Distilling has always been regarded as a form of alchemy. One of today’s great distilling experts, Ann Harman says that “each distillation is a living thing, an act of alchemy.”
Our name, Archeus, was made up in the early 16th Century by a physician and alchemist called Paracelsus. He believed that to heal and to do alchemy one need to work with this vital force, this Archeus that connects all of us with nature and the universe. It is no wonder then that one of our favourite jobs in the Archeus Apothecary is distilling!
In the Archeus Apothecary we use a range of copper alembic stills to distil hydrosols for use in our products. These stills are things of beauty in themselves and when they are in the process of distillation they seem to take on a life of their own as you can feel them tremble with the motion of the water in their base, the beautiful song of the steam and the drip of the hydrosol into the catching jug. I call my stills ‘The Poets’.
While the process of distilling is in itself, relatively simple, you use a still, heat and water to extract the oil and water-soluble properties of the medicinal plant you are working with. The artistry lies in what plant matter you distil, for how long and when – that’s where the art of the alchemist comes in. It takes a lifetime to truly master this craft and there are some wonderfully inspiring people who have wonderful talents in this field such as Jill Mulvaney from Alembics NZ (where I buy my stills), Ann Harman who wrote the hydrosol bible “Harvest to Hydrosol and Dan Reiger whose blogs are always a delight and an inspiration.
When I fire up my stills at different times of the year, I am looking to capture different aspects of the plant I am distilling. In spring and summer months I seek to not only capture the therapeutic qualities of the plant, but also some of its energetic essence such as the extraordinary vitality of a spring plant and then the heady voluptuous ripeness of summer. In autumn, I may be thinking about how the energy is turning inwards, back down into the root systems – I like to draw on that strength of introspection, of nurturing the self. In winter, I like distilling plants like rosemary and pine because I feel the sense of internalising energy and the survival aspects of a cold winter edge adds to their attributes of focus and hardiness.
When I make products throughout the year I will draw on these seasonal aspects to create a character for the products I use them in. That winter hardiness can help someone going through a tough time and gives reassurance that new growth and beginnings will come again. Spring vitality helps augment our own feelings of rebirth and growth, of joy and love.
The steam that percolates through the fresh plant material gathers the lipid-based essentials oils and the water-soluble components of the plant. One of the joys of making hydrosols is that we want to work with the freshly picked plants because we want to capture their watery components as well as the oil ones. This is a fundamental difference between distilling for hydrosols and distilling for essential oils, which uses air dried plant material.
Even though the terms are often muddled, there is a difference between a true hydrosol and a floral water. A floral water can smell gorgeous but it is distilled water with essential oils (and preservative) added to it. This means that it does not contain the water soluble compounds that the true hydrosol does. A true hydrosol is the complete distillate (water and oil) captured from the still.