Herbal Pharmacy as Direct Action

An act of independence in our profession
Date: September 23, 2016 Posted by: Dafydd Monks
A workshop presented to the Scottish Radical Herbal Gathering, Sunday 11th September, 2016

This post is comprised of four seperate areas: the transctipt of the workshop with photos from the event, some links of interest that relate to the workshop and I mentioned in the workshop, and where you can buy equipment. An audio recording of the workshop, and some miscellaneous illustrations/photographs that might help explain how I set up the Alembic still and how floral waters are created.Lastly, there is a comment box/discussion forum at the end of this post - please do post there and keep the dialogue going - I'm happy to keep answering questions and talking about this topic!

Workshop Transcript

This workshop started informally: I was still setting up equipment when people started coming into the talk early and there was no definite start. The recording starts about a minute into the talk, hence the rather abrupt nature of the recording and this transcript.

*** Transcript Starts ***


So, the nice thing with working with plants is that you never fully know what results you’re going to get out the other end. Which can be awkward if you’re teaching, because you can then turn round and say ‘This is how it should be… but isn’t’, or you can get an unexpected surprise. It can also be a great way of blaming bad results on the variability of what you’re doing! Hopefully none of that today though!

So as you can see, we’re just shoving stuff in here. In the bottom of the still – in the pot – is sort of like a grate, about an inch off the bottom, with the herb material sitting on that. The herb material will be submerged in water so we’re not really doing a steam distillation in the true sense of the word. Those take ages anyway. It’s more like a boil distillation. The volatiles will come out and we’ll get a nice result anyway. The purpose of the grate is to stop the herb material coming into contact with the bottom of the pot/the heat, which would burn it. And you’d get a nasty, acrid result.

Any questions so far?

Audience Member:
Could you tell us the difference between this and a steam distillation?

A steam distillation really is where you have the herb material suspended above the boiling water.  So the steam goes through it and takes the volatiles out on the way. This is technically a form of steam distillation though it’s really boiling. The differences at this scale are not great, though if you were doing this at a larger scale you get a better quality essential oil if you were doing a steam distillation rather than boiling, though at this scale, there isn’t enough space to do a steam distillation – this is very small stuff. Also the processes for steam distillation tend to be more complicated.

While I’ve been talking, my circulation pump has lost its priming, so I’ll just attend to that.

Audience Member:
Is there any advantage to using dried herbs?

Not at all. The advantage of using dried herbs is that I could transport them up here. I always prefer to use fresh herbs if possible!

In theory we’re good to go again! Though it does look like we’ve got an air leak from somewhere... So I’m going to do a bit of on the spot plumbing!

*plops and drips*

Looks like we’re back in business!

So, we’ve got boiling water in the kettle, which we’re going to pour on top of the herb material, and we’ve got cooling water again for the condensing coil, which is nice. Hopefully we won’t get another air leak!

Like I said, water behaves differently in Wales than it does in Scotland. One thing you will have to get used to is that infuriating noise that sounds a bit like someone farting. Basically some air gets sucked down the return pipe, you always end up with this infuriating noise. And if you’re distilling for three of four hours, it will drive you mad. By the end of it your ears will be ringing. Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a better way of mitigating against it than ear plugs of loud music!

So in here (the pot) we’ve got our charge of herb material, or the marc, and we’re adding about a litre and a half – says 1.7 L on the kettle – 1.7L of boiling water. The reason we’re using boiling water and not cold is that if I added cold water, it would take an age for the still to come up to temperature and start working, whereas at this kind of temperature, when I light the stove, we’ll start getting floral water coming out of the still in about two minutes. Much much more responsive. So I’m going to light the stove and hopefully nothing goes too badly wrong.

If you put too much heat through the still, you get a condition where the still boils over. And you end up with basically very strong herb tea coming down the condensing pipe. And you really don’t want that because you’ve taken a lot of care to make a nice floral water and you get herb tea – not really great. Especially if it’s half way through you making a floral water. It’s a waste of gas and herbs. So now the still’s lit, I’m going to watch it and make sure that the pump’s behaving and that the heat’s not too great. So we actually get floral water and not herb tea. Also, there are two leak points on the still where steam can escape: around the top of the pot here and the top of the condensing pipe. Some sources on the internet say you should seal them with flour and water – seems a bit erratic to me so I’ve sealed it with cellotape! At least, I’ve used cellotape on the top of the condensing pipe. It makes a good seal, it’s flexible, it tolerant of heat, and you can re-use it. Whereas flour and water tarnishes the copper, it isn’t flexible, it can break off in the middle of a distillation… it drives you insane!

Audience Member:
Asks about other kinds of tape


Or if you want to use plumbing tape you can, but the cellotape does work quite nicely.

Audience Member:
Suggests Rye Flour.


I should maybe tell the authors who wrote the instructions! To be fair, it was an import from the middle east, and only had basic instructions for making floral water and alcohol.

Audience Member:
Asks about cellotape


Well, it’s not being held together by the cellotape, I’ve just used the tape to build up the inner pipe so it matches the fitting. *ahh we’ve got floral water*. You’re not going to get a build-up of pressure at all… If anything gets over-pressured in this still, all that’s going to happen is you’re going to end up with tea coming out of the bottom pipe. We’re not putting anything like enough heat into it to get pressure build up. What we’ve just got coming out of the pipe is called the heads – it smells very strong but also very bitter. So I’m putting it back into the cooling system. That’s a little thing I do for good luck. You discard it anyway, so it seems nice to give it back to the apparatus/process of the distillation. And now we’ve got – I’m just going to turn this down a bit actually - floral water coming out of the still at quite a nice rate. I like nothing more than a moderate drip because if you have any faster you end up getting into the risk of an overboil. And I don’t want to make a prat of myself and make tea for everyone!

Audience Member:
Asks about temperature.


It is actually simmering, so it’s probably at or near a hundred degrees – it’s just not simmering furiously. If you put your head next to the still, you can hear a simmering noise or like a soft rolling boil. If it sounds like a kettle boiling or bubbling you’ve gone too far. Some things are not as volatile as lighter essential oils, heavier molecules. If you wanted to distil those, you’d maybe half fill the still and give it a furious boil with less risk of it boiling over a there’s a much lower level in the pot.

Audience Member:
Asks about heads and tails being bitter.


The heads and tails being bitter… basically you’re getting trace amounts of essential oils that have a bitter profile/taste – maybe they’d evaporate anyway as they’re the most volatile, maybe they wouldn’t. I don’t tend to get tails from this still as I don’t tend to distil 100% of the way. The tails would probably be the heavier compounds – terpenes and stuff like that. But we’re not taking long enough to do that. The heads are some of the more obvious essential oils. We are actually getting quite a lot – okay – we’re probably only getting a mil or two – of essential oils from this. If you imagine the distillation on a timeline, at the very beginning you get the most volatile stuff first, then the middle body of the distillation, then the heavier stuff at the end. For a nice extract that reflects the nature of the plant, you want the middle bit which is the broadest spectrum of extract. Now if you did include the heads you would quite possibly get a balanced extract, but possibly a bit on the bitter side.

What I will do later is give you all some of this floral water to sip later. You can smell it, taste it, and see how it compares to the character of the Meadowsweet, and the actions of Meadowsweet to compare with.

Erm, basically the goal of making an extract in this way is that extracting volatiles from plants can be quite hard, certainly when it comes to making tinctures. Distillation like this is a very good way of extracting them. It’s basically the same way commercial essential oils and floral waters are made, but on a smaller scale. My interest in this is not so much for essential oils or floral waters, but in making what I call ‘distilled tinctures’: What I will do is I will make a tincture using a distilled floral water as the water phase - normally, if you have an alcohol licence, you will make a tincture by mixing a percentage of alcohol and a percentage of water together to make a fluid to soak the herb in. I make sure that if I’m making a tincture of something aromatic, that the water part of that fluid is a distilled floral water – so you’re getting an extraction of the herb twice over: in the distillation phase, and in the maceration phase when the herb is soaked in the menstruum to make the tincture.

Audience Member:
Question on tincture making


Re-explains the idea of using a floral water as above: And that the benefit of using a floral water is that in tinctures is that you get a better extraction of volatiles from the distillation process, while also getting the heavier, water and alcohol soluble compounds from macerating the herb marc. You can also use this process as a way of getting the strength up. With most purely macerated tinctures, you can’t easily go stronger than one part herb in three parts alcohol (1:3 strength) when you make ‘distilled tinctures’ a significant portion of the herb material (typically half) can be placed in the still and extracted through distillation giving a tincture with a starting strength of almost 1:1. A way of getting strong aromatic tinctures easily. Though there is no point doing this if the herb is not aromatic – if you put, say, nettle roots in the still, There’s nothing aromatic in them at all and you will be wasting your time. You would get distilled water but you wouldn’t get much else in it!

Right, so now the still is up and running, and will be for a while now this is where the pharmacy as direct action bit comes in. People are probably wondering ‘this is all very nice and good, he’s sat here with a copper still going, all very entertaining, very Scottish and all that, but: what’s the bigger picture?’ Well, obviously he’s a herbalist but what’s he hammering away at? Well, just to give you a synopsis of this talk to make you think about that: “Medicine-making is a skill that is often overlooked in herbalists' training programmes. Yet it is a skill that is fundamental to all that we do. In uncertain times, this workshop will look at how making our own medicines can save us money, give greater satisfaction and control of quality - and above all else be an act of professional independence.??

It wouldn’t be overly false of me to say that as a profession we risk having herbal big pharma come in and end up with one or two companies  supplying everything to everybody, in brown bottles, leaving nobody with the skills to make medicines themselves apart from the ordained few who have the knowledge of those companies, and quite frankly It’ll be when hell freezes over and over my dead body before I allow that to happen.

How many of us are herbalists of some form, be it professional or as lay herbalists? *about a third raise hands*. So about a third have some experience of working with herbs, and experience of interacting with herbs.

So, what we’re doing, really, is medicine making at this very stage. You might not use the floral water out of this process as a medicine in itself, but it’s a precursor to making further medicines, and actually, the herb I’ve chosen today is useful to demonstrate how floral water can work on its own. I’m sure that quite a few of you are familiar with Witch Hazel water? It’s distilled form the bark of the Witch Hazel tree in America, and it’s very good for bruising and sprains and those kinds of injuries. Well, so’s Meadowsweet. This is the British version of Witch Hazel water effectively. Meadowsweet is full of compounds called salicylates – in effect herbal aspirin – and some of that is volatile enough to come out of the still. In terms of herbal qualities it is astringent and soothing, so it’s very good for bruising as it is in the floral water, so I thought I’d use it as an example of a floral water that can be used directly.

Audience Member:

Asks about the chemical makeup/extraction: whether it is aromatic.


I’m afraid I don’t really know enough about the chemistry of Witch Hazel to answer that. They do distil it so it must have some kind of aromatic qualities as the distilled water smells. Whether that is like this kind of floral water, or if it’s on the edge of being light enough to distil I don’t know.

Audience Member:

Asks about distilling Birch.


Birch leaf and buds would probably be quite a good one to distil. Birch sap is probably more sugars than anything else, but Birch twig and leaf – White Birch is very similar to wintergreen and is full of methyl salicylate and is volatile. Quite a powerful painkilling oil. You certainly could distil wintergreen oil if you had enough of it though getting enough of the plant material might be a challenge! But if you had the means to grow enough, the apparatus is there to make from it what you will. And those are certainly plants that people will know of from day to day use.

So, pharmacy as direct action: Pharmacy is a very loaded word. It means different things to different people. To some people it will mean going down to the chemist and getting pills in a blister pack container. Some people it will mean sitting under a Willow tree hacking away at bark. It’s a varying scale. So what do we mean by pharmacy? Can anyone give a definition? What it means to them?


  • Making medicine

  • Dispensing Medicines

  • Pharmacopoeia – the herbs we use and why we use them: The knowledge of what it means and how.

  • Drugs


Drug is a loaded word to most people it tends to mean either a recreational narcotic or a synthetic medicine – however ‘droog’ is actually the Old English past-tense dative word for ‘Dried’ – so we’ve instinctively got a word here that means to dry something – very much connected with herb material. Pharmacy in itself is generally the preparation of drugs and medicines from herb material – dispensing is what a lot of modern herbalists tend to associate it with, and that’s right because it’s the end of the process, but the whole spectrum of the process goes from digging something up or cutting it down right through to dispensing it. What I aim to do in this workshop is to get you thinking about what that process means and how to engage more fully with it, and what engaging fully with it means or will mean for you whichever way you use herbs, whether that’s just treating your own family, right the way through to managing a big dispensary, whichever.

Who here makes medicines themselves? *about a third of people’s hands go up*. Thank god for that! I was expecting what usually happens, which is a lot of people to say they use herbs, but when I ask who makes medicines to see people looking sheepishly at each other wondering what to say! I’m glad about that. So what we’ve just learned is that more people here say they make medicines than say they have some role as a herbalist or knowledge of herbs. And that’s very heartening, because from the point of view of my profession, you ask a room full of Medical Herbalists ‘who here makes medicines’ and people sort of go… ‘well I’ve had a go’, or ‘I’d love to but don’t have time’, or ‘how do you know you’re getting the quality? That’s dangerous isn’t it?’, and I always think ‘oh for god’s sakes’. Well, brown bottle herbalists is one way of calling it. You know, in the defence of my colleagues – I won’t insult them too much on that, because we all do only what we can, and only what our own scope of practice is. I make sure mine includes this, other people might not have the opportunities to do that. And I did have to get into it a little bit back to front by working out what works and how to do it. I actually learned how to do some of the distilling stuff form learning about petroleum engineering! Because it’s what was available to me in the university library. We didn’t have anything on making floral waters but we did have stuff on refining petroleum. I worked backwards… Same kind of thing, fractions of petroleum distillate, fractions of essential oils and floral waters.

So, why would you want to make your own medicines? What are the benefits? And again I’d like some ideas from you all as to what they might be.

Saving Money.


Of course that’s a very important thing. Of course there’s also an age old adage, certainly from the Americans that time is money. The thing you’ve got to balance out is, would spending the time (if you paid yourself for it anyway) actually save you money against buying in? Half the time it works out at about even, so not  a huge saving. But yes, it can save money. Not in the view of the tax man, as you’re still working, but in the view of spending bits of your income on other things than buying tinctures, yes, you’re making a saving.




Thank you Edwina! That’s completely it. Like I said earlier, we live in hostile times, and at the end of the day, the government, or anyone else in a position of authority could pull the rug from under us. One example is the recent withdrawal of Comfrey, Coltsfoot, and Borage – though the MHRA is investigating, it hasn’t done anything yet but lot of suppliers have withdrawn these herbs which means that the brown bottle herbalists have no option because the decision has been made for them. Now, you could have Theresa May come in here tomorrow morning  - actually I very much hope she would as I’d have a few things to say to her – and inform me that what I was doing was going to be made completely illegal, and I’d say ‘thank you very much ma’am’, I don’t care, I’m going to go straight home and carry on doing exactly what I do every day anyway. It’s a resilience.

Using what’s local and around you.


Indeed, and if you consider the herb miles as an important part of your practice, it can be. I’d say that 60% of my dispensary comes from either my own garden or my own plot of land – or within a couple of miles of them. Obviously there are some things that I can’t find locally or grow in this climate, so probably, 30% is bought in, either because I can’t grow enough of it or it can’t be grown here. Examples like Rhodiola – yes, Rhodiola grows wild on Snowdon, but it’s an endangered plant here and I wouldn’t want to go digging it up just to make medicine with.


It’s fun.


Yes. Making your own medicines _is_ fun. It depends on just how much of a herb-geek you are. As it turns out, this is not just my occupation, or my business. It’s these days pretty much my life. I live and breathe herbal medicine from the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to bed at night, and it is not unusual to find me in the evening after a clinic day, sitting in the dispensary with the radio going, with the still going, burbling away making something. Or pressing tinctures, or cleaning bottles, or…

The nice thing about being a herbalist, who’s self employed is that you can work any 16 hours a day you like! Half time at weekends!

Answer:  You get to know the plants more intimately.


‘You get to know the plants more intimately’ – thank you! By doing that, you form a relationship with them, but the relationship is not just a relationship of ‘this plant does that in these circumstances’, it’s a case of ‘I know and feel what this plant does because I’ve interacted with it’. You can say where it’s grown, how it’s grown; probably grew it yourself. You have some kind of sympathetic connection with it and in terms of informing our own practice, that is hugely important. The subconscious acts as a very fast processor for our latent knowledge that’s hidden away in our ‘memory banks’ – we don’t sit there and think ‘have I got a list of actions and indications’ in your head, you think ‘that’s good for this’ – you might not know why, but it is because of subconscious connections being made. That subconscious process – call it intuition, call it subconscious knowledge, is improved greatly by interacting with the plants you’re working with. It also, by making you more effective as a practitioner, gives you more noticeable and positive clinical results – because you’re interacting with the process more and it is potentiating what you’re doing.

Audience Member:

‘Much better quality’.


Much better quality. Thank you! Again, some professional herbalists would say ‘how could you possibly know if this is of any quality if you don’t have an HPLC trace on it to hand? Well, how did people know anything before such laboratory tests? Well, you’ve got a nose, you’ve got taste – you’ve got all your senses. You’ve got eyes, you’ve got the sense of touch. You can tell from how the medicine smells, tastes, looks and feels, and how you notice its sense of ‘movement’ in the body, how it feels on the skin, it’s qualities – you can tell, by interacting with the medicine what its qualities and its quality is. If I made Meadowsweet floral water, like we’re doing now, and it wasn’t particularly drying on the tongue, I’d think ‘hang on, what have I done wrong here?’, because Meadowsweet should be very drying, it should be quite astringent: It should taste a little bit like putting a teabag on your tongue! So yes, quality: quality is a very important thing. You know the quality of what you’ve got from the minute you harvest a blossom or dig up a root, through to the minute you put it in a tincture bottle, to the minute you dispense it to a patient – because you’ve midwifed that medicine from garden to patient. You’ve walked it’s journey juts as much as it will walk a journey with the patient in use.

Audience Member:

‘Teaching people these foraging and medicine making skills changes their relationship to and acceptance of the medicine’.


Completely. And in my experience people have a sort of inherent excitement at this. Go on a herb walk and start explaining to people what’s going on, and what plants do what, and people get excited: they want to know, to taste, to experience – they’ll start running up to you with bits of plant that may or may not be medicinal or may or may not be dangerous even, asking ‘what’s this’ ‘what does it do’ ‘how can I use it’. People have the sort of aura of a child on Christmas morning when they see this stuff. They know that their bodies have co-evolved with this medicine for hundreds of thousands of years – and that it’s part of our very genetic and evolutionary ancestry to interact with these plants in this way. Our own bodies and their metabolic processes are a mirror of what the herbs are doing. On the very simplest level, we breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; plants do the reverse. That’s a very low level example, but on many levels we have co-evolved with plants since the very first animal cell formed, and on a medicinal level we have co-evolved to respond and react to these plants in our minds and bodies.

So yes, I would say that there’s a very strong element of empowerment to medicine making; and it’s on two levels. You can show people how to make medicines on a basis that’s not much different than cooking, and that’s all any kind of chemistry is really – but with a bit more precision. People will feel excited that they can do this. And at a practitioner level, things like this still here: okay, it looks very complicated, but if you put a little time in, it’s not that complicated to understand or do. With a little bit of attention you end up with having tools to do quite advanced pharmacy, and it can be made simple – I mean, I could describe the process of setting this still up and getting it going on one side of ‘A4’ paper – this is not Ph.D. level stuff here guys – this is stuff you can do in your own kitchen; every single damn one of you – this evening, if you went out and bought the Alembic still (and I’m not selling them by the way!). There is no reason why every single person in this room has not got the skills to do what I’m doing now: you just don’t know it! And that applies to practitioners as well as it applies to anyone else.

Audience Member:

Asks about authority in the process.


We have authority in this process on three different layers: there’s the authority of taking back control of the pharmaceutical process, and saying ‘I as a herbalist, with my experience, training, and skills verify the quality of this product because I know what I’m doing’ and actually, we all do to some level. Even lay people, not just practising herbalists have that sense of what feels right and what feels wrong.

For instance I opened a macerating jar of Hawthorn tincture that I’d been making a couple of days ago before I came up here, and my mother came into the dispensary and said ‘what the hell happened here’ – now Hawthorn blossom smells like death at the best of times, but she came in and said ‘what the heck’s gone wrong with that, it smells awful’. And yes, it had gone off and I had to pour it down the drain. It didn’t smell right, there was something wrong with it. I actually think there was some kind of bacterial growth – I hadn’t put enough alcohol in the tincture maybe, or possibly air bubbles in the soaking plant material that spoiled it. But it didn’t smell right, and isn’t worth risking so I just put it down the drain. But again, you learn to feel what’s right and what’s wrong, more on a somatic level than anything else. I didn’t need to put it through an HPLC machine to say ‘well the lines here indicate… …I smelled it and just thought ‘that’s going down the drain’. You’ve got the tools you need already – effectively you’ve got a little lab in your own body; as when you smell or taste something your body performs very complex chemical reactions trying to work out what it’s dealing with. You don’t need an HPLC machine. You might not know what you’re doing, or have the experience, in which case you probably do, but if you’ve got some kind of sympathy for what you’re doing and the process of working with the plants, you’ll know pretty well. If it looks and smells like the plant did when it went into the start of the process, you’ve done alright; if it doesn’t; have a look at what went wrong.

Then there’s the authority of giving medicine to the patient, dispensing. You know that you have done the best that you can and you know the providence of the medicine and where if came from. I’m not entirely certain that when I open brown bottles from *manufacturers’ name redacted* that I know what I’m dealing with – I can’t tell you anything about it. It’s a brown fluid that tastes sort of tincture-ey. Some of the aromatic ones do taste or smell of the original plant, but on the whole what I have is a brown, oxidised liquid, and that as far as I can say could be oak bark chippings or it could be ginseng root (slight exaggeration) and I’m not entirely certain what it is. There’s no way me telling. But I can tell you damned well what I’ve done to this Meadowsweet that I picked three days ago and dried above the Aga before I came here. So there’s the authority of being able to give to the patient with the confidence of saying ‘well, I know what this is, and I know its history’.

And lastly, there’s authority over our own body. If we use our own medicines we will have interacted with ourselves in a very personal way which will potentiate the actions of what we have placed into the body, upon it. Because your own body has invested its time in making the medicine, and the medicine will invest its time in you. It’s a co-creative relationship. The same applies to a lesser extent with dispensing.

So, taking back authority. It used to be that a apothecary’s apprenticeship would be a lot longer than modern herbalists train for. I’m not going to slag off anyone’s training programme or how they do it. I’ve gone through various different modes of training myself, from asking people how to do this stuff through to going and getting the degree. And at the end of the day, no system is any better or worse than others, though there are areas where things are left out and practical pharmacy is one of them. Actually making stuff from scratch is often omitted. Probably because the only way to do it is to do it, and most of the courses are trying to go distance learning and minimise contact time and everything that goes with it. And that’s fine, but you can read the books as much as you want – until you’ve metaphorically loaded the still and lit it, theory becomes irrelevant.

Audience Member:

Asks about what qualifications are needed to make stuff, distil, etc.


In this instance with the still, there’s nothing in the law that says you can’t go and a still – what’s illegal is putting alcohol in it and making liquor in it. And I know plenty of people in North Wales who do that too! *Tells a story about colourful locals and their moonshine – omitted!* But there are loads of these stills available – you can find them on Ebay, and if you use them for making floral waters, you’ll be fine! Use it for making alcohol; as long as you have a look at what you’re doing, you’ll also probably fine – just not in the eyes of the law! And there are websites out there that tell you how to do that too! Because information is not illegal, though doing things with it might be.

So, why would you want to make your own? Well:

  • Control of quality

  • Guarantee of supply

  • Independence from interference
  • Cost Savings

  • Personal Connection and Empowerment.

I’d say that’s a pretty good case really!

So, what does it take to make a medicine? Can it be simplified or complicated? I’d argue that it can be either. As long as you’re doing the right steps in the right order – it’s a bit like dancing (for those who were at the Ceilleidh last night!). So how simple or complicated you want to make stuff is up to you. Obviously the still here is quite a complicated thing in its nature, it’s probably something most wouldn’t have in their home. But you can make it simple. Like I said, I can write the instructions out on the back of an envelope and you could probably follow them and get pretty good results most of the time. If you stuck a thermometer in the top and worked out the evaporation point of what you want to extract and so on, and the pressure in the chamber, and computed that you’d probably get something very similar. One has a bit more feel to it and a bit less precision, one has a bit more precision and a bit less feel. But at the end of the day, as long as the stuff coming out the end of the pipe is a good quality, and you can experience and verify it by taste, smell, and everything else – who cares!

So, how much you complicate or simplify things it up to you. And I was always taught that the art of being a good teacher is to make the complicated seem simple – and the simple seem revealingly complicated enough to create new understandings. It’s the same with medicines.

So going beyond the main way that professional herbalists work with medicines, which is in the form of alcoholic tinctures. Tinctures, infusions, creams and ointments. Etc. Now how would you use the stuff (floral water) coming out of this still? Well, you could put it in a water containing cream easily enough. You wouldn’t use it in an infusion as you’d need impractically large quantities. Tinctures are the main application of floral water unless you use the floral water on its own – And yes, you can use a floral water on its own, like I said about Witch Hazel earlier. But in terms of the tincture, most people – or most herbalists – make tinctures by macerating herb material in alcohol and water in a certain percentage and leaving it there to steep. Basically soaking the stuff in a blend of alcohol and water or a spirit like vodka. And there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s the ‘folk’ way of making tinctures but if you’ve got an alcohol licence you can go beyond that.

If you’ve got a woody root or bark, you can boil half of it and make a decoction and use that as the ‘water’ phase of the tincture along with alcohol in which you soak the other half of the roots. If you’ve got aerial parts of a herb, or blossoms, or berries that don’t contain volatile oils or aromatics, you can take half and make a very strong tea of infusion, and use that as the basis for the water phase of the tincture. But by far the most exciting possibilities come when you use aromatic distilled waters as the water phase of a tincture. So in effect, you are going beyond the traditional tincture.

As I may have mentioned earlier when we were setting up and talking to people, an average tincture is usually one part herb to three parts fluid in which is steeps; this gives a ratio of 1:3. The ratio of alcohol to water varies, but often 45% alcohol and 55% water will be used. But the strength is 1:3. Using the distillate or floral water (or indeed decoctions or infusions of herbs) as the water part of the tincture, you can easily get up to a 1:1 strength – one part herb to every one part of liquid – 1 gram of herb for every ml of fluid.

There are about 750 grams of Meadowsweet in the still, and I’m going to be getting about a litre of floral water from it. We’ve got about enough there to make a litre and a half of tincture, and it’s not a particularly big stretch of the imagination to put another 750 grams of fresh, finely chopped or pulped Meadowsweet in a maceration jar and being able to cover it with that litre and a half of menstruum – you can then get a strong tincture without needing to mess around with percolation columns and other ways of making tinctures at a 1:1 strength. So it is a good way of uprating tinctures. Through the act of processing the herb, in this case by distilling it, you have made the herb greater than the sum of its parts – you have expanded it and you have enriched it through refining it. What we’re doing now is refining the herb in a way.

So, you can indeed go beyond the scope of basic kitchen medicine if you’re a practitioner, quite easily. And you should! These are skills that shouldn’t be confined to one or two people, they shouldn’t be confined at all. Everyone who calls themselves a herbalist should be able to know how to do it, even if they don’t do it regularly, and anyone with an interest should be able to obtain the equipment to do this and have the interest to do it if they want to. This information and knowledge should be made publically available.

Knowledge is power in the truest sense of the word and it’s a power that we risk losing if we’re not very careful. Herbal medicine is not in danger, as often is reported; it does not need laws, legislation, regulations or other regulatory apparatus in order to survive – it’s actually in a rude state of health, possibly the healthiest it’s been for some time. But it will thrive or it will die on apathy. Or lack of apathy. As long as people are interested in filing rooms like this, and asking questions, learning, and getting involved, herbalism will stay in very good health. And will continue to be so. The minute people stop showing an interest and stop getting involved is when it will die, and we will hand over our God-given birthright to the pharmaceutical companies and ‘herbal pharma’ which is starting to crop up to feed that apathy.

Coming to the end of the blathering, but we’re coming to the end of the distillation too: We’ve got about 500 ml of floral water, and I think that’s about time to call it quits for today, cause the still’s going to need time to cool down before I pack up! So I think it’s time to turn off the heat to the still, and turn off the rather infuriating pump!

Then we will pass around the result of our efforts!

Audience Member:

Asks about doses for tinctures of various strengths.


Erm, you know in a lot of the herb books, if you get something like ‘A Clinical Guide to Blending Liquid Herbs’ by Mills and Bone (That name always gets me – Not ‘Mills and Boone’ but Mills and Bone!) it has the differences in there for dosage between Tinctures (1:3) and Fluid Extracts (1:1). Because it’s not completely a fluid extract of the macerated herb, because some of the herbs is present as a distilled component, I tend to just use the same doses as I would for normal tinctures. You’re going to get more strength to some degree. But more than that you’re going to get more vitality by having more of the body of the herb – the aromatics and the volatiles. In terms of strength, herbs don’t work like a drug, you double the amount, you’re not necessarily going to double the effect – but what you get is a fuller spectrum of effect, a fuller profile of what you have worked to achieve. So I don’t tend to change my doses at all. In some ways a Fluid extract is the wrong term – the correct term for these tinctures is a 1:1 distilled tincture.

* End of formal talk – the Meadowsweet floral water, a tincture, and some of the residue from the still (strong tea) are passed round for smelling, then tasting by the audience and more questions are asked. Refer to the recording for the discussion!*.

Note: This talk is centered on the philosophy and practice of medicine making and practical skills, and does not necessarily reflect modern herbal practice, although the role of these skills is very much applicable to modern herbal practice.
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How I Set Up The Still (Step By Step)

The photos below show the components of the still and its ancillaries. The important parts are the copper 'pot' or main vessel of the still, the 'neck' of the still, and the condensing coil which is bathed in water. Also included is a small circulation pump which supplies the pot the condensing coil sits in with cool water.

Neck of StillThe neck of the still where it slots into the top of the condensing coil - it is a 'put over' joint with the end of the neck of the still inserting into the condensing coil.

Condensing Coil - Labeled IllustrationThe attachments to the condensing coil/unit. You can add a short piece of pipe to the condensate outlet if you wish. If you need, the hoses can be attached to the cooling inlet and outlet attachments with 'jubilee' clips if needed, or they can just be pushed on.

Water Pump AssemblyThe pump is powered by a small battery or a low voltage power supply. Again, hoses can be attached with jubilee clips, or pushed on. Here, I've wrapped cellotape around the pump fittings to make for a better fit!

Assembled StillThe assembled still, without hoses.

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Links of Interest & Where to Buy Equipment

Potz Copperware -  Ebay importer of copper stills that I bought my alembic from. I bought the 3 litre still, and the matching copper sieve tray.

12 Volt Electric Pump - Cheap and Chinese, but does a splendid job of cooling the condensing coil. I power mine either on a 9v PP3 battery or from a mains adaptor.

Plastic Food Grade Flexible Pipe - I bought 5 metres. I just push it on to the pump and attachments on the Alembic, however you may also need small jubilee clips to make a good seal.

Further Reading
Making Hydrosols/Floral Waters in an improvised still

Home Distiller - Making alcohol in a small still (the dark side of the path!)
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