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What is Cannabis Distillation & How is it Used in the CBD Industry?

Hemp Derived CBD Distillate Pour

If you spend any time around the marijuana industry, it won't take long before you run into cannabis distillation. Often cited as being the next frontier in cannabis extracts, distillates are making waves. This process is allowing marijuana extractors to isolate cannabis compounds, most often THC, into nearly pure concentrations.

Flipping over to the CBD side of things, it probably won't surprise you that the same techniques are being used on hemp extracts. There are some interesting and novel uses for distillation which we cover below. Dive in with us as we talk cannabis distillation, what it is, and how it's used across the CBD industry.

What is cannabis distillate?

Cannabis distillate is an extract that has undergone a distillation process to isolate and separate individual components, most often cannabinoids. Commonly this process is utilized to isolate either CBD or THC. The final product in these cases is an extract that is stripped of terpenes, flavonoids, and other plant compounds leaving a high concentration of the desired cannabinoid.

Distillates look similar to very pure honey or, in the case of isolated CBD, become a white crystalline substance. Because the terpenes are removed during the process, a pure distillate will be devoid of aromas or flavors. A high CBD distillate may crystalize while high THC distillates will not. These concentrated extracts are commonly dabbed directly, used in vaporizers, or added to edibles or other products.

While the 'pure' nature of distillates are desirable for their potency, they are generally more 'pharmaceutical' and don't take advantage of the 'whole-plant' cannabis approach. This prevents the chorus of effects that the wide range of cannabis compounds are studied to provide via the entourage effect. Some distillates add back in terpenes to combat this issue.

How is distillate made?

Cannabis Extraction & Processing chart

Distillation is a process that takes place in the final stages of creating an extract. First, the cannabis must be grown, the flowering tops harvested, dried, and processed into a crude extract. From there the extract is winterized to remove fatty acids and other unwanted plant materials and decarboxylated to activate the compounds. Finally, distillation takes place.

Distillation works due to the differences in boiling points of various cannabis compounds. Through careful heating under pressure, the extract is heated to the precise point where the desired cannabinoid(s) vaporize.

Common cannabinoid boiling points:

  • THC: 157 C
  • CBD: 160 C to 180 C
  • CBN: 185 C
  • CBC: 220 C
  • CBG: 220 C
  • Delta-8-THC: 175 C to 178 C

The vapor travels a short distance where it condenses and is re-collected. One of the most common and effective types of distillation used in the cannabis industry is 'short path distillation' which gets it's name from the short distance a vapor has to travel before condensing.

What is fractional distillation?

Fractional Distillation Lab Apparatus

Original: Theresa knott, Derivative work: John Kershaw

As discussed above, through precise temperature control during distillation, specific compounds can be isolated from an extract. This includes terpenes, flavonoids, and of course cannabinoids. These compound-specific distillations are referred to as 'fractions' - referencing to them being a fraction of the whole extract.

This practice, known as fractional distillation, allows for many possibilities in the creation of a customized end-product. For example, fractional distillation can be used to separate all cannabinoids and terpenes and then add them back together to create specific blends. This same process can also be used to remove specific compounds, like THC, from the final extract.

The concept is not without it's drawbacks though as the extra processing is costly, requires expertise to perform safely, and it has been theorized that this distillation and re-combining process reduces the medicinal benefits found in an unadulterated, whole-plant blend.

Potential drawbacks & criticisms

While distillates are all the rage, the process doesn't come without industry criticism. Beyond the simple fact, that distillation takes an extract further away from the natural whole-plant state, there are technical considerations that must be weighed.

Distillates often wear the badge of 'pure' or 'concentrated', but this does not automatically qualify distillates as a safe product. During distillation, an experienced operator is required. As Dr. Edward F. Askew points out in Cannabis Industry Journal:

"The temperature and vacuum controls must be adjustable and accurate for all parts of the distillation apparatus. Failure to control the temperature and vacuum on any part to the apparatus will lead to:

  • Thermal destruction of the distillate
  • Oxidation of the distillate
  • Impure distillate"

The process of distilling requires a high-quality, clean hemp extract - there are no shortcuts here. Any chemical compounds that are soluble in the vapor produced during distillation will make it into the end product. This means that pesticides and other contaminants found in refined oil can end up in the distilled product.

This means that the same rules apply to distillation as they do to extraction. Manufacturers need to source high-quality hemp and process it with the right equipment operated by trained, honest individuals.

Is CBD distillate the same as CBD oil?

Water and Oil Separation

The availability and accessibility of CBD have greatly outpaced education, and thus there is confusion abound. The misuse of extraction and spectrum-related terms across the CBD industry is widespread. It's a common point of customer confusion and one that is often fueled by low-quality online education.

Below we walk you through the various types of extracts and spectrums available in the hemp CBD market:

Types of Extracts

  • Crude extract - is an extract that was created by processing hemp flower into an unrefined, raw extract most commonly using ethanol or CO2 extraction.
  • Refined oil - is a crude extract that has undergone winterization, decarboxylation, and potentially other processes like liquid chromatography to further refine the oil.
  • Distillate - this yellow oil with a honey-like consistency has undergone distillation to isolate or remove specific compounds from refined oil. Distillates are generally 80-90% potency with the remaining content being other cannabinoids and plant materials.
  • Isolated CBD - These isolates are up to 99% pure CBD and come in the form of white crystals. Most commonly isolated CBD is created through distillation, but can also be created via chromatography. If distilled, these isolates are technically distillates, though they are commonly referred to as CBD isolate.

Types of Spectrums

  • Full-Spectrum - refers to an extract containing the full range of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids reflecting the ratios found in the original hemp plant. These extracts are created by refining a crude extract. No other processing is necessary, though sometimes these extracts are diluted or modified through combination with a distillate.
  • Broad-Spectrum - refers to an extract containing the full range of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids reflecting the ratios found in the original hemp plant minus THC. These extracts can be created through fractional distillation and re-combining everything but the THC. They can also be created through a superior process called chromatography which keeps the extract fully intact, stripping only the THC from the final product.
  • CBD Isolate - refers to an extract which has been distilled or undergone chromatography to strip away all but the cannabidiol molecule itself.

Full-spectrum CBD distillate is a common misnomer that is used to describe a refined oil. While similar in appearance, these extracts have not undergone distillation as there is no need to perform this processing.

How is distillation used in the CBD industry?

Distillation is widely used in the CBD industry for a few primary purposes.

To Create CBD Isolate

CBD Isolate

By far the most common application for distillation in the CBD industry is to isolate CBD itself. This white, crystalline powder is popular due to its low production cost and versatility in use. Isolate can be sold as a standalone product or can be used as an ingredient in products like tinctures and capsules. While isolates can be produced via chromatography, distillation is far more popular due to its low cost.

To Create CBD Distillate

CBD Distillate

The yellow honey-looking distillates that rule the marijuana market are found in the CBD world too. Though less common, they are sold directly to consumers and in bulk to manufacturers to be used as a tasteless, odorless ingredient in products ranging from tinctures to edibles.

To Create THC-Free Broad-Spectrum CBD Oil

THC Free Icon

Finally, distillation is used to create broad-spectrum extracts that are free of THC. Through fractioning and re-combining cannabinoids and terpenes with the exception of THC, distillation to create broad-spectrum extracts is perhaps the least common use across the industry. This is because this process is time-consuming, costly, and degrading to the final product.

Broad-spectrum product manufacturers look to chromatography as a superior THC-removal process because it removes the THC without requiring full fractioning that distillation does. Here at Big Sky Botanicals, our THC-free products are created using liquid chromatography, not distillation. Learn more about how our THC-free products are made.

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