Updated: Nov 12, 2021
In our last blog, we covered the first part of turning lavender plants into oil, which was harvesting. There are 400 varieties of lavender that each excel as either oils, culinary uses, or as garden decor. At Carriage House Lavender we grow and harvest the cultivar Riverina Thomas that is ideal for making our lavender oil-based products like our amazing soaps and aftershave lotion. Lavender oil has soothing, relaxing, and medicinal purposes, as well as just smelling so darn good - which is why we love to use it!
But how does this beautiful and fragrant plant turn into the lavender oil base for our soy candles, creams, and even lip balm? Distillation--yes that same process used to make your favorite gin or vodka.
Lavender Distillation Process
According to Chemical Engineering World, there are four main distillation processes: simple, steam, fractional, and vacuum. Lavender oil extraction uses steam distillation. Unlike other distillation methods, steam provides a high heat transfer rate without needing a high temperature. That makes the process a bit easier and a lot safer.
We place a steam tray just above the bottom of the still and pour water into the still just to the steam tray line. Next, we pack the lavender plants on top of the tray all the way to the brim of the pot, leaving as little room for air as possible. We can squeeze about 120 pounds of lavender into our brand new still that we just imported from Portugal. It’s 300 liters and we have been dying to use it. We also continue to use our tried and trusted s/b 60L still. The stills we use are copper. Besides looking beautiful, copper is what has been used for centuries to make lavender oil, and who are we to argue with tradition.
With the still full, we put the lid back on and attach the swan neck from the still to the condenser and turn on the heat. There’s a science to the process that combines heat, pressure, the right equipment, and a whole lot of patience. Distillation takes time, and getting it right is a skill. Fortunately, at CHL we rely on experts with years of experience to help us know when to raise the temperature and at what speed to get to the peak degree that turns the water to steam that rises through the still. The hot steam builds pressure and the combination of steam and pressure causes the lavender buds to release their oils.
Where does the oil go after it’s released from the lavender plant? Remember that condenser we attached to the still via the swan neck? The condenser is filled from the bottom with cold water that cools the mixture of steam and oil that is flowing through a pipe. The cooling causes the steam to turn back to water, but the steam also causes the cool water in the condenser to heat up so there’s a hot water exit valve at the top of the condenser.
Separating Oil and Water
The water/oil mixture drips out of the still into the separatory funnel. Oil and water don’t mix so the oil is basically skimmed off the top. The remaining water is called Hydrosol. It’s not as concentrated as the oil but is the perfect ingredient for our room mist and our sleep & relaxation spray. Nothing goes to waste.
How much oil comes from one round of distilling in our fabulous Portuguese still? About 10 gallons when all the fields have been harvested and processed. Quite honestly, we are never certain how fragrant, or exactly what aroma the final oil will exude. As we said in our last blog, each harvest is a result of whatever Mother Nature brought through the growing season and lavender, like wine, will vary by vintage. We anxiously await the results each year.
With the lavender oil in hand, the next step is creating our amazing products which often combine ingredients--think lavender oil mixed with lemongrass, bergamot, and even peach! But you’ll have to read our next blog to learn the art and science behind that creativity.
Carriage House Lavender creates small batch, high-quality products that promote relaxation and beauty in an intoxicating scent. Contact us to see the variety of products we offer to help you feel your best.