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Tiffany Dawn Soto
Five questions for the ‘Master Sake Teacher’ at the Four Seasons’ PABU.
Interview by Joe Sugarman
Photographed by Justin Tsucalas
Tiffany Dawn SotoWhen Tiffany Dawn Soto, 30, was an undergraduate studyingadvertising at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she took a wine-tasting class as a sophomore. By the time she was a senior, she was teaching the class. “We sort of determined right away that I was much better at tasting wine than somebody should have been with so little experience,” she says.But she soon discovered that she was even better at something else. “As well as I did with tasting wines, you could triple that with how well I tasted sake.”

After stints managing the wine programs at Las Vegas’ Red Rock Resort and SushiSamba, Soto went on to earn the title of Sake Kikizake-shi or Master Sake Teacher, becoming the first non-Japanese woman to do so. Now she oversees the beverage program at Baltimore’s Four Seasons’ restaurants, including newly opened PABU, which serves more than 100 varieties of sake.

So, were you just born with an extraordinary palate?

I took a test and they called me a supertaster. I think some of these things may be subjective, but they say that 95 percent of supertasters can’t eat cilantro. I haven’t been able to eat cilantro since the day I was born. I always spit it out because it tastes like grass and soap ground up together to me. My mom always thought I was weird because I’m from San Diego where everything is Baja Mexican food. It was awful.

What exactly is a Master Sake Teacher?

In Japan, they don’t have sommeliers, but they do respect educators, which is why it’s an educator term, so to speak. Being called a Sake Kikizake-shi means that you are qualified to teach more about sake than anybody else. I was the first female at my level of certification. There are a few others now, but not a lot of us.

What are some misconceptions that Americans have about sake?

The big one is that sake should be served hot. It should be served cool or cold. There are varying degrees that are appropriate for each bottle and there are 18,000 different kinds of sake produced each year. The reality is that when you heat a sake you cook all the alcohol out of it.

Wow, 18,000 different sakes? That sounds just as diverse as wines.

Absolutely. And there are actually 102 different varieties of rice certified to create sake. Just like there are many varietals of wine grapes, there are many varietals of sake rice. One of the most unusual perhaps is Wataribune, which was actually an extinct rice that was brought back by the brewer of one particular sake. He wanted to resurrect this rice and he found a little seed pocket in an agricultural museum somewhere and resurrected the varietal. We have it on the menu at PABU.

So I have to ask: With a job like yours, do you ever get hangovers?

Actually, real premium and super premium sake won’t give you a hangover. There’s very little sugar and no sulfites. You need both of those [to get a hangover]. Of course, if you drink your sake with whiskey and beer and a shot of tequila, all bets are off.

PABU, 200 International Dr., 410-223-1460,

Awesome recent post on – So Grateful for the Sake LOVE!

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

by McLean Robbins (RSS feed)  on Jul 4th 2012 at 4:00PM

tiffany dawn soto
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.

Momokawa Saké Pairing Smackdown in Portland Tomorrow

The ultimate saké and food pairing challenge will hit maximum velocity this Thursday when 2 local restaurants pair Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo with dishes from 2 diverse cuisines- Modern Japanese fusion and deeply rooted, classic Mexican cuisine.

PRLog (Press Release)Aug 01, 2011 – WHAT: The ultimate saké and food pairing challenge will hit maximum velocity this Thursday when two local restaurants pair Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo with dishes from two very diverse cuisines- Modern Japanese fusion and deeply rooted, classic Mexican cuisine.

WHEN: Media arrivals begin at 5:00 p.m., with competition kicking off at 6:00 p.m. sharp

WHERE: Yakuza Izakaya, 5411 NE 30th Ave., Portland, OR 97211

WHO: Chef David Gaspar de Alba of Yakuza Izakaya vs. Chef Oswaldo Bibiano of Autentica

Chef David Gaspar de Alba was born in El Paso, Texas, where the heat and vibrant community gave him a solid basis for the love for spice and flavor in his life. While Chef David holds western Texas near and dear to his heart, food culture brought him to Portland. From the rich Kobe tartare, to succulent duck, all the way to delicate sashimi, Chef David has a hand in a wealth of food components at Yakuza. Inspired by the Japanese izakaya concept, Yakuza is a food-lover’s bar.

Autentica was created through a combination of traditional cooking in Chef Oswaldo Bibiano’s hometown of Guerrero, Mexico, and the appreciation for fine dining he developed while cooking in some of Portland’s most distinguished restaurants. Autentica chooses the freshest ingredients from local farms whenever possible and the menu reflect the changing seasons but keeps its roots firmly planted in traditional Mexican cuisine.

MORE: This event is open to the public. Both dishes featured in the challenge will be available at Yakuza Lounge and Autentica as the special for the remainder of the evening. This challenge was originally inspired by a tweet from Yakuza Lounge asking for a smackdown on the best pairing possible with saké.

Follow developing details on Twitter with #Momokawachallenge

ABOUT SAKÉONE:  SakéOne is America’s premium saké company and importer of some of Japan’s finest saké. Founded in 1992 as an importer, SakéOne has been crafting strictly junmai ginjo quality saké at its state-of-the-art kura (brewery) in Forest Grove, the heart of the Willamette Valley: Oregon’s craft beer-brewing and winemaking mecca, since 1998. In 2010, SakéOne’s Momokawa “Ruby” Junmai Ginjo earned a silver medal at the prestigious U.S. National Sake Appraisal 2010, no small feat for an American producer in a crowd of more than 300 Japanese entrants and a judging panel held to precise Japanese standards. Though SakéOne clearly honors tradition, their Oregonian pioneering spirit is constantly evolving and has truly come to define Oregon craft saké. For more information, please visit

MEDIA CONTACT: Kristin Namimoto at Charles Communications, 415-701-9463 or

# # #

Sake shipments surge in 3 disaster-hit prefectures after promotional efforts

Sake is shown at Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Local brewers have seen a recent rise in shipments thanks to promotional events following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Mainichi)

Sake is shown at Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Local brewers have seen a recent rise in shipments thanks to promotional events following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Mainichi)

Shipments of refined sake from the three disaster-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate boomed in May, apparently as a result of promotional events to help the areas recover from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Brewers in the prefectures, who saw shipments rise between 20 and 60 percent in May from a year earlier, say the sudden popularity is unprecedented. At the same time, some fear that concerns about the effects of radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant on rice and other materials used in the brewing process may hurt sales of sake produced from this autumn onwards.

In Fukushima Prefecture, three brewing facilities were destroyed in the March 11 disaster, along with eight in Miyagi Prefecture and three in Iwate Prefecture. One other brewery in Fukushima had to be evacuated because it was located within 20 kilometers of the nuclear plant crippled by the March 11 tsunami. Distribution channels were also hurt, and according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, year-on-year shipments for March fell to 78 percent in Fukushima Prefecture, 55.1 percent in Miyagi Prefecture, and 61.3 percent in Iwate Prefecture.

In April, however, events were held at commercial facilities and restaurants to help the prefectures recover from the disaster by actively promoting local products — including sake. A sake brewers association in Fukushima received many requests to take part in events, and it continued to promote local sake in Tokyo, Kyoto and other areas until the end of July. Orders from wholesale stores also increased, and shipments in April reached 106.6 percent compared with the same month the previous year in Fukushima Prefecture. The figure reached 132.7 percent in Miyagi Prefecture and 121.3 percent in Iwate Prefecture. Year-on-year increases were also seen in May, with shipments rising to 122.2 percent in Fukushima Prefecture, 164.7 percent in Miyagi Prefecture, and 138.6 percent in Iwate Prefecture. Shipments were also looking up in June.

Nationwide shipments of refined sake have been declining in Japan after peaking at about 1.7 million kiloliters in 1975. In 2009 the figure dropped to about 620,000 kiloliters. The recent boom has accordingly caught brewers off guard.

“We’ve never experienced sales like this — it’s almost scary,” commented Atsushi Nakui of the Iwate prefectural brewer’s association.

Chihiro Mori of the Miyagi prefectural brewers association worried whether brewers would be able to handle the popularity in the winter, when demand for refined sake increases. Some brewers are said to be out of stock of some products.

However, some industry officials worry about the future of sake produced using rice harvested this autumn — after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The sake being shipped out now uses rice harvested before the disaster, and was mainly produced between October last year and February this year.

The Fukushima prefectural sake brewers association has from this summer onwards decided to have water and rice used by all breweries tested for radiation.

“We received a painful reminder that sake is produced using the abundance of nature, and we want to quickly produce sake without worrying,” explained Atsushi Abe, an executive director of the association.

Okunomatsu Sake Brewery in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, which had been particular about using local rice in its products, is considering switching to rice produced in other prefectures starting this autumn.

“Even if the radiation level of the sake we produce is below the standard, that won’t be enough to persuade customers to choose our products. We will make a thorough effort to ensure safety and peace of mind,” said company official Yasuo Usuki.

(Mainichi Japan) August 3, 2011

Japan’s Youngest Budding Sake Sommelier

I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment, and I can’t vouch for her talent, I but I love her spirit and passion.

Sake 101 with Al Mancini

A snippet from the Top of the Food Chain Episode Yesterday

SAKE 101

A snippet from the Top of the Food Chain Episode Yesterday

Check out the most recent episode of “Top of the Food Chain” with Al Mancini. The episode is a 30 minute Sake 101 course with yours truly, Tiffany Dawn Soto! The episode aired yesterday, and if you give it a watch, you might just learn a thing or two!


Top of the Food Chain – Sake 101 Episode

Sake saves the day…

John Curtis

The Worthlessness Of Restaurant Critics

January 14, 2009 By: John Curtas Category: Food, KNPR

Michael Winner, the restaurant critic for The Sunday Times of London has called food critics the most pathetic, useless group of people on the planet.

And you know what? He has a point.

On the lower-archy of jobs, he considers them just a millimeter above public relations folks.

Because on some level, the value of what we do never approaches that of a landscape worker, pool boy, or bank clerk – much less a line cook, schoolteacher or biologist.

All we do, if you think about it, is do much more of what is (next to sex) the most enjoyable, essential of human activities (eat) and then write stories and opinions based on our experiences.

There’s something inherently voyeuristic about both our dining and sharing of same with our audience…and just like all voyeurs, we’re really more bystanders than participants in whatever we’re interested in.

All of this is by way of introducing a conversation with Shimon Bokovza — one of the owners of Sushi Samba recently — who took me to task for my mostly negative review of his restaurant.

I admired his confronting me like an adult, and asking to meet me face to face, and it was refreshing to politely debate him about the merits of his concept restaurant, without ever have to watch him perform a “Full Andre” –- named for the cheesecloth-skinned Andre Rochat – signifying those who prefer pirouettes of pique and petulance to honest discourse about the quality of the food.

We had barely sat down when he mentioned that my review struck him as mean-spirited at the worst, and like I’d had a very bad experience at best.

While protesting that neither was the case, it struck me that here was a passionate, successful guy, who probably wasn’t used to someone reporting on his life’s work in such disrespectful tones. After all, he and his employees are the ones working hard at creating and maintaining a high-pressure business, and yours truly is simply observing and then writing about it.

During our talk, done over some superb sakes by the way, courtesy of super sake sommelier Tiffany Dawn Soto, it occurred to me that my biggest mistake in my review was deciding to write about Sushi Samba in the first place. Like Tao and Lavo, critiquing these nightclubs/restaurants is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel for a critic. They’re really not about the food as much as the experience, and I doubt if 90% of their patrons know or care the slightest about fine distinctions in flavor or authenticity.

Like I said: maybe we are the most worthless people on earth, but in my more puffed-up moments, I like to think of myself as a consumer advocate – helping you listeners and readers make informed choices about where to spend your food dollars.

But after an hour with Shimon, all I could think of were the words of the immortal Max Vandeverre – the critic in that great food movie: Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe (as he is eating himself to death – or so he thinks) – all he can summon in his last breaths to say is: “I was never worthy of any of you….”

And so it is.

Las Vegas Weekly

LAs Vegas Weekly

Las Vegas Weekly and Online Feature

Bad Idea Magazine

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Bad Idea Magazine

Nightclub & Bar Magazine Cover & Article

Tiffany Dawn Soto on the cover of Nightclub & Bar Magazine.

Tiffany Dawn Soto on the cover of Nightclub & Bar Magazine.