Which copper still is best?
Organic materials, like plants and mushrooms, can be packed with aroma, flavor and even health benefits. Still, sometimes those are locked up in raw materials that aren’t easily or safely digested. One way to get the most out of aromatic herbs or wild-foraged fungi is through the process of distillation. To distill chemicals, you need a still and copper stills have been among the most popular and effective for hundreds of years.
The best copper still for most people is the Copper Pro Essential Oil Distiller due to its premium construction, moderate size and relative ease of use. However, there are some other options worth considering if you want to make larger batches or save a bit of money.
What to know before you buy a copper still
How distillation works
Distillation uses heat and evaporation to separate useful and valuable chemicals from the plants, fungi or other materials where they formed. The process involves mixing everything with water and heating the mixture until it boils. As long as the boiler unit is properly sealed, the resulting vapors are forced through a condenser, which passes the evaporated mixture over a cold conductor and causes it to condense into a liquid.
Hydrosols vs. essential oils
The liquid that results from the condensation process (called the “distillate”) contains water, water-soluble compounds and the essential oil of the starting material. One thing to keep in mind is that “essential” in this context doesn’t mean “vital” or “necessary,” but instead refers to an oil that possesses the essence of the material. Many plants, for example, have highly aromatic chemicals locked up in their cell walls that can’t be reliably isolated using simple extraction via heat or alcohol.
Most people who want to distill the essence of a plant or other natural material won’t stop with a still. Whether you’re aiming for concentrated essential oils or a subtly fragrant water-based product (known as a hydrosol), you’ll have to separate the oil from the water-soluble mixture. You can use a combination of syringe and evaporation to do so. There are also special kits made specifically for the task, although they require a little extra setup and attention to detail.
What to look for in a quality copper still
Pure copper material
Be wary of cheaply made copper stills. Copper is an essential material because it binds to and neutralizes certain compounds such as sulfur on a molecular level, thus drawing their potentially bitter flavors out of the end product. Stills made from poor quality or even practically fake copper will leave those bitter compounds in and impart their own off-flavors.
Durable seam construction
Some copper stills come with pre-soldered seams. In these cases, make sure that the solder material is free of any harmful or unusual materials. One example is the flux found in some types of solder. A high-quality soldering job should remove all of that flux and keep it or its byproducts out of the end product.
Other copper stills are made largely from single pieces of rolled copper that make up the boiler and condenser. These are slightly more prone to leaks and significantly less likely to introduce any off-flavors because there’s no solder or other chemicals to be concerned about.
As the capacity goes up, so does the level of difficulty in getting high yields and concentrated results. For that reason, most people opt for relatively small copper stills (e.g., about 3 gallons or less) when distilling essential oils at home.
How much you can expect to spend on a copper still
The most affordable home copper stills run about $250, with the most high-end topping out around $600.
Copper still FAQ
Can I distill alcohol at home in a copper still?
A. Not for drinking. It’s both federally illegal and extremely dangerous to distill liquor at home. Making distilled alcoholic beverages requires experience, knowledge and certification exclusive to licensed commercial establishments. Under no circumstances should you attempt to distill alcohol at home, no matter how confident you are. Even small mistakes can result in a dangerously tainted end product or even an unintentional explosion. If you want to produce your own alcohol at home, you’ll have to stick with wine or beer.
The only exception is if you plan on making fuel alcohol at home. The process still requires knowledge, experience and close attention to detail in addition to a permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Among other things, they require you to keep detailed records of your production and may at some point visit your workspace to ensure that you’re not producing alcohol to drink.
Does steam distillation work with all kinds of plants?
A. No, not all. The more delicate the plant and subtle its fragrance, the less effective steam distillation is. The aromatic compounds in many flowers (but not all) can’t withstand the high heat of steam distillation and break down when put in a still. Many popular essential oils such as calendula, jasmine and chamomile are extracted using what’s called supercritical CO2 extraction and the equipment to perform that method is generally expensive, complicated and extremely bulky.
What’s the best copper still to buy?
Top copper still
What you need to know: Unlike most other options, it both performs admirably and makes a great decoration and conversation piece.
What you’ll love: Its precision construction ensures consistent and leak-free operation in the long term. The 5L capacity is perfect for mid-sized batches of essential oils and hydrosol and maintenance and cleaning are relatively easy. The kit includes most of what’s needed for assembly, so you won’t have to make a big trip to the hardware store.
What you should consider: The only thing it doesn’t come with is a water pump for sending vapor through the condenser, but that’s common among home stills.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top copper still for the money
What you need to know: It offers a 3-gallon capacity, which is sufficient for most home distillers. It’s also available in a 9.6-gallon size.
What you’ll love: All parts are made of food-grade materials, including copper, stainless steel and silicone. A think bottom allows for a variety of heating methods, including gas stoves and firewood. The thermometer on the lid with a dual display of Fahrenheit and Celsius lets you easily monitor the temperature.
What you should consider: A rare few units develop leaks in a short amount of time that can be hard to fix.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: It’s one of the most popular on the market, but also among the hardest to assemble.
What you’ll love: While some copper stills look pretty, this one’s meant for pure performance. It’s crafted out of premium-quality copper and sports a simple yet effective design that helps you get the highest yield in the shortest amount of time. The 5-gallon version is highlighted here, but there’s also one that’s twice as big.
What you should consider: Ultimately, how long it lasts and how well it works comes down to how good of a job you do during assembly. It’s not the best choice if you don’t have any experience soldering copper.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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