I’ve dreamt for years of setting up a witchy little corner of our farm; a place to bring home baskets of foraged or grown wild and tame herbs and distill them into magical, fragrant hydrosols.
But the dream always felt so far beyond my skill set, my knowledge, or my comfort zone. There was so much to learn! And other things on my to-do list.
After wild rose season came and went a few years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking of the delight I would feel in distilling foraged roses into a hydrating, rose-infused hydrosol. First just for our family and friends, but eventually for LüSa Organics.
So I plucked up my courage a couple of years back and purchased a handmade Portuguese still, the gold-standard (or copper, if you will), of small-scale distillation.
My still arrived after rose season had ended, and last year I was traveling when the roses were in bloom. Two seasons I had missed since my rose hydrosol dreams began! This winter I decided that when the snow melted and spring began to unfurl, I would set down my books, and set up my still. It was time to learn how to use it, at last.
With this in mind, I spent Sunday out in the orchard doing a still cleaning and set-up run of my beautiful still. Not distilling plants this time, but preparing my equipment (and learning the basics) of how to distill herbs when their seasons come. A practice run, if you will, using rye flour.
Like distilling hydrosols, the still set-up run is an all-day affair.
After washing the still and setting up the necessary equipment, the still body is filled with a measured mixture of organic rye flour and freshly drawn water.
I was lucky enough to have a helper who was as captivated as I with the setup process. (“This feels so witchy, mama!” she said, stirring the pot with a large wooden spoon, under a watchful feline gaze). And it was. In all the right ways.
After the rye is stirred, the still is tightly closed, and all seams are sealed with hand-formed coils of rye flour dough. These snakes of dough are packed into spaces where steam may otherwise escape during distillation.
Why rye flour? Rye is traditional, and it’s zero-waste. Teflon plumbing tape is a modern alternative, but I love the idea of my distillation process being as low-waste as possible and scraping off and composting the rye seals after every use feels leagues better than stripping off the plastic tape and throwing it in the trash.
It’s a matter of personal preference, of course.
Yes, Teflon tape is quicker and easier to set up, but the rubbish it generates will be on the planet forever. but the less trash I can generate with this process, the better, I say. So traditional rye flour it is.
The fire is then lit under the still (I use propane, since wood fire is difficult to regulate and makes a mess of the still), and the waiting begins! Eventually, the mash simmers, and as it does, the steam rises up the column and down the curving copper coil, where it is condensed back into a liquid (and is cooled through the spiraling condenser coil) before dribbling into a collection jar.
Since this was simply a cleaning run, there was no need to set up a sterilized catchment system, but future batches will require a sterilized, sealed catchment jar for capturing the resulting hydrosol.
The process was involved and complex, but deeply satisfying.
It was the first thing I thought about at waking this morning, and as I glanced over our valley my eyes scanned the hillside for plants I might distill.
Nettle leaf hydrosol for scalp and hair? Violet for moisturized skin? Chickweed and plantain for our first aid kit? There are so many options, and I can hardly wait to begin. It won’t be long before lemon balm, mint, and other herbs are up and ready for distillation as well.
And finally, come June, it will be rose season.
I can hardly wait!
Do you use hydrosols for face or skin care or general wellness? What are your favorite hydrosol plants?