Distilling Hydrosols at Home with a Copper Still

One of the things you write in to ask me about most often is distilling hydrosols and essential oils at home, so when I sat down to start writing my first course for you this past winter (I’ll include more info about it at the end of the postI have a question for you regarding it), I knew I wanted to include a whole module about distillation. Inspiring you to become more involved in your use of plant products by growing and harvesting and distilling them at home and supporting your local farmers is one of my main goals because if more of us were doing that, we’d collectively be taking a huge step in the realm of plant-use sustainability. Plus, gardening and distilling plants are both really fun and there’s no better way to really foster a deeper connection to your homemade medicine than to be completely involved in the entire process yourself.

Now that our garden is flourishing in the sunshine-filled days, my drying racks are constantly full (I think I need to ask Jon to build more), and my refrigerator is filling up with fresh hydrosols and essential oils. I recently distilled one of my favorite garden darlings, Calendula, so I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the distillation process today.

Distillation is not difficult. It’s a very simple process and as long as you have a few tools and enough plant material to fill your still, you can very easily distill hydrosols and essential oils at home.

I have two different stills right now and, for this post, I’ll be showing you the smaller still. It’s a gorgeous 3 liter flip-top column copper alembic that I purchased from Copper Brothers. (You can see the exact still I purchased – the one pictured in the photos in this article – if you click here; not an affiliate link.) Copper Brothers is a company in Portugal that makes handmade artisan stills that are lead-free and I’ve fallen in love with the craftsmanship of their products and their great customer service. Their stills are affordable and the shipping is reasonable and quick (mine arrived in 3-4 business days – I couldn’t believe how fast it was!).

The thing I really love about this still (I’ve named it Mozart) is that it’s the perfect size for stove-top distillations, which are quick, easy, and require very minimal cleanup compared to runs with the larger stills. It also doesn’t require a massive amount of plant material to produce a quart of hydrosol, as you’ll see. So I love it because it makes distillation easy, quick, and accessible for people who may not have a massive garden, space to grow a lot of one crop, or a larger budget for a still.

If you ever purchase a still from Copper Brothers, let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear about which still you chose! =)

When distilling, it’s very important to use a clean still and sterile utensils and such. The first thing I like to do after making sure everything’s clean for a fresh run is fill the base of the still about 2/3 with pure water and get it on the stove before I go out to harvest the plant. This way, by the time I come back in, the water’s already boiling and the still is ready to go.

Whilst the water is heating (uncovered), I’ll head out to the garden to harvest. Most plants should be harvested early in the day, especially aromatic flowers, which means that you’ll probably be distilling early in the day as well, but Calendula is one of the plants that can be harvested later in the day too.

I quickly filled up my dish with Calendula blossoms and that was plenty enough to fill the base of Mozart the baby still with cheery little blooms. So as you can see, when distilling for hydrosols, especially, you can get a good amount of exceptional product without needing to have a massive amount of plant material.

Once the water started boiling, I placed my freshly harvested blooms into the still with the water and used a wooden spatula to make sure all of the plant material was covered. Then I secured the hat (sometimes called the onion – the top of the still) to the base and connected the condenser (the unit shown to the right of the still in the picture below).

For this run, you’ll see below that I hydro-distilled the Calendula without the column. I like distilling this way when I’m mainly after hydrosols. My still doesn’t have any steam-leaks when I distill without the column (many do), so I love that I don’t have to seal it with rye flour! It makes for an even quicker cleanup process.

The water shown flowing into the condenser in this photo never touches the hydrosol or the essential oil. It’s kept separate in its own contained space and it’s used to keep the condensing unit cool. The steam that carries the essential oil and hydrosol up out of the still and into the condenser is very hot and needs to cool and condense back down into a liquid, so cool water is pumped through the condenser to help facilitate the process. The hydrosol and essential oil travel through the coil inside the condenser and cool down before exiting the still through the spout shown below.

People use different methods to keep their condenser water flowing, but one of the most common is to use a little pond pump like this one. For my smaller still, I fill up a leak-proof bucket with cool water and use this pond pump to keep the water cool throughout the distillation process. It’s so efficient, helps save water because a continuous source of water isn’t needed when you use this method, and the water in the bucket can be used in the garden when I’m finished. It’s a great setup!

My small still usually gives me a yield of about one quart of hydrosol in under an hour, which is a terrific yield for a quick run with a small batch of plant material like this. Cleanup is quick and easy once the still has cooled and the plant material from inside the still can be added to the compost.

Have you ever tried distilling plants for essential oil or hydrosol? Have you been looking for a good option for an at-home still? I’d love to hear about your experience with (or interest in) distillation. Leave me a comment below and we can discuss it more. =)

If you’ve been hoping to learn more about distillation, make sure you’re signed up for our email newsletter list because I’ll be sending out an update when the course containing the distillation module opens for enrollment. I go into a lot more detail inside the distillation module of the course and I cover distillation with the larger stills as part of the course series as well.

A question for you

I recently completed writing the rough draft of the course series I started working on for you this past winter (it’s longer than a book!) and as I sit down to rewrite and edit everything and get it looking pretty and ready to share with you, it’s really important to me that I make sure I’ve included information about the things that you feel you need most right now to take your skill to the next level.

I’ve made sure to include lots of information about the things many of you write in to ask me about most often, but I also wanted to check in with you personally to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If you could take a couple of minutes to answer the questions I’ve uploaded here, I would really appreciate it!

Much love,

What is the first thing you want to distill when you are able to add a still to your apothecary toolbox?

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Erin Stewart is an herbalist, NAHA certified aromatherapist, organic gardener and urban homesteader. She grows over 150 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants for her own apothecary and distills essential oils and hydrosols in her PNW garden. Erin is the founder of Floranella and of AromaCulture’s herbalism + aromatherapy magazine.

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AromaCulture Magazine is filled with educational articles, case studies and recipes written by practicing herbalists and certified aromatherapists. New issues are published each month and issues are available individually or via subscription. Visit www.aromaculture.com for more information.

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23 thoughts on “Distilling Hydrosols at Home with a Copper Still”

  1. I use the "big pot with an upside down lid" method. Your copper still is gorgeous, but not in my budget right now. However, I can’t get a quart at a time! It’s usually more like half a pint. I do lavender and lemon balm, and planning to do oregano and rosemary this summer also. I’ll have to try calendula!

    1. Erin Stewart

      The stock pot method is just as good! I’m glad you’ve found a way to distill at home with it. Copper stills are nice, but working with what you have already is even better. Definitely give Calendula a try! It’s one of my favorite hydrosols for topical application products. It sneaks its way into almost every recipe around here. =)

  2. I forgot to ask: Does it work as well with dried material, or does fresh really make a difference?

    1. Erin Stewart

      You can distill dried material if what you’re after is the essential oil, but you’ll want to make sure it’s as freshly dried as possible if you can (probably no more than 3-6 months postharvest, I would say). If you’re after hydrosol, though, you’ll want to distill with fresh plant material. Hydrosols produced from dried material are just not very good.

  3. Love it! I distill all of my own hydrosols in my still – but I set mine up outside in the garden. There is nothing quite like making your own!

    1. Erin Stewart

      I agree! I set my larger still out outside in the garden and let my windchime sing while I distill larger batches. It’s such an enriching experience and I love how the birds and bees all gather round to watch when I distill outdoors. =) I’ve been thinking about getting a smaller hot plate to set up outside so I can distill the smaller batches out there too.

  4. Crystal Robinson

    I actually have two stills, a 2L glass and a 20L copper. I have been doing large batches of hydrosol from native conifers such as pine, firs and juniper. I typically use the glass still for essential oil because the yield is much higher than when using my copper still. I extract lavender, calendula, rose, chamomile, lemon balm and mint from my gardens. I absolutely love distilling.

    1. Erin Stewart

      How lovely! Where did you purchase your glass still? I’ve been looking at those too. =)

      1. Judy Dutruch

        What kind or brand of electric burner could be used for a 20 L copper alembic? I heard it was hard to control the temperature with them. Do you have any thoughts on this to help guide me to get the right one? Also, when distilling for EO, At what point do you know that your plant material is dried or at the optimal stage for distilling? Thanks

        1. Erin Stewart

          I don’t recommend any specific brand of electric burner. You’ll mainly want to find something large enough to accommodate the base of your still. I use gas for my 20L and it’s much quicker than electric, though you can use electric with good results. Have you seen our lavender documentary? One of the farms uses an electric system with their still. You can watch that at floranella.com/lavender. Plant material does not need to be dried to distill for essential oils. If you do use dried material, you want it to be as recently dried as possible. Long-stored dried material loses much of its volatile content over time which decreases your yield.

  5. Erin, can you recommend any books or other sources to get me started until your course is available?

  6. Hi Erin,

    Thanks so much for this detailed post! I’ve been wanting to purchase a still for a while but I am so confused as I do not understand the differences. Is there a particular reason why you chose the one from Copper Brothers over other companies? Some other ones I’ve looked at are:
    1) Destilarias Eau de Vie (https://www.copper-alembic.com/en/small-distilling-unit-stills/25-l-alembic-still-premium-thermometer-alcohol-burner)
    2) Elfin Herb Farm (https://elfinherbfarm.com/product/home-garden-sized-copper-alembic-still-3-liter/)
    Also, do you ever use your still with the column? I suppose that would allow you to steam distill vs hydro-distill right?

    Thanks so much!!

    1. Erin Stewart

      I chose Copper Brothers for a few reasons. I love their craftsmanship and that they are the ones who are actually making the stills by hand. They don’t use any lead in their solder, which is a major factor for me too.

      A lot of the sellers in the US are actually purchasing from Copper Brothers and re-selling their stills. Some purchase from other makers, but most are not actually making the stills themselves and I’d rather purchase directly from the maker than from a distributor or reseller.

      I also really love their customer service. They’re just an outstanding company all around and their work is absolutely beautiful. =)

      Yes, I do use the columns with my stills when I’m after a steam distillation. I do like to hydro-distill without the column sometimes when I know I’m mainly distilling for a hydrosol, though. The column flips out of the way easily when I do want to distill this way. And other times I do a combo distillation with both! It just depends on what my goal is for that run. =)

  7. Patricia Drake

    I am new to this website. Did I miss the course on distillation?

    1. Erin Stewart

      It will be opening for enrollment in a few weeks. More info at floranella.com/herbal-aromatherapy

  8. Pingback: How to Make Herbal Styptic Powder – Floranella

  9. Are there any benefits of a copper still over a glass one? It’s a tough decision!

    Also, is the herbal aromatherapy course opening again any time soon?

    1. Erin Stewart

      Glass stills are usually quite limited by size, so that copper stills can be made much larger is one main benefit.

      We’ll be opening enrollment this fall. =)

  10. I’m looking into getting a copper bros still but am unsure on size. How big is yours? Litres? Im looking at a 10L and hoping it will be enough for the size of my garden.

    1. Erin Stewart

      I have two sizes – one is a smaller stovetop model (I think it’s 3L or 5L), and the other is a 20L. Depending on the size of your garden and how much plant material you’ll be working with, I think a 10L or 20L still would work well.

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