Purchasing Your First Still
Previously published in Aromatika https://www.aromatikamagazine.com/
I have been in love with plants all my life and have thoroughly enjoyed distilling them for nearly thirty years. It has been my pleasure to distil side by side with experts from around the globe, each distiller having a unique ap- proach to the art of distillation. I have distilled on large equipment and small equipment, on copper, clay, glass and stainless steel. Each still has distinctive qualities, and distillers usually have a preference of one type over another. With that said, I would like to offer some guidance, based on my experiences, on what to look for and which questions to ask when purchasing your first still.
“Why do you want to distil?” This is the first question I ask my students. It is a simple enough question, but there is not such a simple answer. You may want to distill your own hydrolats or essential oils. Perhaps you want to make value-added products to sell on your farm. This first question is critical, as it is the foundation upon which you will base several choices. Answering this question will help you determine the size, the style and the material of the still you will purchase. I have seen many disappointed new distillers when they realize they didn’t buy a still to fit their intended purpose.
Now that you know why you are distilling, you can begin to research the size of the still you will need. Most stills are sold by how much liquid fits in the pot and is measured in litres; for instance, a 20L still holds 20L of liquid in the pot. However, it is worth noting, that there is no standard for sizing stills, and different manufacturers may use different methods for sizing their equipment. If your desire is to distill essential oils, you will need a much larger still than if you are distilling for hydrolats. Another consideration in deciding what size still to purchase is how much and what type of plant material will be available to you. You will need to match the size of the still to both your intended use and material availability. For example, if you have a lavender farm and access to an abundance of this relatively high-yielding essential oil plant, you may want to get the biggest still you can afford to make distilling more profitable.
On the other hand, if you only have a couple of lavender plants, you would be better off with a still 5L to 20L in size. The following table shows my recommendations for choosing the size of a still. Please note that the weight shown is for fresh plant weight and is an average of different types of botanicals. For example, when I distil on my 150L column still, I can pack 55kg of fresh Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) inside (includes pot and column) but only 25kg of fresh Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) in the pot and column.
In order to choose a size that works best for you, you need to carefully consider the plant material(s) you will be working with and their associated essential oil yields. While you may be able to get an excellent essential oil yield from Lavender, it would be impossible to get a large enough yield from Lemon Balm to be profitable without using commercial size equipment.
The material of the still, be it glass, stain- less steel, copper or clay, is a very personal choice. Many folks have definite opinions on the subject, but it is up to you in the end. Some general guidelines are depending on what you are choosing to distill for. It is recommended to use stainless steel for es- sential oil distillations as this alloy does not react with the volatile organic components and thus produces a “cleaner” essential oil. As I stated before, I have distilled on all four types of material, and I think that they each have their pros and cons. Personally, I prefer copper for distilling my hydrolats and stain- less steel for distilling strictly for essential oils or for research. I favour glass for demonstrations, and I love my clay still replica for historical experimenting – called experimental archaeology.
There are several styles of stills that a home distiller may choose from. There are glass labware setups that are relatively inexpen- sive and are well-suited for demonstra- tions and small amounts of hydrolats. Other choices are simple pot stills (copper or stain- less), column (copper), and alquitar (copper) style stills. For beginners who are just start- ing out, I suggest choosing a still which is adaptable so that you can explore different types of distillations. When I say adaptable, I mean that it can work for both steam and hy- dro distillations. I think that the column type stills are great for beginners because you can pack both the column and pot to fit the most amount of plant material in for one run. You can also choose to do a straight steam distillation by putting plant material in just the column; you even have an added benefit that you can simply run a smaller load if you do not have enough material to fill the column. This can be very handy if your access to different botanicals changes throughout the season. You may choose to do only a hydro distillation by putting the plant material directly in the water in the pot. This is the oldest type of distillation and is well suited to plants like Roses (Rosa spp.) or Lemon Balm. Alquitar style stills are an ancient style of still and are usually used only for hydro distillations (with a few exceptions). The condenser is actually the hat, which is very convenient for having a still that is easy to transport. The drawback is that the still is not very efficient — but it does produce some beautiful hydrolats.
One word of caution: If you decide to use an alquitar style still, it is prudent to check the solder for lead. The inside of the still’s hat contains a large amount of solder because of the process involved in making the hat. If a manufacturer has used a lead-containing solder, it will leach into your hydrolat. I, therefore recommend testing both the solder and hydrolat for lead from any alquitar style still.
Now that you have made some decisions on what size, style and material your new still will be, you need to decide from whom to purchase. Consider that the still is an impor- tant part of the distillation process, and as such, I recommend buying the highest qual- ity still you can afford. Quality may be the most challenging part of choosing your still. How does one assess quality from afar? I will share a few of the things I look for when purchasing a still.
We have taken a quick look at sizing stills, so once you have decided which size you are looking for, it is a good idea to compare dimensions and volume among different manufacturers. I know that the same size still, purchased from the same company in another year, actually has different dimensions. This, in the case of copper, is partly due to being handcrafted. The measurements may also vary among other manufacturers.
The grade of metal is very significant to quality. Different metals (stainless steel and copper) are rated by various systems, but all have standards that vary in quality. It would be wise to find out directly from the manufacturer what grade the metal is and any specifications that they can give you. This will directly relate to quality. There are at least a dozen grades of stainless steel and at least that many of copper. When I am buying a still, I want the highest grade I can afford. The less expensive grades are not suited for distillation. If the manufacturer is unwilling or unable to share what grade of metal it is using, I personally would not purchase from them.
The next thing I compare is the gauge or thickness of the metal. This will give you some indication of the quality; the higher quality still will be made with a thicker material. It is essential to make sure that you compare the same size of stills, as the thickness will vary by size also. For example, during a quick search comparing the thickness of 20L column stills between two companies, I found a range of 0.6mm to 1.2mm. If I were purchasing, I would choose the still with a thickness of 1.2mm.
Another important consideration is customer service. How they respond to questions and the speed at which they respond will give you some idea of how much they value their customers. It is worth asking other distillers which companies have the best reputations.
Purchasing your first still is both exciting and intimidating. My advice is to keep it simple and take it step by step. Once you are clear about why and what you will be distilling, it will be easier to make choices. The distilla- tion journey is a wonderful experience, one that I am still traveling nearly thirty years later. I have owned a variety of stills and have a name for each of them. Working with the plants and stills is a very personal experience, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Enjoy the process – it is part of the journey!