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Centuries in a Bottle

Hailing from bucolic Shiga prefecture, a family-run sake brand has withstood the arduous test of time, war, and changing winds to mark its milestone 350th birthday this October. Hiro Yoshikawa opens up about the next chapter of Taiko sake.

January 9, 2023

In today’s world of transient entanglements and short-lived pursuits, it is hard enough to imagine a brand surviving 35 years – let alone 350. Yet over a thousand miles away from the magnificent Lake Biwa and rolling Ibuki Mountains where the precious Taiko sake is still being crafted purely by hand, its 18th generation scion, Hiro Yoshikawa, sits in a quiet ground floor studio in Mid-Levels, combing through the details of the brewery’s 350th anniversary activities.  

There, walls of denim art and jeans made from traditional washi paper (Yoshikawa is also an acclaimed designer and founder of Washi House) hang next to a full height cabinet stocked with rare sakes from his family’s brewery, from unreleased varieties to bestsellers Yoshikawa has stowed away to enjoy with friends. A new bottle was about to enter this vault: Hebi (Japanese for snake), the inaugural sake under new sister label Taiko 18, which launched exclusively in Hong Kong alongside celebratory events throughout early October, the kick-off of sake-making season back in his Shiga prefecture hometown. 

Photo: Hiro Yoshikawa

With his boyish grin, ruffled shoulder length hair and laidback demeanour, the 57-year-old Yoshikawa is somewhat a departure from the more austere sake makers of past generations, many captured in black and white photos around the studio. “There’s a snake that’s been living in the attic of my family’s home since my grandfather’s time,” he tells me. “My grandfather said it’s the god that protects our family and our business, so we never killed him. I wanted to use this story. I was born in the year of the snake, too, so the snake holds a lot of meaning for this collection.”  

Yet this sake, of which only 450 bottles have been produced, each featuring a “more modern” label, intricate snake motifs and a striking denim-clad collector’s box, carries far greater weight than just being a token of celebration. It is a testament to a new era for the family whose lives, since 1672, have been dedicated to brewing quality homemade sake from the mountains’ underground, unfiltered water. A time when batches were once traded for vegetables and rice, mothers fed fishermen-turned-sake workers and fathers woke up every hour over frigid winter nights to check on bubbles during fermentation, where one oversight could see the whole tank – some 1,200 bottles – go to waste.  

“Sake making is a very hard job, but it’s in our family DNA to never use machines. Everything is handmade, still to this day, and our original sake has remained the same for 350 years,” Yoshikawa says, a glint in his eye. “When my father passed away in 2019, he also passed the sake factory to me. I’m able to slowly – slowly – experiment. For the first time we are using a completely new yeast – with the help of my older brother, a biologist – and soft water we developed ourselves. Our original sakes are very full-bodied and full of minerals. This tastes so different, it’s very fruity and feels lighter.” 

The Taiko Tokubetsu Junma | Photo: Taiko Sake

The balancing act of preserving heritage while reinvigorating a beloved label for the future is a delicate one for many long-standing businesses to pull off. Yet if there’s anyone up for the job, it would be the maverick second son, who left Japan after his sophomore year of university to travel the world. “In traditional Japanese sake families, the second son is not as important. It was a really tough time for me, I was totally lost. But I appreciate it now because I got stronger.” Yoshikawa spent a few months exploring Australia before transiting in Hong Kong, immediately falling in love with its multicultural, frenetic diversity. It is here that he has called home for 33 years. “I saw so many people of different nationalities, wearing totally different clothes, and I decided I would do fashion. I found my dream in Hong Kong.” 

It was with that same gusto and foresight that in 2000, after Yoshikawa found success designing clothes for myriad European labels, he sought to take his family’s artisanal sake out of Japan for the first time, to Hong Kong, wanting “a wider generation” to appreciate it and seeing great potential in introducing it to a market that was dominated by big-name breweries at the time. “My father’s answer took one second: ‘No!’,” recalls Yoshikawa with a laugh. “He never sold to cities, not even Osaka or Tokyo. He said, why would Hong Kong people understand our sake? But I wanted people here to try and taste. Once they [tried] it, they [would] want to drink it.”  

Photo: Taiko Sake

Convincing the patriarch took three years and many hours learning the family business from the ground up. “I would sit in the tea house, and my father would say, ‘You can look at the garden but don’t think about anything else. Focus.’ My legs would be dead on the tatami,” he jokes. Eventually he got his permission to export, but the catch was that Yoshikawa had to fund it himself. On top of that, “If I failed, I had to return to Shiga to help the business. The pressure was on; I couldn’t fail.” After a rocky start (“The first batch we ended up drinking all by ourselves,” laughs Yoshikawa) things picked up steam, and over the next two decades, he saw his sakes being embraced by the city’s top Japanese restaurants, celebrity clients such as Eric Kot, devoted fans, and even prestigious competitions.  

Yoshikawa reaches up the shelf and pulls down his favourite bottle, the Taiko Tokubetsu Junmai, an iteration he created especially for the Hong Kong market that won the highest grading award in the London Sake Challenge. “Heavier” than most, notes evolve from sweet to dry as a creamy rice flavour takes hold on the palate. “My father actually helped me to create this recipe, following my opinion. He’d never done that before; he was always a very tough guy. Until today, this is our bestseller and my memory that my father accepted what I wanted to do,” explains Yoshikawa. “It’s very meaningful.” 

Photo: Taiko Sake

He also had a front-row seat from which to witness how Hong Kong’s appetite for sake has transformed. “In Japan, I had never heard of sake sommeliers. People here study very deeply. They have such a passion. Sake has become like wine.” And Yoshikawa is relishing being their teacher. At least once a week, he holds sake tastings with restaurants and private seminars that see many returning students, brimming with a curiosity he recognises in himself. “They ask so many questions, and their crazy ideas urge me to study and find a solution. Once I’ve emptied my knowledge, I have to study more, then I can teach forever.” Yoshikawa, who has a daughter based in London and family spread across continents and professions, is thinking hard about the matter of succession, too. “She’s doing psychology now, maybe one day my daughter will change her mind and she can take over. But I’m really looking for a new generation of people with a strong passion for the sake business.”  

If there is one philosophy Yoshikawa wants to pass down, it’s mottainai, which means “don’t waste it”, taught by his predecessors and Shiga schoolteachers alike. It sets the anchor for how Yoshikawa runs his sake and denim businesses: honouring materials from the earth and never making too much in the pursuit of profits. Comparing artisanal sakes to slow fashion, Yoshikawa took seven years to perfect his original patented yarn fabric out of washi paper, woven with vintage Toyota machines, echoing how his ancestors forwent buying rice in favour of growing Yamada Nishiki rice in neighbouring rice fields, taking ownership of the entire production chain to ensure prime quality and minimal waste.   

Sake makers | Photo: Taiko Sake

While staying true to Taiko’s origins, Yoshikawa has never stopped testing limits, and he has big plans for where the family brewery is heading in the coming decades. From continuing to experiment with softer water, to inventing new variations of yeasts and kojis alongside his older brother, and even growing a new breed of Yamada Nishiki rice altogether – the skies seem to be the limit as the Yoshikawa’s 18th generation takes the family label to new heights.  

Yet one thing remains certain: Yoshikawa understands that keeping the family’s promise of producing handcrafted sakes and remaining faithful to its provenance has been key to its longevity, and he will not deviate from it. “Once we use machines, our sake will taste the same as our competitors. What’s the character of your sake then? There are currently around 3,000 sake factories in Japan, when many years ago there was one in almost every village. We only make 60,000 bottles each year, which is not a lot. We’ve been approached by companies to expand, but I have to protect us. We have a real following from our consumers who have been drinking our sakes since their father’s and grandfather’s generations.” 

And while Yoshikawa recognises the world is changing and adjustments are needed, he’s letting Taiko’s fundamental DNA remain its guiding force. “Plus, I have 17 past grandfathers all watching from up in the air. If I do something wrong, they will get very angry. And there are so many of them!”