Kikori Whiskey takes Japan as its ultimate reference point, but its founder Ann Soh Woods considers one emblem particularly foundational: Hello Kitty.
Traveling to Japan as a child gave Soh Woods a love for Japanese culture; she would return from trips with Hello Kitty paraphernalia, calling it “social currency at the time.”
Her love of the character developed into a reverence for Japanese foods and spirits, and Soh Woods formalized this 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 the south of Japan — as soft, delicate, and bright, with a floral nose.
We talked 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 comes next for her brand.
1. Where did your passion for whiskey come from, and how did your career path lead you to it?
I think it probably started in my childhood, traveling frequently to Japan. I’ll have to admit, it all started with Hello Kitty. That was my first passion that eventually evolved into the food and wine and spirits of Japan, until one day I had the luxury of being able to switch careers. And when I really thought about what I was passionate about, it was whiskies, Japanese culture, and hospitality — and Hello Kitty. So I got two out of the three into a bottle of Kikori. I started down that journey, and then before I knew it — it really did feel like a blink of an eye — we were launching Kikori at a great time. It took off, and the momentum just carried it.
2. Can you elaborate on the Hello Kitty inspiration?
As a really young girl, and being one of the few Asian-Americans in school at the time, I used to be able to bring back all kinds of Hello Kitty and that was sort of social currency at the time. It really was something that was Asian, cute, and fun — everything I love. And I still do! That passion is not waning.
3. Having entered this field later in your career, how did you learn the ins and outs of whiskey-making, as well as the logistics and mechanics?
I think one of the biggest challenges is that I pride myself in having a very good palate, but just having a good palate does not mean you can make good whiskey. I definitely took a turn at blending it myself once we found a great distillery in the southern part of Japan. That was pretty much a disaster because distilling is an art and a science. So then I depended on a master distiller to really create a formula and a 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 whiskey.
4. How would you describe that flavor profile?
Definitely a little softer, delicate, and bright. It’s not a kind of whiskey where it has to be an acquired taste. It’s very easy to drink from the very beginning, but still complex. While it’s on the lighter side, it’s just a little brighter, not watered down. So you will get some hints of lemon, and certainly some brown sugar, and a very strong floral nose. Those were all parts of the whiskey that I really wanted to showcase.
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 that work behind the scenes. That was definitely our primary focus. We would try to help with to-go cocktails that the industry sort of shifted to. There definitely was an impact because we have such a niche product.
6. Can you tell me more about working with bartenders directly to market Kikori?
They’re definitely the first gate for marketing. It’s where many consumers are introduced to Kikori first, through their favorite bartender at their favorite restaurant. So that’s a huge focus for us and I think it works really well. One might think that a Japanese whiskey only goes into a Japanese or Asian or Asian fusion restaurant, but what we’ve seen is that Americans really have embraced Japanese food in particular, and culture as well, but I think it’s become very mainstream. 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 spectrum of places. And so those are the first gatekeepers for us in marketing. It’s all about tasting them and showcasing what this whiskey is, and then getting them on board.
7. Do you have a Japanese audience for your whiskey as well?
We only distribute in the U.S. right now, but we certainly have our fair share of Asian fans because I think the flavors are familiar. When you think about rice, my immigrant parents eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a staple. We’re so familiar with that flavor and aroma that it’s been supported by Asian communities across the country.
8. Alongside Covid, what are the biggest challenges for you so far in bringing this product to the market?
When I started, I didn’t have a great deal of experience. Women aren’t typically thought of as being creators of a whiskey brand. I didn’t want to do a lot of press andI didn’t want my name or face out there, because I really wanted the whiskey to speak for itself. But I did see that when people would find out, there was such enthusiasm and support, particularly from women that weren’t working in the industry. I have found that it’s important to make sure that they know they could do this too, that there might be another Asian-American woman out there, not even in this industry, but in another industry. On the marketing side, because I didn’t have a lot of experience in this particular industry, I didn’t feel constrained to do what others did. That was a great benefit to me, that I didn’t have to take the same path as someone else did and we could create sort of what our journey would be.
9. Can you talk about the experience of overcoming hurdles in this male-dominated industry as a woman and as a woman of color — as well as the importance of representation?
I’ve been very supported by women and men across the board. Many of the female founders have experienced similar hurdles along the way, whether it’s someone trying to explain to you your business or explain to you what Asian-ness is. It’s always interesting, but I always try to flip it and see the opportunities there are for women and I think that’s an important attitude. We could just drown in sort of the hurdles that we face if we don’t. I also think it’s important for women in whatever field to not try to play that male role of what they think is being expected of them. It took me some consideration and delving deep that I have to be who I am, whether it’s in marketing or this business, in order for this to succeed. Once you start trying to play a role, you lose sense of not only who you are but what your brand is. It’s really important to stick to who you are, and be really confident in who you are, and assertive when you need to be. In the end, it’s going to be very gratifying.
Being an Asian-American female founder, one thing I noticed was that over the past couple years, there’s been a lot of discussion around Asian Americans, particularly women and what role they have in society. Fellow Asian-American female founders have gathered together to talk about how we can address certain issues. One way we did just recently was by partnering with Daijoubu, which is a pop-up from two really amazing Asian-American female bartenders out of Texas, with a mission to introduce and integrate Asian ingredients into mainstream cocktail culture. We did a “super Asian cocktail pop up.” All the cocktails had Kikori as their base spirit, and then they brought in all kinds of Asian ingredients. It was so heartening to see either these guests really be so thrilled to taste and see ingredients that they grew up with — so it was a bit of nostalgia in a great balanced cocktail — or we were introducing it to a new audience who were so excited to be able to try something new. I’m proud that we were able to kind of pull off an event, and we plan to carry it around the country.
10. What comes next for Kikori? Do you have any other products in the pipeline?
We have a yuzu liqueur, so this is a natural extension of my love for Japanese culture. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus that’s very unique, but well-embraced by the culinary world. And so I created a liqueur made from that, and it’s the same rice-based spirit.
Right now, we’re only in about nine markets in the U.S., but we are expanding rather quickly to other cities in the country, so that’s going to take up quite a bit of time. But I’m excited for that, to share Kikori with the rest of the country.