Q&A: Ann Soh Woods, Founder of Kikori Whiskey - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Ann Soh Woods, Founder of Kikori Whiskey

Ann Soh Woods, founder of Kikori Whiskey, won’t let the unknown intimidate her. When she launched her own Japanese rice whiskey company in 2015, she did it with no experience or knowledge of how to create whiskey, let alone run a business. And instead of trying to blend into the white male-dominated industry, she went against her instincts of dodging the spotlight and became the voice and face of her brand.

Soh Woods continues to use her position in the industry to amplify Asian American and Pacific Islander voices. In April, she sponsored a “Super Asian Cocktails” pop-up with Austin bartenders Sharon Yeung and Caer Maiko, celebrating Asian ingredients and culture. For Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage Month in May, Kikori is kicking off a new tradition of spotlighting three female Asian American artists. The company will also donate $10,000 to the Asian American nonprofit of each of the artists’ choosing. People will have a chance to win the featured artists’ works through the campaign running on Instagram.

This year’s artists include comedian Atsuko Okatsuka, singer/songwriter Sasami and illustrator Carolyn Suzuki. All three will donate to the Asian Mental Health Collective.

We spoke with Soh Woods recently about the challenges as a Korean-American woman bringing rice whiskey to the mainstream and what she’s doing to celebrate the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. This interview has been edited and condensed.

IMBIBE: What led you to start your own rice whiskey brand?

Ann Soh Woods: I had an opportunity in my life journey to evaluate what I wanted to do career-wise. And I wanted it to encompass my passions at that time, which were whiskey, Japanese culture, and Hello Kitty. So I got two out of the three in Kikori. And I feel really fortunate that I was able to pursue something I really love and enjoy. It wasn’t necessarily that I set out to make this Japanese rice whiskey. I just knew I wanted to make something that would encompass those passions and I didn’t have a lot of experience. I was a hostess at an Olive Garden one summer and that’s sort of the extent of my hospitality experience. 

While it was daunting, at the same time, I didn’t know what it would necessarily take and how challenging it could be at times. But I had such a passion for whiskeys, for cocktails, for the hospitality industry that I think it actually served me well not having that experience. I don’t know if it would be the same today because there are so many more nuances.

LA was my first market. And I was so pleased and surprised at how well they did embrace something that was new, something that was dynamic, that was showcasing Asian culture and flavors and ingredients because we were using rice. And they say this was the first rice whiskey coming from Japan, which subsequently, now there are others.

“I didn’t want to actually do any media or press or have my name or face out there for a while. I was fearful that maybe it wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

How challenging was it to start a whiskey brand being an Asian woman? 

There weren’t a lot of us, and I know I don’t have the face of what people assume is a whiskey founder. I didn’t want to actually do any media or press or have my name or face out there for a while. I was fearful that maybe it wouldn’t be taken seriously. Or that they would think that because it was on the lighter side and a little softer, that it would be a whiskey for women. Which, you know, it was absolutely great with but I just didn’t want to pigeonhole it. By the way, the majority of our drinkers are male.

But it’s funny because it was so fear-based that it might not be taken seriously. Because I certainly didn’t know any other Asian American woman out there doing what I was doing. There was no precedent for that, and I didn’t want to be that first person. I have made peace with it, but I’m still not comfortable.

Do you think that discomfort is cultural or personal?

I don’t think we [Asian women] were raised to self promote; we weren’t raised to necessarily be in this position. And so I feel like I also had no training whatsoever. It was very much about, you know, keep your head down and just do your work, which I’m happy to do. I was, for so long, just happy to do that. But I understand the need to really break out of that. 

And so if I can help other people do that, too, great. It does get easier as time goes by. But it’s definitely not a role we were raised to really encompass. I mean, it never would have crossed my mind growing up. Sometimes I’m amazed I’ve gotten this far. I certainly had a lot of help from both men and women. There’s a lot of people that were on this train with me, but I always like to say that I surround myself with a lot of women, a lot of Asian women, because sometimes it was almost like shorthand. 

And I love that question about whether it was me personally, or is it how we were brought up? Because I never really thought about that. But it really was about not rocking the boat or not speaking up. It was so much about focusing just on your work and about what you can do that I’m sure that attributes to my huge discomfort level. 

The brand celebrates the Asian community, and last year you celebrated bartenders on a social media campaign. Can you speak to what else the brand is doing to amplify Asian voices?

“The cocktails are all from different flavor profiles from mango sticky rice to Twin Dragon almond cookies. It’s been really fun to pull flavors that people don’t typically assume could go in a cocktail and create an amazing cocktail.”

So one way is there is a duo out of Austin—Sharon Yeung and Caer Maiko. And they do a pop-up called Daijoubu, which in Japanese means “It’s okay.” We have a very similar mission of not just uplifting the API trade community but the community overall. So we’ve been partnering up and doing these Super Asian Cocktail pop-ups, and it’s a little cheeky. The cocktails are all from different flavor profiles, from mango sticky rice to Twin Dragon almond cookies. It’s been really fun to pull flavors that people don’t typically assume could go in a cocktail and create an amazing cocktail. 

The campaign we have for May is about uplifting Asian artists. And instead of traditional artists, we thought it would be great to showcase a musician, an illustrator, a comedian. Sometimes they work in industries that they are also outside the box. And that’s been really fun to give them the platform, give them a voice, showcase what they do. We have this philanthropic component, which is also really important because, as you know, we’ve had a couple really tough years as the Asian community. And I hate that feeling of being helpless. So if this is one way I can help, I’d love to.

Even for our pop-up events, we only use Asian vendors. We do it at accounts that are API-owned, and it’s actually a little tougher than you might think. But we have found some, and we’ll be moving to New York in June. And, what was really great is the outreach we got from all over the country, from Des Moines to parts of Oklahoma. There’s a whole population of Asians that don’t feel seen or heard outside of the major cities. And it’d be great to support them as well. 

You started in 2015, but over the past few years there’s been more of an awareness of the importance of diversity. Have you noticed this in the liquor industry?

For sure. I think it’s been a dramatic change since I started. It’s not just in the trade, in the hospitality, at the distributor level, there is more attention on diversity. And not just talking the talk but walking the walk. And I love those discussions on what they can do, too, because I think it helps every business. We know from corporate data that having diversity can really help the bottom line as well. 

As we, as a community as a whole, become much more diverse, there’s so much more opportunity to introduce these flavors. There is a willingness to be open-minded. And that is something that is so refreshing for me.

I also have a yuzu liqueur. When I started, [it was difficult] to explain the flavor of yuzu without having yuzu because it’s kind of hard to get the fruit. But now I can’t believe how many people understand what yuzu is and understand what the flavor profile is. That’s been really surprising to me and gratifying, too, that they’re now open to these flavors that at one time seemed super unique and now are almost mainstream.

What are the future plans for Kikori? 

Honestly, we’re still expanding. We will be in about a dozen markets coming up. We’ve been slowly getting out there, but we have the whole country to cover. So there will be new cities and new states. That’s our focus right now: to get Kikori into the hands of those who want it in all these various states. It’s really gratifying to me to know that there have been requests for Kikori in these states. 

I think having the success with Kikori does bring a certain responsibility as an Asian American woman. And that’s why we do these campaigns and support our Asian community. And I’m gladly embracing that and I hope to make a difference. 

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