It’s easy to find Japan all over New York, even when you’re not looking for it. Browsing Back Label Wine Merchants, a new wine shop in Chelsea, I came across a small section of sake, including a rare aged sake. The list of wine and spirits shops that sell sake in New York seems to be growing, and it reminded me of John Gauntner’s recent lecture at Japan Society.
Sake is a uniquely Japanese beverage, but you don’t necessarily have to drink it with Japanese food. As more non-Japanese educate themselves about the versatility of sake, the more people will listen to the preachings of Gauntner, known as the “sake evangelist.”
I spoke with Allison Klug, Back Label’s spirits director and sake buyer, about her thoughts on how to choose and pair sake.
JapanCulture•NYC: How do you choose what sake to sell?
Allison Klug: Deciding what sake to sell is really difficult; there is a huge influx of quality and premium Sake coming into the country. As cliché as it sounds you just have to sit down and drink through it. My goal is to create a selection that has something for everyone but still in keeping the heart and soul of the brewery. I want people to walk out with a bottle that not only speaks to them flavor-wise, but will also open their eyes to the culture of where it came from.
JC•NYC: Do a lot of non-Japanese customers ask you for advice about sake? What do you tell them is the best way to enjoy sake?
AK: For the most part my customer base has been non-Japanese, and they ask for help every time. I find that people enjoy Sake and want to drink it, but often find it intimidating. It reminds me of what the wine industry looked like a few years ago. People want to drink, but they don’t know what they’re looking for and Sake has such an incredible range of styles and flavor profiles. Thankfully, they do ask questions, and it starts a really fun conversation about this amazing beverage. We are at a place in this industry where there are really passionate and dedicated importers who not only do a wonderful job of selecting what they bring in, but also go out of their way to educate people. So when customers do come in and ask questions, there is some real knowledge behind the answers.
JC•NYC: Do you recommend any non-Japanese foods to pair with sake?
AK: I encourage people every chance I get to explore drinking Sake with all types of food; it’s incredibly versatile. There are some herbal and clean Sake that knock it out of the park with vegetables, which with wine can be a very difficult pairing to tackle. Great example that I have at the store is the Fukucho ‘Moon on the Water.’ My personal favorite is pairing it with Mexican food. I make a Mexican version of a Korean dish called Bibimbap, and not only do I drink sake with it, I use it in the dish. I make a soy, ginger, and Sake marinade for the meat and then pour a beautiful, fuller-bodied Sake with bright fruit and a slight sweet finish that helps with hot sauce in the dish. Great example at the store for this could be the Hitorimusume, an unfiltered nigori Sake.
Klug practices what Gauntner preaches! Visit her at Back Label Wine Merchants at 111 W. 20th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.