Modern alchemy: craft distilling workshops for beginners

If you want to enter the world of distillation and aromatic botanicals, an Alembics distillation workshop is a great place to start. I found this out first-hand when searching for information on how to make hydrosols out of the bounty from my garden. After years of hard work establishing my own Eden, it was not just blossoming, but overflowing – lavender, rosemary, rose geranium, lemon verbena, and as many varieties of citrus as I could find.

Managing my plants and watching them grow, I became much more attuned to their properties, and how they varied with the seasons. Those armloads of fragrant branches from pruning took on a brand new significance now I was aware that I could turn them into something magical in a copper still.

This is how I came to be at the Auckland Botanical Gardens in Manurewa, the stunning backdrop for Jill Mulvaney’s Alembics workshops. I signed up for the Basic Distillation Techniques workshop, with the aim to set up my home distillation project.

As soon as you walk into the airy, sunlit space you’re greeted with the warm gleam of copper, piles of fresh botanicals and the array of Jill’s quintessences lined up for sampling. And of course – Jill herself, with her Alembics team, all who have a knack for making everyone feel at ease almost immediately.

The workshop is a hands-on learning experience, covering the basic processes for distilling hydrosols, essential oils and alcohol distillation. It begins with an introduction to the different types of stills, and what they are capable of doing – exactly what you need if you are thinking of buying a still yourself, but are unsure of what variety or size to go for.

And then we get straight into distilling, which is the best thing about this workshop – it’s a practical course based on including participants in the process. We walked through the set up of the still and its cooling systems for the first distillation, which in this case was making an eau-de-vie from red wine. Jill explains as she demonstrates, and answers questions as we go. It really is a hands-on workshop – she literally wants you to put your hands on the copper still as it heats up to feel the progress of the contents. She shows you how to listen for the rumbling sound of the still coming up to the boil, and how to pay attention to the changing aromas of the distillate.

We moved on to a rosemary hydrosol, and after stripping the leaves from the branches and packing the pot, we watched as the distillate came through, and an incredible scent suffused the room. Throughout this process, Jill fielded questions about the treatment of botanicals, the best time of year for harvesting and the many uses for hydrosols – most of which I hadn’t even contemplated before. Like misting some rosemary hydrosol over your roast lamb before serving. There were so many possibilities.

Botanicals being prepared for distillation

These workshops attract people interested in brewing and spirit-making, essential oils and therapeutic products, people making cosmetics and perfumes as well as growers and cooks. You learn as much from the questions that other participants ask, as the ones you have yourself – which is another benefit of the interactive nature of the course.

I appreciated Jill’s ability to cater to the interests of people from such a wide range of different backgrounds. She has been distilling for over 25 years, and is surrounded by a great team. Together, their interests are wide and their knowledge deep. And though they have been at it for years, it’s clear that Jill still truly enjoys introducing people to the craft of aromatic distillation. She has a warm and open approach to sharing her knowledge, and teaches with patience and humour.

I left the workshop equipped with a more precise knowledge of what I wanted to achieve at home and excellent instructions to follow. I also learned to trust my senses a lot more, and not to be so concerned with getting things absolutely perfect. The experience opened my eyes to the possibilities for experimentation. Maybe I was high on the rosemary, but I had never felt so uplifted.

There are further Alembics workshops covering Whisky distillation (Grain to Glass), all forms of botanical extraction (the Summer Masterclass) as well as my favourite, the Gin Immersion workshop.

I now make my own gin, as well as hydrosols from home-grown and foraged botanicals. It’s one of the most fun and rewarding experiences I’ve had.

I like to lay my hands on the copper still and begin to feel the warmth of its progress. It’s meditative, it sounds and smells alive, and I know I am making something incredible from what I have grown in my own garden. It’s nothing short of herbal alchemy. The workshops definitely demystified the process, but the transformation remains magical.

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