Written by Mary Rean
Creating essential oils and spirits for your own use has a certain appeal – the idea of harvesting fruit or flowers from your garden, then distilling them to use in a personal skincare range or your favourite alcoholic tipple. With a bit of know-how and equipment, most of us can do it.
You may have a distant memory of your father or grandfather disappearing out to the wash house or garden shed to potter around for half the weekend with an old still or vat that seemed to produce potent and powerful-smelling liquid concoctions.
He could do this because New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where it is legal to own a still and distill spirits for personal use, and the country has quite a long history of backyard distillers, although some of their ventures haven’t always been entirely legal!
People have been distilling liquids and making spirits around the world pretty much since the dawn of time, for medicines, to create balms, essences and perfumes, and to make alcoholic beverages. Over time, distilled spirits gradually morphed into recreational tipples and, because it has only relatively recently been safe to drink water in many parts of the world, these alcoholic beverages were often the preferred choice for those able to afford them.
Today, thankfully, water is safe to drink in many countries, but people are increasingly interested in getting away from relying on commercial-scale manufacturing of many products and are returning to a more artisanal approach to all sorts of food, drinks, healthcare and cosmetics.
Waiheke resident Jill Mulvaney is a craft distiller who has worked closely with aromatics and herbs for more than 20 years. She served an apprenticeship in Australia, learning about growing and identifying plants, the history of their uses, chemical processing and tincture production, and about 12 years ago she took up botanical distillation and aromatic blending.
“Distillation is an internationally growing trend – people want to reconnect with nature, with their senses, especially urban people; they are looking for creative pursuits and want to be around nature,”“It is a beautiful thing to do, meditative and relaxing, working with lovely aromas; it is deeply satisfying – both going out in the garden and harvesting your plants, and the distillation process.
“My partner (who has now retired) and I were lucky to spend some time in Portugal where the most beautiful copper stills – gourd-shaped containers known as alembics – are made, and we decided on the spur of the moment to bring them back to New Zealand and sell them. When I got back here, I decided to create more of an education model for our new business and teach people about distillation, fragrances and natural flavours for spirits, perfumes, cosmetics and plant medicines.”
Jill’s business, Alembics, runs workshops on distillation, sells the equipment needed for distilling, and offers advice and consultancy to individuals and businesses.
Home distillers can buy fast-acting yeasts and concentrated sugar, which are fermented to produce extremely high alcohol (90 percent alcohol by volume) in just a few days. Adding artificial flavours post distillation can emulate a traditional spirit – but with varying results.
“In the past, before we developed our business, people used artificial essences to flavour high-strength alcohol in a short time. Now, we have a growing artisanal movement based around plants, fruits and grains – things that you grow – rather than artificial flavours. We are promoting an age-old method used around the world, one which has been going on since man could rub sticks together,” says Jill.
“You don’t have to make large quantities and go into business. We have stills and equipment for people who just want to make their own spirits or essences on a small scale, rather like keeping chooks or making your own cheese.”
Alembics’ workshops are for people wanting to learn about various aspect of distilling such as gin or whiskey-making and producing essential oils, and Jill says people often come to these workshops out of curiosity.
“They like gin, for example, they’re interested to see how it’s made, and what goes into it. On the course, they learn about the botanicals used in gin, which aren’t always readily available – orris root, juniper, angelica root, liquorice root and more unusual ones like lemon myrtle or elder flowers, it’s a fun day out, and they get a better understanding of what goes into it.
“This interest in distilling is good for the artisan gin industry, which has really taken off in this country, because people are becoming more educated about what they are buying,” says Jill.
“Some people go on and buy their own equipment and begin distilling and blending for themselves. Many small boutique businesses have started up after coming along to one of our workshops,” she says.
Alembics teams up with businesses or individuals wanting help with product development or blending flavours, teaching or even designing blends for companies to take to market.
Jill also runs workshops on basic distilling with an emphasis on working with plants to make essential oils and hydrosols. Students learn about making essential oils and hydrosols – the aromatic botanical water that’s used for therapeutic and cosmetic purposes like skincare, and as a base for non-alcoholic drinks, “cocktails with flavour and aroma, but no fruit or sugar”, she says.
If you’re a bit more serious about it, Jill’s grain-to-glass workshop is more of a master class on how to make good coloured or aged spirits like whiskey, rum and bourbon, with the emphasis on making these spirits authentically on a small scale. This two-day course attracts both keen hobbyists and people from industry wanting to improve their skills.
Alembics stocks all the equipment you need to set up your own personal still – copper distillation systems handcrafted in Europe that combine modern technology with traditional charm. A whiskey kit could set you back $4,500 to 5,000, but a smaller still for oils or hydrosols might only be $1,000.
“The stills are very decorative and the beauty of the copper is very appealing. Plenty of the stills don’t see a lot of use; people just enjoy owning them, but we also see a lot of hobbyists who are actively distilling and making spirits or oils and hydrosols. Of course, even with a small still, you can make both oils and spirits.”
Essential oils can be produced reasonably quickly, taking between about half an hour and four hours to end up with a small bottle, says Jill. Harvesting is the first stage. You pop out to the garden – even a pot plant on the terrace will suffice – late in the afternoon when the botanicals are dry and warm from the sun. Then you prepare the still and get it underway. Once the distillation is completed, the final stage is to separate the oil from the water.
“The longest part of the process can be the harvesting,” says Jill. “People find it deeply satisfying to gather their own plants, and of course, you are working with beautiful aromas.”
Spirits require a bit more time, skill and dedication. You need either fruit, grains for whiskey or vodka, or vegetables; the fruit is mashed or the grain soaked, yeast is added and the mix is left to ferment, for anything from five days to two weeks. The alcohol produced is then distilled to concentrate the alcohol and purify the flavour.
Distillation – the process of separating liquids or liquids and solids by evaporation and condensation – has a long history in most civilisations around the world. The first use of distilled spirits was likely for medicinal purposes; it was referred to as “spirited water” and was considered to be a healing elixir, often made in monasteries by monks – we have the liqueur, Benedictine, for example – and monks also made plant- and spice-based tinctures for medicinal purposes, before modern pharmaceuticals took their place.