Behind the Scenes: Distillation

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

The peak of purpleness around our farm is mid-December to mid-January. At this time the fields deliver spectacular views as the lavender is in full bloom - what a sea of vibrant purple! The fields are so pungent that on a warm, breezy day the fragrance can be smelled from afar.

At this time the lavender, heavy with fragrant essential oil, is ready for distillation. We spend weeks all day harvesting and distilling. Due to lavender's hemispherical shape, harvesting is done by hand with a 15cm flax cutter – one by one until you’ve forgotten how far into the thousands you are!

For essential oil distillation we cut approximately 15cm of stalk, unlike our dried flower harvest which requires a 30cm stalk to suit decorative floral uses where a long stem is preferred.

The inclusion of the short stalk for essential oil distillation is important as it provides small air pockets for the steam to pass through the flower load making for an efficient distillation yield.

Lavender intended for distillation is taken directly from the field to the distillery, skipping the drying barn as it is unnecessary to dry lavender prior to distillation. In fact, during the drying process some essential oil is lost due to evaporation that would otherwise be captured during distillation - all the more reason to skip the drying step!

We use a copper still for our distillations. One of the most important properties of copper is that it removes any Sulphur compounds that can occur naturally in the plant material.

Other qualities of copper naturally reduce any bacterial contamination and allow us better control over and stability of heat during the distillation. All of this leads to a superior smelling and purer essential oil and Hydrosol.

Upon arrival at the distillery, the freshly harvested lavender is placed in the column which is then placed on the copper pot. The pot serves as a water vapor generator – the plant material never touches the water. The still is then turned on, heating the water to a vaporous state which then passes through the column.

As the water vapour rises through the fragrant plant material, it causes the glands of the plants to burst and release the oils and essence of the plant into the steam.

The mix of oil and water vapour travels through the swan neck pipe into the condenser (filled with cold water) where it turns to liquid again. This liquid exits the condenser, dripping into a separator where basic chemistry takes over. The oil will rise to the surface and is then decanted into UV-protected bottles.

Once filled with pure lavender essential oil, these bottles will be stored for at least a year before use. This allows the oil to mature and mellow. As with wine, Essential oils improve with age!

Just as the essential oil is decanted, so too is the condensed water decanted into large 20L bottles. It is, however, no longer water, it is now hydrosol. What is a hydrosol you ask? During the steam distillation process a small amount of lavender essential oil is permanently bound to the water molecules, producing what chemists call a colloid. This permanent mixture of oil and water is hydrosol. It can only be produced by the distillation process and has similar properties to the essential oil, but far less concentrated. As a diluted version of the essential oil, it is particularly useful for a wide range of personal, therapeutic and household care uses.

Now that our lavender essential oil and hydrosol have been fully decanted, it's time to empty the column. The swan neck pipe is loosened and removed as is the column from the pot... out billows thick, fragrant steam and left-over moisture, coloured from the concentrated plant material, drips to the floor.

Using a garden fork the soft and damp lavender is emptied and then added to our epic compost pile.

Yields depend on the variety.  The species Lavandula X Intermedia, lavindins, produce the most oil.  Grosso which is the most common variety of lavender, is one of the highest oil producers. Typically we get about 200ml of essential oil for each batch distilled. That's approximately 5 plants producing 200ml of essential oil! Lavandula Angustifolia sometimes referred to as English lavender is a very low producer of oil and our yields are substantially less for this variety. It's a labour intensive process requiring a great deal of plant material to produce a relatively small amount of pure essential oil. This is one reason why pure essential oils are more expensive than their often diluted counter parts. On the other hand, pure essential oils being so potent, are used in very small quantities. Usually only a couple drops are used for any particular application. This means a little bit goes a long way and, as the fragrance of lavender essential oil continues to improve with age, there is no concern about spoiling.

It's a labour of love we are privileged to partake in, so that you can experience the benefit of pure, organic lavender essential oil and hydrosol straight from the source.

51 views0 comments