Sake, or nihonshu, has always been far more popular domestically than overseas. But recently, it’s made inroads on the international stage, with sake makers sending salespeople abroad to secure distribution networks and collaborate with high-end restaurants. Sake has now become the thing to order in top restaurants from London to Dubai, Hong Kong to Reykjavik. Yasuyuki Yoshida, son and heir to one of the most respected brewery houses in Ishikawa Prefecture, with its signature sake Tedorigawa, is ready to toast to that — in both English and Japanese. Now in his early 30s, Yoshida had always known he would inherit the family business but it wasn’t until he left Japan to go abroad that “I got really serious about learning the sake business,” he says.
“I was astonished at how large-scale everything was, and how different the culture,” he says. When the family business was looking to expand abroad, Yoshida knew he had to learn English. “I’m embarrassed to say my English was awful,” he laughs, adding that he felt the need to be in an environment where he had to force himself to use English. “So I enrolled in a language school in London in 2010 and stayed for one year.” He then went to New York in 2012 to intern as a salesperson and was there for six months, learning the ropes of sales and marketing. “On and off, I was in the U.S. for a total of two years,” he says. “I was so elated to be working there.” Yoshida says sake has matured into a highly marketable product overseas, especially for independent breweries with their own networks and spokespersons like himself. “The Americans were interested in everything I had to say,” he says. “Everyone was eager to learn how sake fits into Japanese food culture. I was gratified to be able to explain in a language they could understand.” Yoshida says his English isn’t perfect. “But I do know how to make a sales pitch and to work with people abroad. I’ve gone beyond learning the language to using it as a tool. And for me, that’s so important.” Yoshida’s family brewery company was founded in 1870, but “It’s never enough to keep doing the same things,” says Yoshida. Acknowledging innovation and creativity as key factors in keeping the business alive, Yoshida adds: “At the same time, we have to be one with the land, the region and the tradition. It’s really a matter of striking the right balance. “Sake is deceptively simple, requiring only two things: rice and water. But the water must be the purest of pure and the rice must be harvested from the cleanest paddies. Making sake is a delicate, labor-intensive process but it’s equally important for the brewery to steward the land.” Yoshida adds that foreign distributors are now fully aware of this, and how sake-making is heavily swayed by the environment. “It’s the same as wine. A lot of restaurants overseas now have sake lists as well as wine lists, and sommeliers that can pair sake with the food,” he says. “Going overseas opened up the world to me, but it also gave me an opportunity to learn how people outside of Japan view sake,” he adds. “Restaurants abroad value the powerful flavors of strong wines to go with the food, but when it comes to sake they want its purity, freshness and sensitivity. The global palate is changing and I’m happy to be right in the midst of this adventure.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by
1986年石川県白山市生まれ。吉田酒造店の６代目。東京農業大学応用生物科学部醸造科学科卒業。2010年から１年間英国に留学後、2012年から米国の輸入会社でインターンを経験。日系米国人監督によるドキュメンタリー映画 The Birth of Sake への協力やイベント企画・出展など、日本酒を国内外に広める取り組みを積極的に行なう。地元の米と水を使った地酒造りにもこだわっている。