aromatic material and collect essential oil and hydrosol from the other end.

Distillation_by_Retort
Distillation_by_Retort

Is this all there is to what was once considered an art? Or is it just the beginning of the journey? Knowing how to paint, does not make one an artist, nor does mastering a language make us poets. Is our goal to simply produce a commodity?  Or is there more for us to aspire to as distillers?

While we fashion our tools and equipment by mimicking Nature’s processes and rhythms, the art and artistry of a thing is drawn from within us, independent of the tools we work with. Fine craftsmanship is a marriage of sound tools, high-quality materials, skill and vision, experience and insight. What vision leads us forward as distillers? What qualities can we hope to express in our work and products? What is the poetry, the passion we hold in our minds and hearts that propels us forward and upward towards the perfection of our craft and art? What lies beyond our view and past the horizon?

We are born into a world of mass produced cloned products that share the lowest common denominator in form, function, and price. It is a world focused on quantity not quality, profit not poetry. Financial success often hinges on sacrificing quality to supply a vast market with competitively priced standardized mediocre products. If our paths as distillers are to grow beyond simple manufacturing, where might they lead us and where is the handbook?

Once, we could study the art of distillation with masters, mentors, guilds and societies. We had access to rich, time honoured traditions. Often an integral part of our medicine, magic, science and religion, the art of distillation was woven tightly with an understanding of the rhythms and cycles of a cosmos that was inseparable from all life on the planet. Guarded through the centuries by monasteries, temple priests, and secret societies, hidden behind metaphor and misleading language, secrets and mysteries of the art would only yield themselves through devotion, study, prayer and practical work.

Alchemists, Apothecarys at work. Old woodcut.
Alchemists, Apothecarys at work. Old woodcut.

Still hidden behind veiled language and colourful metaphor, we find allusions to the art deep in folklore, and in ancient medical, herbal and alchemical texts. I believe many of the keys to quality that we seek today, await us in traditions and philosophical systems we abandoned in our rush to industrialize, quantify, and monetize our world and its resources. We threw out many a baby with the bathwater to more easily organize and work our will in the world.

On the bright side, we collectively share a wealth of historical, cross-cultural information about plant intelligence, planetary influences and our relationship with Nature, though looking to the past, it is easy to find more questions than answers.

  • Is there is sentience and intelligence in nature beyond our own? In the cosmos?
  • Are the plants we distil inanimate conglomerates of chemical compounds? Or are they integral parts of a living breathing, evolving and sentient organism? If so, does any of this carry through to our finished products?
  • Is there a connection between the energies and rhythms of Sun, Moon, Planets and life on earth?
  • Do these cycles and rhythms of nature and the cosmos we live in, have any bearing on the qualities expressed in our products?
  • Are sustainability, fair trade, and ethics in the trade of aromatics simply current PC fads, or are they pressing issues we need to address as distillers of plant materials? What is really going on with our wild aromatics at home and abroad and does it matter?
  • How has our relationship with nature changed the past 200 years and how does it affect our products?
  • Are we part of the equation of quality in our products? Does our relationship with our materials, the land, the plants we work with, impact the quality of our products? If so, then how?
  • Was Strega Nona correct when she postulated the secret ingredient is love?

We have left ourselves with a broad multi-generational gap in our knowledge and wisdom. One that is steadily widening and in my opinion, bringing with it a growing dissonance in our modern world. Ours is a generation that is reclaiming lost babies and practical wisdom from our collective past. We are the ones rooting around in history, folklore and mysticism, experimenting, exploring, testing and trying, and finding out first-hand what works, drawing from it, and weaving it back into the fabric of our world.

Distillation of Rose-Jack Chaitman
A field distillation of Rose- by Jack Chaitman-Scents of knowing.com    Jack’s distillations beg the question what role beauty and aesthetics, (Harmonies/harmonics play in the quality of our products…..

Before we go out with our scissors, machetes, shovels and knives to gather our next batch of distillation material, before we order in the next box of exotic and rare aromatics, let’s pause, collect ourselves and reflect on where we are going and how we can best get there. How high can we reach? How far can we go? Let’s see if we can’t get a little closer to answering some of these questions around ethics and sustainability, plant intelligence, rhythms and cycles, product quality, fine craftsmanship, and the ancient art of distillation.

 Join me at Botany for the distiller. June 12-14. Let’s push the boundaries, nurture our vision, fan our passion and explore the mysteries of our craft and art.

 

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How to make an essential oil still at home-A distillation workshop at The Apothecary’s garden.

Gratitude to Christianne L’Esperance for shooting, editing and posting this video. It shows how easy it is to distill essential oils at home. In it I share some of the basic principles, terminology, dos and don’ts, easy to access parts and where to get them. Though by no means a step by step walk through, I hope my approach and philosophy are just as helpful as the practical instructions. Recording was cut short by a dying phone battery, but the outcome of a distillation demonstration is no mystery. Attendees received the hydrosol of Frankincense Serrata with a healthy layer of essential oil. My thanks to everyone who came to the workshop and made it so enjoyable for me.

Dan

 

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A Distillation Workshop in the Apothecary’s garden

Frankincense Frereana essential oil distillation in separatory funnel.

For those who will be in South Central Ontario this weekend

As promised, I will teach a distillation workshop this Saturday in the Apothecary’s Garden at the Teaching gardens in Churchill Park Hamilton. It will be part of the Hamilton Herbal Weekend. Short notice, but it will keep you limber.

You will learn

  • How to distill essential oils and make hydrosols at home.
  • What equipment you need, where to get it and how to create high quality products from harvest to bottle.
  •  I will cover the basics of safely  distilling and using essential oils.
  • The difference between the therapeutic properties of essential oils and other plant products. When and how to use essential oils and what not to expect from them.
  • How to make your own products for beauty and health.

I will be happy to answer questions related to distillation and the Apothecary arts. Which include but are not limited to growing, harvesting and processing herbs, sustainability, ethics and etiquette in wildcrafting, stewardship of the wild, fair trade, sustainable and regenerative commerce, plant energetics and intelligence, Medicinal Astrology and Plant Alchemy.

The subject of the distillation will be fresh Frankincense Serrata from India. The cost of the workshop is only $20.00. Some of my products will be available for purchase, and at the end of the distillation the freshly distilled essential oil and hydrosol will be offered for sale. Profit from sales will go towards my upcoming trip to Madagascar. https://apothecarysgarden.com/2016/09/12/chocolate-dreams-vanilla-beans-cinnamon-cloves-and-lemurs-madagascar-2016/

Drop by if you are in the neighborhood..

Dan

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Plant Magic, Mysticism and Medicine-the Viridis Genii Symposium 2016

The Viridis Genii Symposium
Plant Magic, Mysticism, and Medicine

June 3rd — June 6th 2016

sympos

As some of you know, I will be presenting the keynote speech and conducting a workshop at the Viridis Genii symposium beginning of June in Portland Oregon.

The premise of this gathering is dear to my heart and indicative of a growing Western culture that is actively weaving spirit and the sacred back into our relationship with nature.

Capitalism and industrialisation have brought us many gifts, but the price we have paid for our progress is a disconnection from nature and spirit. We wake each morning to a  world focused on material goods, devoid of content, meaning, ethics or spirit. We look at our negative impact on the world, how we treat our food animals and forests, we see increasing global environmental degradation, loss of species, rampant new diseases and we wonder what we as individuals can do to change this.

There are facets of nature that we cannot understand through study or external sources.  They represent knowledge that is esoteric, transmitted directly, purely experiential and deeply subjective. I believe the answers to our current disconnectedness are found here through deep, intimate and individual reconnecting with Nature. A path that is available to us all. Anytime. Anywhere.

Carefully veiled around us, is a world of ancestral knowledge and timeless wisdom. Within it we find ancient mysteries, lost sciences and arts, dormant magic and technology both forgotten and yet to be discovered. It is ours to draw from if we so choose.

One need not be a mystic, mage or super-spiritual person to dip into this well of  mysteries, gifts and insights, to be initiated into a deeper understanding of nature, the cosmos and our place in it. There are no titles or certificates needed or given, no special invitations or secret handshakes. Entheogens are not mandatory and there is no age requirement. Come, open and willing as you are. Bring your passion. Nature turns no one away.

What awaits us on this path as plant people, herbalists, healers, apothecaries, alchemists, wizards, witches, wildcrafters and more, is a broadened understanding of  cosmic and planetary intelligence and life, a sense of place and stewardship, a  connectedness to nature and humanity as a whole and an ability to not only hear and understand the language of nature, plants and animals, but to communicate  and forge mutually respectful relationships. Here we directly experience  shamanism, animism, magic, mysticism and the healing arts of our collective ethnocultural pasts. Here we discover stewardship of our future.

When we connect deeply and intimately with nature and its plants, animals and minerals, align ourselves with its cycles and rhythms, we enter into the presence of the “other”, the genius, the intelligence, the spirit, that which speaks directly to us. With us. This is the Viridis Genii, the Spirit of the green, and we learn her secrets through Gnosis, experiential knowledge- Green Gnosis. She invites us each into deep intimacy with her in her world and her temple of mysteries, if we but ask.

Though radically personal and subjective, there is a commonality of experience that lends us a shared understanding and language. That shared language creates a community. A growing community . This growth could be deemed a movement. This movement can be discerned in other fields and human endeavours.
I believe when viewed from afar, this slow radical change in perception through individual personal experience can be seen as an evolution on a global scale.

The Viridis Genii Symposium is a call, a beacon to any and all who have experienced or seek to experience the mysteries, magic and medicine of nature beyond its physical form. All who have ever felt there was more in the forest than meets the eye.

This is your invitation. I hope to see you there.

Dan

 

 

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A fragrant moon over Addis

image

First night in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, reclining in a hammock, chewing on some Chaat and gazing at the moon at 2,355 meters above sea level. She feels closer somehow. Supporting a huge halo, I’m comforted by her unchanging presence no matter where in the world i might be.
The blend of fragrances in the air is nothing short of exotic.
Sewage in a small stream that runs through the city provides a complicated base-note that blends in and out with mysterious and foreign florals, the smell of burning cook fires, punctuated by rich hints of Frankincense Papyrifera wafting from homes and the massive, always-busy church up the street. An engaging and ever-changing composition.
All in all, a wonderful way to shake off the claustrophobia and travel fatigue from the day-long journey getting here.
image Vending incense and resins on the street. Boswellia Papyrifera on the upper left.

This morning the burnt, rich scent of fresh roasting coffee beans leads the parade up my nose. Most everyone buys them green and roasts their own over a charcoal burner. A signature smell of Addis.
My Airbnb host Henok, is an artist, radical and kindred spirit. His home feels like many of my own over the years. Life is good.
image
The always busy Piazza.

The morning was perfected with a coffee with my good friend Ermias, AKA
professor emeritus Dagne, who relishes the campus coffee even more because it is the cheapest in town. A perfect place for us to meet and to catch up on projects, future and past.
Though officially retired from teaching, professor Dagne is still very active in the university of Addis Ababa and there is usually a flock of grad students not too far from him.
He is one of those warm, authentic, magnetic, energetic people that walks with a slight tilt forward as if constantly on his way somewhere. Always busy. Always inspired, he is as much an artist as a scientist, and as much an apothecary and medicine maker as a distiller of essential oils. I’m honored to call him my friend.

Professor Dagne has offered his support with the upcoming Samburu project in neighboring Kenya.
One of the critical issues in marketing the resins the Samburu women collect is properly identifying which species they are.
While the Myrrh they gather  is generally accepted as Molmol, Myrrh or Commiphorah Myrrha, and the other as Hagar, or Opoponax, AKA C. Holtzii, the Frankincense types they bring back from their nomadic travels, are simply called “Light” and Dark” incense.

The global academic community has decided that only Boswellia Neglecta is to be found in North Eastern Kenya and neither of these fragrant oleoresins matches the description of B. Neglecta oleoresin as we know it. One is a clear golden yellow, often in tear form, and the other arrives in dull grey/white lumps.
So, a mystery awaits. And some work.
Professor Dagne will receive both plant pressings and their paired resins, and perform Gas Chromatography tests on the resin samples to help us identify them.

Over the past 100 or so years, 7 distinct species of Boswellia were registered in this area of East Africa. Over the past few decades they were all relegated to the species B. Neglecta S. Moore. I don’t know if this was based on similarity of leaf and flower and reasonably safe guesswork, but if the resins of these trees differ from each other so radically, it is worth a close look. And smell. Likely a taste too. Having access to sophisticated equipment that has not been available till recently could be the determinating factor in answering these important questions.
I will try to keep everyone updated as these projects unfold.
Dan

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Tincture of Civet, Spruce essential oil, a fire in the lab

Civet Perfume Tincture 2014

Though I hate to open on a negative note.  I’m going to anyway :-).

Fire in the lab
Fire in the lab

I’m still shaken up by the small fire in my lab the other day. Small being a relative term. It is a small space and could have been much worse given all the high-proof alcohol tinctures and essential oils crowded in the small work area. With good reason they call them volatile oils.

Luckily I caught it before too much damage was done. And one of my lessons is to always have a working fire extinguisher handy. Luckily I didn’t leave things completely unattended. The consequences would have been much more serious had I not been in hearing range.
That being said and out of the way. I had quite a productive time leading up to the fire.

Artisan distilled White Spruce essential oil
Small batch distilled White Spruce essential oil

White Spruce essential oil

While demonstrating how to make a pot-still from a pressure cooker for my last post, I distilled a lovely essential oil from the oleoresins of White Spruce. It has a wonderful fragrance and is different from the needle distilled essential oil.  I attribute this in part to the function of the oleoresins as healers of the trees, while the oils found in the needles perhaps have more of a nourishing anti-freeze in nature.  A hypothesis. In reality, I just enjoy working with the saps. I believe they provide a more holistic and broader therapeutic spectrum in healing balms and salves. A better, or perhaps different representation of the spirit of the tree.

Artisan distilled essential oil of Eastern White Spruce
Artisan distilled essential oil of Eastern White Spruce

While the needle and twig essential oils definitely have proven therapeutic properties, the essential oils from the oleoresins bring a different character to perfume and aromatherapy blends as well.
There is also a great affinity between the oleoresins of trees and our skin. Whether Pine, Spruce or Fir, Frankincense or Myrrh, all are produced by the trees in response to injury and designed to heal their “skin” and protect it from external damage.

Harvesting Spruce sap
Harvesting Spruce sap

The soft smooth feeling of my skin after washing off sticky sap with olive oil and dish soap, is much more than the oil alone produces. There is nothing I have personally experienced that leaves my skin feeling as healthy and supple as tree saps do. Over the years I have had a couple of clients who noticed a reduction of  wrinkles, neck wrinkles in particular, from applying my spruce cough and chest rub. On some level this makes sense.

The fragrance of this essential oil is sweet and woody with a light fruity note.  I have just posted it in the store and here is a link.

The tincture of Civet

I started on the 24th of April, only a few days after returning from Ethiopia with the fresh Civet paste, did nothing for 2 months. No matter how I plied it, agitated and warmed it, filtered, fussed and poured it, it would not transform into the fragrant tincture I was aiming for. After giving up and setting it aside for over 4 months, I put it on the heated stirrer for a few days. Lo and behold after cold filtering I found a lovely strong tincture with beautiful colour and fragrance.

Civet Perfume Tincture 2014
Mmmmm  Civet Perfume Tincture 2014

Though one can still smell the slightly fecal note of Civet,  the floral notes are already present and will continue to grow as it ages. From experience I have found even a small amount of tincture will age and within months one will notice a change in its subtleties. You don’t need much in a perfume, so even a 10 ml. Bottle should leave more than enough to experience this cool transformation for yourself. You can find a link to it  in the photo above or in the drop down menu at the top of the page.

I should mention, the instigator of the fire was a flask of new Civet tincture with 96% alcohol. Apparently I turned the heater knob to “high” and the magnetic stirrer knob to low, instead of the reverse. Luckily I was around to hear the pop of the exploding flask and the whoosh/thump of the alcohol igniting. Things are so tightly packed in the lab that flaming alcohol pouring over and under the table and cabinets was impossible to smother or put out. A housemate who was quick with his own fire extinguisher saved the day.

I’m a very lucky guy.

Dan

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How to build a kitchen still for essential oils and alcohol

Distillation of fresh Spruce sap with pressure cooker pot-still and Allihn condenser.

How to make a pot still 

Likely the simplest and most versatile distillation apparatus that one can make at home, is a pot still.
With a pot still one can

  • Distill essential oils from aromatic herbs, flowers and seeds, oleo-resins like Frankincense, Myrrh, Pine and Spruce via hydro or steam distillation.
  • Make grappa or moonshine from wine, mash or other fermented materials.
  • Rectify and refine alcohol for medicine, perfume and liquors.
  • Distill and purify water.

As a civilization, we have been distilling for hundreds of years.
IMG_1477

The process of distillation is grounded in nature’s basic laws, simple and almost archetypal, lending itself easily to metaphor and myth, to allegories of purification, transformation, transcendence, and spiritual refinement. Through familiarity with the process of distillation, one can understand many of the old symbols, sigils, allegories and metaphors of the ancients.

The “Art of distillation” is at the core of all alchemical traditions. It is the method by which the “subtle is separated from the gross”, and the process through with it is “married” back into its purified body and exalted at a higher vibratory rate. Modern chemistry owes much of its basic principles and processes, including distillation, to the ancient science and art of Alchemy.

The apparatus for distillation is often called a “distillation train”, and is made up of 3 fundamental parts, each performing a separate function.

  • The first is the pot, flask, retort or boiler, which with the aid of a heat source, evaporates and separates the volatile compounds from the material. (The essential oils from aromatic materials).
  • The second part is the condenser which cools and condenses the hot vapours, returning them to a liquid state.
  • The third part is the receiver where the distillate collects and the essential oils are easily separated from the water.
    Each part of the distillation train can be modified to perform extra functions, but this is the principal division of things.

  The pot or boiler.

DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Still
DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Stills

To make a simple pot still for steam or hydro distillation, one can use any clean metal kitchen pot with a tight-fitting lid.
A hole is drilled in the lid to accommodate a pipe that directs the hot vapors to the condenser.
A gasket of some sort is often required between lid and pot. Without a tight seal, any hot vapor that escapes the pot during distillation will carry your essential oils with it. Working at atmospheric pressure reduces the need for radical sealing methods and this can be accommodated by making sure the pipe leading from the pot to the condenser is wide enough to prevent buildup of pressure in the pot.

It is sometimes possible to seal the pot with Teflon plumbing or gas fitting tape, which is inert and will not leach adhesives into your still. If needed an adhesive tape of some sort can be wrapped tightly around the Teflon tape to hold it in place.

DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Still
DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Still-with and without Gaskets

Pressure cookers can work as distillation pots and have the benefit of a fitted seal. Though contrary to the function they were designed for, pressure should not be allowed to build up pressure.

Since writing this post 3 years ago, I have shifted away from using Aluminum pots as the one shown here. Though in theory, molecules of Aluminum will not transfer to the receiver or essential oil, and they likely could be used safely for distillation or steam production,  it is impossible to know for sure and my focus has shifted to the more traditional and customary copper, stainless steel and glass distillation systems. In this case, a stainless steel pressure cooker will serve just as well as an aluminum version.

An excellent and versatile distillation unit can be made of a stainless steel “Couscousiere”, a 2 tiered traditional Moroccan cooker as shown in a more recent post –How to make an essential oil still at home. A distillation workshop

Here is a PDF with instructions for building a “Magical” Couscousiere distiller.

Here you will find my latest, (March 2018), still design made from a high-end 70 litre stainless steel pot with an air cooled condenser

A n essential oil distillation with a Couscousiere. Atmospheric pressure and gently sealed with Teflon tape.
A recent distillation of Frankincense serrata with a Couscousiere. At atmospheric pressure and gently sealed with Teflon and electrical tape.
Home Distillation-Homemade pot stills- gasketless seal.
Home Distillation-Homemade pot stills- pressure cooker with gasket less seal.
    • When modifying a pressure cooker for home distillation there are some important points to keep in mind.
  • it is likely a good idea to leave the safety release valve on your pressure cooker intact.  Otherwise, unlikely as it may seem, if your exit vent gets clogged, a pressure cooker can turn into a deadly bomb.
  • If using the pressure cooker for simple hydro and steam distillation remove the pressure gauge or the jiggly thingy, and drill through its threaded seat for your steam exit.
  • Make sure you have at least a 1/2 of an inch diameter passage for the hot vapors to exit the pot. Since writing this post I now personally avoid any fittings that are less then 3/4″. 1 inch is my ideal on this sized pot.
Pressure cooker pot still for essential oils
Pressure cooker pot still for essential oils. 2 adjustable joints make positioning the condenser and receiver a breeze. Easy to disassemble and clean between distillations.

In the distillation shown here I used a 21.5 liter All American pressure cooker.
This system is different from the more familiar “press and turn” locking system that most home pressure cookers incorporate. It provides an elegant and enduring alternative to rubber and silicone gaskets through a milled aluminum top and seat. No gasket is needed and the 6 screw down clamps create an even pressure and a perfect seal. Tighten them as you would the wheel on a car, in pairs of opposing nuts. This helps make sure the lid is sitting evenly and properly in its seat.

I removed the pressure gauge, drilled a 1/2 inch hole and inserted a 1/2 inch brass fitting through the hole and screwed on a matching female fitting with Teflon tape on the inside of the lid. This diameter vent, (1/4″), is suitable for distilling liquids.

Herbs resins, barks and other materials are more safely distilled using a larger 1/2″ to 2″ exit hole to avoid clogging and building up pressure in the pot.
Adjustable couplings with elbows allow the pipe to swing horizontally and vertically to accommodate easy positioning of the condenser and receiver. All parts are available at most hardware stores.
In this example, I use an electric hot plate as a heat source which is not ideal. Electric elements don’t disperse the heat well and can burn the material in a thin-bottomed pot, especially if there is a water-soluble component to the distilled material that will create a sludge. Even the smallest bit of burnt material in the pot can spoil the batch of essential oil. A thick-bottomed pot is ideal, as is a gas heat source.

 The condenser

Though one can make a coiled copper tube condenser, or a metal water-cooled sleeve condenser at home, by far the easiest solution for the beginner is to purchase a ready made glass condenser.  They are available from laboratory supply houses or eBay from about $20 to $60.  I prefer to support small businesses and get mine from alchemylabsupply.com . A Liebig condenser is a simple glass “sleeve” condenser and an Alihn condenser has a series of glass “bubbles” to extend the cooling surface area. They range in length from 200 mm. To 600 mm. I find 300 mm to 400 mm. the most convenient.

Antique, but functional Liebig condenser for distillation-400 mm length.
An antique, but functional Liebig condenser for distillation-400 mm length.

The hot vapors pass from the pot, through the central glass tube, while cold water enters one end of the surrounding sleeve and exits the other, cooling down and condensing the vapors.  I prefer these 2 condenser designs when distilling different materials since they are relatively easy to clean between distillations.

Distillation of fresh Spruce sap with pressure cooker pot-still and Allihn condenser.
Distillation of essential oils with pressure cooker pot-still and Allihn condenser.

The water supply in this particular distillation is taken off a household tap and is collected and reused in the home/garden after passing through the condenser. All the adapters for the water hookup can be purchased at a hardware store.
One can use a large pot of water and an aquarium pump to circulate cooling water through the condenser as long as one keeps an eye on the temperature of the water in the reservoir. It will warm up and become less effective overtime as it runs though the hot condenser.
There is also the option of using an air-cooled condenser and I hope to go into detail around this option in another post.

DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Still distilling Frankincense essential oils with an air cooled condenser.
DIY Distillation-Home made Pot Still distilling Frankincense essential oils with an air cooled condenser.

The Receiver

 Last but not least important is our receiver. Any narrow-necked, clean glass vessel will do.

There are ssyphonsystems that attach to the receiver and help with separating the volatile oils from the water. In most cases the oils will float on top.
A simple method is to syphon or draw them off at the end of the distillation process and transfer them to a separatory funnel which allows easy removal of the heavier liquid from the distillate.

If you intend to collect the hydrosol, make sure your receiver is sterile otherwise it is easy to introduce organisms that will quickly spoil it.
Once the essential oils have been isolated they should be stored in a cool place.
That’s about it…….

Wild Ginger essential oil in small separatory funnel
Wild Ginger essential oil in small separatory funnel

Distilling different aromatic materials in a pot still

The distillation in the above pressure cooker pot still example was a hydro distillation of oleo-resins.

  • As a general rule, I try to keep my water level between 1/2 and 2/3 the height of the pot.Any higher and there is a risk of liquid splashing or foaming over into the condenser, or plant material blocking the exit vent.
  •  Always measure exactly how much water you put in the pot. If possible use a graduated receiver that will easily show you exactly how much distillate has come over and thus, how much water is left in your pot..
  • For plant material that needs to be steam distilled, a sieve or perforated container can be suspended above the water.  With a little improvisation it can be supported by the lid, sides or bottom of the pot. For an example see Distilling Frankincense essential oil.
  • The amount of essential oil you will extract from different materials varies greatly. Oleo-resins yield much more essential oil per kilogram material than flowers for example, and even between different oleo-resins there is great variation. Some Frankincense types yield 0.05% essential oil, while others yield 10% and more. Some fragrant seeds are quite high in essential oil content and others less so.
  • Fresh, or gently dried aromatic material is preferred for both quantity and quality of essential oil yield.

As a general guideline, it could be said that different materials could be distilled thus-

  • Oleo-resins with no water-soluble gum content can be distilled by hydro distillation directly in the water. These include Pine, Spruce and Fir saps, Mastic, Elemi, Copals and Frankincense Frereana.
  • Oleo-resins with water soluble gum, or oleo-gum -resins such as most types of Frankincense and Myrrh, need extra attention when using a flat-bottomed pot still. They can be suspended in a sieve/colander  above the water, or distilled very gently with a higher ratio of water to distilled material so less sludge and no burning occurs. The water soluble gums dissolve in the water and can create a slur that is apt to burn if the water level gets too low. When using flat bottomed pots, a thick bottom and a  flame for a heat source, help reduce the risk of burning your material and losing the whole batch of essential oil.
  • Aromatic seeds such as cumin, carrot, Dill etc can be distilled either suspended in a sieve or gently and directly in the water.

The beauty of water and steam distillation of this type is that you will never go above 100 degrees Celsius in the still, which is suitable for distilling most essential oils for apothecary, perfume and aromatherapy use.

If a hole is drilled in the pot lid, a thermometer can be inserted through a cork, and the temperature of the vapors can be finely controlled. This is important when distilling alcohol for instance.

I’m sure I have missed some important points. So feel free to leave any questions, ideas, insights or omissions in the comments section below. They are most welcome and appreciated.

 

Dan