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Sake Sommelier

Our Very Own Sake Samurai in NYC – Tim Sullivan

Tim swore to uphold the following vows forever when named a Sake Samurai.
1. Love both sake and the beautiful culture of Japan.
2. Strive to gain a deeper understanding of sake culture and work on behalf of its further development.
3. Spread the word about Japanese sake around the world with pride and passion.

Talking to Tim Sullivan, a sake teacher who was named a Sake Samurai by Japan Brewery Association in 2007, you would never guess he had no interest or opinion about Japanese culture or sake just until a few years ago. In fact, he was a former German language major, whose international experiences were very much European based, but his life turned upside down (in a good way) when he discovered premium sake one day on a whim.

Was there a particular event or sake that lead you on your current path?
I discovered sake through a food pairing experience. I just decided to try Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo, a premium sake, on a lark when I was eating high quality sushi. When I had it together with the sushi it was a transformative experience. I always tell people a good sake and food pairing is like one plus one equals three. It got me interested because I was really curious how rice and water could make banana flavors, and melon flavors.

What has discovering sake meant to you?
I’ve heard sake being referred to as the “latest trend a thousand years in making”, and it’s really true. It’s really gaining momentum here now, but sake is so deeply connected with the Japanese culture and it’s a study of restraint and balance, and it is an expression of what it means to be Japanese in many ways. Between the types of sake, and the understated elegance of sake is an encapsulation of some wonderful aspects of Japanese culture. Discovering and understanding the culture and the people of Japan through sake has been a real honor.

Tell us about your experience of being named a  Sake Samurai.
All I can say is that, that experience was life changing for me. It was my first trip to Japan. I was invited by the Japan Brewers Association, and I was unprepared for the beauty of the ceremony which was at Shimogamo shrine in Kyoto. It was my first time participating in a Shinto ceremony. Meeting all the brewers there, and seeing their dedication and enthusiasm for having people outside of Japan who are passionate about sake was something else, and it was very humbling to be recognized by doing something I am so enthusiastic about. I realized that language was so important. I was humbled by how important the language was in understanding sake and it encouraged me to study more. The other major thing that came out of being a Sake Samurai is that you actually take vows, which I promise to uphold for the rest of my life.

What are some of the sakes you enjoy?
It depends on my mood, and what I’m doing, but when I’m like this relaxing with friends having sake on its own, I really go towards light, elegant, soft, Niigata style sake, or the wonderfully fruity, light sakes that come out from Yamagata, and Hiroshima.  I really enjoy Hakkaisan Ginjo. It’s got a bit more of a floral character and richness than the Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo, which I find to be cleaner and crisper. I also like Kudoki Jozu from the Imai brewery in Yamagata. It’s a very small brewery but they make wonderful luscious sakes that are easy to drink. It has some substance to it, so it can definitely stand up to food, too, but I personally like to enjoy it on its own because it is a little on the floral side, and I like to really enjoy its aroma without food getting into the mix.

Any tips for food pairing?
There are general rules for pairing sake with Japanese food (such as light sake with light food, rich sake with rich food) but pairing sake with American food is very much cutting edge. There are really not a lot of established rules, and I think that’s wonderful, because it gives you the freedom to experiment with what you want. I tend to draw parallels from what I learned from the Japanese culinary world. For example, if I found a sake that pairs very well with yakitori (charbroiled chicken skewer) I might try that with a turkey burger, or something that’s in the same vein but with an American spin. That has lead to some wonderful pairing ideas for me. Similarly, food pairing ideas will inspire demand for certain styles of sake that may become more prevalent, so it’s a wonderful area for exploration.

What trends do you see in sake right now in the US?
I think sake manufacturers will continue to make new styles and try to cater to the taste of this emerging market that come out of the food pairing ideas. There are interesting lighter, low alcohol, sparkling sakes right now, and more and more brewers are giving that a try. Muroka (non-filtered) is another trend. I think that that’s a very interesting development. People are sort of getting back to their roots in a way, and trying out this more vibrant type of sake. It adds an interesting dimension to the variety and it’s a very exciting trend that’s going on right now.

*Tim Sullivan’s website:
*Tim Sullivan will have a lecture on sake at JapanC event on October 23rd. For more information about this event, go to