We’re certainly not forgoing classic wine, beer, or cocktail options when it comes to summer sipping, but we’re also tossing back our fair share of chilled sake, especially after sake expert John Gauntner taught us how to drink the Japanese rice wine and divulged a few places around town with lists worth perusing. Like any international city worth its salt, though, New York has many good places to try the drink, and you can find sake bars in basements and tiny cutaways throughout town, many of which you’ll walk right past unless you know to look for them. So we’ve put together our list of the 10 best sake spots in NYC, listed here in alphabetical order. See something we missed? Let us know in the comments.
A note on tasting before we begin: Something like 80 percent of the sake on the market is not premium sake, but something like 80 percent of the sake for sale in New York’s sake bars is considered premium, so it helps to know at least something about the different grades.
There are six grades of premium sake, which can be cleanly divided by whether alcohol has been added to the brew or if the drink contains only naturally occurring alcohol. From there, the degree to which the sake rice is milled down to its starchy center will further define the premium sakes.
The lower tier of premium sakes has been brewed with rice milled to at least 70 percent of its original size; Junmai has no alcohol added; Honjozo does.
The middle tier is milled to at least 60 percent of its original size; Junmai Ginjo has no alcohol added; Ginjo does.
The super-premium top tier is made from rice milled to at least 50 percent of its original size; Junmai-Daiginjo has no added alcohol; Daiginjo does.
15 East, 15 East 15th Street
For some, a Michelin star is merit enough to devote an evening to 15 East, and the formidable sake selection at one of Manhattan’s darling sushi spots certainly helped it earn that coveted honor. While not as comprehensive as other sake bars’ (the list leans heavily toward junmai ginjo and daiginjo), 15 East’s sake selection is nonetheless robust, complete with a seasonal selection of unpasteurized nama sakes and a bottle of Born “Yume wa Masayume”–a rare and award-winning aged sake that tips the scales at $525 for a 1-liter bottle.
Chez Sardine, 183 West 10th Street
Chez Sardine is not a sake bar–it’s a restaurant touting an inventive hybrid of Japanese cuisine with European influence–but the spot keeps a truncated sake list to match the offerings from its sushi bar. Two interesting by-the-glass sakes (a kimoto junmai and an unfiltered ginjo) make the list, and seven sakes are available by the bottle to enjoy with a plate of miso-maple salmon head.
Decibel, 240 East 9th Street
While sake doesn’t age well, Decibel does. The granddaddy of NYC sake bars was established in 1993 and has become a mainstay of the city’s sake scene. Graffiti, dim red lighting, and its subterranean location give Decibel the feeling of a punk rock speakeasy transplanted from the neon streets of Tokyo. Sake bottles look like trophies on display, offering drinkers nearly 100 varieties to choose from. Some sake cocktails are available, as is standard Japanese bar food.
EN Shochu House/EN Japanese Brasserie, 435 Hudson Street
EN’s high ceiling makes room for the stacks of sake and shochu bottles lining the wooden walls. A three-taste flight of super-premium junmai-daiginjo is available for $40, but less expensive flights of classic sakes and a special selection from a rotating brewery can be had for less than $20. EN also offers opportunity to explore sake’s rougher cousin, shochu, in its many incantations–including rice, sweet potato, wheat, barley, and carrot–and an on-the-rocks glass of house-infused ginger shochu is great finish to a sake flight. Food is available at the bar or in the adjacent restaurant, EN Japanese Brasserie, which employs a sake and shochu sommelier.
Sakagura, 211 East 43rd Street
Having thrived this tough city since 1996, Sakagura is the gold standard for the New York sake scene, and it’s a go-to spot for veteran rice brew connoisseurs and newcomers alike. More than 200 types of sake are for sale in Sakagura’s garden-like setting in the basement of a midtown office building, and all waitstaff are trained sake advisers who will do their best to educate you about what you’re drinking as well as show you how to pair it with food. The sake list is encyclopedic and includes fun-to-read blurbs that serve as a crash course in becoming a knowledgeable rice wine drinker.
SakaMai, 157 Ludlow Street
New in town as of December, SakaMai considers itself New York’s first dedicated sake lounge, and it quickly became a favorite among aficionados for its well honed and extensive list. The experience here goes beyond sake–a comprehensive menu of Japanese beers, whiskeys, and shochu is available in addition to inspired creations from cocktail curator Shingo Gokan (who came to SakaMai from Angel’s Share). Gokan includes sake, plum wine, or shochu in half of his dozen signature cocktails, including the inventive Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which combines Bulleit bourbon, Hanahato aged sake, Benedictine, and bitters in a snifter smoked at the table side with clove and cinnamon embers.
Sake Bar Hagi, 152 West 49th Street
Hagi’s sake selection is not as robust as its competitors’, but its affordable prices make it an ideal spot for a trial run when you’re looking for a little self-education. The vibe is sports bar-casual–complete with old TVs showing whatever game is relevant that night–and the tables are closely spaced together, providing open invitation to chat with neighbors, exchange sips, and compare tastings. Hagi’s by-the-5-ounce-glass sake servings top out at $25, and most are well under that price, including a $13 glass of Okunomatsu junmai ginjo. Pours are generous, and there’s also tempura-fried pizza, which pairs surprisingly well to a cold glass of something premium.
Sake Bar Kirakuya, 2 West 32nd Street 2F
What microbrew is to beer, jizake is to sake, and at Kirakuya, a local or regional Japanese jizake is featured every month. (June’s special is a crisp, dry junmai ginjo called Koshi no Seki that’s made with water from Mt. Fuji.) An otherwise enormous sake list is made digestible by detailed descriptions, and if you can swing the $150 tab, Kirakuya’s sake paring course is a worthy educational endeavor; it will guide you through six classic Japanese dishes and premium brews. Fair warning: This place has a reputation for being out of stock of its least expensive sakes.
Sake Bar Satsko, 202 East 7th Street
Downtempo hip-hop flowing from the speakers as sake and Sapporo flow from glasses gives Satsko a chilled-out vibe that makes it seem more like a friendly neighborhood local than a sake bar. The joint’s few bar stools and four tables ensure an intimate night; the bar crew delivers sake by the lacquer box while the two-man kitchen prepares edibles from a short menu of Japanese favorites like beef or chicken curry and squid jerky with spicy mayo dip. Satsko’s sake list covers its bases well and throws in a few surprises, like a junmai sake brewed in Hollister, California.
Yopparai, 151 Rivington Street
Homemade tofu, Japanese barbecue, and sushi slices share the table with a list of more than 50 kinds of sake at Yopparai, which means “drunk person” in Japanese. Two in-house sake sommeliers offer their expertise, and the menu provides concise flavor descriptions (“fruity and floral,” “rich and full-bodied”) that can help you make sense of what you’re drinking even if you’re already feeling like a “yopparai” yourself. An added bonus comes by way of the chinmi menu, which features about a half-dozen sake-friendly bites, like fermented soy beans and pickled plums.
Honorable mention: Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya, 187 Orchard Street
Worthy of a nod for its three sakes made specifically for the house, the Blue Ribbon-brand rice brews complement an otherwise robust sake list. Blue Ribbon Daiginjo comes from Harushika, a brewery operated by one of the oldest sake-making families in Japan. Like most sakes on the menu, the house daiginjo is available by the glass, lacquer box, or bottle (with prices ascending in the same order). Blue Ribbon daiginjo, along with a junmai and a ginjo sake, are available in a tasting flight for $20.