Rachna Hukmani of Whiskey Stories LLC pours some whiskies (image via Whiskey Stories LLC)
Whiskey, as one quickly comes to find as they embrace this spirit type, is a liquid that engages many of your regular senses. Its color touches your eyes, its aromas impact your smell and the various flavors as one sips light up your taste buds. Could one, however, explore a more full range of sensory experiences to find a greater sense of connection with what’s in your glass?
If you are Rachna Hukmani, founder of Whiskey Stories, LLC, the answer is yes.
Hukmani’s company, as the boiler plate description reads, is a “6 year old Michelin Guide recommended luxury multi-sensory immersive whiskey experiences company.” That doesn’t seem to full describe what goes on here, however, as you’ll read in the interview below. It is, in a nutshell, a rather fascinating attempt in take whiskey engagement to a whole new level.
Note, as always, that this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Your company is, as its description reads, a luxury, multi-sensory, immersive whiskey experience company. There’s a lot packed in there, so we’ll talk about that in a little bit. What we’d like to do first is start with your whiskey background. Tell us a little bit about how you got into the world of whiskey.
Rachna Hukmani: So it’s sort of an odd story, but I didn’t grow up in the United States. I grew up in Cyprus. And so my first day in America, in New York City, was 9/11. And I had an advertising job at that point. I was just foot in the door and long story short, because of everything going on with 9/11, I got laid off. And I was on a visa and I had a month to leave the country or find another job. And I refused to pack my bag, because I had been dreaming of moving here since I was five years old.
So the last week before my visa ran out, I got a call to work on Diageo. And at the time I didn’t realize that I was getting into, in a way, my life calling. So you could say that I fell into it. And was like the mothership called me home. I got intrigued by not only the history of whiskey, but also by the involvement of women in whiskey that most people didn’t know about. And as I dug deeper, to me it felt like pushing the art form.
There’s so much versatility and deep-seated stories in there that I was fascinated by it, and I just loved it. And the more I got to know about it, the more fascinated I got. So over time I also worked at Pernod Ricard, and I was very lucky to also have been in innovation where I helped to design whiskey. So all of that really, really brought in my intense love of whiskey, not only as obviously an alcohol beverage, but also an art form.
TWW: When you say whiskey is an art form, what does that mean to you?
Hukmani: I mean that it’s one of the few adult beverages out there that has all these different parts of history steeped into it. And also there’s a lot of collaboration involved in it to bring out certain notes and flavors, which is where it could be a motivation for me to create something multi-sensory.
And while, yes, there’s a science involved with distilling, I think overall it’s an art form because the master distiller, the master blender, they’re telling us stories. And they’re bringing in their take on it once they create a whiskey. And that part is where it’s not an exact science, but that’s where the art starts to come in.
TWW: So when we look at the story of your company, Whiskey Stories, it seems like you’re expressing whiskey in a way as a type of art through what you do. Talk a little bit about the background of what got you to start your company.
Hukmani: So six years ago I got laid off and I was kind of in the crossroads and I changed. I made a shift in how I was thinking, which is, I felt like now is the time to build something of my own, because I had felt for a while that the way whiskey tastings are run, they’re great, but people don’t actually get what you mean when you’re tasting the grain of the whiskey, when you’re tasting the barrel and what it means, when it’s a different country or water source and how do you break those down.
Which is why I feel like most whiskey tastings, by and large, bring people that already know enough about whiskey. And so I wanted to create something that would break it down in a very different way and give people the freedom to experiment with whiskey.
That’s what I had been doing while I was helping build whiskey. So I wanted to create something that brought that in, but I also know that one of the other challenges is that in a lot of whiskey tasting spaces people kind of feel like they’re in just a class. I have a sensory science background, and I use that in creating things, and at the same time as I started working for whiskey distilleries, I was also on a parallel path to performing comedy and storytelling and improv. Through all of this I saw all the different emotions and engagement that comes with that.
I felt like I was onto something in terms of engaging the senses and engaging emotions in a way that allow people to not only relax, but it opens their mind, which actually opens their palate. So for me, that was the reason behind starting Whiskey Stories, as it is not only to tell the stories about whiskey, but do it in a way that is extremely embedded and immersive and forces people to be present so that they actually remember what they learned.
I’m very proud of the fact that even though it’s a 90 minute experience and I pack in all these things, people are writing to me, weeks, months later saying, “I still remember things you told us because you seeped it in to these interesting memories. And so when I recall a memory, I remember the knowledge.” And that’s why I created Whiskey Stories, because if you seep it in stories, then they’ll remember it.
TWW: Whiskey is often talked about being a multi-sensory experience when you taste it and smell it and do all those things. What does multi-sensory for you mean when it comes to whiskey?
Hukmani: Well, it does include the smell, the aroma, the mouth feel, but to me it’s much more than that. I think multi-sensory includes emotion and memories too. For example, smell tends to bring out nostalgia or memory of certain things and we associate certain smells with certain memories, right? For example, being Indian, when I smell an Indian dessert, I think of my childhood home, my mom. And in India, we had this thing where when it rains outside, you make certain desserts. It’s just a cultural thing. So I remember those types of things.
So when you incorporate that into your multi-sensory, and this gets pretty nerdy here, but what I’m doing is I’m seeping those memories with whiskey knowledge so that they feel more learned and inclined to understand what’s going on. For multi-sensory there’s also a muscle memory there. We as people have been dissecting food flavors and fragrance since we were babies.
What I do is I use things that we’re familiar with as a jumping off point to decipher whiskey. People understand flavors of food better, so I use those to help them pull out the flavors of whiskey, depending on where the barrels are from, as well the grain and water source. And I break it down so that different types of food help them understand.
We also have our own line of whiskey based cologne, which are available for purchase. And I include that as part of the sensory, because what that helps you do is bring out certain hidden notes in a whiskey. So even a person who’s used to doing something like nosing a whiskey tasting, there are things that they might miss too.
TWW: Walks us through what you’re doing on one of your multi-sensory experiences with people.
Hukmani: Obviously our virtual pivot is a little different now. Traditionally when people walk into our venue, it’s designed like a hidden vintage speakeasy doll house and it’s full of color and texture. And there’s lots to see. And immediately as they walk in, they are excited because they feel like they’re in for a really special night. And that’s done deliberately. They’re in a doll house because it gives them permission to play with whiskey. So when they come in, there’s almost this feeling that they’ve been transported to a different sort of era. And then I’m very particular about presentations.
We have as long banquet table where I pay attention to every little thing. So they all sit there and I don’t like to do more than 20 at a time. It allows people to look at each other like at a dinner table. And also it makes it easier for them to ask questions. And so once they’ve explored the area a little bit, and once they sit down, I take them through a 90 minute experience where there’s four whiskeys and where I talk about the whiskey, but I don’t tell them what the whiskey is right away. That way there’s an element of discovery.
Also, no two events are like. So even though we’re six years old and we’re over 2000 experiences in, no two are alike, because there’s always something changing in there.
As part of this all, I have a background in food. And so I would carefully prepare the menu, and it’s unexpected that our pairings are pretty obscure. I’m very big on presentations, and that opens people’s minds to colors and textures, which can open your palette. So each whiskey doesn’t only have a story or a comedic pairing or a dinner pairing – it also has a sense of wonder that opens people’s minds, which is sensory because certain emotions allow you to taste certain things better.
I also think what most whiskey tastings will do is, they’ll share a lot of information up front and then the person will drink it and then they’ll talk about it and they’ll move on. So the probability remembering all that is pretty low. So what I do is I’ll come up with a certain journey that I want to take my guests through. So it could be a spice journey or a water journey or a flavors of Asia journey. And what I do with that is I slowly embed information in them that’s technical, but with that, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. And they leave feeling like, “Oh, I get it now.”
So, with Game of Thrones and comedy, for example, we bring the Game of Thrones whisky, and each one is paired with a Game of Thrones comedic experience. I’m also a writer and a standup comic. So I write the script and it’s partly scripted, partly improvised, which brings a sense of wonder. And so people are really intrigued by that. And when they’re paying attention to a performance, they’re not drinking their whiskey. It allows the whiskey to breathe and bring in a new story. So that’s built in also through the performance and the entire evening for them to understand what means to let your whiskey breathe.
It’s very hard to tell a grown up what to do as another grown up. So I’ve built in little tips and tricks, that they don’t even realize that everything I’m doing is on purpose to get them to really decipher that whiskey. And then we have my cologne pairings as part of that. And then there’s the blindfold as well, which is always really fun as well because it’s informative and fun because if there’s a comedic performance, we lovingly roast our guests a little bit while they’re blindfolded, which is really fun for them. They love that.
They’ve thus been with us the entire evening, and they just love that, because they remember that stuff. “Oh, I remember really laughing at one point, and I remember the whiskey facts I discovered in the moment.” So we make it about them too. That was one of my motivations when I started Whiskey Stories. If you make it about them, they’re more likely to remember things about what they’re learning.
TWW: So when you think about what you’re doing right now, what’s changed about it with the current pandemic and the fact that you’ve had to go virtual with what you’re doing?
Hukmani: We’ve been creating kits to send customers so they could have this multi-sensory kit at home and then I guide them through it – it works. Now, obviously, there are a few things that are different where it’s their home. It’s just a regular space that they’re always in. So, that is different. But at the same time, they still feel intrigued when they get the kit, and they feel like, “Oh, this is really special.”
TWW: When you look at where Whiskey Stories is right now, and that hopefully people will be coming back together again at some point in the sense of everyone being able to come to a venue and be physically present with you, what do you see down the line wanting to do with your brand?
Hukmani: Obviously, like most brands, we have to think about safety, because it’s going to be a while. It’s not just about physical safety, there’s an emotional side to it. A feeling of nervousness or lack of trust or whether things are truly clean or hygienic or safe. There is that sense which will have to be reestablished.
So we’re not going to be able to do full capacity right away. We used to do 20 at a time. I’d probably have to do 10. So I think a hybrid structure has to stay where, as we develop slowly, the virtual experiences have to keep going. I’m also looking into virtual reality as a way forward for us.
TWW: Is there anything else you’d want to say about Whiskey Stories?
Hukmani: I think the only thing we haven’t really touched upon is our VIP with the investment club, where it’s a paid membership club where it teaches people how to invest in whiskey. So it’s growing and I think that’s going to be part of our future too, in the US especially, as very few people have actually formalized whiskey investing.