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Kikori Rice Whiskey Creator Reveals Secret Formula for Success

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Blending opposites is the way to find balance according to the Taoist principle of duality, also known as yin and yang. 

Following that principle, Asian-American entrepreneur Ann Soh Woods drew on the strength of two seemingly opposite cultures—Japanese and American—to create her beautifully balanced rice whiskey, Kikori. 

The groundbreaking beverage has received numerous accolades, including a prestigious Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016, a Gold/90 point rating from the US Spirits Ratings in 2020, and a Gold at the SIP Awards in 2020. 

“The Japanese have a great sense of community, and they look out for the greater good,” Woods says. “This is known as omotenashi, the art of Japanese hospitality. It’s really the art of service, and people do it from their heart.” 

According to Woods, omotenashi permeates all aspects of Japanese life, from travelling on the train to eating at a restaurant and walking on the street. 

“It’s about making sure that everyone around you is taken care of—your neighbours, friends, and guests. That’s really what I love about Japanese culture,” she says. 

At the same time, Woods has also learned from the American value of individuality.

“There’s that American spirit that no dream is too small, no matter who you are or where you come from,” she says. 

Woods’s dream started with a simple wish—to share the true beauty of Japanese culture with the West. Kikori is her gift to America and the world. 

Asian-American entrepreneur Ann Soh Woods says balance is key to her award-winning rice whiskey, Kikori.

Sincere service

Omotenashi made headlines during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, says Woods. International photographers captured Japanese fans picking up trash at the stadium after every game. The Japanese soccer team also left its locker room in immaculate condition. 

“It’s about being a good guest in someone else’s home. It really is trying to do your best from your heart,” Woods says.

“Once you experience that, you want to share it. So, how do we keep sharing that message of omotenashi? One way is through a spirit.”

“Spirits are often enjoyed in celebratory gatherings, during special moments, or even when having an everyday meal with your family, friends, and loved ones,” Woods says. 

She determined to create a whiskey as a hospitable offering for special occasions, one that would capture the Japanese spirit of omotenashi. This led to the creation of Kikori, her made-in-Japan rice whiskey.

Woods at her production facility in Kumamoto.

Authenticity at its finest

By the time Woods launched Kikori in 2015, Americans had already embraced a variety of Japanese food and drinks, such as sake (Japanese whiskey), sushi, and ingredients like miso, ginger, and matcha. 

But the American adoration of Japanese culinary arts also set a high standard for Woods. If she wanted to produce a Japanese spirit for the American market, it would have to be authentic. 

When she started, most Japanese whiskey was made as Scotch from Scottish barley. Woods decided to use rice instead of barley since the former is a Japanese staple food. 

“It’s going to be a little bit lighter than a typical Scotch whiskey with a softer, cleaner feel on the palate and taste,” she says.

Production process

The clean, subtle flavours of Kikori begin with soil and water. Every step of production takes place on Kyushu island in Kumamoto, Japan, a region known for its volcanic topography. The rice is made in nutrient-rich volcanic soil. 

Kikori uses “pristine groundwater” from 350 feet underneath the distillery. According to Woods, the volcanic rock that surrounds this area acts as a natural filtering system. The water spends years in the dense soil before reaching the water basin. 

Rice gives a light, clean feel to Kikori.

After the workers mill, clean, steam, and cool the rice, they lay it out “before sprinkling it with fairy dust,” otherwise known as koji, the mold that kickstarts the conversion process of starch and sugar. During distillation, the workers use stainless steel pots rather than the copper pots used to make Scotch. 

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 113

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