Hey Sake Lady: Four Seasons Sake Sommelier Tiffany Dawn Soto Brings Eastern Flavor to the Western World

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.

Gifts From Abroad: What To Bring Your Family When You Come Home

My wife and I travel a lot, sometimes together, sometimes separately. We both have careers that require us to travel and while it can be tough to be apart, at least we have the regular ritual of seeing what gifts from abroad are popping out of each other’s suitcases!

My wife just came back from an astronomy meeting in Tokyo and brought back this haul of loot. The Japanese are masters of packaging, whether they’re being stylish and traditional or garish and modern. I wonder what a supermarket full of this stuff must look like. The panda head cookies are especially good. I’ve always wanted a bag of decapitated pandas. The T-shirt is for her, because she knows I’m fond of her “especially cuteness.”

What I forgot to include in this photo were the three bottles of sake she brought back. While I’ve always had my sake warm, she tells me it’s often served cold in Tokyo and that regulars have their own monogrammed bottle reserved for them behind the bar!

When I came back from writing my travel series about Greece, I brought her and my son lots of olives since they both love them. I also brought back some honey from Sparta. My wife adores honey and it’s a good gift to bring from abroad because it tastes different in every region. Of all the honey I’ve brought her from far-flung places, she’s liked the Spartan honey the most.

You’ll notice that we mostly bring back consumables. A great way to share the experience of your trip is to share some of the tastes. Also, we live in a European apartment (read: small) and we have too much stuff anyway.

What gifts from abroad do you like to give or receive? Tell us in the comments section!

10 reasons to visit Kanazawa, Japan

One of the most overlooked destinations in Japan is Kanazawa. Although it is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, many tourists have not heard of the city or use it only as a quick stopover to other places. In reality, Kanazawa has a legacy in the arts, a rich cultural heritage, and many unique offerings that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. To help you learn a little more about the area, here are 10 reasons to visit Kanazawa, Japan.

A vibrant art culture

Kanazawa has a long history as a town of artisans, originally invited into the area by the Maeda clan during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. Some traditional art forms still found in the area include:

  • Lacquerware and maki-e, which is lacquerware decorated with gold leaf or gold powder. You can see an example of lacquerware, created by artist Masaru Nishimura, above.
  • Pottery, including suzuyaki, a naturally occurring black “glaze” on pottery, and kutani-yaki, a five-colored glaze painted in flower and nature patterns
  • Silk weaving thanks to the production by silkworms that live in pairs in the same cocoon
  • Kaga yuzen silk dyeing, which involves the complicated but beautiful processes of pattern transfers, paste coating, coloring, steaming, and rinsing
  • Kaga-nui embroidery, the delicate stitching technique used to create kimonos
  • Zogan wood inlay, where different materials are laid on top of one another
  • Mizuhiki craft, which is comprised of paper-string weaving

One of the unique aspects of Kanazawa’s art culture is that there are so many types of local art and artisanal crafts in a relatively small area. If visiting the region, one good idea is to visit a studio and see a craftsman at work, which you can learn more about by clicking here.High gold leaf production

Kanazawa literally means “gold marsh,” and 99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced here. In Ishikawa, gold leaf has historically been used to decorate artisanal crafts, particularly lacquerware, since the sixteenth century. Both the gold leaf and lacquer industries in Kanazawa boomed during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) under the Maeda clan of daimyô (feudal lords), who encouraged the development of artisanal crafts in the region. Kanazawa gold leaf was used to repair the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto in 1987, and Marie Antoinette reportedly owned lacquer boxes and small objects from Japan decorated with gold leaf produced here. Gold leaf can also be used to decorate textiles and to gild Buddhist altars, and edible gold leaf can be found on local cuisine.

Eco-friendly fishing opportunities

Teichiami, or fixed-net fishing, began in the seventeenth century and is still practiced in several areas of Japan, including Kanazawa. The nets, which never change position, stretch over 300 feet in diameter and are composed of several compartments. Fish enter through a hole that stretches many yards below the surface and are led through a maze of progressively smaller compartments until they reach “the vault,” which is the smallest compartment located at the end of the net. Fishermen visit the net each morning to pull up the fish.

Although commercial in scale, the practice is sustainable because the catch’s volume is determined by natural migration patterns instead of aggressive trawling. Furthermore, because migration patterns are seasonal, so is the catch. Like fruits and vegetables, the fish caught varies throughout the year: spring is known for squid, summer sees much mackerel, the fall catch has katsuo and giant squid, and winter is the season for Ishikawa’s famed buri – large yellowtail prized for their fatty flesh that many argue rivals even the finest tuna. If interested, visitors can opt to ride on the boats and try the fishing method for themselves by contacting Discover Kanazawa. In addition, you can watch a sushi chef prepare your catch before you enjoy it with a sake pairing.

Sacred mountains

The area surrounding Kanazawa is very mountainous. Mount Hakusan in southern Ishikawa is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains along with Mount Tateyama, in the neighboring Toyama prefecture, and Mount Fuji. Hakusan, whose name literally means “white mountain,” rises to 8,865 feet. The summit remains snowy throughout the year, and the mountain was once revered as the dwelling place of the gods. The Shirayama Hime Shrine, located in Hakusan City, is the main shrine of over two thousand Hakusan Shrines throughout Japan, including several near the summit of the mountain. From a practical standpoint, Hakusan protects Ishikawa from the typhoons that sweep along the prefectures south of the mountain in the late summer. There are some excellent hiking trails in this area, now designated as a national park, and the flora and fauna from late spring to early fall are especially beautiful. To learn more, click here.

Raw cooking

Kanazawa’s location between the mountains and the sea provides the area with a variety of delicious ingredients. The seafood – particularly the oysters and the winter yellowtail – is considered the best in Japan. There are 15 designated heirloom vegetables known as Kaga yasai, which include varieties of squash, cucumbers, potatoes, field greens, and herbs. The area is also home to many nihonshu (sake) breweries, which use the fresh water from Mt. Hakusan to create their unparalleled products. The local rice, particularly the koshihikari type, is prized throughout Japan. Sea salt is harvested from the shores of the Noto Peninsula using traditional techniques unique to the area, while more recent culinary endeavors include dairy farming and grape cultivation for winemaking. With the bounty of the fields, sea, and mountains, Kanazawa has a lot to offer visitors looking for fresh culinary experiences.

Beautiful landscape

Kanazawa is located in central Ishikawa between the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japanese Alps. The mountain range in the South of the prefecture and the rocky terrain of the Noto Peninsula in the North made the region historically difficult to access. However, during the reign of the Maeda clan from the late 16th-to-mid-19th centuries, present-day Ishikawa became one of the richest provinces in Japan, second only to the capital city of Tokyo. Rich in natural resources, the landscape boasts not only the sea and mountains, but also quiet bays, lush forests, expansive plains, and robust rivers.

The famous 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

The main reason that people visit Kanazawa is to stop by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum aims to connect the region with the future of art by showcasing the “richly diverse art of our times [that] cuts across genres and transcends barriers of time and space.” People can expect pieces relating to the area of Kanazawa, newer works that propose new values, and art that can be used as a reference point for these values. Some current exhibitions include: The Swimming Pool, Blue Planet Sky, and Green Bridge.

There’s a well-preserved samurai district

Kanazawa’s samurai district is of particular interest as samurai families of varying ranks lived together in the same area. Kanazawa was spared from bombing during World War II, so the samurai residences, most of which are now private homes, remain intact. An excellent example is the Nomura House, now a museum open to the public. Although their garden is small, it contains all of the requisite features: waterfall, koi pond, stone lanterns, bridge, and pagoda. There is also an uguisubako (nightingale dovecote) displayed indoors, so the birds’ enchanting songs can be enjoyed. During winter, the mud walls of the houses are protected with komokake straw matting, making the area especially picturesque.

The city features the only active geisha district in Japan other than Kyoto

There are three historic teahouse districts: Higashiyama Chaya-gai, Nishi Chaya-gai, and Kazue-machi. All were created in the 1820s to regulate the entertainment and pleasure trades. Because the city and region were not damaged during the war, many of the original buildings have been preserved and restored. One can experience the architecture of the area with museums, geisha entertainment, or by visiting a restaurant or coffee shop housed in one of these structures. If you want to explore one with a local guide, Discover Kanazawa offers experiences with select teahouses in hopes of introducing visitors to this wonderful part of Kanazawa’s culture.

You can take part in special cultural festivals

There are numerous festivals and traditions to take part in during a visit to Kanazawa. First, there are the Kiriko Festivals. Kiriko are heavy rectangular lanterns made of wood and washi paper. The lanterns tend to be 3 to 16 feet high, built onto wooden carts or shouldered by festival participants who carry them through town streets – and sometimes into rivers and the sea. Typically held in July and August, these festivals are unique to the Noto Peninsula.

Kanazawa and Kaga in the southern region hold their own famous festivals from June-September, including light-ups, historical reenactments, dancing, fireworks, and a wide variety of lively rituals to pray for a good harvest of crops and fish. Abare Matsuri (the “fire and violence” festival) is perhaps the most famous due to wild ceremonies that include precariously maneuvering kiriko floats around bamboo stalks topped with blazing stacks of hay, and then smashing them in the river.

Another famous festival is the Hyakumangoku Matsuri in Kanazawa. The event takes place the first weekend of June and celebrates Lord Maeda Toshiie’s appointment as daimyô (feudal lord) of the Kaga province and entry into Kanazawa Castle in 1583. The festival is celebrated with a parade reenactment of residents in period costumes who march from the station to the castle. Hyakumangoku refers to the one million koku of rice that the domain was worth, which was about 5 million bushels. After sundown, hundreds of lanterns made of Kaga yuzen dyed silk are sent out to float on the river.

From the Bay to Brooklyn: San Francisco, California, Japanese restaurant pops up this November in New York

Chefs James LaLonde and Ryoji Kajikawa of the Mojo Cafe in San Francisco, California, love creating Japanese-by-way-of-California delicacies for their pop-up restaurant, SloMo SF. On November 18, 19, and 21, 2011, New Yorkers will also get a chance to experience their cuisine through a series of pop-up dinners at Sweet Deliverance in Brooklyn.

These pop-up dinners cost $90 per person and include a seasonally-inspired 7-course Japanese meal with drinks. Some menu and drink items you can expect are:

  • sake-steamed clams
  • Japanese fried chicken
  • ramen with housemade stock and noodles and seasonal garnishes
  • beer
  • sake
  • persimmon cocktails

For more information and to order tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets.

Sweet Deliverance is a two-level commercial kitchen space located at 1287 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

Daily Pampering: The $500 sake for National Sake Day

What’s one way to celebrate the first day of the month? With a cocktail! Grab a glass of the most expensive sake offered by True Sake – a Kame no O sake by Wataribune. The dai ginjo sake sells for $500 for a 720ml bottle.

Can’t quite afford a $500 drink? Never fear – in celebration of National Sake Day on October 1, Kabuki Japanese Restaurants is offering guests a unique selection of sake-focused cocktails from its newly refreshed drinks menu. Imbibers can raise a glass of sake creations at any of Kabuki’s 14 locations throughout Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada (as if you needed a reason to drink).

Kabuki Japanese Restaurant is a full-service, casual Japanese restaurant that showcases traditional and innovative Japanese cuisine and inventive cocktails. The menu features classic cocktails, wine, and beer, as well as creative sake libations created by Master Sake Sommelier Yuji Matsumoto, the first certified Master Sake Sommelier in North America.

Drink up at one of the following locations and raise a glass to National Sake Day! After all, it’s not good manners to ignore a national holiday.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.