Could drinking help the environment and rural communities? You might be surprised. Researchers in Japan have figured out how to make drinkable alcohol from wood, and the knock-on effects are much bigger than a hangover. This week, Alex K.T. Martin joins us to talk about the science — and sustainable process — behind the process that may bring cedar, oak and sakura to your next cocktail session.

Hosted by Jason Jenkins and produced by Dave Cortez.

On this episode:

Alex K.T. Martin: Articles | Twitter

Read more:

Get in touch:

Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!


Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Jason Jenkins  00:09  

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Jason Jenkins. We run a lot of longform features here at The Japan Times. Some of them grab me from the very first sentence. Then there are features that grow on me gradually, each paragraph branching off in a new and unexpected direction. Today's show was about one of these features. Alex Martin is a staff writer here at The Japan Times, and he's no stranger to this show. His piece this week is about a Japanese scientist who discovered a new method for making alcohol from trees and other wood material. This discovery, if it realizes its full potential, could affect Japan in a big way — in a positive way — literally changing the landscape, demographics and even the health of thousands of residents. Listen in, as Alex explains the environmental and economic impacts we could see if these so-called wood spirits actually live up to their potential and take root in the country's drinking culture.

Jason Jenkins 01:11

Alex, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  01:13  

Thank you, Jason. I'm very happy to be here.

Jason Jenkins  01:16  

So you start the article with this interesting local legend. Could you describe it a little bit?

Alex Martin  01:21  

Sure. So there's a folktale from the Tohoku region in Niigata Prefecture in northern Japan. And it's about this very old cedar tree that was planted back in the 1600s. The story goes that in 1916, which is already several 100 years since the story has been planted, this milky fluid started to grow out of the tree. 

Jason Jenkins  01:40

And that was sake? 

Alex Martin  01:42

That's what the story says. Yes. So the story goes. About 36 liters of it gurgled out, apparently, before it stopped.

Jason Jenkins  01:49  

Wow, and this is sort of a great place to start your article because your main story is about this new method for making alcohol — safe, drinkable, high-end alcohol — from trees and other wood. But before we get to that, I want to break down the significance of this discovery. When you first mentioned this in a staff meeting, I thought, “Oh, OK, alcohol from wood. Sure, why not?” But it wasn't till I started to read a draft of your early piece, that the larger implications were just fascinating to me. Can you describe a few of them for us?

Alex Martin  02:19  

Well, this is still in the early stages, but large-scale production of tree-based alcohol could have some very interesting implications. For example, it could help reinvigorate Japan's forestry sector and possibly revitalize some rural areas of the country that have been hollowed out through depopulation. There's also a chance that it could decrease the intensity of Japan's famous hay fever season in the spring, as cedar trees are cut down or replaced with different species.

Jason Jenkins  02:44  

I want to explore each of these points. But before we get to those, tell me what brought the story to your attention in the first place?

Alex Martin  02:52  

Sure. So um, there's this craft beer bar in my neighborhood that I frequent. And I think this was maybe three or four months ago, I visited the place after work for a quick pint. And one of the customers there was a former worker there. she was a hall staff, recent college graduate, I think, and I asked her what she was doing, and she said she was living in a village in Gunma Prefecture. And she said, well, the initial plan was she was hoping to help out a startup that was planning to create drinkable alcohol from trees. Afterwards, I was thinking about this idea and I started Googling. And I realized that this is actually a thing, and that there were actual scientists involved and companies involved and they were actually producing this drinkable alcohol from wood. 

Jason Jenkins 03:34


Alex Martin  03:36  

And so I decided to go meet Mr. Yuichiro Otsuka, the man who pioneered this discovery. He is a senior researcher at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute — it's a government funded institution — and he specializes in applied microbiology and chemistry. Essentially, I read that he succeeded in making the first portable alcoholic drink through fermenting and then distilling wood, and I wanted to learn more.

Jason Jenkins  03:57  

And the key word here is potable alcohol, we're talking about drinkable alcohol. Quickly, let's differentiate between the two types of alcohol — at least the two main types. We've got methanol, and we've got ethanol. And methanol had actually been made from wood before, right?

Alex Martin  04:15  

That's right. And that's why it's sometimes called “wood alcohol.” Methanol is used to make fuel and various plastics and paints. But it's incredibly toxic. And just even a small amount can blind you or even kill you in instances. So what makes this discovery so significant is that Otsuka and his team have invented a way to extract ethanol from trees and other wood. Ethanol is the type of alcohol you find in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, vodka or whatever.

Jason Jenkins  04:39  

Right, right, ethanol. That's what we find in spirits. Was this Otsuka's initial plan? Was he looking for a way to do this? Or how did it come about?

Alex Martin  04:49  

Actually, no. So he was trying to figure out a way for wood to decompose in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way without the need for heat or chemicals. If you're waiting for wood to decompose naturally it can take quite a long time, perhaps more than a century.

Jason Jenkins  5:02  

Wow. OK, so if this wasn't his original goal, what made him change course? Was there some sort of turning point or a “eureka” moment?

Alex Martin  5:11  

Yes, yes. So he was working a lot in a certain area of Fukushima Prefecture, which is also up in Tohoku, and known for its Japanese sake production because of its plentiful rice harvest. And you know, he likes his drinks, so while he was visiting Fukushima he would imbibe in some sake during the evenings. And at one point, he realized that, you know, perhaps what he was doing with the wood could be employed for something else.

Jason Jenkins  05:35  

And this is where the science part comes in. There's a big section of the piece where you talk about the actual chemical processes that make this work. But for the sake of brevity, is there a sort of a truncated, abbreviated way you could explain it quickly?

Alex Martin  05:49  

Sure. I'm no scientist, but just to briefly describe how it works … so Otsuka and his fellow researchers, they were searching for a way to separate and extract the main components of wood. Wood is basically made of polymers called cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. And lignin is the key because in the cell wall, this is what gives wood its really hard rigidity. It's like plastic, according to Otsuka. And it's also what makes trees take much longer to break down than other plant matter. So what they did was they took pieces of wood and ground them down smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller into particles smaller than a tree’s cell walls, which is really tiny. It's like 2-4 micrometers in thickness. It's probably hard to imagine how small that is. And this gave them access to the other components of wood, including the aforementioned cellulose, which could now be fermented into glucose, like other vegetable matter. So I mean, that's a very simplified explanation. And I try to go into it a little deeper in the piece. But the key here is being able to break through the cell wall without using heat or chemicals to get the sugar underneath just like any other plant.

Jason Jenkins  07:01  

Right, right, right. And speaking of any other plant, I really liked this line, where you're talking about how humans have made alcohol for millennia, using a variety of different plants. We've got barley and hops that become beer, we've got grapes that become wine. Here in Japan, of course, we have rice that becomes sake, and you know, and so on and so on. But, you say in the piece, “our planet's largest plants have never been offered as a libation.” And this discovery is really what's going to change that, right? 

Alex Martin  07:31  

Yeah, um, so this is really interesting, because according to what's been done so far, many of the tree species have their own distinct flavors and aromas. For example, you know, if you're living in Japan, or you've come to Japan, you may be familiar with the smell of the cedar tree. They're all over the place. They're called “sugi” in Japanese. And that smell translates into the flavor. Somehow, alcohol from birch trees, they're known as “shirakaba” in Japanese, it has a fruity smell. It's sort of similar to brandy. And then the mizunara oak tree recalls elements of whiskey, which is interesting, because that's the tree used to make barrels to age whiskey.

Jason Jenkins  08:07  

And I have to ask, What about sakura? What about the cherry trees? What are those like?

Alex Martin  08:12  

I smelled, I think two versions, one, the somei Yoshino variety of cherry trees, which is the most famous perhaps because it's the one that we see during the annual hanami season. And also the yamazakura type of cherry tree. They sort of had like a light sort of white wine-like smell, I recall, but some other people compared to strawberries.

Jason Jenkins  08:45  

So with a variety of flavors and aromas available, it's really easy to see how you know, bartenders would see some potential here, which is where Hiroyasu Kayama comes in.

Alex Martin  08:55  

That's right. So Mr. Kayama, he runs a bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood called Ben Fiddich. And it's not just any regular bar, it's actually quite famous. It's been voted as one of the best 50 bars in the world by this very prestigious listing called the world's 50 Best bars. And once he heard about the project, this was back in 2018. I think when Otsuka and his team released a press release, he immediately contacted Otsuka directly, and told him he wanted to somehow be involved. And I think he first visited the forestry institution to check it out.

Jason Jenkins  09:29  

Right, right. So tell us a little more about Kayama and his bar, Ben Fiddich.

Alex Martin  09:34  

Right, so Mr. Kayama, he grew up on this dairy farm in a town called Tokigawa in Saitama Prefecture, it's about an hour and a half from Tokyo and I happen to know this town because I went up to it earlier this year for a piece. If anybody's interested. If you can Google “Tokigawa Japan Times,” you'll probably find a story about depopulation and innovation. Something completely different. 

Jason Jenkins 09:55

Wow, I didn't realize that's the same area. OK, OK, yeah. 

Alex Martin 09:57

And Tokigawa is right next to a town called Hatoyama, and his high school was in Hatoyama. Again, I was up in Hatoyama several months ago to do a story on the happiest town in Japan. So there were these coincidences while I was talking to him regarding his back and hope Tokyo. I had just been there, you know, Hatoyama, I was there as well. So we sort of, you know, got it off on a really good start. Um, but anyway, back to him. So he was a bartender in Nishi Azabu. A bar called I think, was called Amber before and then he launched his own place about a decade ago. And since then, it's gone on to create it like a really world famous bar. It's like a nondescript, you know, regular building and Shinjuku on the ninth floor, you get off the elevator and you see this little sort of wooden sign with the, the name Ben Fiddich, engraved on it — a small candle, lighting it up. And then from the door, you can sort of vaguely hear Renaissance music pouring out and you open the door, very woody sort of interior. You see the stained glass lamps hanging from the ceilings, and they're decorated with these herbs. There's like a head of a deer? 

Jason Jenkins 10:58

Ah, like a stuffed … like deer taxidermy, 

Alex Martin 10:59

Right, right hanging on the wall, and it has this really medieval sort of feel. And I think that's the sort of the vibes that he's trying to sort of produce in his bar. And he uses a lot of herbs and other botanicals, that he actually picks up from his farm in Tokigawa. So almost every week, I think he goes back to his farm his garden, and he picks out these herbs, plants, whatnot, he brings it back to his bar, and he creates these cocktails.

Jason Jenkins  11:23  

So it's easy to see his interest from a professional point of view, or an epicurean point of view. But that's not his only interest here. Right?

Alex Martin  11:31  

Right. So he also saw the potential of revitalizing his hometown Tokigawa, and other similar sort of villages and towns dotting Japan's rural landscape by sparking interest in the local lumber trade. Tokigawa, his hometown, was famous for its woodwork, they would have artisans creating what's called tategu, these are sliding doors used in Japanese homes for centuries and centuries. But what happened was more imported wood came in and they stopped using locally produced wood. And this is not just the case in Tokigawa but in Japan in general, it has a huge reliance on imported wood. And there's a lot of woodlands that's being untreated, not cut down just left on its own. So he thought that perhaps this new wood alcohol could spark more interest in local wood trading, logging, and perhaps even be utilized to promote these areas.

Jason Jenkins  12:24  

Yeah, let's talk a little about lumber in Japan or maybe forestry in Japan in general, would you want to start with present day or you want to go back in history a little bit?

Alex Martin  12:33  

Maybe just a little bit of history. So to begin with, roughly two thirds of Japan's landmass is covered with forests, extensive forests all over the place, and during World War II, however, large portions of these were cut down to support the nation's military. And then even more was cut down after the war for housing and other construction demands. As the country tried to rebuild itself. And large swathes of these areas that were cut down, they were replaced with fast growing conifers, like cedar and cypress trees. And a lot of people say this might have been poor planning really.

Jason Jenkins 13:10

What do you mean? 

Alex Martin 13:11

Well, you know, cheap imports began to come in the 1960s and these cedar groves gradually became unattended since there wasn't the time or incentive to keep these forests in a healthy place. And what happens is, you know, the results are these dark, dense, unhealthy forests with limited undergrowth, and they're prone to landslides and flooding, which is becoming a major problem now, especially during typhoon season every year. But perhaps more importantly, to many people in Japan, it goes back to what we discussed before, but cedar trees produce a lot of pollen — lots of pollen — if you go during the springtime to the countryside, you'll see benches by the stations or houses covered with this yellow dust. This is all pollen. And anyone who's suffered from hay fever in the spring season can point to these massive cedar forests as one of the causes.

Jason Jenkins  13:58  

Yeah, it's, it can really make some people miserable during that hay fever season. So how does this connect with Kayama?

Alex Martin  14:07  

Right? Well, if the product moves forward and actually materializes and becomes a thing, then the cedar forests could actually be a source of alcohol and could perhaps even provide an incentive for locals and other people to cut them down. And at the same time, this also goes back to what we discussed before, it could rekindle an interest in domestic lumber to be used for housing, construction and other woodworking traditions and products. 

Jason Jenkins  14:32  

And this will be part of kind of a knock on effect for something on a grander scale, right?

Alex Martin  14:37  

Right. So part of the goal, I think, is to not only revitalize the forests, but the forestry industry itself, including related industries in local areas such as construction, various artisanal woodworking, things like that. And, for example, the average age of Japan's forestry workers are now around 65. And the job doesn't pay too well though the numbers are dwindling. In Tokigawa, one of the people I interviewed for the story said it's probably only two loggers left. That's, you know, that's, that's not many. Maybe, yeah. So if there was a thriving forestry sector in Japan, then you'd have more trees planted and a larger workforce, perhaps, which could in turn also revitalize the population of some rural areas such as Tokigawa.

Jason Jenkins  15:22  

So what I'm hearing is better forests, thriving rural communities, less hay fever and maybe some new cocktails. That sounds pretty good!

Alex Martin  15:30  

That's the plan. But when I initially started reporting on the topic, I think one of the concerns my editors raised was would this not give incentive for, you know, large businesses to come in and just raise trees all over the place, which could be, you know, obviously environmentally damaging. The one thing I should mention is that Otsuka and his forestry association, this government-funded institution, they have a patent for this technology. So they basically own the rights when it comes to how to create this booze. So I think what they're trying to do is they're looking out so big shots don't come in and actually just, you know, destroy the whole environment. The point is, rather to use waste wood trees that haven't been harvested, things like that to promote an environmentally friendly and sustainable thing by creating alcohol and using that as a boon for tourism.

Jason Jenkins  16:30  

OK, we have Otsuka the researcher, we have Kayamna that mixologist, but there's one more player that we need to introduce

Alex Martin  16:38  

Right, exactly, and that's Mr. Yuya Yamamoto, he’s the founder and CEO of the Ethical Spirits & Co., which is a sustainability focused alcohol and beverage producer. So together with Mr. Kayama, Mr. Yamamoto is working to make a product tentatively called “Wood Spirits.” I'm pretty sure they're gonna go with that title, but for now, I’ll go with tentatively called us based on sustainable alcohol production using wood.

Jason Jenkins  17:03  

I love that double meaning with wood spirits, it's almost like a nod to the local religion of Shintoism, or perhaps sort of something about Hayao Miyazaki's famous movie “Princess Mononoke,” but anyway, tell me a little more about Yamamoto.

Alex Martin  17:17  

Sure, so Yamamoto-san is the head of Ethical Spirits, he's also the CEO of a company called Mirai Sake Co. It's hard to explain what this company is but they do have physical stores and they sort of emphasize on promoting the backstories of each brew of sake. So anyway, he would regularly tour around sake breweries in the nation. And when you make sake, there's this leftover byproduct called the lees.

Jason Jenkins  17:40  

Yeah, when I think of lees, I would compare it to like the dregs leftover from winemaking. Is that a fair assessment?

Alex Martin  17:48  

Right, I think that's fairly accurate. Um, in Japanese we call them “sake kasu,” so there was a lot of this sake kasu or lees material left over after the sake was made, and these breweries, you know, had nothing they could do with it. They would give it to people who would want some, or ask people to go dispose of it, but in either case they would be left with a huge amount of socket customers with nowhere to go. And that's where Yamamoto saw potential. He asked if he could, you know, buy it or take it off their hands, which they did, and then he turned around and used it to make gin, which actually went on to win an award.


Jason Jenkins  18:20  

That's right, it won the country winner prize for contemporary gin at the World Gin Award and 2021, right? 

Alex Martin  18:27  

That’s correct. And that was the Last brand of craft gin they make from sake lees. And then in 2020, he launched Ethical Spirits, the company, and the following year, last year, he opened a distillery in Kuramae, which is this old-school sort of hip area in Tokyo. And there the firm worked on creating other craft gin brands, including one called revive. I think this uses surplus Budweiser beer, if I'm recalling correctly? And there's also another gin called Cacao Ethique or Ethique, which is made from discarded cacao husks.

Jason Jenkins  18:59  

OK, so Yamamoto completes our trifecta of key players, now: We have the scientist who discovered how to make the alcohol and we have the famous bartender here to market and to sell it, and now we have the money, we have the CEO who can distribute it. So what's the future look like here?

Alex Martin  19:16  

That might be the most interesting point and what will bottles of distilled spirits from wood make in the marketplace? You know, how much are they going to cost? Obviously, alcohol is a multibillion dollar industry, I think $56 billion at this point to be exact. And that's projected to reach $92.9 billion by 2032, a decade from now. But there's an even higher-end market beyond beer, wine and sake and I'm talking about aged spirits. Some of these bottles can sell for incredible prices

Jason Jenkins 19:46

What kind of prices? Give me an example.

Alex Martin 19:49

Well, Japanese whiskey as you know has been extremely popular over the past decade. They sell for hundreds of thousands of yen per bottle. If you go online, you can easily find out. And typically the more for their age, the better. For example, a bottle of Yamazaki 35 years, it was initially sold with a retail price of ¥500,000 yen.

Jason Jenkins  20:10  

Woah, ¥500,000, that's, I dunno, US$3,500? I mean, that's in yen-depressed dollars today. It may be different when, whenever our listeners are listening — but that's not cheap.

Alex Martin  20:22  

Right, so, you know, ¥500,000, that's the initial retail price for Yamazaki 35. I went on Google the other day and searched for the same whiskey and I noticed it now sells for about 20 or 30 times that figure, which is an insane amount. So what happens when you make liquor out of a, for example, a 400-year-old oak tree? Noone's going to cut down an ancient tree just to make whiskey out of it. But you know, once in a while you find you know, huge storms are ravaging Japan. And these massive ancient trees have fallen down. Some might be even, you know, 1,000 years or older. And what happens is, you know, they would unfortunately be laid to rest. But perhaps with this technology, you can recycle these really old trees and make them into alcoholic beverages. Now, you cannot compare aged whiskey or age spirits with wood spirits using old trees because it's a different process entirely. However, the story behind such a product could be really interesting. My point being when I was visiting Otsuka at his laboratory in Tsukuba, he showed me two bottles of cedar wood spirits. One was 8 years old, the tree was 8 years old. So it's quite a young tree. The other one dated back from 1868, which is the year of the Meiji Restoration. So you know, you have these two wood spirits, one's 8 years old, one's 1.5 centuries old, that comes from, you know, a very important time in history for Japan. The story behind such a bottle of booze is quite interesting. And you know, when you actually, let's say, both bottles are at a bar, and I wanted to, you know, have a shot of each, how much are there going to be priced at? You know, that's extremely interesting from various perspectives.

Jason Jenkins  21:59  

It really is. And you write about some of the ways that various regions in Japan could utilize not just making the liquor but the stories and the ideas behind the trees, right?

Alex Martin  22:11  

Exactly. So one idea that Otsuka has been promoting from the onset of inventing this technology is how it could help local areas in Japan, with tourism. For example, you can use certain trees from an area and then distill them and use local spring water, for example, and maybe even make your own wood spirits blend using several different tree species from the same area. And that could be potentially used to promote, you know, a certain village or a certain town saying, you know, this bottle of wood spirits was made from local trees and local spring water. This is essentially, you know, the town and, you know, have a sip! So there's various different ways to market this product, I think. And that's people haven't really explored everything at this point yet, but I'm quite interested to see how it might turn out. 

Jason Jenkins  22:59

Yeah, the ramifications are really interesting as far as telling the stories of various places in Japan as well. And you spoke to one expert on this. 

Alex Martin  23:07

Yes, I did. I reached out to Mari Ninomiya, who is an associate professor at the Osaka Metropolitan University's graduate school, and she's also the editor in chief of the Journal of Sakeology. And she told me, she believes that there really could be an amazing market for this, especially with the recent boom in craft gin, which she thinks would be Wood Spirits' main competitor.

Jason Jenkins  23:27  

Right, so when do we expect to see bottles like this on the shelves?

Alex Martin  23:30  

The initial plan, from what I hear, was to release something by the end of this year, but with the war in Ukraine and the pandemic and all that there's various sort of disruptions in trade. And they're having a hard time importing some components to create the booze. So at this point, they're aiming for next year or early 2024 at the latest. 

Jason Jenkins   23:52 

I will drink to that. 

Alex Martin 23:53

Me too, kanpai! 

Jason Jenkins  23:55  

Alex Martin, thank you so much for coming back on Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  23:59  

Thank you, Jason. It was my pleasure.

Jason Jenkins  24:06  

Once again, a special thanks to Alex Martin for coming back on the show. If you’d like to learn more about Wood Spirits or read more of Alex's work, then check out the links in the show notes of this episode.

This week in the Japan Times, Will Fee writes about the growing number of young Japanese that are moving abroad to take advantage of higher wages. Dan Orlowiz continues his coverage of Japan's topsy-turvy World Cup performance. And in business, Kazuaki Nagata covers Tokyo's plan to become a hub for startups and how some Japanese companies are trying to make a return to the office more appealing

For these stories and thousands more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times.

This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd. See you next week, and podtsukaresama!