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There’s a Sap for That

Spirits made from tree sap or syrup—usually maple, though other possibilities exist—are a widely overlooked opportunity for craft distillers to harness local flavor.

Courtney Iseman Jun 28, 2024 - 12 min read

There’s a Sap for That Primary Image

Photos courtesy of Distillerie Mitis

The puzzle of distilling a spirit that appeals to drinkers while featuring local ingredients—be they herbs, grains, fruits, or other produce—is one that continues to intrigue, inspire, and lead to the creation of unique liquors. However, one way to build an entire spirit on the surrounding bounty is still relatively untapped in North America: distilling with tree sap.

“Tree saps are interesting for distillers looking for something that gives a sense of place … or looking to go deeper with seasonal ingredients,” says Susanne Masters, a botanist and writer in England who’s worked with distillers on sourcing unusual ingredients.

Abroad, one of the best-known examples of this is mastiha, a Greek liqueur made from mastic—dried sap from the mastic bush. The resin yields flavors of pine, cedar, and herbs in the finished liqueur.

Masters stresses the importance of custodianship when distillers source tree sap. Whether you’re sourcing the sap directly or working with a supplier, it’s important to consider replanting native species, when possible, and to avoid over-tapping trees. For distillers invested in local, seasonal ingredients and eco-friendly systems, however, tree sap of various types can provide an authentic connection to the surrounding land.

Every tree is different, Master says. The ideal sap is both safe to consume and offers desirable flavors. However, some saps are unsafe, and not all the safe ones make for tasty products. Plus, some saps are essentially ready to distill, while others require some additional steps.

In North America, there are a few different trees that distillers could consider. The best-known is maple, whose sap needs to be altered in some way—usually via evaporation—to have the right sugar content for fermentation. Black walnut trees, meanwhile, create a sap that’s ready to go. Birch trees also have sap that’s been used for wines and spirits.

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Courtney Iseman is a freelancer writer focused on the craft-beverage space, based in Brooklyn, New York.