**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

Since I’m in New York, now, I decided to check on the seminal East Village Sake Bar Decibel to  see how it’s faring after a year-and-a-half of pandemic hardship.

Decibel opened in 1993, setting itself on the path to becoming arguably the best place outside of Japan to drink sake. Inspiration for the concept came to entrepreneur Bon Yagi in 1992, when he took his first sip of Niigata Prefecture’s Koshi no Kanbai, an example of the light, dry and refined junmai style that was then all the rage in Japan, so different from the heavily adulterated post-World War II stuff that Yagi typically associated with the drink.

The sake blew Yagi’s mind, enough so to make him decide to clear the whisky out of his East 9th Street underground bar and make way for about 40 different sake labels.

From the beginning, Yagi intended for Decibel to be a hidden speakeasy. He mounted an “On Air” radio studio sign on the building’s front to throw off the uninitiated. Inside, the bar was gritty, graffiti covered and loud, punk music blasting from the speakers, the floor staffed with Japanese expats. They had little in common with midtown finance and trading company types; they orbited around the worlds of art, fashion and music. It was a scene that writer Jon Bonné chronicles well in this 2019 appreciation.

A Breeding Ground for Sake Bar Talent

For all its drunken revelry, Decibel was also a training ground for sake professionals who put in their time, then fanned out to open sake bars across New York and the country, bringing with them a passion for craft sake. Former manager Takahiro Okada went on to EN Japanese Brasserie (with Decibel co-worker Miki Kanematsu), then to Tribeca’s  Sake Bar Shigure. Now the the two of them are spearheading the launch of a new East Village Sake bar, to be called Gongo (五合) which refers to half of a standard 1.8-liter issho-bin.

Manager Yuki Mori arrived at Decibel in 2004 and fell in love with sake on the job, leaving in 2014 to launch Stirling Sake in Greenport, Long Island (its tagline: “A Restaurant and Sake Bar where the Far East Meets the East End.”) Another alum, Courtney Kaplan, opened Los Angeles’s Tsubaki and Ototo with her partner, chef Charles Nanba.

Arriving at Decibel, I meet co-managers Cho Shintaro and Yuri Itakura. Shintaro’s previous job was sourcing fabrics for brands like Comme des Garçons and Prada, while Itakura was drawn to New York to study fashion. Decades of hard use have turned the basement bar into a dimly-lit cave of aka-chochin (red paper restaurant lanterns), dusty sake bottles, issho-bin on tap, Japanese folk masks and quirky dioramas.

Shinkame Tasting

Itakura says that she likes ojisan-style sakes (lit., “uncle” style, but basically rich and robust old-school bottles that eschew big fruit and floral aromas—impeccably brewed brands like Kenbishi or Tengumai.  Shintaro announces that his current favorite sake is Saitama Prefecture’s Shinkame, one of the pioneers of the revived junmai (pure, uncut with brewer’s alcohol) style.

He sets off to retrieve a bottle. What are the chances? Within the span of two weeks, I’m lucky enough to get my second taste of Shinkame’s delicious junmai. (The first was during my visit to Los Angeles, when I finally—after long hoping to buy a bottle—managed to track one down from True Sake.) “It’s good, right?” asks Shintaro. “It’s so awesome you can’t stop drinking it. Sometimes Tamagawa (from the widely admired Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto led by British master brewer Philip Harper) comes on too strong but this is really rich and smooth.”

Top-selling sakes at Decibel change along with what the featured sake of the week are. Recently Decibel has spotlighted Senchu Hassaku from Tsukasabotan Brewery in Kochi Prefecture, Suishin from Hiroshima, and Kikusui’s izakaya food-friendly Funaguchi from Niigata.

The Covid-19 shut-downs and curfews have been hard, Shintaro and Itakura admit. They’ve had to winnow down what was once a 100-bottle list or so to 50, while Decibel’s staff has shrunk from 15 to five people. Operating hours have been shortened as well.

 Over the nine years or so that they have worked at Decibel, they’ve noticed that regulars are becoming younger, moving from mostly a mid-30s crowd to guests in their 20s. While most do not know much about sake, Yuri notes that “almost every day” someone will come in who has tasted sake at one of the many craft sake breweries that are opening across America, wanting to learn more. “I recommend that they go to Kato Sake Works or Brooklyn Kura,” where they can try draft sake,” she says.

Decibel Nostalgia

As we sip our Shinkame in a worn, sticker-covered booth fitted with a wooden table that has nearly completely lost its finish, Shintaro and Itakura regale me with a selection of Decibel stories.

When Decibel turned 21 in 2014, the staff decided it should celebrate its arrival at legal drinking age by throwing a party. During a week of celebratory events, they held open mic nights, during which guests told their favorite drinking stories before downing a shot of sake. They also played drinking games like the Kochi Prefecture favorite, bekuhai.

In those earlier days, Decibel’s punk roots merged with performance art. There was an employee who, taking a page from Japanese pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, gained a reputation for creating champs by slapping them. Guests would look forward to watching the Inoki impersonator, in various stages of undress, slapping other guests. It seems that this was a little too East Village dive bar for Mori, who stepped in to put an end to that chapter of the bar’s history. “It was bad for customers, and out of control, so I had to stop it,” Mori recalls. “It was crazy idea to do that!”

Even though serving customers who were already drunk when they arrived at the bar and mediating fights could be taxing, Mori remembers his decade at Decibel fondly. “I met so many cool people from all over the world,” he says. Decibel was part of the charged underground art, music and dance scene of the late ’90s and early oughts, making it into the chronicle of this universe, Evanly Schindler’s BlackBook. By the time Mori arrived, Decibel’s playlist veered from punk to hip hop to world music. “Every month one of the employees could buy a CD, and when it was your turn to tend bar, you could choose the music,” he recalls. There was a purism about the bar, too. No matter how much guests might beg for a sake bomb, servers made it clear that wasn’t going to happen here.

“Sake is like the Beatles,” Yuki says, somewhat puzzlingly. What he remembers, he explains, is how nights at Decibel were like the kind of communal experience when a whole roomful of strangers hear a Beatles song. “White people, Black people, Asian people, they all know they lyrics, they sing together and start talking to each other. Decibel was like that,” Mori says. “It’s a really small place, and when people drink sake, they start to talk to each other. I remember two couples who met at Decibel and ended up getting married.”

In less than two years Decibel will celebrate its 30th anniversary. It is a must-visit if you want to do a New York City sake bar crawl. I hope that knowing a little bit of its storied history will make your visit an even more fun and meaningful place to explore some new sakes and old favorites.

More Sake News

My sake book co-writer and I, Michael Tremblay, have submitted a panel proposal for the 2022 South By Southwest Festival in Austin. The PanelPicker process allows you to upvote panels that you like. Voting is open til August 26, so if you like this blog and want to learn more about our book, please take a moment to upvote us here! We will be forever grateful.

RWE: Notes on Sake friend Will Jarvis has written this very interesting article on vegan sake and why we’re seeing these labels more and more.

While I plan my next Clubhouse room on cooking with sake lees and shio-koji, here’s a story on what sake lees can do for Japanese-raised cattle. I applaud Toyama Prefecture’s efforts to meet the UN’s sustainability goal of halving its food waste by 2030!