Cleaning Up Our New Alembic Still

So we haven't gone on to become bootleggers, but we have become the proud new owners of a copper alembic still! Which we will be using to create artisan essential oils as well as other wildcrafted products from the other mystical component of distilling plants, hydrosols. Our still was hand crafted in Portugal, from a family company that has been doing this for a long time and we're truly excited to get started. 

The concept of distilling is ancient in origin. In Egypt they would use a vessel to boil herbs, plants and resins and collect the steam in a sheep skin held above it. As the steam condensed they would ring it out, and filter the distillate, some essential oil, but mainly hydrosol. The medicine ranged by plant, but in those days they were mainly used to relieve from pain, protect from disease, lower inflammation and aid in the removal of infection, as well as in mummification and sacred rituals.

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Ancient drawings from Peru as well document the use of ceramic urns and sheep skins used in a very similar process. All over the world, different cultures were coming to similar ideas in obtaining potent formulations to enhance all manner of life. To extract pure essential oil from these old techniques proved difficult and over time the design evolved, and new generations of alchemists sought out to refine the process. 

The alembic still design we bought is from the Islamic Golden Age circa the mid 700s, the dawn of alchemy, the original chemistry. The word 'al ambic' in Arabic means 'that which refines and transmutes'. Which describes exactly what distillation is; a way of distinguishing and purifying certain constituents from plant material. When I make a cup of herbal tea, also called an infusion, I am only receiving the constituents of the herb that are water soluble. This can be great for trace minerals, as well as vitamins, however there are other medicinal aspects which cannot be accessed this way. Alcohol tinctures can be made, to further extract those tighter molecules, generally alcohol based constituents and volatile oils, however then we loose out on the water soluble medicine. Throughout time alchemists have explored the concept of synergy, getting the full gamut of constituents from an herbal ally at a therapeutic dose. Distilling is a step into that land, and spagyric medicine, is an even deeper step into the synergistic approach of herbalism. This latter form of alchemy was developed in Europe during the Renaissance and incorporates the further transmutation of a plant to move through all of the elements; ether, air, fire, water and earth.

Now that I've shared a little backstory, here is our first day working with the still. 

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Before we being to distill any plants, its important that we throughly clean it. The traditional way is to fire it with a coarse flour. Old bootleggers would tell you it's gotta be rye, but we had Whole Wheat flour instead. Many websites out there are selling distillation kits for top dollar, we went straight to the source and ordered our 40L still from Al-Embic Iberian Coppers in Portugal. Then we bought a turkey deep frying kit, and kept the giant pot it came with to save for crab and canning, instead we just used the burner and stand as a perfect little seat for the still. 

We used the ratio of 10.1, meaning 6 cups flour, 60 cups water.

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Next we mixed it all together, kind of whisked it up. I alternated using the jabby end of this stick, and a smaller branchy end of another stick. I won't lie, it felt pretty witchy, haha. (We were having a bonfire at the same time as distilling, it was a chilly one today!).

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Since this is the first firing, we took lots of notes, like whats the weather like, how long does it take to reach 10 degree increments, etc... and kept an eye on the kitten...

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Also we made a paste out of flour as well to seal the joints as they don't screw together or anything. To do that we mixed together 3/4 cup Flour and 1/3 cup water, made it into a putty type dough and smeared it on the joints of the still to prevent the vapor from escaping or frothing out.

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And since its new copper, we enjoyed the beautiful patina we were creating! Later we polished it up here and there by mixing up fresh lemon juice and salt and rubbing in small circles to maintain the golden sheen, for now of course. 

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When our boiler column reached about 90°C the condenser began to sputter and spill our cloudy whole wheat distillate!

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Generally speaking around 100°C is the mark, aka 212°F which is boiling point. This number is when the magic happens, as certain constituents become actively separated from the base material. They rise up in steam, travel across the swan neck, and into the spiral of the condenser where they are cooled in liquid form again (there is a circulation of cold water surrounding the coil). We let it run here for about 20 minutes before shutting her down and scrubbing her clean with the left over flour mash from inside the boiler. This whole process really removes the leftover products of welding and manufacturing, as well as primes the still for collecting. 

All in all a great day of bonfires burning old blackberry vines and cleaning out the still. Our next distillation will be the wind blown usnea and oak moss we've been collecting. 

Stay tuned to learn more about hydrosols, quality essential oils, spagyric and synergistic herbalism, and traditional techniques in the new age, as well as new products by subscribing below!

Until next time ♥︎