Saturday, June 18, 2011

Distilling Essential Oils

This week in farmstead arts we distilled essential oils from both peppermint and orange peels. The process first involved acquiring the materials, so a group of us went out and harvested some mint, and another group acquired some orange peels from the kitchen. We then pulled the mint leaves off the stems and cut up some of the stems, as well as cutting the orange peels into roughly 1 inch pieces, so that they would fit into the distillation vats. We then filled up each of the 2 bottom vats 2/3 of the way up with water, and after some fiddling with the stills, we got them plugged in and working.

It’s a pretty cool process, this distilling business. The bottom, water filled tank sits on a burner and is brought to a boil. The rising steam then ascends through the biomass, in this case mint and orange peel, held in the tank above it, carrying the many substances, including the essential oils, upwards into a smaller tube, where it begins to collect in the form of condensation, which slowly begins to collect in the still head. Eventually it begins to drip down the condenser, where cool water kept in the tube outside the condensing chamber causes rapid condensation. This then runs down the condenser into the receiver, where a layer of oil forms on top of the water, which is gradually forced out by the increasing amount of oil. The bulk of oil will come off in the first 10 to 30 minutes, but the entire process usually takes between 1 and 3 hours. We also noticed that the water that collected condensation was very potent smelling, especially with the mint. This is hydrosol, which apparently has other uses, such as in soaps, lotions, cleansers, and all kinds of other nifty things! Hydrosol is heavily fragrant water, and I discovered how potent it really is when I took a drink of the mint hydrosol…. It’ll definitely get you out of bed in the morning.

There are many uses for essential oils, such as in aromatherapy, medicinal uses, and in salves and creams. The cleaning product H2Orange that is used to clean the floors here is essential oil based, which is a green alternative to all the harsh chemicals usually used in commercial cleaning products. Distilling the oils from the orange peel was also a good way to find alternative uses for what would have otherwise gone straight to the compost pile.

While we were in the stage Jody dubbed as the “hurry up and wait” step, we all sat around in the lab and discussed capitalism and how its roots are in the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Overall, the distillation process was really cool, and a nice contrast to all the more rustic things we’ve been doing in class. I think it would be cool to do some more distillation, especially with things like comfrey that contains huge amounts of oil. Looking forward to a lot of time in the lab using (and hopefully not breaking) the still.


  1. I really enjoyed this one. Some day I think I will buy my own distilling apparatus for personal use and maybe small scale sale. It doesn't seem to be as time consuming as other endeavors, you can start it going and go putter around with something else for a bit, and just check on it from time to time. The end product is pretty amazing as well, definitely something I would want to play with some more.

  2. I think we quoted the glass wear at about $400. Nice post Ethan. I'm thinking it would be possible to gather or make the materials on your own for a lot cheaper. I hope so because distilling seems like it has a lot of valuable purposes like infusing foods with flavor, making insence, and aquiring medicinal oils. I am going to have to look into getting the materials together to do this on my own.

  3. It was interesting to me, although a bit disheartening, to see how little oil we ended up with. I see the need for essential oils as an additive in other products, but is it truly the best use of whatever it is we are distilling and the energy/water costs involved with the process? I'm not sure, just opening up the question.

  4. I really like setting up the equipment. I've been trying to think of a good way to use the orange oil. Any ideas? Maybe some ice cream?

  5. I definitely enjoyed this process and learned a lot. mostly i learned that you need a lot of time and a lot of raw material to get very little essential oil. I can see myself tinkering with this for self use and i would like to try out some combinations to see what happens. Also, I like that you actually get more than one product from the process, because the hydrosol was very fragrant and tasty and I've already tried some of the orange hydrosol in my homemade lemonade with very pleasing results!
    Great post Ethan!

  6. Hello.Can you please help me with some distillation tehniques ? I have some equipment but I don't know exactly how to use it.Please contact me at .Best wishes,Flaviu - Romania