It’s nearly 9pm, I’m sitting outside the workshop on an old bench, it’s still warm and the scent from the workshop is suffusing the air all around me. Val, the big Alembic is gently bubbling away filled with roses from our distilling garden and Glyndebourne Opera House picked over 2 sunny days. It has been a long day, up at 5am to get everything ready, out to the workshop to scrub the Alembic clean, lashings of boiling water and a final wipe down with alcohol to ensure it’s as clean as a new pin. Then the final preparation of the roses, pulling the petals off, filling the Still with water (150 litres) and slowly adding the petals. There is a particular sound to gathering handfuls of petals, a quiet rustle, and then the slow release as they are gently dropped into the water. They float. As layer upon layer is added they pile high, impervious to the wetness of the water until the heat gradually erodes their resistance and they begin to sink.
Once full, the Still is sealed and the various essential parts connected, hose pipes are fixed to carry water to and from the condenser and the bottle is positioned to collect the precious rose aromatic water. After several hours it is finally lit and then, it must be watched, tapped and tinkered with to ensure that the oil remains within the aromatic water. For roses, unlike everything else I distil bears so little oil that I believe those few precious drops should be retained in suspension in the aromatic water.
I’m often asked why our aromatic waters are different to those available elsewhere and there is a really simple answer – virtually all aromatic water is just a by-product of the essential oil industry, the plants are collected on an industrial scale and distilled hard and fast with pressurised steam in a stainless steel Still. This is because it is cheaper to run a Still for a short time and, for the release of essential oil a hard, fast distillation usually produces a good amount of oil for a small amount of gas. In this process, aromatic waters are created but they lack subtlety and complexity. In contrast we distil slowly and gently in our big copper Still, we run it for a long time collecting not just the initial volatiles but also the deeper more complex notes. We see the aromatic water as an end in itself, a prize worth distilling for. When we are satisfied that we have collected the full spectrum of what the plant has to offer, we stop and then after a few weeks, blend the different notes to make a final product. This is artisanale, small batch distilling. It is fundamentally different. It's all about the plants.
Today the Still has settled well, I’ve been listening to her, the pitch changes as the petals move gaining in intensity, this is a delicate balancing act, we want enough movement to release the scent but not too much or the petals will stick, boil and singe. I can hear it now as I write quietly swishing with a delicate drip dripping as the aromatic water drops into the collecting bottle.
Whilst waiting for the water to heat, I’ve dashed outside to cut, bundle and hang Clary Sage from hooks in the workshop, the purple flowers clustered together. I’ve turned the Chamomile picked yesterday and pulled the petals off the Calendula. It has been a productive day, a good day, a celebration of the bounty of summer.
One more brief trip away from the Still leaving it in another’s capable hands for 30 minutes. Laying on the couch at the Stillroom allowing Hannah to perform her eyebrow tidying magic only to hear her screech as a caterpillar ambles from my shirt onto the couch – my life although satisfying is desperately unglamorous. The interloper obligingly walks onto a tissue to be hastily deposited outside.
I’ll finish at around midnight and leave all the clearing and emptying until tomorrow morning. The Still will be too hot and I’ll be too tired to clean tonight. It’s the unenviable side of distilling, the emptying of spent petals on to the compost heap after all scent and therapeutics have been transferred to the aromatic water. My job is done, until tomorrow…