How to Distill Essential Oils?
By. Zion Hilliker-B&B Family Farm Distiller
So how do I distill lavender essential oil? Have you ever steamed vegetables before? Well if you have, chances are you can distill lavender essential oils. The process itself is not incredibly difficult, but if you have never distilled before it can be very intimidating. I was very lucky to have had the help of other lavender distillers on the Olympic Peninsula to get over the largest hurdle, feeling overwhelmed. Mesha of Meshaz Natural Perfumes was kind enough to let my wife, Kristy, and me spend half a day with her to learn the ins and outs of distilling lavender essential oils. Mesha has taught many other distillers here in Sequim how to distill, and our local community is very to lucky to have such a wealth of knowledge that is excited to share their passion. 5 years later now we are distilling machines!
Much like baking a beautiful cake, there is a tendency to look at the finished product and think about the beauty of the finished product and ignore the science behind what happened in the oven. I often hear my fellow lavender farmers and distillers refer to essential oil distillation as an art. While there is some creativity involved in the process, distillation must fall within certain parameters to get an ideal product, this is why I would argue it is more of a science. Also the distiller has little control over the chemical process inside the pot once distillation has started, but knowing the science is half the battle so here we go.
2. The Steam Basket in the Kettle
Lavender essential oil distillation happens through a process called steam distillation or sometimes wet steam distillation. Either way the process is pretty much the same. You take a pot or kettle and you put a steam tray an inch or two above the bottom of the kettle (depending on the size of the still), and you fill the kettle with water up to the steam tray line. Below is a picture of our steam tray sitting outside our kettle. We sit our steam tray on 1 inch pieces of copper pipe. All of the lavender will now sit on top of this steam tray, the tray will keep the lavender from touching the bottom of the pot and burning.
At this point it is probably becoming more clear why I am equating distilling lavender essential oils to steaming vegetables. Now we have our 60L copper kettle with our steam tray on the bottom and the pot filled with water to the top of our steam tray. As you can see There is now a lot of room still left in our pot. Here is where the lavender comes in.
3. How Much Lavender?
Prior to setting up our still I will have cut the variety of lavender I am going to distill. For a 60L still I will need about 20-25 lbs of freshly cut lavender. To put it in perspective it will take about 2 of the 15 gallon RubberMaid totes filled with fresh cut lavender to fill the rest of our still. This is anywhere from 6-12 full lavender plants depending on the variety. We cut out lavender short to avoid too much stem and more flower heads. We also cut our lavender much later in the year when the lavender is overly ripe and fully flowered. When the plant is fully flowered is when it has the most amount essential oil. We pack the lavender in the kettle of the still on top of the steaming tray trying to avoid pockets of air between the lavender. It is ok to pack the still tight, don’t worry about over stuffing the still. We fill the lavender all the way to the top of the pot. Once we have the pot filled up we put the top of the kettle on and connect the swan neck from the pot to the condenser and turn the heat on under the kettle.
4. So what is happening in the Pot?
Ok I promise here is where it gets exciting. Just like steaming vegetables the whole point of the distilling process now is to boil water and turn the water in the bottom of our kettle from a liquid to a gas (steam) so it can rise and pass through our kettle that is now stuffed with lavender. As the steam passes through the lavender the pressure inside the sealed kettle along with the high temperature of the steam causes the bud of the lavender (the calyx) to release its essential oils.
Did you know? The bud of the lavender not the actual flower is where most of the oil is held in lavender. .
5. What is a condenser?
The smaller pot that the large kettle connects to is called the condenser. The condenser is where the the pipe holding the steam which contains the water and oil molecules travels to cool off. The pipe coils very gradually down the condenser as you see above. The condenser is filled with cool water to cool the pipe containing the steam. This allows the steam to go from its gas state back to a liquid state. The water around the condenser coil heats up during this process so we have the hot water exit out of valve on the top of the condenser. The hot water is replaced by cold water that enters the bottom of the condenser pot. This allows the condenser to cool the steam gradually. After it cools down and turns back to liquid it drips out the end of the condenser into our separatory funnel.
6. how do you separate the oil and water?
This may seem straight forward but I address it because it is commonly misunderstood. When the oil and water come out of the condenser into the separatory funnel they separate. As most people know oil and water don't mix, so this is nothing special, but what I often hear is oil floats on water because water is heavier, This is false. There are two reasons why the oil floats on the water. First, the dipole-dipole bond between the water molecules is much stronger than any of the reactions happening between the oil and water so the oil will not pull the water bonds apart. Second is water is more dense not heavier than oil so the water sinks to the bottom. Additionally, the essential oil, like all oils, is hydrophobic.
7. from your 60L Still Packed with lavender, How much oil do you get?
The easy answer is it depends on the variety. The species Lavandula X Intermedia, the hybrid lavenders, produce the most oil. Grosso which is the most common variety of lavender, is one of the highest oil producers. We get about 225-300 ml of oil per batch for Grosso. The species Lavandula Angustifolia sometimes referred to as English lavender is a very low producer of oil. Some varieties produce more than others but typically we get 30-120 ml depending on the variety of Angustifolias. So why distill the English lavenders at all? The English lavenders produce the most desirable essential oil. the Intermedias, sometimes referred to as Lavandins or French lavender, have more camphor in their oil. Camphor is the same scent you find in vicks vapor rub. Don't let this turn you off from Grosso oil however, many people still really enjoy Grosso's scent because it is the most common variety of lavender. Grosso is the smell most people recognize as lavender. The English varieties have a much sweeter smell and are more desired in the aromatherapy arena, but ultimately it is really up to you and what you like.
8. You get a little amount of Oil what do you Do with the Lavender Water?
The lavender water is referred to as Hydrosol. If you put the correct amount of water in your still (not too much so you don't water down the hydrosol) you will get another desirable product lavender hydrosol. You can learn more about hydrosol here. Hydrosol is used for removing makeup, body sprays, deodorants, linen sprays etc. We use it in our linen spray that we sell here on our farm.
9. why distill with Copper? It seems expensive....
As Ron Burgandy would say, It's Science. We use copper because it allows us to give you a freshly distilled superior smelling oil. A scent in oil no one really cares for is sulfur. You know that rotten egg or burnt match smell... Yeah we don't like it either. We want to make sure the sulfur smell is taken out of the essential oils, where it naturally occurs. Fortunately for us Copper molecules have a +2 ionic charge and Sulfate molecules have a -2 ionic charge, so the two elements really like each other and make a beautiful teal green powder called copper sulfate. And just in case you think I am making this up, here is a picture of the bottom of our still after a complete distillation. You can see the greenish teal marks on the side and bottom of my still. It is easily washed away with a little water.
10. Ok I know how to distill now... But this seems expensive/Time consuming Etc.
You are in luck essential oils are potent! You don't need much, so a small bottle goes a long way. Our oils are made from lavender that has been cut within 24 hours of being distilled. We cut our lavender for distilling when the lavender buds have fully flowered which is when the lavender buds have the most oil. We distill all of our lavender in our 60 Liter copper still shown above. If you have any question don't hesitate to ask! Please check out our essential oils for sale in our Shoppe they are awesome!