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Cannabis Distillate: What Is It and How to Make It?

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Aug 02, 2022   

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Image credit: ExtraktLAB

What is distillate?

A distillate is a highly purified cannabis product usually containing only one cannabinoid in high concentrations. Some THC distillates, for example, claim to contain as much as 99% THC.

Distillates typically appear as turgid, golden liquids or glassy solid slabs. Consumers often vaporize them in vaping devices to achieve a potent and strong high.

How to make cannabis distillate

Before any cannabinoids can be distillated, they must first be prepared and extracted. As outlined by Jon Thompson and Matt Anderson of extraktLAB in this previous Analytical Cannabis article, this preparation process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Drying the hemp or cannabis to 5-15% water content.
    (Learn more about drying cannabis here).
  2. Shucking the flower from the stems.
  3. Grinding of the flower to 2-300 microns to enable more efficient extraction.
  4. Extracting the material, either using ethanol or CO2.
    (Learn more about extracting cannabis here).
  5. Refining the cannabis product through winterization. This filtration process removes the waxes and fats from the extract.
    (Learn more about winterizing cannabis extracts here).

Cannabis extracts. Image credit: extraktLAB.


From here onwards, the cannabis extract is ready to be decarboxylated and then distilled, a process that removes the remaining solvents from the winterized solution. This requires heating and cooling equipment and a vacuum pump system to control the temperature and pressure.

How to distill THC and CBD

  1. Boil the extract to around 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 degrees Celsius). The heat will help convert the inactive forms of the cannabinoids (THCA and CBDA) into their active forms (THC and CBD). This process is called decarboxylation.
  2. Raise the temperature to 315 degrees Fahrenheit (157 degrees Celsius).
  3. Because the solvent has a lower boiling point than the cannabinoids, the solvent will evaporate first. Collect the ensuing steam into a separate condenser. This condensed liquid will contain the solvent and the extract’s terpenes and flavonoids.
  4. Raise the temperature to 320-356 degrees Fahrenheit (160-180 degrees Celsius), a temperature range that encompasses the boiling points of CBD and THC.
  5. Collect the ensuing steam into another condenser. This condensed liquid will contain the purified cannabinoids.
  6. The two liquids can then be reunited to form a terpene-flavored distillate.

The standard way to achieve all these steps is called short path distillation.

Short path distillation

“A common class that covers a range of distillation equipment is referred to as ‘short path’ but really isn’t due to the fact that the condenser is external to the evaporator,” extrakLAB’s Thompson and Anderson wrote in Analytical Cannabis previously.

“More accurately termed ‘fractional distillation,’ this kind of equipment is typically constructed of glass and is used for solvent removal and distillation on a laboratory scale due to its relative simplicity, small footprint, and lower price tag.”

However, many extractors, like Thompson and Anderson, prefer a method which ensures that the evaporated cannabinoids barely make contact with the heat source, reducing the risk of damage. This method is called thin film distillation.

Thin film distillation

“When it comes to cannabis products, it’s very important to incorporate thin film distillation,” Thompson and Anderson wrote.

“This will create a thin film of oil across an evaporative surface. This, coupled with vacuum pressure to lower boiling temperatures, ensures that the evaporated components (cannabinoids in this case) aren’t in prolonged contact with the heat source reducing the risk of damaging them.”

Despite these benefits, plenty of extractors opt to use rotary evaporators.

Rotary evaporation

“Likely the most commonly used equipment for solvent removal, rotary evaporators, or roto-vaps, utilize a rotating round bottomed flask to create a thin film,” Thompson and Anderson continued.

“The heat source is reliant on a warm bath that the round bottom flask rests in. This is particularly good solvent removal at a small scale, but is discontinuous. This means it’s generally not a scalable technology if you have a lot of solvent to remove.”

A rotary evaporator. Image credit: extraktLAB.

Rotary evaporation alone, though, can’t cope as the extract gets more refined and its viscosity increases. This is why wiped filtration must be introduced.

Wiped film evaporation

“Wiped film distillation machines use mechanical wipers that spread a thin layer of oil across a heated evaporative surface allowing the cannabinoids to evaporate and recollect on a chilled condenser that is only a short distance away,” Thompson and Anderson wrote.

“At this point, the final product could contain numbers of cannabinoids as high as 90% or more and should also be a nice golden color.”

How are distillates used?

Distillate products such as dab wax, shatter, and THC oil have risen in popularity since the early 2010s. They're preferred by seasoned consumers looking for a potent, instant high.

To consume solid distillates, such as shatter, many consumers opt to "dab" them, a process that involves heating a small amount of distillate with a nail, often an electrically controlled nail (e-nail) that allows temperature control. Some consumers have been known to take a more makeshift approach and heat a ceramic, titanium, or quartz nail with a crème brûlée torch. However, this is unlikely to produce a consistent temperature. All consumers then inhale the resultant vapors.

Liquid distillate, such as THC oil, can be consumed sublingually (under the tongue). 

What is the difference between concentrates and distillates?

The extraction processes used to produce concentrates don't necessarily remove other plant compounds like terpenes. So, unlike distillates, cannabis concentrates retain some of the terpenes naturally found in the cannabis plant.  However, distillates can also contain terpenes; they just have to be added in again after separation.


Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Newcastle University and a master's degree in science communication from the University of Edinburgh.

 

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