The fermented rice-based alcohol drink known as sake has become Japan’s national beverage, and is considered sacred to Japanese culture. As of this year, Japan is now producing sake from trees, as the government races to commercialise cedar-based technology hand in hand with start-up companies.
The manufacturing technology for the process of making tree sake was developed by the Forestry and Forest Research Institute (FFPRI) in Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture. With the green light from the government, the company will begin full-scale production bringing tree sake to a store near you.
Ethical Spirits, one of the start-ups, have four types of trees in the works to become the next best sake, distilling ceder, mizunara, kuromoji and cherry trees. Each tree comes with its own unique flavour and characteristics. When it is distilled, the colour is transparent, unlike whiskey, where grains are fermented and distilled, then left in barrels for years to add colour and flavour.
The secret to making tree sake is the “wet milling process” developed by FFPRI. The tree trunks and branches are ground into a fine powder, allowing the extraction of cellulose contained within the cell walls of the wood.
Glucose is produced when food-grade enzymes are added to this cellulose, and then yeast is introduced to produce a fermented liquid which is distilled twice to increase the alcohol content to about 30%.
One commercially available bottle of tree sake is produced with a piece of wood weighing approximately 2 kilograms. There are 1200 types of trees flourishing in Japan, some of which are harmful to humans, but these four types of trees have passed tests such as animal cruelty with flying colours.
The tree sake doesn’t yet have a name, but Ethical Spirits have been calling it “wood spirits”. Only time will tell how far they will go, but with an international market valued in 2019 at $9.2 billion US dollars, sake is a global phenomenon and, in 2022, was named as a serious contender for the world’s next spirit of choice.