How This Alcohol Industry Newcomer Created a Japanese Whiskey Brand for the U.S.

Ann Soh Woods tapped her network to get a traditional distiller to allow her to sell their product.
How This Alcohol Industry Newcomer Created a Japanese Whiskey Brand for the U.S.
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In this ongoing column, The Digest, News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

When Ann Soh Woods founded Soh Spirits in 2012, she didn't have any experience in the alcohol industry. To add to her challenges, Soh Woods had to convince a traditional Japanese distiller that she was the right person to distribute its rice whiskey in the US.

"We couldn't go in cold," she said. "You have to be referred by someone they respect. That was a long process … [that involved] going there, taking the time and showing good faith."

Related: All it Took Was One Taste, and Now This Former Designer Is Living a Booze Industry Dream

Fortunately, Soh Woods had built a network of contacts in Japan. For years, she had worked in marketing and entertainment, so she constantly traveled to the country.

"Once we started floating this idea around, it was great, because [my friends and contacts] started coming around with different ideas," she said.

Those conversations led to a meeting with Soh Spirit's eventual distiller, but the whiskey makers were still skeptical their product would sell in the U.S.

"The turning point was showing them the design of the bottle," she said. "They really enjoyed it and were surprised. They could see how this would play here and how it could work."

Soh Spirits' Kikori Whiskey came onto the market in 2015, and is now sold in about 800 U.S. stores, including BevMo, Whole Foods, Costco and Trader Joe's, as well as at bars and restaurants across the country, such as Nobu. Kikori was the first Japanese rice whiskey to hit the American market, the company says. The company also sells a yuzu liqueur, Yuzuri.

Image Credit: Jakob Layman

While rice whiskey is a new category in the U.S., Soh Woods said the company benefited from a recent surge of interest in Japanese whiskey -- thanks in part to a popular Japanese TV series on a whiskey maker -- that even lead to shortages.

Related: 11 Ways Drinking Alcohol Can Make You Smarter, Healthier and More Creative

"People started recognizing it as real category and started asking for it in bars and restaurants and retailers," Soh Woods said. "We started selling quite well on our own."

Still, marketing is obviously important to the startup. Soh Woods said she employs a three-prong marketing system that targets consumers, distributors and the alcohol industry.

"I'm always thinking about those three different audiences and how best to market to them," she said. Fortunately, "Our audience is well versed in what they're drinking. We can start geeking out with them, and they'll match us."

Social media plays an important role, particularly Instagram. But how many glamour shots of bottles can you possibly put out there? There's a limit, of course, which is why Soh Woods challenges her team to take work home with them -- work in this case being creating new cocktail recipes.

"Whiskey cocktails are rising," Soh Woods said. "When we started this [our intention was] to be in cocktails. A lot of people, [especially] women, are reaching for them."

Related: These Entrepreneur Brothers Ditched Coffee for Matcha and Built a Multimillion-Dollar Drink Brand

If all of this sounds like the best job ever, Soh Woods makes sure all her hires (currently she employs 10 full-timers and a few freelancers) have a creative side, as well as hobbies. Cocktail books are required reading at Soh Spirits, and the team shares pertinent articles. And, of course, new creations are taste-tested.

"It's work," Soh Woods assured Entrepreneur. Sure.

Here are some whiskey cocktail recipes provided by Soh Spirits:

The Balancing Act

• 1.5 oz Kikori Whiskey
• 1.5 oz Yuzuri Liqueur
• 1.5 oz Yakult
• 0.5 oz Lemon Juice
• 0.25 Tsp. Simple syrup (2:1 ratio sugar-water)
• 1 Egg white

Dry shake the egg white in a tin. Add all other ingredients to a shaker with ice, then add the egg white and shake. Double strain into a coupe. Garnish with a skewered Japanese rice candy.

Rashoman AKA Golden Chrysanthemum

• 1.5 oz Kikori Whiskey
• .75 oz Yuzuri
• .5 oz Lillet
• 5 dashes Shishito Pepper bitters(BarMatt)
• Lemon Twist

Stirred and served up in a coupe glass.

Mignonette Martini (Saul Ranella, Hog Island Oyster)

• 2 oz Kikori Whiskey
• 1 oz Hog Tonic Syrup*
• 0.5 oz Lo-Fi dry vermouth
*Hog Tonic Syrup: using a quinine tincture, lemon and orange peels, sugar cane and local botanicals. If making at home, Jack Rudy tonic syrup is a good substitute.

Stir and serve over a large clear ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with lemon zest, making sure to express the oils over the top of cocktail

Fuyu (Marco C., Chaya DTLA)

• 1.5 oz of Kikori Whiskey
• 1.5 oz of Rice apple milk*
• 1 oz of Cinnamon apple tea
• 0.5 oz of simple syrup
*Heat rice milk as 4 slices of apples, simmer until apples are soft, then strain and cool.

Garnish with apple slices and a cinnamon stick.

Matcha Sour

1 oz Kikori
1 oz Yuzuri
1 oz lime juice
1 oz aquafaba
.5 oz *Matcha Simple Syrup
Double shake
Serve in a coupe
Garnish with Angostura bitters
*Matcha simple syrup: make 1:1 simple syrup and stir in Matcha Powder until completely dissolved.

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