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Photographed by Justin Tsucalas
When Tiffany Dawn Soto, 30, was an undergraduate studying advertising 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, http://www.fourseasons.com/baltimore