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Sake Secrets: A Q&A with Timothy Sullivan

Q&As

“Sake-brewing is a very ancient industry in Japan,” says Timothy Sullivan, who runs the blog urbansake.com in New York. Sullivan spent time observing sake-production at Japan’s Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, where he is now brand ambassador, learning the many steps involved in creating the fermented rice beverage, which contains only two main ingredients: special sake rice—harvested each autumn—and water.

Timothy Sullivan

Timothy Sullivan runs the blog urbansake.com.


On Thursday, May 16, at the Museum’s Adventure in the Global Kitchen program, Sullivan will share behind-the-scenes details, including video and photographs, about how sake, sometimes called the “drink of the gods,” is brewed each winter in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan. We spoke with him recently about the history and tastes of sake, and more.

How did you become interested in sake?

In 2005, I was out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in New York when I ordered the most expensive glass of sake on the menu. I was really surprised at how good it tasted! It was my first time getting my hands on a really good, premium sake.

In 2006, I started my blog, urbansake.com, and started profiling different sakes, doing videos. Slowly, I began to teach seminars and do tastings. In 2007, I was asked to be a “sake samurai” by the Japan Sake Brewers’ Association, which aims to raise awareness about sake. They flew me to Japan for a ceremony—it was really quite an honor.

GK 13 Sake

Timothy Sullivan


What does sake taste like?

One of the great things is that there are so many different types of sake, which is made, basically, from just rice and water. There is dry, crisp, clean sake;  fruity sake, that almost tastes like fruit salad, with melon and banana. And some sakes are very floral and aromatic.

Is sake made only in Japan?

I get this question a lot. The art of sake-production has been refined in Japan over thousands of years—we know that wet-rice cultivation came to Japan from China about 2,000 years ago, and that about a thousand years ago the brewing methods more or less solidified. But today, sake, that is, alcohol made mainly from fermented rice and water, is made all over the world, in Australia, and in the United States, in Oregon, Austin, Texas, and even Minnesota!

Three Hakkaisan bottles (sake)

Sake flavors range from fruity to floral to crisp and dry. 

Timothy Sullivan


How did you learn about the sake-brewing process?

I spent time working at the Hakkaisan brewery, where I really got a look behind the scenes. The Hakkaisan brewery dates from 1922, and, along with about 90 other breweries, is in the Niigata Prefecture—which is famous for its sake. It’s a very snowy, coastal region, on the Sea of Japan, and when the snow melts there is very pure water, which is great for sake production.

To purchase tickets to Japanese Sake: Behind the Scenes at Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, with Timothy Sullivan, click here.

Sakes to sample at the event include: 

  • Hakkaisan Honjozo
  • Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai
  • Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
  • Hakkaisan Daiginjo (This sake is normally not available in the US!)

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