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October 27, 2010

Alembic Distillers for Essential Oils and Hydrosols

Steampunk Alchemy:

There is a mad scientist-type of contraption I would love to own. It is uniquely multi-functional and would make a nice conversation piece along with allowing some personal product manufacturing to get done.

Back in the days of the prohibition here in the United States, distillers aka 'stills', were used to make moonshine and other alcohols illegally, but much further back in history, they were widely used to purify water, make perfumes, oil, and medicine.

I will show you what an Alembic distiller is and how it works. ;)

Copper Distiller

The item below (or one similarly made) is most often used these days in the trade of aromatherapy and cosmetics. Hydrosols and essential oils are made using a copper distiller like the one shown below. In an information video, respected Herbalist, Mary Pat Palmer, used rose as a flower example that can yield product (rose water) using one of these distillers.

This distiller is really small, but to make rose water and oil as per Mary's instructions, I would put 2 or 3 mature rose heads with petals and everything (except the stem) into the pot called the cucurbit. I would then fill it with water just enough to cover the roses. Cool water is filled into the condensing pot on the top right.

Now, if I put a flame under the distiller pot (cucurbit) to get the stuff inside to start simmering, the hot steam vapors go up and through the swan neck, and once it reaches the condenser coil (which is submerged in the condenser pot filled with cool water) the water condenses and makes a liquid that runs out of a depositor and into my choice of a receptacle.

The liquid in this case is a mix of essential oil and essence water. The essential oil is used for, you know...bath products, candle making, etc. The essence water is what is called the hydrosol.

A hydrosol is a solution of water and organic matter. It's not quite essential oil, and about 30-40% stronger than tea (not to be consumed without dilution!) I used rose water for my example - the rose water is the hydrosol. It is used as an astringent, an antiseptic and also a facial toner or lightly scented natural body spray. It can be added to tea, dessert pastries and savory foods for flavoring. It can be used as air freshener and can be used in place of the essential oil for fragrance in soaps, lotions and bath products for someone very sensitive to essential oil concentrate.

Since what comes out of the depositor is usually a mix of essential oil and water essence, there is another device that can be used to separate them. An essencier is a receptacle that looks like a kettle. It separates the oil and water into different receptacles using its own process.

Even if I only used it for one thing, I like the idea that has more than one function. If I put rain water in it, it would purify the rain water. If I added fermented grape juice it would make wine, and if I ran wine through it, it would turn it into maybe a cordial or liqueur. I like that there are a zillion products I can make just from rose water alone, and of course, being very careful, some other things can go into the simmer pot together like lavender and sandalwood.

For anyone with their own garden that has a love for perfume and smelly-goods, one of these would totally be a must-have! I keep reading that the longer the swan neck is or the longer the travel time from the crown to the condenser pot, the better the product is going to be. They are a little pricey, but yeah... right out of my garden, I would be making up all sorts of things and doing kitchen witching for weeks! The return on investment for a small one would be fast, I'm sure.

Here is an inexpensive, easy way to do something like this at home (not cider!) by making a solar distiller:
(3 minutes)


The one I want for display and for making small stuff is this awesome looking steampunk gadget below. It looks like it works but I'm not sure how well it does since it has a really short neck.

Isn't it hawt? I love science lab items that can have potentially gurgly stuff going on in them. ...Beakers and other twisty glass things that look like crazy straws!


  1. I have often thought how much fun a distiller would be! :) Love all the different ideas you have for using the plant liquid. The solar video was cool. I am trying to think if there would be anyway to do this without using plastic wrap... not enamored with the thought of petrochemicals dripping down into the liquid.. which I can't help but think would be happening.. do you have any thoughts on that Violet? Herby Hugs to you and thanks for sharing , Leslie xx

  2. Hi Leslie, the longer I am without one of these, the more I find that I could really use it! Instead of using plastic, you can take a glass-top pot or skillet cover and sit it over the receptacle that holds the liquid and it will also collect the condensation and is better than using the plastic wrap. I am glad you mentioned that! Thank you!

  3. I think that using the glass top pot or skillet cover would work! brilliant! i can hardly wait for next summer to try this:) thank you so much!! xxx oh btw, is there a way to follow comments on your blog? i just remembered to check and see if you answered! lol!

  4. never mind! lol! after i published the comment the subscribe button showed! now i know:)

  5. Can you put this small (top distiller) on an electric stove top to distill lavender?