Update: A summer full of distilling and planting

Hello friends and supporters, this update is long overdue and I really appreciate your patience over the last few months. It’s been a wild ride so far and I am happy to say that I am thrilled to still be 100% committed to the success of Blue Ridge Aromatics!

In this update I will talk about:

  • Fulfilling the perks for our Indiegogo supporters
  • Building the still and our 13+ distillations over the last 3 months
  • Planting our aquaponic greenhouse
  • Our first essential oil sales

Indiegogo Perks

Good news everyone! Perks will begin shipping out on the 1st of September! Two plant species have been staples of our Summer 2015 distillations; Red Spruce and Leyland Cypress. Read more about these essential oils below. In all, the essential oil that we pre-sold amounts to about 2 liters and we have produced about 1 liter (we have however, produced many gallons of hydrosol). Therefore, we will be shipping the perks in batches in order of Indiegogo contribution (first contributor is shipped first).

I want to say again, thank you for your patience! In short, we have encountered some surprises and navigated a few mistakes that turned into high-value learning experiences. The biggest surprise was the length of time required for the distillation of conifers (especially Red Spruce): 7-9 hours for a 35-50 lb batch (which yields about 5 to 6 of the small Indiegogo perk bottles). Seems an eternity compared to fleshy herbs, which distill in 15-45 minutes!

Still Building

Still Materials

Building the still was time-consuming and challenging but we are totally pleased with the final product! It can hold up to 50 lbs of plant material and automatically maintains constant low-pressure, low-temperature steam for up to 9 hours without refilling. It was built with 100% stainless steel using recycled materials wherever possible. For instance, the stainless barrels held cinnamon essential oil for a ubiquitous Atlanta, Ga based soft drink maker; the stainless screening for the plant material baskets came from unused but discarded washing machine drums (a pallet or two must have been bent in transit); the stainless waterproof electronics box, all of the stainless tubing and many stainless fittings were fortunate scrap yard finds. The dome for the top of the still was a traditional giant stainless Mexican cooking dish known as a Cazo. Of course, stainless steel was used for all welds.

Completed Still

Another key to the distilling puzzle is the receiver/separator; it collects the cooled steam (hydrosol) and oil from the still and gives it space to separate. The oil floats on top of the hydrosol; the latter of which drains from an outlet at the bottom of the separator. We tried building our own separator from stainless tubing… but quickly learned it needs to be adjustable and we need to see what’s happening inside. So we found a great local glass blower to custom build a laboratory-quality one based on some general principles and drawings. It works absolutely flawlessly! Plus, look at it… Beautiful.

Essential Oil Receiver

Summer Distilling

Our first big batch (PR-001) was on May 21st, my birthday! It was 180 lbs of Red Spruce harvested near Hot Springs, NC at an elevation of 3700 ft.  We trimmed the boughs and branches that were dragging the ground and catching vines on a small stand of trees. The 7-8 hour batch times surprised us with a marathon distillation lasting 3 days! Since then, harvests have been smaller but more frequent.

Red Spruce After Harvest

Red Spruce (Picea rubens) essential oil is perhaps a little sweeter and more floral than a Christmas tree in a bottle. Truly delightful aroma. Spruce oils are known in aromatherapy for their stimulating effects (energy and body systems) and lung and sinus health.

Leyland Cypress Ready for the Still

Leyland Cypress (Cupressus leylandii) essential oil has elements of pine and citrus. Most people really like this one! Cypress oils are considered relaxing and beneficial for skin as they are astringent, antiseptic and work well as a deodorant.

*Few studies exist on the analysis and uses of Leyland Cypress and fewer still specifically discuss Red Spruce.  In general, chemical components of related species (i.e. Black and Red Spruce) are mostly the same in slightly different ratios. We recommend testing any essential oil before topical use in a 10% dilution in a carrier oil such as jojoba or coconut.

In all we filled the still 13 times since May 21st and had the opportunity to distill a few small herbal batches, including Southern Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pycnanthemoides) and Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), both of which we will be doing again in much larger quantities!

We have started trimming (specific) residential trees for free in the Asheville area in exchange for plant materials and have a large Leyland batch coming up!


3 Sets of Aquaponic Grow Beds and 500 Gallons of Fish Tanks at the End

On August 1st we moved into our greenhouse! This is a different greenhouse than the one described in the Indiegogo campaign. It turns out that the grow towers were sun-rotted and crumbling. The initial investment in new tower pots, growing medium and nutrients would have been way out of reach. Then we found Smith Mill Works! This is a 25+ acre former Poinsettia growing facility that is being renovated one greenhouse and warehouse at a time for small-businesses with a focus on local and sustainable goods and services.

Here I met Michael with Aquaponics 4 All and reached an agreement to rent his equipment and half of his greenhouse. We started planting immediately! In aquaponics, fish eat, then produce waste, which is converted to plant-usable nutrients by beneficial bacteria in the floating-raft grow beds. In turn, the plants clean the water of these nutrients and return it to the fish clean and clear. It is a recirculating all-natural and self-regulating system that uses far less water than traditional soil or even hydroponic agriculture. We currently have about 75 beautiful tilapia in the system, ranging from 1/4 inch fry to the foot-long “Goliath” and they are very happy, eating and reproducing vigorously! It’s a much smaller greenhouse and we won’t be able to scale up as quickly but the smaller system is more versatile, sustainable and affordable. It also has the added benefit of 3000 gallons of water as a heat sink for the cold winter months, reducing heating requirements and facilitating simple passive/waste heat options.

Plant starts were purchased locally from Reems Creek Nursery and Sandy Mush Herb Nursery while open-pollinated seeds were sourced locally from Sow True Seed. We have been propagating the following species for distillation (after a month, the grow beds are half full with little plants):

Based on propagation and growth rates, our most likely first greenhouse distillations will be Spearmint, African Blue Basil and Chocolate Mint (I’m in love with the Blue Basil)!

Our First Essential Oil Sales

Cash is king right? In a start-up business, I think it is. Without large equity investors or soul-robbing debt, a new business has to be scrappy. A stretched build time and under-estimated costs led to a further need of capital… so I sold a car, traded a small sailboat for a motorcycle, sold it, and sold my other motorcycle. But that’s totally ok! This is my passion and I would do it again.

We’ve laid the groundwork for wholesale customers and interest has definitely increased since we started having oils to sample! We have to balance this need for cash with our obligations to you, our supporters, with the wholesale relationships we’ve been cultivating and with opportunities to sell our products at full retail in festival/farmer’s market settings. We have allocated half of the oil we have made to our Indiegogo supporters and will continue to do so until the perks are fulfilled. We sold several bottles at a small craft beer festival in Waynesville, NC and have several more at Blaizing Lotus Healing House in downtown Asheville. Blaizing Lotus is owned by my dear friends Joe and Allie and they opened with excellent reviews right around the same time as Blue Ridge Aromatics’ first distillations!

For the next month while our plants grow we’ll be focusing on wild-harvested distillations but we expect to have cultivated oils available by November 2015. We are grateful and amazed at the support we have received in the launch of Blue Ridge Aromatics! Thank you to our crowdfunding supporters, our new customers, and for the enthusiasm from natural healing practitioners and makers!

– Ian Montgomery

Aromatic Alchemist, Blue Ridge Aromatics

1 thought on “Update: A summer full of distilling and planting

  1. Loved reading this very thorough update, Ian. I’m so excited for you and to get my paws on your products!

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