An Interview with Ann Soh Woods of Kikori Whiskey
Over on our wine blog, On the Trail, we’ve been celebrating Women’s History Month by featuring some of the amazing female producers in the biz, and today we’re shining a spotlight on one from the Spirits side of the equation. Ann Soh Woods is the founder of Kikori, a unique rice whiskey from Japan that’s crisp and super easy to drink. Kikori was one of the first Japanese rice whiskeys to be distributed on the U.S. scene, and its food-friendliness, especially with Asian cuisine, has earned it a spot on the lists at Nobu and A-Frame. Made from rice grown in the Kumamoto rice paddy on the volcanic island of Kyushu, it’s a more delicate version of whiskey, something that works well neat but also mixes easily in cocktails.
Kikori deserves a nod for its good whiskey, but also for its good company. Woods, a Midwesterner turned Californian, has a mighty staff of mostly female employees, and mostly moms. Their company ethos also caught my attention, which is all about work/life balance. In fact, the word “Kikori” means “woodsman” in Japanese, and refers to an ancient tale about a woodsman named Visu that warns against working day and night and ignoring family and friends. Visu’s picture is on every bottle of Kikori. As a mom myself, I was so inspired to hear about the supportive environment she’s created. I wanted to find out more, so I recently caught up with Ann to pick her brain about her own whiskey life balance.
KS: How did you get interested in making Japanese whiskey?
ASW: I was interested in making a spirit for myself! After I had my kids, my palate changed, so I was looking for a crispy and lively whiskey to mix in the cocktails I made at home.
While here in the U.S., the kings of agriculture are corn, wheat, barley—grains familiar to your typical whiskey—in Asia, and most of the world, it’s rice. I was inspired by sake and rice shochus for their appealing floral sweet notes so I wanted to replicate some of it in Kikori. We barrel age in three different types of barrels to achieve the soft and smooth finish.
KS: What were you doing before this project?
ASW: I was working in marketing and branding prior to my break to have children, but my husband had been working with Japanese companies for nearly 30 years. With friends and relationships in Japan, we were able to find a distiller to help us make a rice whiskey for the U.S. I thought it would be a fun niche product but we quickly saw that this new style of whiskey made from rice was being embraced by consumers who often, like me, were looking for a smooth, clean whiskey to drink neat or in cocktails.
We were one of the first to launch in the U.S. Since we launched, we have been so pleased to see many others join the same rice whiskey category.
KS: I’ve heard that there is a majority of women/moms holding positions in your company. I’d love to hear more about that.
Most of my team are women! We definitely celebrate diversity but it’s just how it has turned out so far. We have a strong work ethos and philosophy that matches Kikori’s theme of “Find Your Balance.” Thus, we try to work around one’s family schedule whether it’s taking time to celebrate a grandmother’s 90th birthday out of town, to accommodating someone’s daughter’s Halloween school parade, or those endless doctor’s appointments.
KS: How does it affect the working environment?
I do not think it adversely affects anyone’s productivity because everything always gets done, if not even more efficiently. I have a family and understand the need for flexibility, priorities, and respecting the importance of family. One of my favorite sayings is “don’t confuse effort with results.” As a working mother, time is limited so I am going to get maximum productivity in the least amount of time, so I can be sure to be there as much as I can for my kids.
I couldn’t agree more! Thanks to Ann for taking the time to share your inspiring story!
- Kate Soto