The easiest way to think about cannabis distillate is as a concentrate of a concentrate, derived through the process of distillation. There's a lot of lab equipment and a moderate amount of scientific know-how involved in the process of cannabis distillation, but it can be done at home with many precautions. It all begins with some form of pre-prepared cannabis concentrate. The starting material can be anything from typical solvent extractions like butane hash oil (BHO), or solventless solutions like pressed rosin or bubble hash.
Distillation is essentially the process of boiling off desired compounds until you are left with a more refined product. Rosin, for example, is the result of heating cannabis and applying pressure to squeeze out all the oils. No matter how well you do it, there's going to be some plant matter in the resulting oils. The distillation process changes that.
Distillation relies on our knowledge of the boiling points of key cannabinoids. Most distillate is made with short-path distillation, which alters boiling points with vacuum pressure and steam. Fractionated distillation allows the collection of individual cannabinoids or groups of several. Cannabinoids are separated on a molecular level thanks to the boiling point manipulation, leaving a much purer product. Distillates are transparent and sap-like, ranging from totally clear to a very light amber.
Isolates, particularly of CBD, are a hot trend lately. Cannabis isolate vs distillate, however, is only a matter of a few cannabinoid compounds' difference. An isolate is simply a distillate that has gone through the process enough times that 99 percent or more of the finished product is one compound. Your average distillate has a very high percentage of one compound, but others still occur in trace amounts.
THC and CBD are the two most common cannabinoids in marijuana by far, so they are the only isolates currently available. Other compounds such as CBG or CBN occur in such small percentages that isolating them would be time and cost prohibitive.
A Questionable Background for Distillates
Distillates, including isolates of THC and CBD, are touted for their purity. While the end result is certainly much purer than basic concentrates, it has led to some unpleasant accusations on the quality of starting materials. Some cannabis enthusiasts on social media sites like Reddit and Instagram have taken to calling distillate the "hot dog" of cannabis concentrates due to its sometimes dubious origins.
Unfortunately, the flip side of distillation's purifying effects has opened the door for some unscrupulous producers to refine larger amounts of low quality or impure material into product they turn around and sell for top shelf price. This was significantly more common in the early days of legal cannabis, when cultivators could get away with more subpar, untested product.
On the other hand, the molecular action involved in distillation means the final product only contains what you want – so the worst case scenario is you might pay too much for it.
What About the Terps?
The biggest drawback for most is that the heating elements in the distillation process completely strip the terpenes from the final product. Because terpenes may play a significant role in the entourage effect, many argue distillates rob cannabis of its full spectrum of effects. This is arguably true, but it also means distillates create a unique experience. THC isolate with no terpenes is often reported to be a far cry from any other type of high, with an electric energy and clean feeling many don't like.
To sidestep the terp controversy, some distillates remove terpenes first and reintroduce them on the back end, after heat is no longer a factor.
Uses for Distillates
While isolates are the most fine-tuned of distillates and sought-after for their novelty, regular distillates are highly versatile for their cost of production. They are often included as part of higher-end products such as edibles, due to their lack of flavor and odor. If you've ever wondered how edibles can taste nothing at all like weed, distillate is the likely answer.
Distillate is sometimes added to vape cartridges with high terpene content, to balance out the consistency for a perfectly smooth draw.
And, of course, distillates and isolates can be dabbed on their own or used to enhance a bowl of green. Your preference may depend on your taste (or lack thereof) for cannabis flavors, or solely on price point. Either way: In the battle between cannabis isolate vs distillate, the winner is definitely you.