A drop of distillate sits perched on the edge of a dabbing tool. Taut like a raindrop, this viscus and opaque orb glimmers as it rests within the concave folds of titanium. Encased within this golden drop of goodness is a semi-translucent, 99% pure decarboxylated and distilled tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) sap. Dollar for dollar, this morsel of oil is worth more by weight than just about any other consumable substance on the market, and for good reason: Cannabis oil distillates are arguably the future of cannabis concentrates.

With unmatched purity and sheer versatility, distillate oils provide a clean and potent product with limitless application potential. However, understanding the refinement process by which distillates are made can be difficult, as many of the methodologies are proprietary and still in R&D or even patent-pending phases. Follow along as we review the inside scoop on how these super potent oils are processed, how easy they are to both consume and infuse with, as well as their potential in offering solutions in various niche markets within the burgeoning cannabis concentrate industry.

Distillation: A Borrowed Technology

A mature cannabis plant is known to contain hundreds of identifiable cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, each responsible for playing a role in interacting with our endocannabinoid systems. Through what is widely referred to as “the entourage effect,” these compounds interact with one another to give us the unique experiences we desire. When it comes to creating cannabis concentrates, cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are pulled from the vegetative material of the cannabis plant together though various extraction processes. In order to distill these compounds into their purest form, additional layers of refinement must be executed. This process is known as “fractional” or “short path distillation,” and it is known to produce single compound oils that can reach upwards of 99% purity.

Fractionation and short path distillation in and of themselves are nothing new. In fact, these methods have been used for many years, both in the early days of cannabis distillation research as well as in other commercial industries alike. For example, the fragrance and essential oil industries can be credited for piloting many of the same fundamental refinement principles that we see overlapping in today’s cannabis distillate manufacturing scene. Steam distillation as well as fractionation are two common techniques that have been adopted from the botanical oil extraction markets by cannabis processors to make various oil distillates. These techniques work specifically for cannabis in the same ways they would for other botanical refinement systems ranging from fragrances to cooking oils.

How Cannabis Compounds Are Isolated to Create Distillates

In order to isolate compounds such as THC into a pure and viscous oil, there are multiple layers of refinement that must first occur. Given that THC as well as other cannabinoids and terpenes are volatile and have varying boiling points, they must first be separated from the cannabis plant via hydrocarbon or CO2 solvent-based extraction techniques. This process removes the valuable and volatile compounds from the plant itself, while many fats, lipids, and other compounds remain. This necessitates further refinement through a process called winterizationwhereby a solvent such as ethanol is used in order to remove these undesirable compounds.

Apart from winterization, isolated cannabinoids must also undergo decarboxylation, by which the compounds are heated enough to activate their medicinal potential. Finally, the material is run through a short path steam distillation or rational distillation chamber in a series of multiple passes to purify the desirable compound (typically THC or CBD) to its isolated state.

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