Here, we take a deeper dive into one of the coolest jobs in the hospitality industry – a sake sommelier.
Four Seasons Baltimore’s beverage manager Tiffany Dawn Soto wants you to know two things – first, that sake is pronounced “sa-keh” and not “sa-kee” and second, that you should never, under any circumstances, do a sake bomb.
“So many people think that sake is just hot sake – that battery acid you drink at 3 a.m. with bad sushi!”
Authenticity means everything to the Western World’s most famous female Master Sake Sommelier, or kikzake-shi, which translates to a loose cross between sommelier and educator.
The 30-year-old has traveled to Japan more than two dozen times to further her sake education, and it shows.
She leans in, her bright red hair and pale, almost Irish-looking visage at odds with her flawless pronunciation of Japanese terms. In a 101-level Sake tasting video, Soto teaches patrons the basics. She starts with the most basic, Junmai.
“Junmai very simply means that sake is un-messed around with. It has four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and a mold called koji.” She goes on to talk about Yamahai (also called Kimoto) sake, which she says “uses a traditional brewing method that presents as a caramelized, earthy texture” or, in layman’s terms, “goes great with spicy food.” Another she describes as “a little more filling, probably not something you’ll want to have at the all-you-can-eat sushi bar.””If it’s sake, Tiffany knows it,” says Evan Wald, director of special events for Sushi Samba and Sugarcane Lounge, Las Vegas, where Soto worked until 2009.
But it’s not just Soto’s knowledge – or her sex – that make her so special, although she is one of only two female sake sommeliers considered to be at her level of knowledge and understanding in the United States.
“She has the spirit of a 100-year-old Japanese man trapped inside her,” says E.C. Gladstone, a Las Vegas-based food writer who has known Tiffany for more than half a decade. It’s an interesting comparison. Petite and fashionable, Soto looks more like a ’40s pinup girl than a zen master. But she didn’t enter the field because she thought it was a moneymaker, even though it is.
Sake experienced a 13.9 percent year-over-year importation growth from 2010 to 2011, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, totaling up to $41.7 million dollars in annual sake import in 2011, a staggering $29.3 million increase in importation since 2002. Soto holds the distinction of being the highest seller of sake outside of Japan for several years running, a total that amounts to 25 percent of the United States’ overall sake sales.
All facts Soto says she doesn’t consider. She didn’t intend to become involved in the food and beverage industry at all. Ten years ago, Soto thought she’d work in advertising.
Not yet 21, Soto began her first forays into the alcohol world while working at a fine dining restaurant in North Carolina, where she was attending college. The state’s beverage laws permitted those under 21 to serve alcohol so long as they “trained” in it, and so began Soto’s love affair with wine. For the next year, she took weekly education classes to boost her skills.
Midway through college, Soto returned to her hometown of Las Vegas closer to her family.
While there, Soto quickly started attending, and soon teaching, wine education classes. The innately competitive Soto decided to delve in to sake when the University of Nevada’s large Asian population began asking questions about sake she couldn’t answer. That, she decided, was unacceptable.
And thus began her love affair with a spirit she modestly says her already sensitive palate had a unique and innate feel for. With encouragement from her professor, she decided to become a sommelier, even as she worked to finish her degree in advertising. Level One certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in hand, Soto entered the food and beverage world and quickly rose through the ranks, working at Las Vegas’ most acclaimed hotels, including Wynn, Venetian, Palazzo and more. She also holds the industry’s highest title from Niigata Sake Research Institute as well as a Sake Professional Educators Advanced Certification from Sake One.
“Tiffany is without a doubt the most knowledgeable sake expert I have ever come across,” says SushiSamba group’s Assistant General Manager Michael Durovsik.
Soto loves her career, and works hard at it, but it doesn’t define her. She prefers to spend her off hours with family, including her 10-year-old daughter, Evie, and her new husband, Ryan, at their rambling historic farmhouse just outside of Baltimore.
Interestingly, it was her husband that inspired her next career move. When Ryan, also a sommelier by training, was accepted into law school, Tiffany never dreamed of following – her career and family were in Las Vegas, and the move for school was only temporary. A position opened soon after Ryan’s acceptance to University of Maryland Law School at Four Seasons Baltimore, where acclaimed chef Michael Mina was opening his first Japanese izakaya-style restaurant, Pabu. Soto couldn’t say no. So she packed her bags, rented a 26-acre historic farmhouse in Elkridge, and arrived this past December.
“I knew we had to make her part of the team,” said Patric Yumul, Mina Group president, who found Soto through her LinkedIn profile and Sake2You consulting site, a business that she’s grown in recent years to include nine employee consultants that travel the globe when she’s on a job or restaurant site. “She has proven to be a great decision and continues to assist us in growing our vision with the beverage programs and hospitality.”
Pabu, opening in May, will have at least 105 sakes on the opening menu, the largest and most comprehensive collection on the East Coast.
But she’s not all sake, all the time. True to her Type A routes, Soto spends her free time scrapbooking, working on a wine cellar in her home’s newly-discovered secret passageway, helping her daughter with a soon-to-launch food blog called Junior Epicurean and uploading photos to her Instagram feed.
Someday, she says, she’d like to take a step back and become a full-time mom. But she’ll always have a hand in the sake world, she says. It would be too hard to give up completely.
With all these passions, one might think Soto is exhausting just to watch, but she isn’t. What’s hard is imagining how she does it – Soto won’t even touch caffeine, eschewing even the traditional green tea served with so many meals in Japan.
Soto is modest about her success, calling it “easy” and “natural.” “I have the best job in the world,” she says with a wry smile. “I get paid to drink.”
But it’s not just Soto’s palate that makes her unique. “She doesn’t lord her knowledge over you as much as use the knowledge to help you understand how sake can be enjoyed and that it doesn’t need to be enjoyed only in a traditional setting,” Gladstone says. She’s passionate about what she loves – and it comes through in her work.
Her education in the spirit doesn’t make her a snob – most of the time. During a recent lunch, Soto rolls her eyes when a dining companion says she prefers wine from a box. It’s the same disgusted look she gets when someone mentions sake bombs.
That doesn’t make Soto a price snob, just a quality one. She prefers $19-a-bottle 10 Cane rum for her mojitos (which she learned to make on a trip to Brazil) and $30-a-bottle Hangar vodka, which, she says, “it isn’t over-distilled to the point of practically becoming moonshine.”
Of course, her love of all things “spiritual” sometimes leads to geeking out, like when she dubs Hangar’s Mandarin Flower vodka perfect for a “retro-nasal breathe.”
The concept is simple. “Smell [the vodka]. Take a sip, hold it in your mouth for a moment, breathe in, swallow and then slowly breathe out,” Soto suggests. “You’ll get a second whiff coming from the back of your throat.”
It works. Soto smiles. It’s exactly what she wants people to learn, and part of what she wants to do with sake – make it as accessible as spirits like vodka, rum and whiskey.
It’s easy to believe that Soto would know how best to taste each liquor. On one trip, where she chose Sushi Samba in The Palazzo’s collection of more than 125 sakes (the largest on the West Coast), Soto tasted more than 2,500 varieties on a two-month journey.
So why won’t this self-admitting lover of all things Japanese just pack her bags and move to where the sake got its start?
She would if she could … but she can’t. Even without the ties of family and kids keeping her in the states, Soto is allergic to soy, a product that’s in almost all Japanese foods, right down to the local KFC or hamburger joint. It’s in everyday products, such as shampoo, as well as present in the pollen and air.
Although she visits the Japan every chance she gets and has been on many trips, several dozen, by her own estimation, several over a month in duration – Soto packs a separate suitcase of food and medicine to get her through each trip, hoarding her granola bars and jerky to last for two meals before splurging on a traditional meal for dinner. She can’t pass up an authentic experience.
Soto says she’s sampled everything from horse meat (her favorite is horse sashimi) – “it’s incredibly lean, like bison” – to an izakaya specializing in beef tongue, which she dubbed “one of the best meals I’ve ever had.”
Thankfully, sake doesn’t have any soy in it, just rice.