September 12, 2019

Cannabis Distillate: Everything You Need to Know

What Is Cannabis Distillate?

Cannabis is everywhere these days. The number of products available, both for medicinal and recreational use, is nothing short of incredible. They are also becoming purer and more potent. Consider for a moment: what would be the ultimate cannabis product? Well, cannabis researchers and producers have been trying to find a way to harness the highest concentrations of cannabinoids to manufacture something that could conceivably fit this description.

This is where cannabis distillate comes in. This is the final step in an overall extraction/purification process that results in an odorless, tasteless, and viscous oil that can meet virtually any type of medicinal or recreational need. If the final product has a high THC concentration, then it can also be referred to as THC distillate.

Remember: the distillation of cannabis is a post-processing extraction method done after solvent extraction. So the basic breakdown goes like this:

  • Raw cannabis plant material → Solvent/physical extraction → Cannabis distillation

After the first step of solvent extraction, you will end up with raw oil (also referred to as crude oil) with anywhere between 60 to 80% of THC/CBD concentration. That’s a pretty high number, but distillation bumps that purity up even higher. After a controlled distillation process, the resulting refined oil (also referred to as cannabis distillate or THC distillate) will have over 90% purity. Alternatively, there are physical extraction methods that result in a crude oil with much lower concentrations but may be preferable to certain producers.

Remember, there are also three basic kinds of solvent extraction:

  1. Hydrocarbon extraction
  2. Carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction
  3. Ethanol extraction

Each of these extraction methods will have differing yield outputs, safety profiles, and efficiency levels.

The Basics of Cannabis Distillation

Let’s take a look at how distillation works. First, let’s consider the basic components of the cannabis plant:

  1. Cannabinoids – These are extracted from the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids), with the two most prominent being cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Both of these have medicinal qualities, although only THC causes intoxication. Maximizing the concentrations of these cannabinoids is the ultimate goal of cannabis distillation or THC distillation (if THC is the cannabinoid being targeted).
  2. Terpenes – These are aromatic oils that are secreted by the same glands as CBD or THC. Over 100 different kinds of terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant, with each strain having a unique composition and combination of terpenes. These also enhance or complement the medicinal properties of the cannabinoids.
  3. Flavonoids – These are frequently overlooked in discussions about cannabis and its more than 200 bioactive compounds. However, flavonoids account for approximately 10% of these compounds with over 20 varieties existing in various strains of the cannabis plant. Furthermore, these are also what give the plant and its extracted products their distinct flavor.

These three different chemical components have different properties that play a role in the distillation process, with the most important being their boiling points at standard pressure (1 atmosphere). This boiling point can also be referred to as a vaporizing point (because the compounds are being vaporized). Due to these properties, a delicate process of extraction is applied to rip off the layers of chemicals and “distill” down to the good stuff: cannabinoids. Ultimately, that’s what this is all about!

Consider the following boiling points (at standard pressure of 1 atmosphere):

  1. THC – 157 degrees Celsius / 315 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. CBD – 160 to 180 degrees Celsius / 320 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Terpenes – Depending on the precise compound, anywhere between 119 C / 246 F and 157 C / 315 F.
  4. Flavonoids – Depending on the precise compound, anywhere between 134 C / 273 F and 178 C / 352 F.

Why are these boiling points important? Because the process of distillation is fundamentally a process of vaporization and condensation. In other words, an apparatus that heats a solution to a specific temperature will vaporize some specific compound (say, THC in this example) without destroying it. These vapors will then be condensed, resulting in a THC-rich final product.

Consider the following purification process: you take a volume of water, heat it to its boiling point (100 C / 212 F) until it turns into water vapor. This vapor is then rapidly cooled, causing condensation, and the water has been purified. In other words, distillation is fundamentally a process of purification. If you want pure and potent THC or CBD distillate, then distillation is the way to go.

How To Make Cannabis Distillate

Now we get to the good part — how the distillation process actually works and how to make cannabis distillate. So far, we know the three essential chemicals the plant contains, their basic properties, and their boiling points at standard pressure. We also know that the ultimate goal in making cannabis distillate is to have the highest cannabinoid concentration. Well, how do we get from three intricately woven compounds to a single one in its purest form?

Well, the technology to do this has been around for quite some time. Take alcohol for instance. Alcohol distillation uses boiling points of the different liquids in fermented alcohol to boil away additives and get to a concentrated alcohol liquid. Although alcohol distillation utilizes different mechanisms, the results are the same as cannabis distillation: a pure and highly concentrated element.

This is what inspired the cannabis industry to create a similar process. Consider this: a small bottle of concentrated THC or CBD is versatile, effective, and potent. That’s extremely appealing, isn’t it? If you prefer, it saves you the trouble of working with the plant material and, in a certain sense, gets you straight to the point.

So you may ask yourself how to make THC distillate or cannabis distillate (essentially the same product for the purposes of this article). Well, the distillation process involves a series of steps that remove unwanted chemicals that are found naturally in the plant as well as compounds that have been added in the cultivation process (pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers). This is done by using a variety of solvents and methods.

The entire extraction/distillation process usually follows these basic steps:

  1. Extraction – Remember that the overall distillation method is two-pronged, involving an initial extraction of crude oil followed by a distillation process. There are two ways this can be done: either using chemicals (solvents) or physical means. Sieving or rosin are common physical extraction methods and they yield concentrates with high amounts of physical impurities. Alternatively, chemical separation takes care of this problem. However, they do affect the chemical composition of the concentration. Remember, there are also the solvent extraction methods listed above that result in crude oil with respectable cannabinoid levels.
  2. Winterization – The extract from the first step then needs to go through a process of purification to get rid of unwanted byproducts and contaminates. As you might have guessed, winterization involves a super cold environment. By mixing the extract with ethanol and placing the mixture in this environment for up to 48 hours, leftover impurities such as fats, lipids, chlorophyll, and plant waxes coagulate and separate by falling to the bottom of the mixture. This leaves a purer concentration of the extract which can be separated from the impurities by simple filtration. To remove the leftover ethanol, a rotary evaporator (known colloquially as a rotovap or rotavap) can be used.
  3. Decarboxylation – At this point, we have a concentrated oil, but without the signature psychoactive effects. This is because a cannabinoid called THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is still present in the mixture. THCA loses its acidic form and turns into THC, the beloved intoxicating compound, after the application of heat in a process called decarboxylation. Temperature and time are the causative factors in this process as THCA begins its transformation at 104 C / 220 F. The process itself entails the removal of carboxylic acid from the cannabinoid by using heat. With the carboxylic acid attached, the cannabinoid will be processed as any other greens. Freeing up the cannabinoid from the attached carboxylic acid allows it to freely interact with the nervous system and bind to cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) as a psychoactive compound with both medicinal and recreational properties.
  4. Distillation – Finally, distillation! This is what we’ve been waiting for. This purification process utilizes heat, steam, and vacuum pressure to separate the chemical compounds within the concentrate so far to get to a concentrated cannabinoid distillate. At this stage, terpenes and flavonoids are extracted from the mixture, leaving behind the precious cannabinoids. This process requires careful monitoring of heat to reach the compounds’ specific boiling points. Being in a vacuum helps with controlling the temperature of the reaction, therefore minimizing the need for high heat to meet boiling points and potentially reducing the potency of the cannabis distillate. Slowly, the compounds are separated, and unwanted ones are discarded, leaving a refined collection of potent cannabinoids. Some processes require the mixture to undergo several rounds of distillation to reach optimal potency.

In answering the question of how to make cannabis distillate, those are the four fundamental steps. As you can see, it’s not exactly a simple process and requires sophisticated equipment with the ability to fine-tune the various parameters. Remember, you have to tightly control for temperature and pressure.

Decarboxylation and THC/Cannabis Distillate

Just one more quick note about decarboxylation. Remember, the raw cannabis plant material does not contain the cannabinoids in their active forms. Instead, it contains cannabinoid acids which must be decarboxylated (or “activated”) via the application of heat. Consequently, these are the most common cannabinoid acids and their corresponding decarboxylated cannabinoid forms:

  1. CBGA (cannabigerolic acid) → CBG (cannabigerol)
  2. THCA (delta 9 – tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) → THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)
  3. THCVA (tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid) → THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin)
  4. CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) → CBD (cannabidiol)
  5. CBCA (cannabichromenenic acid) → CBD (cannabichromene)
  6. CBGVA (cannabigerovarinic acid) →CBGV (cannabigerivarin)
  7. CBDVA (cannabidivarinic acid) →CBDV (cannabidivarin)
  8. CBCVA (cannabichromevarinic acid) →CBCV (cannabichromevarin)

Now, consider this: the very process of distillation requires the application of heat in order to vaporize the desired compound. So what does this mean? Well, making cannabis distillate also means that the plant material is being decarboxylated at the same time. It’s kind of like a nice bonus to the overall process!

Preserving the Flavonoids and Terpenes

When all the cannabis compounds are present, the product will have great efficacy and potency due to the entourage effect. This is because these various chemicals act synergistically to maximize the effects on cannabinoid receptors.

However, the various compounds (cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) have different boiling points, so how do you preserve all three to get that beneficial entourage effect? By using a process known as steam distillation and fractionation. This distillation process preserves all the bioactive compounds while removing all the solvent.

The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Use a solvent extraction process to extract all the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Choosing which process depends on your needs and the logistics of your operation.
  2. Start the cannabis distillation process by adding heat and boiling off the terpenes and flavonoids. Although there is some overlap in the temperature ranges of boiling/vaporizing points, in a closed system pressure can be manipulated to selectively boil off certain compounds. In general, however, most terpenes and flavonoids have boiling points below cannabinoids (below 157 C / 315 F).
  3. Allow this steam to pass through a tube cooled with water to condense the gas into a liquid. Now you have gathered most terpenes and flavonoids in a separate liquid.
  4. Continue to apply heat and raise the temperature until the cannabinoids boil off.
  5. Allow this steam to pass through a tube cooled with water to condense the gas into a liquid. Now you have gathered the cannabinoids in a separate liquid.
  6. Mix back together and then solidify to have your final cannabis/THC distillate.

This way you have a final distillate with all the precious bioactive compounds working together to give you maximum effect. Furthermore, this is how you end up with a final product that has 99% purity, making it particularly potent and effective.

What Is Short Path Distillation?

Now that we’ve covered how to make THC distillate and cannabis distillate, let’s consider what the most efficient distillation process is. As it stands, short path distillation is the most effective, giving cannabis distillates with upwards of 90% purity and cannabinoid concentration.

This is a distillation technique in which the THC distillate only travels a short distance (usually a few centimeters). Hence the name: “short path” distillation. Because of this shorter distance, the entire process can be done at reduced pressure, usually between two glass bulbs with no condenser acting as a separator between these two chambers. Furthermore, short path distillation is best for:

  1. Compounds that are unstable or volatile at higher temperatures.
  2. A final distillate that needs relatively small volumes of a compound purified.

Short-path distillation begins at the molecular level, separating the compounds through slow thermal heating with precise and controlled temperatures. Remember the different boiling points of our plant chemicals? Well, each chemical compound is extracted at different levels of heat and vapor pressure. At the end of the process, there will be one or more types of cannabinoids remaining along with leftover waxes and sugars (these give the cannabis or THC distillate its viscous consistency).

Following the successful implementation and execution of this long process, you are left with pure cannabis distillate that has little or no aroma or residual flavor, properties that give it its ability to be used in a variety of ways. Why does this happen? Remember, the flavonoids and terpenes have been extracted during the distillation process. The beauty of the distillate is that it can be recombined and mixed at the producer’s creative discretion to create new combinations or recipes of cannabis products. In addition, having a concentrate allows for the creation of consistent edibles. With a concentrated mixture, you have a benchmark on how much to use and adjust accordingly to achieve a desired level of potency.

What Are The Benefits of Cannabis Distillate?

  1. It is nearly 100% pure. This is the greatest strength of cannabis distillation.
  2. The cannabis/THC distillate is decarboxylated. This means it’s activated and ready to go!
  3. They have very high cannabinoid content. Depending on the amount of heat and pressure that’s been applied, you can have THC or CBD content that is nearly 100%.
  4. You can target specific cannabinoids. You can manufacture a final distillate with only THC or CBD, depending on what you need.
  5. The final product produces the entourage effect. If you save all the bioactive compounds and recombine them in the end, you will have a cannabis distillate that will be subject to the beneficial entourage effect.
  6. The final product is discrete. Depending on the final terpene or flavonoid content (which you control throughout the distillation process), it’s possible to have a final product with no real aroma or taste.
  7. Cannabis distillates are versatile. These pure and potent products can be used in a variety of ways, including in vape pens, sublingually, pill form, or even edibles.

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