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Economy & Tech

The World’s First ‘Tree Sake’ Will Soon Go On Sale

Each type of tree creates a new flavor, like cherry blossom trees, while the method promotes local economies and good forest practices following the SDGs.

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Distilled liquor produced from trees by Forest Research and Management Organization (front) and fermented liquid before distillation (back) = April, Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture (photographed by Shinji Ono)

The world’s first sake made from trees will be on the market by the end of 2022. Ethical Spirits (Tokyo), a venture company, is currently constructing a distillery in Chiba City’s Midori Ward. The flavors coming from each tree make the sake unique. 

Manufacturing technology for the process was developed by the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) in Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture. The company will begin full-scale production after obtaining a permit from the national government, and will increase production while keeping an eye on the reaction from the market. Soon the day we can taste the latest type of sake will be here. 

Masanobu Nojiri, team leader, and Yuichiro Otsuka, key researchers into the production of tree-based liquor. (Sankei)

Four Types Of Trees

Ethical Spirits is currently planning to use four types of trees in its distilling process: cedar, cherry, mizunara (quercus crispula), and kuromoji (lindera umbellata). Once the distillery in Chiba City is complete and the manufacturing license is obtained, the company will take the next steps of bringing in the wood chips from Tokigawa in Saitama Prefecture and bottling the finished sake at the same facility. 

Each tree has a different flavor when distilled, bringing unique characteristics to the sake. When it is just distilled, the color is transparent. This is in contrast to whiskey, where grains like wheat and corn are fermented and distilled, and then left stored in barrels for years to add color and flavor.

When I visited the facility and tested out the smells, the cherry blossom sake had the aroma of sakura mochi, while the mizunara (quercus crispula) was reminiscent of whiskey. On the other hand, the kuromoji sake had a unique aroma that could open up new possibilities.

According to Yuichiro Otsuka, a researcher at the FFPRI who was involved in the development, aside from the taste of alcohol, when the sake is in the mouth the scent of each tree penetrates the nose.

It’s also possible to mix the final product with fermented but not yet distilled liquid to enjoy the aroma and color. “For example,”  Mr. Otsuka said, “the fermented cherry tree liquid is bright red, but if you mix in a little of the distilled sake, it becomes pink. Then it’s exactly the color of cherry blossoms.”

Around 30% Alcohol Content

The key to making wooden sake is the “wet milling processing” method developed by the FFPRI. The tree trunks and branches are ground into a fine powder, with each grain less than 2 microns (1 micron is a millionth of a meter). From this, it is possible to extract the cellulose contained within the cell walls of the wood. 

Glucose is produced when food-grade enzymes are added to this cellulose. And when yeast is then introduced, a fermented liquid with about 2% alcohol content is produced. This is distilled twice, and the alcohol content increases to about 30%. 

Masanobu Nojiri, Team Leader (right) and Yuichiro Otsuka, Senior Researcher, Forest Research and Management Organization, who made sake from trees (April, Tsukuba City Ibaraki Prefecture) (photo by Shinji Ono)

For example, if a piece of cedar weighing 2 kilograms goes through this process, about 750 milliliters of distilled liquor with an alcohol content of 35% can be produced. This amount is equivalent to about one commercially-available bottle.

There are about 1200 kinds of trees growing in Japan, so various flavors can be anticipated. Some tree types can be harmful to humans so safety research is necessary, but the four types of trees that the company has selected to begin with have cleared these checks, such as animal testing, conducted at the FFPRI. 

Contributing to the SDGs

Chikara Ono, COO of the distillery venture “Ethical Spirits,” which is constructing a tree sake distillery in Chiba City (Photo in March, 2022, Taito-ku, Tokyo) (Photo by Shinji Ono)

The sake doesn’t yet have a name, but Ethical Spirits has been calling it “wood spirits.” The company expects that sake made using wood produced when thinning out forested areas will contribute to the effective use of the wood, which ties to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.

Chief Operating Officer (COO) Chikara Ono (27) said, “I feel there’s potential in this new category of liquor. If we can make sake with the trees of the world there will be an infinite number of combinations, and it is worth the challenge.” Enthusiastic about the first commercial product they aim to release in limited quantities by the end of the year, he said, “I think we’ll give it a premium feel,” adding that, “after that, we will consider a more accessible price range.”

Meanwhile, Masanobu Nojiri, team leader at the FFPRI, confides that he wants to see this technology spread to villages in Japan’s mountain regions. Instead of local brews, he wants “jikishu,” or sake from the local trees, to be made in forest communities all over the country, which can lead to good forestry practices and promotion of the local region.

Introducing “tree sake”  will add a whole new page to the history of sake. In the near future, we may see trees in a very new light. 

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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Shinji Ono

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