Los Angeles spirits owner Ann Soh Woods is diversifying the drinks at your local cocktail bar. By creating Kikori, a Japanese rice whiskey, and Yuzuri, a Japanese yuzu liqueur, the Korean American founder has added two distinguished, elegant options to a bartender’s palette. Some of LA’s best restaurants, including Manuela, Perch, and Accomplice Bar, champion her spirits in their cocktails.
But Soh Woods wants to do more to expand the American appetite for Asian spirits, and to provide support for Asian American bartenders. “My most important role is education,” Soh Woods says. “I aim to share the origin story of Kikori and how authentically Japanese it is, made with local rice and mountain spring water in Kumamoto, Japan, and is distilled, barrel-aged and bottled there as well.”
Soh Woods shows her support for AA+PI bartenders by spotlighting them on Kikori’s social media channels, as well as planning some educational events focusing on koji and its role in Kikori Whiskey as well as how to use it in cocktails.
Growing up, Soh Woods traveled to Korea often with her parents. By age 5, she had developed a deep passion for Japan, starting with Hello Kitty. As she grew older, her love for Japanese culture evolved, extending into a love for Japanese food and drink. Soh Woods has also studied Japanese language and speaks it on her frequent travels there. “I can’t say I speak it very well,” she says, laughing. “It gets me by.”
What she does speak well, is the language of yuzu, which she uses to make her spirit Yuzuri. Soh Woods sources this delicate fruit from family orchards in Kumamoto, Japan, where they are hand-harvested the old-fashioned way. Her distillery team in Kumamoto helped her find the farmers who own the yuzu orchards. Soh Woods says that she has observed the farmers singing to the yuzu trees and dancing in their orchards.
Soh Woods sources this delicate fruit from family orchards in Kumamoto, Japan, where they are hand-harvested the old-fashioned way...she has observed the farmers singing to the yuzu trees and dancing in their orchards.
Yuzu has required an introduction in the U.S. bar scene, with most bartenders unfamiliar with its charms, or using it as a simple syrup or a cocktail highlight, rather than as a main ingredient. To Soh Woods, though, the fruit has long been an obsession. “It’s really unique and delicious, but I couldn’t find a spirit that really matched the flavor of yuzu. Modifiers might use lemon or mandarin to create the flavor of yuzu, but didn’t capture how special it is.”
Teaching others how to use Yuzuri and Kikori has been a labor of love for Soh Woods, as she travels the country spreading the message to distributors, bar owners, and content creators. She feels she owes it to the two Kumamoto farmers, to whom yuzu is a way of life. “The fruit is their pride and joy, and they tend to the orchards daily,” Soh Woods says.
Over the past 20 years, the American culinary world has embraced the diverse and complex flavors of the world’s many Asian cuisines, due in no small part to children of immigrants opening restaurants and penning cookbooks. More and more, yuzu is not a citrus to spray on top of a salad for flavor, or a sauce to reduce, but a central ingredient to feature, and that enthusiasm has spread to the beverage world. “These (Asian) flavors might have been super foreign to bartenders a few years ago, but now they’re interested in learning how to play around with them,” Soh Woods says. “But first you have to explain what the fruit really is.” And for bartenders and at-home enthusiasts to understand it, Soh Woods says, they’ve had to actually taste it.
Though Yuzuri provides a welcome citrusy note in a wide variety of cocktails, mixologists may find it easier to rely on an old classic like Triple Sec than to experiment with something new. Soh Woods is an ardent ambassador for just how simple it can be to expand our flavor palate to rice and yuzu. She spends much of her time traveling the nation, producing and hosting events featuring Kikori and Yuzuri. Lately, she has collaborated with bartenders Sharon Yeung and Caer Maiko to host cocktail pop-up Daijobu: A Super Asian Cocktail Pop-up, presenting events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Houston.
Soh Woods is an ardent ambassador for just how simple it can be to expand our flavor palate to rice and yuzu. She spends much of her time traveling the nation, producing and hosting events featuring Kikori and Yuzuri.
“We’ve done events in partnership with Daijoubu to highlight how well both work with a variety of Asian ingredients—not only to create amazing cocktails, but to use the brand platform to promote the culture of Asian cocktails, so it becomes mainstream.”
As we witness a bombastic revolution in Asian spirits, especially beer, makgeolli, soju and low-ABV seltzers, Soh Woods is proud to be at the forefront of that movement, having founded Kikori in 2015. “I love that people are interested in Asian spirits,” she says.
Soh Woods faced barriers along the way, often as the only woman and only person of color in a room full of predominantly white, male industry players. “Seeing that there was such a dearth of people who looked like me, it’s really important to have that representation now,” she says. “Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group in this country, and the hurdles for us are many, but it makes me even more determined than ever to prove that we belong in this space. We’re going to see much more acceptance of these products and that is really a great thing—I celebrate that tremendously.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Soh Woods’s desire to support the beverage industry’s Asian American bartenders led her to start thinking about what she could do for the wider Asian American community after the pandemic.
“During COVID, we saw the perils and consequences of not being able to even have a discussion about what mental health is, and whatever trauma you might have experienced or are experiencing,” Soh Woods says.
This year, Soh Woods decided to kick off an initiative called Discover AAPI Artists. To empower the at-risk sector of AA+PI women, she selected three AA+PI women artists whose work touched her deeply, comedian Atsuko Okatsuka, singer/songwriter SASAMI, and illustrator Carolyn Suzuki, donating a total of $30,000 in their names to the Asian Mental Health Collective, which provides an Asian therapist directory, catalogs resources for the community, offers support groups, and plans events.
Soh Woods wanted to select boundary-breaking artists who pierced the generational, historical and cultural stigma against seeking help—or even discussing—mental health in Asian American communities.
To Soh Woods, this initiative for mental health was personal. “I think of my own life, so many things I don’t think my parents would understand today, but this new generation is willing to open up a conversation, and we want to have the Asian Mental Health Collective help facilitate that, because a lot of times, people don’t even know how to start,” Soh Woods says. “These artists and I didn’t have an upbringing where it was allowed, and there was a certain hesitancy in being able to have frank discussions, but we wanted to provide an open dialogue where there was no shame.”
Published on April 6, 2023