Dipping Into Distillation

Still in Florence Museum

Image of Still in Florence Museum by Linda Byington

I have been writing about essential oils in these posts for some time, explaining that essential oils are distilled aromatic substances. But I haven’t delved into distillation. The process is fascinating and I have witnessed it many times, usually with lavender as the plant medium used. It’s not only fun to watch lavender buds being distilled but also very relaxing. If there is a lavender festival near you this summer I recommend that you check it out because there are often demonstrations of distillation.

The history of distillation goes far back in time. Many people think it dates back to biblical times but those oils were from an infusion of plant material, not a distillation. A plant infusion is much like tea making except the plant is put into a carrier oil not into water. The plant components that love oil are then extracted into the carrier oil. With distillation, the plant components that love water are extracted into steam creating slightly different therapeutics than an infused oil.

But I digress in my history of distillation. Written records of herbal distillation are found as early as the first century A.D. with the invention credited to the Persians. Perfumed waters had been in use for many centuries, created by a crude method of distillation, but the physician and alchemist named Avicenna was the first to add steam to the process. Avicenna wrote of his steam distillation of rose petals, a popular plant for distilling, describing the medicinal purposes of his rose water.

At this time distillers did not recognize the importance of the droplets in the water that we now call “essential oils.” This layer was considered full of impurities and discarded with only the aromatic waters being saved. It was years later that this layer was noticed to be more aromatic than the waters and distillation began to include the capture of this layer. “These oils, the first essential oils to be purposefully produced, were carefully separated from the waters condensed with them and were sold as medicinal or perfumery materials in their own right.”

After awhile the tides changed and the waters (a.k.a. hydrosols) were being thrown away with the distillation focus being on the essential oil. Nowadays you will find distillers who are intent on creating essential oils, with a few boutique distilleries who distill for the best hydrosols, and some who capture both products. Essential oils have become such a big market commodity that they command the most attention but both products of distillation have their place in Aromatherapy.