Food by VICE

This Woman Is Shaking Up the Spirits Industry with Whisky Made from Rice

Kikori may not be the first rice whisky in the American market, but it is the first 100-percent rice-based Japanese whisky in the US. And we all know what happens when Japan tries its hand at whisky: They pretty much perfect the hell out of it.

by Javier Cabral
Jul 15 2016, 11:00pm
Photo by Javier Cabral

Webster's dictionary defines whisky as "a strong alcoholic liquor distilled from the fermented mash of grain, esp. of rye, wheat, corn, or barley." That definition may need an update now to include rice. Yes, rice whisky.

Kikori Whiskey (the founder added the "e" to distinguish it from traditional Scotch-style Japanese whisky) may not be the first rice whisky in the American market, but it is the first 100-percent rice-based Japanese whisky in the US. And we all know what happens when Japan tries its hand at whisky: They pretty much perfect the hell out of it. Kikori is no exception to that, with its attractive gold hue and floral, sherry-like, subtly oaky flavor.

At 41 percent ABV, it is dangerously easy to drink, too.

Still, you will no doubt need an open mind when sipping this, since it is unlike any other traditional whisky that you've ever had in your life. Just how different is this libation? Well, it is so cutting-edge that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau didn't even know how to classify it at first. Also, it has inspired three other copycats—and counting—since it debuted in the American market in December of 2015. So, yes, the company may be onto something big.

MUNCHIES caught up with Kikori's founder, Ann Soh Woods, over rice whisky-flavored chocolate truffles and dandelion tea in Los Angeles. We talked rice whisky specifics, what it's like to be woman in a male-dominated booze industry, and why—after five years in the making—Kikori is absolutely not just a glorified sake.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Ann. How long do you and whisky go back? Ann Soh Woods: I've been a big fan of whisky since I was a child because my father always drank it. It wasn't always the good stuff but we always had a variety of it in the house—including some from Japan. For a while, it wasn't my choice of liquor—I think because my dad drank it so much. When I went back to Tokyo as a young adult, my sisters and I rediscovered Japanese whisky and that was it.

Kikori Bottle

Photo courtesy of Anthony Diaz

What made you want to try swapping out the barley or corn for nothing but rice? I became fascinated with whisky and the flavors of the different types available. I had no background in alcohol or producing it, but traveling to Japan often, I became fascinated by the rituals and traditions of Japanese alcohols. I grew up with rice as well, so I thought, Why not distill whisky from this prominent grain? When I met with distillers to talk about the possibility of that, I realized that it was a very interesting topic.

To distill, age, and keep the high proof using nothing but rice? I wanted something that was lightly floral, bright and smooth on the palate, without a long burn. We didn't want the peat or smoke that you would typically find, since I wanted this to be mixed into cocktails. Though, you can certainly sip it if you would like. It is just water and rice. We don't add any coloring or any sugar, and it ages in American, French, and sherry oak anywhere from three to seven years.

It just came from a love of spirits and wanting to encapsulate a piece of Japan.

How did Japanese distillers respond to your idea at first? As an American, there was always a bit of the language barrier. They are a small operation in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu, so when I approached them with such a new and untraditional idea for a Japanese whisky, they were excited but also very skeptical. I first tried to mix it myself but it was crap. Getting the right balance was harder than I could have ever imagined. I depended on a master distiller for our formula. Now, they are thrilled and love drinking it themselves. It has been really exciting for them too because their horizons with whisky have now been extended.

Kikori Coffee

Kikori coffee. Photo courtesy of Anthony Diaz

How has the response been with consumers so far? It was very unexpected. We actually had to ramp up production rather quickly upon launching because there was so much more interest than we anticipated. We are focusing in California, predominantly LA, and we are now on 56 cocktail menus and carried at a few shops. I wasn't thinking beyond the US but we have gotten many calls from many other countries now.

What is it like to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry and spirit culture? It doesn't come up overtly but it is certainly still there. It is always assumed that I am a sales representative when I visit accounts, and it is always a pleasant surprise when they find out I am the founder. It can get particularly male-dominated at the distribution level and sometimes that can be challenging. I tend to be very direct and I'm very conscientious that because I am a woman, that may be misconstrued as being aggressive, but that is how my workday goes.

I think it is great that women are now part of the story. It's true that when you think of whisky, you think of your dad, your grandfather, and a lot of men. Fairly recently, in whisky cocktail culture, I've noticed that women are now making decisions and deciding which cocktails they want. There is a growing population of women who know their whisky, are organizing groups, and are becoming extremely savvy and educated on what they are drinking. I am proud to be a woman in this business and hope to inspire other women that they too can navigate and thrive in a male dominated industry.

Whisky is an old-school drink and that tends to harbor an equally old-school, traditional whisky mentality. What do you have to say to the people who may dismiss your product as being a glorified sake and not actually a whisky? I can't really tell you what I think of those kind of people. It can get very confusing because we use a grain that is not familiar and I understand where that confusion comes from, even though there are other whiskies that use rice in the mash. But it all simply comes down to whether you like it or not. I get disappointed when people are close-minded in this day and age and don't understand that rice is a grain or don't understand the significance of Japan. The giants that came before us opened the gates of Japanese whisky in the US and established a certain standard and quality.

It is an education process.

Kikori Old Fashioned

Kikori Old Fashioned. Photo courtesy of Anthony Diaz

How often do you drink Kikori? Every night. I've been drinking it in the form of a Manhattan lately.

Thank you for speaking with me.