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Drinkin' Buddies – Tiffany Dawn Soto

As a master sommelier, Tiffany Dawn Soto may soon be one of as many as 200 or so, but she’s one in a billion to me. I first encountered Ms. Soto at Otakon 2013. She was co-presenting a Sake 101 panel that was anything but dry. The more I explore sake and try to talk to friends about it, the more it becomes apparent that many haven’t ventured to try the tasty libation — either due to misconceptions, bad experiences with hot “sake,” or for want of accessibility and guidance. So I thought, who better to provide the latter than a sommelier, and what better sommelier than one who speaks from a genuine passion for sake with genuine reverence, enthusiasm, humor, and warmth? I heartily thank Ms. Soto for taking the time out of her hectic drinking schedule to speak with me. After listening, I hope you, like me, will be edified, inspired, and very, very thirsty. Embedded audio (~30 min), show notes, and an invitation to the Otakon 2015 after party are after the break!

[0:00] Opening Song: “Ponzi’s Theme” by Firewater.
[1:00] What are you drinking?
[1:30] Sommelier history.
[3:26] Competitive nature of being a sommelier.
[5:45] Origin story, or How I Came to Preach the Sake Gospel.
[8:19] Sake misconceptions: a history and rebuttal.
[13:16] Soto’s amazing palate and prectural tasting notes.
[14:30] Interactions in Japan: faux pas, bonds, trust, and unicorns.
[17:43] What’s a sake safari? A cause of great jealousy.
[20:39] Panels, people, and after-parties: Otakon.
[25:48] Sake recommendations for beginners.
[28:50] Ending Song: “Come Along” by Morphine.

As she said in the interview, Tiffany Dawn Soto is looking for a couple ambassadors who will be compensated in sake to help out with the Otakon 2015 after party, details for which are directly below. Contact info [at] sake2you [dot] com if you’re interested!

Otakon Afterparty
Saturday night 11p-2 am
Azumi Baltimore
Free Sake Tasting, Japanese Craft Beer Specials, Japanese Whisky and Cocktail Specials

Meeting to caravan over on the first floor of the Hilton at 10:15 pm – Departing at 10:30
Looking for a couple ambassadors I’m paying in Sake

Because names can be a bit difficult to discern for Googling, I’ve done the legwork and provided a full transcription, complete with links to specific breweries and brands, to further facilitate your entry into the world of sake drinking. Kanpai!

Ani-Gamers (AG): Usually, my first question would be, in these kinds of segments, “what are you drinking.” But we’re talking in mid-morning, so what’s the last liquid your tongue remembers from your yester-night?

Tiffant Dawn Soto (TDS): Actually, I have a glass of riesling in front of me right now. I’m horrible. I am drinking Unckrich Kallstadter Saumagen Kabinett. And it’s the 2012 label, which is one of my favorite vintages.

AG: Now, for those who may have not read the manga Drops of God or seen the movie Sideways and are not too good at spelling French words in the Google search bar, could you explain what a sommelier is and entails and how being a master sommelier differs?

TDS: Sommelier has taken on sort of a rock star connotation in the food and beverage world, but the reality is that sommelier is a word that derives from the meaning of the word steward or servant. And I think a lot of that’s gotten lost, which some sommeliers might get mad at me for saying that, but a lot of that’s gotten lost in the last few decades. Originally, the sommelier was a person in France who didn’t make it in the kitchen. Everyone wanted to be a chef back in the day, and if you didn’t make it in the kitchen, you were relegated to serving the wine. And that was what the sommelier was: the steward or the servant of the wine. And you were there to create or to round out the experience of dining. Today, there are classes everywhere and there are certifications everywhere and pins that everyone brags about, but at the end of the day, at least for myself and quite a few other people I think, what it gets back to is helping people round out an experience by creating a beverage experience they haven’t had before or is complementary to what they are trying to achieve with their meal.

So it requires training … a lot of training, and there are different levels of certifications for sommeliers. There are different ways to get certified. There’s the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is sort of where the rock star status tends to come in. There’s the Guild of Somms, which anyone who’s a sommelier can be a member of. When it comes to Japanese beverages, there are different schools you can go through in Japan. And there are a few that come here to America and pseudo-certify you … for lack of a better way of putting it.

AG: You mention pins and certifications. Is being a sake sommelier, or being a sommelier in general, competitive? And how so?

TDS: That’s a difficult question. The reality is, yes, it’s competitive. It didn’t used to be so competitive. I’ve been a sommelier for about 12 years now, and when I first came on the scene, there were 75 master sommeliers in the world for wine. And there weren’t really any sake master sommeliers in the U.S. Since that time, and since the movie Somm came out, it’s gotten increasingly competitive, because people want that coveted pin, that exclusivity. The reality is that now that number has doubled. It’s on its way to tripling probably, but that’s still a very small fraction of the human race. You’re talking 150 or 200 of something; that’s a small club. So yes, it is competitive, and the tests are excruciating. People study for years and try over and over again and never achieve that status sometimes. That’s just the way of the program, and the way of the testing mechanisms that are built in. Because if it weren’t that competitive, then it wouldn’t be exclusive. That being said, again, nobody has to have their master sommelier pin to serve. I mean, we’re servants. That’s what we’re for. So while the Court of Master Sommeliers certainly likes for everybody to want their pin, and I have pins from the Court of Master Sommeliers, it’s not mandatory to do our job. All you really have to do is love wine, understand it, and know how to implement it in a way that makes sense for a guest.

Sake’s a little bit different, I guess, for me, because I studied wine and then I studied sake. So I had to do both. The one’s in Japanese, so that’s difficult (laughs). That’s a bit competitive I guess in that you have to learn Japanese. But I would say that it doesn’t have to be competitive, though it certainly seems it has been increasingly so as of late.

AG: And what was the moment that made you decide to dedicate your life to drinking alcohol professionally and preaching the sake gospel specifically?

TDS: Funny I get asked that at least ten times a night when I’m in a restaurant, and I always say the same thing. I say, “You know, I about six years old and I woke up from a dream and I ran to my mommy and I said, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy, I’m going to be an alcoholic when I grow up!’” And everybody looks at me, shocked, and I say, “No, that’s not really what happened. I’m sorry. I was kidding.” The reality is, I don’t know anybody… Until the last two to three years, nobody ever thought, “I’m going to be a sommelier.” That wasn’t anybody’s life plan. Like I said, even when sommeliers began, it was the backup plan because you couldn’t work in the kitchen. That was always the backup plan, and I think that kind of continued through until just this recent rock star push for master somms.

What started it for me was… I was in school. I was at UNLV. I was an advertising major studying journalism and media studies and philosophy. And I happened to sign up for alcohol classes on Sunday. I happened to be quite good, we found out, at tasting alcohol, and I only signed up for those classes so I could get drunk before my sorority meetings. Which is horrible, I know. And we found out I was good; I had a strong palate. And they made me their teaching assistant. My professor did. And he taught me. He got injured at a certain point when he was teaching in the year that followed, and I had to take over teaching a lot of his classes. He would teach me, and I would go and teach the class. And it gave me a lot of one-on-one instruction with a really great teacher, which was lucky for me. At the end of all that, I got offered a job. They offered to pay for my certification, and I got to go study with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Then I came back, and there were all these Japanese kids asking me about sake. And I didn’t know the answers. So I started studying for them, thinking, “Well I’ll just learn enough to pacify or to fill that need” — not thinking I was gonna like it, not thinking much of it, and totally fell in love with it. And while I started liking wine, I finished liking sake and Japanese whisky and all things Japanese really. Now I do both, but sake’s definitely my baby.

AG: While I was Googling around, I actually noticed you and fellow sommelier Beau Timken referred to sake as the red-headed stepchild of the libation world.

TDS: Beau and I both do use that. Absolutely. We both say that. That’s because it’s true. (laughs) Being a redhead, I know something of that.

AG: What kinds of aspersions have been cast upon sake, and why do you feel the need to defend it?

TDS: So many misconceptions that exist. It dates back at least to the 1940s. The big misconceptions about sake are that it’s this hot battery acid you drink at 3 in the morning with bad sushi. I say 3 in the morning, because I’m from Las Vegas, and you can drink at 3 in the morning. So I apologize to anyone listening in a curfewed city, because … that sucks. (laughs) But it’s not that, and that’s a big misconception. During WWII, there were rice shortages, and the agricultural workers were drafted into the military. Women took to the fields; they hadn’t had a lot of experience growing rice. The rice shortages were vast. They didn’t have enough rice to feed their people let alone to make alcohol, so the government instituted a prohibition. And that prohibition devastated the sake industry because they couldn’t make sake. As the war waged on, three back-to-back really cold winters, two atomic bombs later, the morale of the country was decimated. What resulted was a people that were talking of overthrowing an imperial, which was unheard of in Japan. The government said, “We have to do something.” So the sake research institute outside of Tokyo came up with a plan to make something called sanzou shu, which was part sake part grain alcohol. Now almost 40% of the population of Japan has trouble processing alcohol — they turn bright red, they get feverish, they get hot and sweaty. So giving them something with that high of an alcohol content, cut with grain alcohol, could’ve been very devastating to their health, to their livers in particular. So what the government said, “With an alcohol content this high, and it tasting so bad, we’ll just heat it up. People are already freezing, it’ll cook the alcohol off, and it’ll hide how bad it tastes.” So that was sanzou shu. And sanzou shu was the norm for about a decade until the industry started to recover. And when our soldiers occupied Japan after the emperor surrendered, they would ask for sake, and that’s [sanzou shu] what they were given. They were never the wiser — that it wasn’t sake. And they came back to the U.S. asking for sake, and that’s what they shipped us. It’s still shipped. All the time. It created this myth, that hot sake was sake, and unfortunately hot sake bring with it a lot of things. For starters, it brings a wicked hangover and a horrible palatability. And as it cool in the glass, if people don’t shoot it, it starts to taste really bitter. So people envision sake bombs and other ways to manage to choke it down, and all the while they’ve never tasted real sake.

AG: Which is a shame.

TDS: It is a shame! So it gets relegated to the corners of seedy, dive, all-you-can-eat sushi bars and people drinking it as a last resort or on a dare. Versus when they experience premium and super premium sakes, with 18,000 labels of those made every year. People don’t know the options they have out there and beautiful they are. Sake’s great for a hundred reasons. For starters, it’s only 35 calories per serving. That’s an extremely low number, which is great for me because I have to drink a lot. It’s gluten-free. It’s vegan and vegetarian almost always, which wine is neither of those most of the time. And it has no sulfites and very little residual sugar, which means it’s nearly impossible to give you a hangover with premium or super premium sake. It can certainly give you a dehydration headache the next day if you really go to town, but if you have a glass of water before bed, you’ll feel great the day after. Always. Now, if you mix that with Japanese whisky, two shots of Jager, and three beers, I can’t save you. I mean it’s good. It’s really good, and it’s got everything going for it. It’s grown in 47 prefectures in Japan — 47 regional styles to choose from, all of them so different — and 102 rice varietal currently in use that make them different and hundreds of yeast strains that make them different. There’s so many options, there really is a sake for everyone shy of wearing an AA pin. You’re not wearing an AA pin or you don’t have a token in your pocket, you’re probably gonna find a sake that’s great for you.

AG: Now with your sensitive palate, are you able to distinguish, just by taste, the area from which the sake was produced?

TDS: Definitely. At least from about 20 prefectures. At least for 20 that have very unique microclimates, and there are thousands of microclimates in Japan. Obviously some are similar to others. Ibaraki and Shizuoka, for instance, are somewhat similar in that they both tend to present as very fruitful with florals. The difference is that Shizuoka always presents with sea salty salinity. So you can distinguish between the two. Nigata’s always very very light, very clean, very crisp, usually some white flower and sometimes a touch of pear or honeydew, but very very crisp and clean. It’s definitely my crowd-pleasing, vodka drinker-loving sake go-to. And Nagano, you can always taste the Nagano sake, because they have a richness and a depth of flavor but a really light cold climate elegant style that makes them sort of ideal for proteins and rich dishes. Because they’re up in the mountains where it’s cold, and that’s the kind of food they eat.

AG: You go over to Japan a lot, I’m gonna take a wild guess, and you have to interact with, I’m guessing, brewers and distributors and izakaya owners. I was just wondering if you, being an American and a woman, have experienced any sort of prejudice while doing your job?

TDS: Always a favorite question people ask me. People say, “What was it like for you?” And the reality is that, yes and no. But I’m going to say that any prejudice I experienced I deserved, because the Japanese culture that I’ve come to love is one of earning your way and earning your keep through years and decades of apprenticeship and study and not asking to move forward. And I didn’t do any of that. And so when I kind of arrived in Japan, and I sort of went there and said, “I’m here to study sake,” and people there had been studying for decades and not asked to move up through the ranks and not ask for more education and just waited to be told it was their turn, that was a pretty abrasive American thing for me to do. So, yes, there was pushback sometimes. And there were stares. But there was also clear appreciation, at a certain point, for the love I had for sake and a level of trust that came with it that they believed I was gonna do right by it. And I was grateful for that. There are people in Japan right now that have been studying for 20 years that aren’t allowed to teach about sake like I am, and I was able to do it after six years? … seven years? That doesn’t seem fair, right? So I can understand some of that pushback, because that’s not the Japanese way. That was an American way, and I attacked it maybe too competitively, like we talked about earlier, not because I wanted to compete but because I really wanted it. It mattered to me. And there wasn’t really anyone for me to compete with, so it wasn’t a competition thing, but that is how I went after it.

That being said, I’m always treated really well. Regardless of how they felt, regardless of how they took my forcefulness or my eagerness, I was always treated incredibly well. And for what it’s worth, in Japan, I’m usually treated well just for the red hair. I’m like a unicorn over there. People ask to take pictures of me on the street. They’ve never seen one. (laughs) There were ups and downs in my training, but for the most part, the sake brewing community was very good to me. And they continue to be very good to me. There’s a trust built between a lot of them and me, and we work together on all kinds of projects. And when I go there, I’m always treated amazingly and so are my guests. I mean, we get to experience things that nobody gets to experience in Japan, because they trust me to present it the right way. They trust me to bring the right types of people to see it. They trust me to do right by them when I come back to the U.S. and talk about it. So it’s good. It’s good. No, I wouldn’t say there was prejudice, but I would say there were bumps.

AG: You also run sake safaris, where you take people over to Japan, and what does that usually involve?

TDS: They change every year. For instance, the one we have coming up this year, we always start in Tokyo. But for what it’s worth, I can’t stand Tokyo. I’m from Las Vegas, and Tokyo is Las Vegas on steroids … especially in the areas that are very American-centric, like Roppongi. That being said, a lot of people love to go there. It’s just not my thing. So we land in Tokyo. We stay two days to get acclimated. We have some great sake at a couple bars there I have good acquaintance with, and then we leave, as fast as we can, on a shinkansen.  We jump in a first-class green car ‘cause I’m spoiled rotten (laughs), and head off. This trip, we’re going to Nagano first. We’re gonna visit some breweries and a winery and some snow monkeys, and then we are going to Niigata … for the March trip anyway. At Niigata, we’re stopping at the Sake no Jin festival, which is the largest sake festival in Japan. The trip was actually planned around that date. And from there, we are heading down the Western coast of Honshu Island towards Hiroshima and Kyoto. We’re going to stop in Nagoya for a Chunichi Dragons baseball game. Along the way, we’re going to stop at the Yamazaki distillery to taste some Japanese whisky. And we’re going to have some pretty great cultural experiences in Kyoto that are kind of must-tries for your first time in Japan. We’re gonna head to Shizuoka, which I’m really excited about, because Shizuoka is one of the most beautiful places in Japan and one of the most understated. It’s coastal, it’s stunning, and from the coast there are these great, fantastic views. You can sit in hot springs and overlook water. It’s amazing: natural hot springs just overlooking the ocean. From there, we’re gonna move inland to this ryokan, which is a very traditional hotel built around a hot spring. That’s what that means. Onsen is the word for hot spring, and the ryokan is the hotel that accompanies it. And we’re gonna stay at Asaba, which is one of the oldest and hardest to grab reservations in Japan. It’s amazing. It’s built into the landscape, with hot springs and streams coming down out of the mountain and gorgeous scenery. I’m really excited to take everyone there. We’re gonna enjoy ten-course meals. And everywhere we go, we’re going to eat a lot. (laughs) There’s no question. We’re going to eat and drink a lot, visit one of my favorite breweries in Shizuoka, and then we’re gonna head back to Tokyo, relax for a day, and head home.

AG: That sounds absolutely amazing.

TDS: That’s how it goes. It’s a good time. We do have fun!

AG: Another good time, at least one I enjoy, is down at Otakon, where you’ve done a couple panels in previous years. You do a panel on sake, a panel on whisky, and a panel on drinking culture. (At least as far as I’ve seen.) How did you come to learn about Otakon, and why did you decide to start submitting panels to it?

TDS: There’s a Baltimore native named Rob Perry, who loves Otakon and loves sake. He was doing tea panels at Otakon for … four years I guess. And he came and saw me at my restaurant and he said, “Tiffany, I really want you to try and do a sake panel with me or an overview panel. I’d really like to do this. Would you consider it?” And I thought about it, and I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t understand Otakon at that point. I didn’t really understand what it was or the culture of the attendees or how family-like or family-oriented it was … how much fun it was! And I was so busy with all my travel that I was hesitant at first. But he convinced me. He was very convincing. And we submitted panels together a couple years ago, and three of my panels were picked up? Two or three the first year were picked up. I think it was two: I did an overview of Japanese beverage and I did Sake 101. It was great. It was so much fun. And then last year, I submitted six, and I think three were picked up. I had Sake 101, Japanese Whisky 101, and Japanese Drinking Culture, which was really a class aimed at teaching people how to act in their cosplay — to know the right hierarchy for drinking: who pours for who, who sits where, in different drinking environments. It was a really, really neat session. I didn’t expect it to be so popular, but it was really popular. I mean that room held … I think it was 900 people, and it was sold out. And obviously Japanese Whisky 101 was sold out; we had to turn a lot of people away. Sake 101 was way more than sold out; we had to turn tons of people away from that too. I really fell in love with everyone. They didn’t just welcome me with open arms, they hugged me and begged me to come back and followed me to after-parties and followed me on Instgram and started emailing me about next year. I mean, I … I love it. They’re amazing. I love everyone there. Everybody’s so great; they’re such a big family. And I didn’t know it, so it’s been really great for me.

AG: You definitely earned their love with some fantastic panels. You mentioned the after-parties though, and I wanted to bring that up because you usually an event at a restaurant either directly after the panel or after the con ends that night. What’s in store for those who attend, and is that going to happen again this year?

TDS: So the folks at Otakon did not want my panels this year.

AG: Boo! Let’s all boo Otakon. BOO!!!

TDS: I did submit 7 panels. They decided to go in a different direction with their 18+ this year. I’m not sure what that means or who’s competing for the 18+ panels. Hopefully they’re great. But I have experienced a lot of pushback from the people that came in the last couple of years. I am going to host one after-party on Saturday night. And what will end up happening is we will end up meeting at 10:30 downstairs at the Hilton. And I’m working with a bunch of ambassadors — I’m still looking for five more ambassadors actually to come and help me with the party, and I’m gonna thank them in sake. And we’re going to move everyone over to Azumi, and the after-party will start at Azumi restaurant at 11 pm and go until two in the morning. …or later, if people want to stay later, but probably until two in the morning. We’re going to have free sake tastings again, like last year, sponsored by Sidney Frank and Gekkeikan, and we are going to have bento boxes and sushi plates and all the things we’ve always had. It’s all going to be really great, so that everybody can get together and have some fun in the afterhours. Because when I told people I wasn’t going to do it, they were so disappointed I just couldn’t handle it actually. I felt guilt. So we’re gonna one. We’re gonna do it on Saturday night, and it’s gonna be great.

AG: Awesome. I really hope I can make it. I know I’ve kept you for a good half hour now, but would you be so kind as to rattle off a short sake list for those who want to try domestically available sake but don’t know where to start?

TDS: Absolutely! For starters, the sake that’s available is different in every area. But if you can’t find the sakes I mention, you can always email me or tweet me or Instagram me and I’m happy to respond. I’m really good at responding actually with recommendations for people. But let’s just say an intro sake drinker’s guide would start with Ichishima. That’s readily available in most major cities, especially cities that hug the outside of the United States. It’s not as available in the Midwest. Ichishima’s a really great choice; there are five options usually available. I prefer the tokubetsu honjozo for new drinkers of sake. Dewazakura dewasansan is a very nice intro sake for people who like white wine. It’s very bright. It’s got juicy green apple and pear on the nose and it’s got good acidity, so wine drinkers tend to love it. Almost everywhere has access to Gekkeikan, and their Suzaku label is one of my favorites. It’s from Kyoto, and it’s a very traditional Kyoto style. So it’s got a lot of flowers, some fruit, and a little bit of earthiness to it. That’s a really nice option. You can get that almost anywhere. It’s a black bottle with a red firebird on the front of it. …which is called a suzaku coincidentally. It looks like a phoenix. And let’s pick one more: we’ll say … Masumi! Masumi is readily available in most major markets, and Masumi makes some pretty diverse labels, everything from bright juicy namas that are really great for not just white wine drinkers but people who like juicy, acidic cocktails with fruit juice in them, and really dark, rich Yamahai style sakes, like their Nanago or their Okuden is really great for whisky or rum drinkers. Those would be a really nice place to start.

AG: Excellent. Thank you so very much! Is there anything you’d like to plug before we wrap this all up?

TDS: If you want more information about sake, you can go to my website, and I’m HeySakeLady everywhere. So if you need to find me on Instagram or Twitter to ask me a question, HeySakeLady is where you can find me. And you can contact me through my website.

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