[EDIT: The answer is now a solid, “NO”. There’s no good sake selection that I can find in PGH. As of Spring 2008, the Monroeville store has a lousy selection of sake. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the change in PLCB CEO or if there was a sake expert at that location who has since left.]
… if you count Monroeville as being in Pittsburgh.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: the PLCB and state-owned liquor store monopoly needs to be abolished. I’ve never lived in a state where an outdated bureaucracy was allowed to control so much of what the public consumed. The previous CEO of the PLCB seemed to have an idea of how to change things for the better; but thanks to politics he’s been replaced with an inexperienced person who apparently has no desire to improve the PLCB or even continue the previous CEO’s.
Want people to move to Pittsburgh? Fix the PLCB so I don’t have to apologize or explain to visitors why our liquor laws are so insane, why it is so many of us buy wine while we’re out of state, and why I have to buy a full case of beer if I want something out of the ordinary.
So, anyway, sake in Pittsburgh.
If you’ve been to a Japanese restaurant here in Pittsburgh and ordered “sake” off the menu, you had crap. If it had a brand or adjective beside the name, like “nigori sake” or “geikkeikan sake”, you probably payed way, way too much for average sake. If you went to a burger joint and they only listed “beer” on the menu, would you order a “beer”, or would you demand to know what brand it was. If your choices were, “beer $3, Budweiser Beer $5”, would you think “wow, this Budweiser must be the good stuff?” or would you think, “Uh, what?” (The best sushi restaurant in town is BYOB with per-glass charges and no corkage, clearly they understand the situation…)
For those of us who like sake, our choices have been “drink something else” or “BYOB”. Even BYOB is problematic, as most of the PLCB stores don’t carry decent sake. What’s the point in BYOB if what you’re bringing is still crap sake?
I’ve found an exception, however, the Monroeville PLCB store at the Monroeville Mall. It is not perfect — for example, they occasionally have undated bottles of very expensive sake, so there’s no telling if it’s gone off or not and none of their sake is chilled so you have to figure out how to cool it on the way to the restaurant or plan in advance and keep it in the fridge. On the other hand, this location carries a lot of premium brands at prices similar to what you’d pay in the next state over. If you want to try a good daiginjo or a proper nigori, this is the place to go. They don’t stock nama (unpasteurized) sake, but given the shipping/handling requirements and the short shelf life, I’m not at all surprised.
If they don’t have it there, your other option is apparently special order via the PLCB. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve heard from some friends that it’s not too difficult with wine, so it shouldn’t be too difficult with sake.
And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, hop over to True Sake and take a look at their Learn section. The owner, Beau, has also written an excellent book on sake that can be appreciated both by the neophyte and the purported expert. Sake is a beverage I think many Americans would enjoy if they had a chance to buy good sake and drink it under the appropriate conditions.