Written by Mike Fetters
There are few people who have done as much to bring sake to a wider audience than Timothy Sullivan. He’s a preeminent sake educator and a founder of both the American Sake Association and Urban Sake, a blog and database for anyone looking for more exposure to Japan’s national beverage. Timothy is also the Global Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan Sake brewery, and has ample insight in sake production as well consumption. We wanted to use this interview as a chance to ask how he first came to learn about sake, where this drink has taken him geographically and professionally, and what sorts of exciting possibilities he wants people to discover in every glass.
For someone who has spent so much time being deliberately tuned in to the taste of sake, I was curious about the first time he remembered the drink really catching his attention. Timothy n answered immediately, and with a warm enthusiasm. “I was on a date, and it was maybe a sixth or seventh date with the person I’m now married to,” Timothy recalls. “He’s Japanese-American, so he thought he knew everything about Japanese food in New York City. He took me to a restaurant that’s still there called Tomoe. It’s a sushi restaurant, but it’s like a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant.” Tomoe, as Timothy remembers, had ample portions of high-quality sushi, with a dependable line forming outside the door due to the “no reservations” policy.
‘Oh my god.’ I had to stop for a second. I thought, ‘This is really good, what is this stuff?’
Living in New York City at the time, Timothy had spent plenty of time exploring the wide array of international cuisine available locally. “I would have Ethiopian food, I would have Thai food, of course I would go for sushi, but I obviously had a bit to learn about Japanese food and culture,” says Timothy. And so, at the suggestion of his future spouse, Timothy took a seat inside the restaurant, and very quickly noticed the prominent posters listing the sake menu. “There were four posters, and they went from left to right: one was Hakkaisan, one was Urakasumi, one was Hatsumago, and there was one more — maybe Kurosawa? And Hakkaisan was the most expensive one by the glass, so I said, ‘Y’know, that’s got to be good.’ On a whim, I got a glass of Hakkaisan junmai ginjo.” With the sushi plated in front of him and the ricey-soft glass of Hakkaisan cupped in his hand, Timothy was quickly overcome with how seamlessly the two rolled together on his tongue. “I started eating the sushi and sipping the sake and I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’ I had to stop for a second. I thought, ‘This is really good, what is this stuff?’ I was kind of taken aback that there was something so yummy out there that I didn’t know about.” The meal carried on wonderfully, sake complementing sushi complementing company, but Timothy says he didn’t dwell too much on the particulars at that moment. The morning after, however, he found himself wanting to revisit the previous night’s revelation. Timothy suggested to his partner that they return to Tomoe at the next opportunity. “A couple weeks later we went back and I actually took notes of what the sakes were because I wanted to remember the names. From that point on I would say, ‘Let’s try another Japanese restaurant, and see if they have sake too!’ And so starting from zero, it grew from there.”
Sake probably doesn’t spring to mind when most Americans are asked to consider their early and formative experiences with alcohol. Households are far more likely to be stocked with beer, wine, or a few select spirits than with a verdant namazake. Timothy’s earliest memories of drinking culture were no different in this regard. He grew up with an affinity for those drinks he noticed his parents enjoying, as he says, “My father was a beer lover, he drank a certain cocktail, and guess what? I like the same cocktail I was exposed to as a child. I mean, not drinking it, but having it around the house and seeing my parents enjoy certain cocktails and drinks. It just influences you over time.” For many drinkers, this early experience helps provide a foothold for branching out into new styles and flavor profiles as they uncover their preferences; sake, however, doesn’t get the benefit of such a jumping off point. In fact, one is probably more likely to encounter sake through a broader interest in Japanese cultural exports than culinary curiosity alone. Timothy notes that many people are actually surprised he stumbled into sake the way he did, “A lot of people assume that I have a background in it — that I’m an otaku from way back, or my walls are covered with anime posters — but I had very little interest in Japan before this experience. I had studied German language in college, I lived for two years in Germany, so I had a much more European-focused education.” He remarks that sake has, in a reversal of the usual directional energy, been a fantastic gateway to exploring Japan and Japanese culture.
‘This is my new hobby, I’m going to start a blog.’ So that’s where Urban Sake came from.
All of that exploration required a lot more leg work when Timothy was first mapping out the sake landscape in NYC fifteen years ago. Prior to having a massive mobile directory in our pocket that could triangulate on any particular hunger pangs at a moment’s notice, scouting out sake was a word-of-mouth affair. “I would seek out, ask a friend-of-a-friend, ‘Do you know any good Japanese restaurants or really authentic places,’ or ‘Have you ever had sake before?’ Trying to find these nuggets of culture all around the city was really exciting and fun, it felt like a real adventure,” he tells me. Over the course of his sake fieldwork, Timothy became frustrated that there was no single centralized online resource for all of the brands, styles, breweries, etc. that he was coming into contact with, explaining, “I thought,‘There has to be a website out there where all this information is located.’ That’s just the way my brain works, and my previous job was in web development and computers, so I said, ‘This is my new hobby, I’m going to start a blog.’ So that’s where Urban Sake came from.” He began compiling his notes and pictures from his trips around the city, along with listings of local events and tasting opportunities, and UrbanSake.com became a gathering point for sake enthusiasts all around the world. “I would get emails from people all over the world who were like, ‘I love sake too! Can we be friends?’ I met people in Japan, people on the west coast, and we had very much a proto-social network going.”
Timothy continued filling out his notebooks, hauling his camera to restaurants so he could reference the bottle labels later, and this would inevitably catch the attention of restaurant management. He would mention the Urban Sake project to them and instantly be introduced to all the other regulars and “sake friends” seated around him at the bar or at tables. The online community was less quick to coalesce around the sake site in its infancy, though. Timothy diligently continued blogging for another two years, less focused on traffic than content, when he was informed via email that he in fact had a readership he had been fully unaware of, and that they would love to fly him out to Kyoto.
(… to be continued)