ALBANY — Ric and Gail Blasquez sometimes wonder if their neighbors think they are doing something illegal.
"I think maybe our neighbors believe we are moonshiners," said Gail.
And, in fact, they are running a still. But it has nothing to do with illegal alcohol. The soldered copper device in their front yard is all aboveboard.
It's all about lavender.
Ric and Gail distill a good portion of their home-grown lavender into essential oil that they use for a variety of products, from soaps to sprays for linens.
"It's a peaceful, calming plant," said Gail, about the herb that is the focus of the annual Moonshadow Gypsy Arts & Crafts Lavender Faire. The event will be held in northeast Albany this weekend.
Now in its fifth year, the event brings 1,000 or so people to the property to celebrate lavender. Arts and crafts vendors, music, workshops and demonstrations will be featured. Extracting the oils adds to its many uses. And the still used to extract the oil from the herb is a piece of art in its own right.
An Arab still, the five-piece device uses technology that dates back 1,000 years. More elaborate large, modern versions are available for completing the process, but Ric likes the feel of the traditional still. "It's old-school," he said.
The process is powered by steam, so it begins by boiling water in the base of the still. Cut, dry lavender blooms are stuffed into the neck and upper portion. Wheat paste applied by hand seals the seams in the neck. "The modern versions would use rubber gaskets, but this is more fun," Ric said.
The steam from the boiling water is forced up the cylinder and through the lavender in the upper bell, forcing oil out of the plant and through a tube into a condenser. Cold water is pumped into the condenser and super-heated. The steam is recondensed into liquid hydrosol (distilled water with fine micro-particulates of oil).
When the temperature in the top tower reaches 60 degrees Celsius, Ric starts the pump. When the temperature reaches 80, typically that means the product is coming through the tube.
The essential oil flows to the surface. Ric then adjusts a valve to separate the oil, which escapes through another tube into a container. The hydrosol is released into a second container and used in spritzes and sprays. "The entire process takes about an hour," Ric said.
One run produces between a half-ounce to an ounce-and-a-half of oil, depending on variety. Gail said the still produces about a quart of oil each year. "We use the oil for all sorts of products and we sell some of it in bottles," she said. "It takes about 2 ounces of oil to make soap."
The Lavender Faire is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday at the Moonshadow Farm, 34556 Mountain View Place N.E. in Albany.
Ric will be demonstrating lavender oil distilling. It's a skill he acquired on his own. The still, he said, "didn't come with instructions. I was a high school science teacher and even then I had to sit back and take a long look at it. But it's pretty basic stuff."
Although Ric will be demonstrating this weekend, Gail also is skilled in the distilling process. Both like its ancient roots. "It gives us a great product," Ric said. "but I really enjoy the science and art of it."