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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

“Rice is more delicate than barley or corn. At that point, we’re doing what we can to retain the flavours of rice. Copper would strip too many of the floral notes that I love so much,” Woods says.

The workers barrel-age the rice whiskey in American, French, and sherry casks. That unique combination provides a memorable flavour profile. 

“Since we barrel-age it, you’ll still get a little bit of the brown sugar caramel taste. It’s a pinch of sweetness just at the end,” Woods says. 

“The floral note, the notes of sweetness and toasted almonds, keep you going back for that next sip.”

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Woods believes in leading her company with heart, a trait she learned from omotenashi, the art of Japanese hospitality.

A tale of balance

Kikori means “woodsman” in Japanese, and Woods chose it as a reference to the lush forests surrounding her distillery in Kumamoto. The rice whiskey logo features the woodsman Visu, the hero of a Japanese folk tale that warns of life without balance. 

“Visu was working too hard, which most Americans can identify with. He was reprimanded for neglecting his family, friends, and spirituality,” Woods says. Visu then goes to the other extreme. He seeks solace in the mountains but ends up losing his land and family. 

“It really struck me that this story was written so long ago, and yet it’s still a modern challenge. In order to have harmony and happiness in your life, you need balance,” Woods says. 

She saw Visu’s story as a metaphor for the smooth, subtle, balanced flavour that she envisioned for her rice whiskey. Like the fabled woodsman, Woods also struggled to find the perfect balance in Kikori. 

“Since I thought I had a very good palate, and I really enjoyed spirits, I thought I could blend it myself,” she says. 

Yet without a scientific background in blending, she couldn’t achieve the flavour and profile she wanted. “I have a lot of respect for master blenders and distillers. It truly is a balance of art and science, and you can’t do one without the other,” she says. 

Once Woods had the flavour profile she longed for, she wanted to make sure Kikori could be enjoyed neat or mixed in drinks. She adored American cocktail culture, after all. She invited mixologists from Japan and America to test mixing the spirit. 

“Enjoying cocktails together is one way that we can merge two cultures. And how do we help other people to live a balanced life? They can start by drinking a balanced whiskey,” she says.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 113

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