New York’s Sake Culture Is the Best Outside of Japan


Tim Sullivan is one of the most prolific sake lovers in New York. His blog, Urban Sake, is an encyclopedia of sake knowledge, with tastings notes on hundreds of bottles and a comprehensive glossary of Japanese terms — Sullivan was named a “Sake Samurai” by Japan’s Sake Brewers Association back in 2007 for preaching the gospel of rice juice in the U.S. Since then, he quit his day job to evangelize full time, teaching classes on the finer points of sake culture, organizing themed tastings around town, and consulting for a number of breweries. I asked him what pairs best with ramen, and what to drink right now as we edge closer to spring.

I’ve been really enjoying Shigure lately; where do you like to drink in the city? My first recommendation is always Sakagura. I tell my students it’s the mother ship — it’s been around for 15 years and has the largest list in the city. It can be overwhelming, but for selection, elegance, and broadness of appeal it’s my number one choice. And if you just want to dip your toes in the water you can tell them what sort of wines and beers you like, and they’ll make a suggestion.

What should we be drinking right now? It’s March, so that means New York is getting deliveries of nama sake. I absolutely love these unpasteurized and undiluted sakes — they’re juicy, springy, and full of fruity flavors. This year, Kamikokoro and Nanbu Bijin are really delicious.

You’ve been monitoring it for years now, but how are we doing? What’s the state of New York’s sake culture? We’re doing great! I’m confident that we have the best sake scene outside of Japan (and that’s including the rest of Asia). The quality of sake coming in from Japan is getting better all the time, and in New York, the number of sakes available and the opportunity for tastings is just so good.

What about retail? Sakaya, which is dedicated completely to sake, is really the place to start. Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa are good friends of mine, but they’re so easy to talk to and learn from. There’s also Landmark Wine and Sake, and Ambassador Wine and Spirits — they have a temperature-controlled room dedicated to sake, and a great selection.

Are you digging anything strange and new? Lately, I’ve been introducing people to a sake from Kyoto called Yuzu Omoi, made with the Japanese citrus. It’s almost like a sake lemonade, perfect for brunch instead of a mimosa — and because of the really low alcohol, it’s not going to knock you on your butt. It’s very nontraditional, but I think it’s a bellwether of things to come.

Do you have favorite sake sommeliers in town? Hiromi Kiyama at 15 East is great, and her recommendations are always so fantastic. I work often with Chiziko Nikawa, who was the sake sommelier at Sakagura for many years.

Help a food critic out — what kind of sakes go best with ramen? When I first started going out to eat ramen, I was annoyed that these places didn’t have my high-end sakes that I love to drink. But I realized those just don’t go stylistically with ramen, which is inexpensive, greasy, slurp-and-run fare. So, don’t think fancy! Rough and ready sakes pair best with ramen, like inexpensive junmai or honjozo that are dry, robust, and rice-y.