The Whiskey Stories founder shares how she's turned so many people on to her favorite spirit.
Rachna Hukmani, the first South Asian woman to start a whiskey company, is the kind of entrepreneur who doesn’t let sleep get in the way of her dreams.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night with ideas,” she says of the months before she created Whiskey Stories, her Brooklyn-based, Michelin-recommended immersive whiskey tasting experience, six years ago. At the time, she was working for the iconic brands The Macallan and Highland Park. “I would miss my subway stop reading about whiskey.”
Hukmani actually got her start in the industry thanks to a job that dropped in her lap at a crucial moment.
“I arrived in America, and more specifically New York City, on 9/11; the standing joke in my family is that I’m a travel jinx,” she says with a laugh. “I had moved here on a work visa with an advertising agency, but was laid off weeks later. I found myself in the position of having a month to find a job or I’d have to leave the country. I refused to pack my bags, and in the last week I was offered a job with Johnny Walker.”
Hukmani, who was born in Kuwait, raised in Cyprus, and attended university in India, was a wine drinker at the time, which she attributes to growing up amongst the vines in Cyprus. But her passion for whiskey was sparked immediately.
“Something awoke in me, and since then I’ve been trying to learn more and more about whiskey,” she says. Since that first whiskey job, her decade-plus in the industry has given her the opportunity to work with some of the best-known whiskey brands in both design and concept creation: Hukmani has helped build whiskies like The Macallan Double Cask, Highland Park Magnus, Noble Oak Bourbon and more. And despite some ventures outside the industry, she always finds her way back to spirits: “Every time I’ve left the whiskey world, I’ve gotten laid off. And every time I’ve left NYC, a whiskey opportunity brings me back.”
“Every time I’ve left the whiskey world, I’ve gotten laid off. And every time I’ve left NYC, a whiskey opportunity brings me back.”
One such non-whiskey job was with a cosmetics company, a position that Hukmani was laid off from after only three weeks. So she took a couple of months to think about what she really wanted in life. It was at Big Idea Lab (a workshop and coaching platform for entrepreneurs), where she showed up with eight whiskey books in-hand, that Whiskey Stories was born.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Whiskey Stories ran several themed multi-sensory tastings (Whiskey in the Dark, Flavors of Asia, Game of Thrones and Comedy) that sold out months in advance and incorporated food, acting, sensory elements, and comedy. Hukmani designed her intimate Brooklyn salon to resemble something of an Alice in Wonderland-meets-Versailles dollhouse, so that participants felt like they could be playful.
“Most tastings attract people who are already leaned into whiskey,” Hukmani says. “I wanted to create something that helps people break down whiskey in a way they’re familiar with, and emotions that they can relate to, like comedy.”
She continues, “Whether you’re a novice or a connoisseur, you learn something. Even people who go to a lot of tastings will say, ‘I actually get whiskey now.’”
In the past six years, Hukmani has expanded Whiskey Stories beyond tastings to include the first-ever line of unisex whiskey-based colognes, an investment club that teaches members how to invest in whiskey, and a line of hand sanitizers. And like most entrepreneurs, she’s had to completely pivot her business to reflect the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
SEEMA recently sat down with Hukmani to talk about whiskey, her ever-changing business, and her advice for entrepreneurs.
Whiskey Stories is an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Can you walk us through a Whiskey Stories tasting and why you designed it that way?
RH: I made it immersive to force people, in a good way, to be fully present. We ask people to put their phones away (even in the virtual tastings) so that whiskey can be the focal point. We distract them with comedy and actors telling stories; I script the actors so that it’s partly rehearsed and partly improvised, so you wonder where the character is going to go with the comedy. It’s actually an interactive live art: In turn, while the guests are being entertained, they also allow the whiskey to breathe, allowing the natural oils in the whiskey to come to the surface and reveal more subtle/richer notes.
I also use food pairings as part of the immersion, so you’re using your eyes, nose, and ears, to have this holistic experience.
Ultimately the idea is to create YOUR personal whiskey story, because everyone’s palate is different. We get 20 to 30 emails a day of people telling us they remember the whiskey knowledge we shared because of how it’s incorporated. That’s what makes it unique.
You mentioned how comedy is incorporated into the Whiskey Stories experience, and you yourself are a stand-up comedian. What sparked your personal passion for comedy?
RH:Six years ago, I lost my dad. I had left writing for a while, and I went back to writing as a way to heal. I started improv, because it gets you out of your head. It also helps you to be quick on your feet and trust yourself. One of my dreams is to be the first South Asian woman on SNL. Since then I’ve applied improv and comedy principles into Whiskey Stories; I’ll assign characters to the actors and give them a framework, structure, and catchphrase. But then our talented actors improvise and take the stories to unexpected places. People get really into it when they know it’s being made up on the spot.
The spirits industry is traditionally seen as male-dominant. What are your thoughts on that, and how is it being a woman in the industry?
RH:People will ask, “Why did you get into whiskey, it’s so male-dominated?” but some of the first distillers were women. Johnny Walker before it was Johnny Walker was owned by two women. Distilleries have a history of being run by women, but the women had to go into hiding and run it in secret. That alone has kept me very determined and focused. And you have to fight a little harder to get a seat at the table. So to truly be heard, I had to create my own table.
Distilleries have a history of being run by women, but the women had to go into hiding…That alone has kept me very determined.
How did your passion for whiskey turn into the world’s first whiskey-based luxury colognes?
RH:The majority of taste is driven by smell. When I started with whiskey-based colognes, I wasn’t selling them. The base in perfumes is neutral grain alcohol, and there’s so much whiskey has to offer. When I would cook or prototype these liquids, I would create colognes for myself. I figured that I could market them, so I introduced it into Whiskey Stories. Before that I would include other things for fragrance, like lemon or coffee beans, but colognes are so much more interesting. It took the fragrance sensory part of it up 10 notches; people just get so excited when they experience it. The third whiskey has a fragrance pairing, then I blindfold the participants.
How have you transitioned Whiskey Stories experiences to a virtual platform?
RH: Before the pivot to virtual happened, I had to pivot my thinking and what Whiskey Stories is about and why it resonates. It’s about the human connection. First I did virtual events using what people had in the house and taught them how to make cocktails. Then I rolled out the at-home kits in June. [Read more about her strategy in our accompanying article.]
The kit has four whiskey samples, and we work with a local dessert partner, Phivi. They also include our custom-made Whiskey In the Dark® blindfolds, a little sample of the colognes, and some other sensory twists and turns.
You were recently awarded the Bumble Bizz Grant, out of 15,000 applicants in the U.S. alone. Can you tell us more about that? Do you have advice for people who are looking for grants?
RH: When we get fearful or desperate, it’s hard to ask for money. I had to go through a mindset shift and tell myself that I deserve this money and I’m entitled to it. I called my folder for the grant “I deserve this.” I personally think it’s better to start with grants like the Bumble grant or Facebook before moving on to government grants, because your story will be stronger. You just have to keep advocating for yourself.
What’s your vision for Whiskey Stories for 2020 and beyond?
RH: The hybrid model of live and virtual events is here to stay, so I’m looking to see how many people we can have in a room to allow for social distancing as we move back to live events. I’m also going to evolve our investment club — I’d like to have a physical space for it, but we’ll see how the world evolves.
One of the best things someone can do is underestimate you. There are going to be a lot of people telling you you can’t do something, YOU don’t have to be one of them.
What’s your advice for budding entrepreneurs?
RH: I always like to say that one of the best things someone can do for you is underestimate you. There are going to be a lot of people telling you you can’t do something, YOU don’t have to be one of them. Use other people’s doubt and criticism to fuel your fire.