Do you ever wonder how your lotions and potions are made, or who made them? We delve into the natural beauty staple, flower water, to get a glimpse into the world of distillation.
Flower waters come in various forms, and while a floral scented water appears simple, the process to create them is not. Long and highly precise, it takes a delicate touch, plenty of experience, and a patient mind to craft floral waters by hand (the best way, of course), and Amanda Saurin, founder of A.S Apothecary, certainly possesses all those qualities.
A master of her craft, Amanda knows flowers and herbs inside-out when it comes to their therapeutic properties, and exactly how to extract them. We chatted to her to find out more about life at her very own distillery in the beautiful English countryside, and how the finest floral waters are forged all the way from the ground to the bottle.
EcoSalon: Most of us have heard of flower waters, but can you explain exactly what they are?
Amanda Saurin: Flower waters are quite magical – they are the gentler relative of essential oil. In artisanal production, when a plant is distilled, it either sits in or above the water in the retort (the big copper pot). As the water heats, the oil glands break open releasing the essential oil into the water. The oil and water soluble elements of the plant become steam in the heat of the Alembic (distilling apparatus) rising through the onion top, along the swan neck and finally into the condenser. The condenser is cold and so as the steam meets the cold coils it turns back into a liquid. The liquid exits the condenser into a separator. This liquid is a mix of both flower water and essential oil. Generally, essential oil is lighter than the flower water so it slowly comes to rest on top. The flower water contains some of the essential oil that have remained in solution and other aromatics from the plant itself.
ES: How have they been traditionally used in health and beauty?
AS: Flower waters have been used in health and beauty for as long as there have been Alembics. They are intensely therapeutic. Of a few of the plants I distil I use Clary Sage to speed along births and to aid concentration, Orange Blossom as a mood lifting slightly astringent spritz, Lavender to calm and relax as well as for its antiseptic properties, Rose to cool the skin and heal the spirit and Pink Pepper to refresh and brighten the skin and as an amazing flavor enhancer in gin. We probably sell most Geranium for its phenomenal effects on skin prone to hormonal change. It is such a precious plant. Flower Waters are incredibly versatile. Scent is utterly evocative, a spritz of a familiar plant can transport you back to a time or place, it is powerful indeed.
ES: At your distillery, what is the process to create a floral water from the plant right to the end?
AS: We are unique in that we go to the plants rather expecting them to come to us. We grow 200+ Roses and Lavender, Clary Sage, Chamomile, Calendula and many other plants. We travel to Cyprus to pick and distill Orange Blossom, Pink Pepper and Geranium. At the farm, we grow organically, tend, pick and distill our plants at exactly the right moment. They are fresh, they haven’t had to travel for miles and they are all picked by hand. This gives us the very best quality flower water. For the plants in Cyprus we keep a large Alembic a few minutes from where we pick.
Our distillations are very slow and careful, we distill for flower waters and essential oils separately so that we can keep the essential oils in suspension in the flower water – the therapeutics are so much greater that way. This is never done commercially because it is time-consuming and the most commercially valuable part of a plant is the essential oil. We like to think about it differently – in therapeutics rather than profit.
At the end of a distillation, we give the remaining water in the Alembic to a friend to use as a dye and the spent plant matter is composted and used to feed the new plants. Nothing is wasted.
ES: What led you to set up your own distillery and create AS Apothecary?
AS: I set up my own distillery because I come from a therapeutic background and I wanted my patients to have access to the best quality products. I didn’t seek out distilling in the first place, I was living in Cyprus and met a wonderful woman, Mariam Khan, who introduced me to this amazing art. I was immediately hooked, making my own aromatics was such a brilliant contrast to smelling adulterated or poor quality essential oils and flower waters. Also with 30 years of working with plants, I really felt that I understood how to get the best out of every plant I used.
A.S APOTHECARY is an extension of my work as a Homeopath and Herbalist, it has allowed me to offer products into the beauty industry that are uncompromising, absolutely beautiful, made by hand and with as much care as a therapeutic preparation for a patient. The beauty industry is built on making women feel dissatisfied with themselves, on producing ever more products, but most of all it is driven by huge profits. This means that most companies look for a palatable part of their process creating a whole story around it but failing to reveal most of the process. We wanted to offer something different, products that work well, are gentle and effective. We also wanted our methods and ingredient production to be transparent. Having the distillery means that we can invite customers into our world, they can chat with us, volunteer to pick or plant and really understand what we are doing.
ES: How does the art of distilling, and using the final product, tie into mindfulness?
AS: The way I distill is to listen. I’m often asked about the temperature of the water, length of distillation, temperature of the condenser and so many other questions. In the end, it comes down to listening and understanding the needs of each plant. I load the Still grateful for the harvest and then slowly seal the joints before lighting the burner. Loading the Still is wonderful – there is total joy in putting handful after handful of flowers into the water and becoming immersed in the scent and process. Once the Still is lit I listen to the sound, I know exactly the sound of the plants moving in the water that will yield the best flower water and essential oil. I turn the heat up or down until it is exactly right. I feel the vibration of the moving water through the swan neck. It is both mesmeric and deeply soothing.
Once the sound and vibration are right, I wait and wait for the moment when there is a little puff of vapor from the exit to the condenser. It is called the angel’s breath, the moment that precedes the flow of flower water when the vapor captures the very essence of the plant. It still delights me, even after hundreds of distillations.
I love the idea that our products are used to create a ritual of self-care – an opportunity to engage fully with ourselves. Many women use our Cleansing Oil as a transition between work and home. They get home, go to their bathroom and slowly allow a few drops to fall onto their fingers before massaging it onto their skin to wipe away not only make up but also the day’s events that precede it. It is transformative. The scent is enveloping, comforting and intensely soothing. The process of massaging it into the skin and rinsing with warm water to remove the grime of the day is cathartic, healing both for skin and spirit. When products are made with such care, they are so much more than the sum of their parts, each little pot is imbued with our care and positivity. Human scale production makes such a difference.
ES: Are there any kinds of plants and flowers that are better for distilling than others?
AS: There are plants that will fairly easily give up their treasure like Lavender for example. It is a plant that is full of oil and tough. Other plants such as Orange Blossom are much harder – it’s easy to get a flower water but very difficult to capture the scent without undesirable notes. Equally with Roses. I have smelled some horrid flower waters of both Neroli and Rose where I can smell that the petals have been overheated or the process has been too violent. Some plants just won’t distill well – Lilac is a good example. Within seconds it smells of cabbage, not nice at all. Sometimes I’ve thought that a plant was impossible only to realize that actually I was too impatient or picking it at the wrong part of the season. What many people don’t realize is that plants change scent during a flowering season – early Lavender is green smelling, sharp and bright. At the end of the season, it is so much richer, rounder, fuller. These are the things you learn as you experiment. Equally, depending on the rainfall, sunlight, soil conditions, a plant will produce a very different scent – every year is an adventure.
ES: What are some of the more unusual flowers you’ve managed to create a water from?
AS: I have distilled Ladies Bedstraw (Galium verum) which smells of honey and dry meadow hay, Heather (Caluna vulgaris) which reminds me of creamy butter, Cistus which captures some of the glorious Labdanum resin, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) full of nutty sweetness and so many more. Being a plantswoman and a distiller is dangerous indeed – I’m constantly thinking of things to experiment with.
ES: If you’re introducing a floral water into your skincare regime for the first time, what are some of the best botanicals to start with and their benefits?
AS: There are four flower waters to always have on hand – Rose to cool, soothe redness and refresh sensitive skin, Orange Blossom to very gently tone and treat the skin and Lavender to calm the mind and aid restful sleep, to help prevent infected breakouts and treat any kind of minor burn or sting. Finally, Geranium which is the most glorious hormone balancer and treatment for spots.
ES: Could someone potentially create a floral water at home using the distillation method?
AS: Yes, you can make flower waters at home using a very big pan. Put the pan on the cooker, put a brick inside and stand a bowl on top. Put plant matter around the outside of the bowl in the pan until it’s level or just above the height of the brick. Add water to the pan but be careful not to splash it into the bowl. Fill it until it is just below the top of the brick. Put the pan lid on upside down so that there is an inverted apex and fill the outside of the pan lid with ice. Turn on the cooker and heat it until steam starts to form. The steam will rise in the pan, hit the cold lid and then run into the apex finally dripping into the bowl. It’s not sophisticated but it does work.