Kikori Whiskey takes Japan as the ultimate point of reference, but its founder Ann Soh Woods considers a particularly founding emblem: Hello Kitty.
Traveling to Japan as a child gave Soh Woods a love for Japanese culture; she returned from trips with Hello Kitty paraphernalia, calling it “social currency at the time.”
His love for the character blossomed into a reverence for Japanese foods and spirits, and Soh Woods formalized that admiration into a career in whiskey after working in entertainment marketing until 2013.
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Kikori finds its Japanese inspiration in its rice base. Soh Woods describes the spirit – which is distilled and produced in southern Japan – as sweet, delicate and bright, with a floral nose.
We spoke with the founder about paying homage to her Asian roots with Kikori, establishing herself as a woman of color in a male-dominated field, and what’s next for her brand.
1. Where did your passion for whiskey come from and how did your professional journey lead you there?
I think it probably started in my childhood, traveling frequently to Japan. I have to admit it all started with Hello Kitty. It was my first passion that eventually evolved into Japan’s food, wine and spirits, until the day I had the luxury of being able to change careers. And when I really thought about what I was passionate about, it was whiskeys, Japanese culture and hospitality – and Hello Kitty. So I put two of the three in a bottle of Kikori. I started this journey, and then before I knew it – it really felt like the blink of an eye – we were launching Kikori at a good time. He took off, and the momentum carried him.
2. Can you tell us more about the Hello Kitty inspiration?
As a very young girl and being one of the few Asian-Americans in school at the time, I could bring back all kinds of Hello Kitty and it was kind of social currency at the time. It was really something Asian, cute and fun – everything I love. And I still do! This passion does not wane.
3. Having entered this field later in your career, how did you learn the ins and outs of whiskey making, as well as logistics and mechanics?
I think one of the biggest challenges is that I pride myself on having a really good palate, but just having a good palate doesn’t mean you can make great whisky. I definitely decided to blend it myself once we found a great distillery in southern Japan. It was pretty much a disaster because distillation is an art and a science. So I depended on a master distiller to really create a formula and flavor profile that I wanted. It started with the flavors of rice. As I mentioned, I wanted to bring Japanese culture, so we use Japanese rice as the grain in a whisky.
4. How would you describe this flavor profile?
Certainly a little softer, delicate and luminous. It’s not a kind of whiskey where it has to be an acquired taste. It’s very easy to drink from the start, but still complex. Although it’s on the lighter side, it’s just a bit brighter, not watered down. So, you will get hints of lemon, and definitely some brown sugar, and a very strong floral nose. These are all parts of the whiskey that I really wanted to highlight.
5. When Covid hit, how did your operation adapt?
For us, we really wanted to support our industry. It was the bartenders and the bar owners and the restaurant owners and those who work behind the scenes. That was definitely our main goal. We were trying to help with take-out cocktails that the industry kind of turned to. There has definitely been an impact because we have such a niche product.
6. Can you tell me more about working directly with bartenders to market Kikori?
They are certainly the first gateway for marketing. This is where many consumers first learn about Kikori, through their favorite bartender at their favorite restaurant. So that’s an important goal for us and I think it’s working very well. You’d think a Japanese whiskey would only go to a Japanese or Asian or Asian fusion restaurant, but what we’ve seen is that Americans have really embraced Japanese cuisine in particular, and the culture as well, but I think it has become very common. So that’s where it’s been great, because it’s not just Japanese or Asian bars and restaurants, it really runs the gamut, it’s a wide range of places. And so these are the first guardians for us in marketing. It’s about tasting them and showing what this whiskey is, then taking them on board.
7. Do you also have a Japanese audience for your whisky?
We only distribute in the US at the moment, but we certainly have our fair share of Asian fans as I think the flavors are familiar. When you think of rice, my immigrant parents eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is a must. We are so familiar with this flavor and aroma that it is supported by Asian communities across the country.
8. Along with Covid, what are the biggest challenges for you so far in bringing this product to market?
When I started, I didn’t have a lot of experience. Women are generally not seen as creators of a whiskey brand. I didn’t want to do a lot of press and I didn’t want my name or my face published, because I really wanted the whiskey to speak for itself. But I saw that when people found out about it, there was such enthusiasm and support, especially from women who didn’t work in the industry. I found it’s important to make sure they know they can do it too, that there might be another Asian American woman, not even in this industry, but in another industry. On the marketing side, because I didn’t have a lot of experience in that particular industry, I didn’t feel obligated to do what others were doing. That was a big plus for me, because I didn’t have to walk down the same path as someone else and we could sort of create what our trip would be like.
9. Can you talk about the experience of overcoming barriers in this male-dominated industry as a woman and as a woman of color – as well as the importance of representation?
I was very supported by women and men at all levels. Many female founders have encountered similar obstacles along the way, whether it’s someone trying to explain your business to you or explaining what Asianism is. It’s always interesting, but I always try to turn it around and see the opportunities there are for women and I think that’s an important attitude. We might just drown in the obstacles we face if we don’t. I also think it’s important that women in whatever field don’t try to play the masculine role of what they think is expected of them. It took me thinking and going deeper into the fact that I have to be who I am, whether in marketing or in this business, for this to be successful. Once you start trying to role play, you lose a sense of not only who you are, but what your brand is. It’s really important to stay true to who you are, to have real confidence in yourself, and to be assertive when you need to. In the end, it will be very rewarding.
As an Asian American founder, one thing I’ve noticed is that over the past couple of years there’s been a lot of discussion around Asian Americans, especially women and of their role in society. Other Asian-American founders have come together to discuss how we can solve some problems. One way we’ve done recently has been to partner with Daijoubu, which is a pop-up of two truly amazing Asian-American female bartenders from Texas with a mission to introduce and integrate Asian ingredients into mainstream culture. cocktails. We did a “super Asian pop up cocktail”. All the cocktails had Kikori as the base spirit, then they brought in all sorts of Asian ingredients. It was so heartwarming to see these guests being really excited to taste and see the ingredients they grew up with – so it was a bit of nostalgia in a good balanced cocktail – or we were introducing it to a new audience that was so excited to be able to try something new. I’m proud that we were able to kind of put on an event, and we plan to take it across the country.
10. What’s next for Kikori? Do you have other products in preparation?
We have yuzu liquor, so it’s a natural extension of my love for Japanese culture. Yuzu is a very unique Japanese citrus fruit, but well embraced by the culinary world. And so I created a liquor based on that, and it’s the same rice-based spirit.
Right now, we’re only in about nine markets in the United States, but we’re growing pretty quickly in other cities across the country, so it’s going to take quite a bit of time. But I’m excited about it, to share Kikori with the rest of the country.
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