When thinking about whiskey specialists, designers and entrepreneurs one seldom thinks of women, especially within the South-Asian diaspora. Whiskey Stories founder, Rachna Hukmani, has single-handedly changed that notion. As one of the first South Asian women to have her own whiskey-based company and colognes, Hukmani curates some of the most unique whiskey tasting experiential and multisensory events which include whiskey, gourmet food, comedy, music, and theatre.
As a lover of whiskey myself, after attending one of Whiskey Stories’ experiences, I was keen on learning about the #bossbabe behind it all. So, I sat down with the founder herself to get the inside story.
After 11 years of working in marketing and production of whiskey, with brands like The Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Crown Royal, Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Jameson and more, I realized people have a lot of misconceptions about whiskey and don’t get to spend time immersing themselves in the art and science that is whiskey as well as its nuances and versatility. So, I had the desire to share that knowledge with people whilst also enjoying whiskey.
The more I learned, the more fascinated I got. The first time I sipped whiskey it was like the mothership had called me home. I just knew this is what I was meant to do.
Was working in a male-dominated industry part of your inspiration to start Whiskey Stories?
While I am currently in the minority as a South Asian woman working with whiskey, the very history of whiskey production heavily involved women. Some of the very first alchemists and distillers were women. America also has many fascinating stories of bootlegging women who sold moonshine illegally and evaded tax collectors. My favorite bootlegger Wild West woman is Belle Starr.
I wanted to share my love for whiskey with the public, and as a woman, it was important to me to take my passion and evolve it into a business where I share my passion in an entertaining way but also impart knowledge about whiskey and whiskey women throughout history.
How did Whiskey Stories LLC start?
It started in a brainstorm with eight women entrepreneurs, each one with an idea of what they wanted to do. It was at Marina Romasko’s Big Idea Lab. My very first Whiskey Stories experience five years ago consisted of 12 friends, on a rainy night, all ready to support me—no questions asked. I had been holding tastings for over a decade but this was my first time as a business owner. The stakes were higher. Miraculously, once I stepped into this role, I was quickly hired shortly after to do tastings for 50 people.
Even though I was super nervous, standing in front of these people holding a microphone, I knew this is what I am meant to do.
I genuinely believe when you find your calling the universe paves the path for you, all you have to do is step on it.
As Whiskey Stories grew, being a stand-up comic and comedy actor, I wanted to find a way to intertwine my passions into an informational and entertaining experience. I started developing an immersive event. When people attend Whiskey Stories, they absorb more than the alcohol, they absorb knowledge while getting entertained via comedy, music, stories and more.
There is also decadent food!
I was very lucky to grow up in Kuwait, Cyprus, and India with an unexpected Japanese influence at home, before moving to the US. My parents were amazing cooks and we learned the art of cooking from an early age. I love to cook so the pairing of food with whiskey comes very naturally to me. As a result, I have formed partnerships with several chefs across the country to continue to bring Whiskey Stories’ guests the best of food pairings.
Whiskey Stories also has a newly launched a VIP membership program that involves tips on how to invest in whiskey, how to become a whiskey collector, how to shop for whiskey, exclusive specials on events, whiskey-related global travels and virtual whiskey tastings around the world!
Whiskey Stories has more to offer than tastings. Tell us about your recently-launched whiskey-based unisex colognes. My favorite is ‘Shameless!’
Colognes are made with grain alcohol, so I began to think to myself, why not Whiskey then? I created a line of unisex whiskey based colognes which include other ingredients as well but are overall designed to capture the nuances of whiskey. Featured in Bloomberg, these make the perfect whiskey-lover gifts! Even if you’re not a whiskey lover, these are great because they are not like typical colognes.
My colognes are included as part of the multisensory experience at Whiskey Stories events because fragrances can completely change your whiskey experience. They are also available for purchase on Etsy. Currently, we have a line of eight fragrances.
What’s next for Whiskey Stories?
2018 was an incredible year! We grew leaps and bounds by adding several experiences months in advance, launching our colognes, VIP Club, corporate/private packages and more. It has been a dream of mine to create my very own “Whiskey World of Whimsy” and we have successfully nailed down a venue that is just that! As the company grows, we are selling out tastings 3-6 months in advance and need to begin scaling. We have just launched our official crowdfunding campaign! We hope to be able to hire staff, add more experiences, and expand our selection of whiskeys and artist pairings!
What advice do you have for fellow female entrepreneurs?
I believe one of the best things someone can do for us is underestimate us because that contrast sheds light on what we really want. As long as we continue to believe in ourselves, the rest falls into place, including the right company that helps us along the way rather than tell us we can’t do something. So, keep at it and the right avenues of abundance will come along. And ask for help from the right people. I once heard someone say, ‘If you don’t need help, your vision isn’t big enough.’ So, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just be fussy about who you ask.
I’ve never considered myself to be a part of the fashion world here in New York. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t even tell you what my style was. Today, it’s clear how much my clothes are influenced by my time living in India for six years as a teenager. You’ll usually see me pair a sari blouse with a pair of pants, a khadi print skirt, or a dress that my family’s tailor back in Kolkata made of cloth my mother and I spotted and loved in the store next door.
My Indian heritage is an integral part of my identity, so when I was asked if I could write about South Asian designers debuting their collections, how could I say no?
I first heard about South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW) last year from a friend who walked the runway for one of the designers. I’d heard about the infamous New York Fashion Week of course, but based on the name, I assumed this venture was to increase the representation of South Asian designers, especially because fashion is an industry with high barriers to entry, making it especially difficult for BIPOC designers to break through and showcase their talent.
I wasn’t far off the mark, according to one of this season’s designers, Sandeep Tupili, cofounder of the brand Maison Tai.
“I come from the South of India and growing up I never saw clothes like this on the runway,” he said. “Now, as a gay Indian designer, I’ve never really been supported like this, in a space like this. This community is truly incredible.”
Community is what I found in the days I ran around attending the various SANYFW events, which took place between September 9 and September 13, starting with actress Richa Moorjani headlining for Raas, a contemporary luxury clothing brand from India. I’m a journalist who reports on BIPOC influencers, I’m Indian, and I used to be an editor at Brown Girl Magazine, so I knew a lot of faces in the room already when I walked into the press gathering, the first event of the week. I was unprepared, though, for the immediate warmth from the people I just met. Faces that lit up whenever they saw me, engaging in conversations about representation, and checking in to see how my day was going.
It’s that kind of community that Shipra Sharma and Hetal Patel, cofounders of SANYFW, have been working so hard to cultivate this second time around, based on learning lessons from season one.
“I really want to see these designers create their own network and create their own connections because we can provide the platform, but for the designers to get to the next level, it’s about the people who get involved with their brands,” Sharma said. “I’m honestly so overwhelmed with joy because 10 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom having a space like we do today where they could do this.”
Another one of the designers I met was Sheel Svarini, who graduated college only two years ago and took this season’s SANYFW by storm when she debuted her collection Svarini, which she describes as a “Bridgerton”-inspired play on Indo-Western clothing. When she walked out after the models displaying her designs at the multi-designer fashion show on September 13, she was met with cheers, whistles, and some standing ovations.
“I was designing my clothing as I watched the show last year, so it’s really a full-circle moment for me,” she said. “I didn’t study fashion at all, I was studying engineering, and there’s no way I could have done it without the opportunities I’ve gotten here.”
You could feel Sheel’s joy every time in the space—every time she saw me, she, quite literally, picked me off the floor in a hug. For Archie Agarwal, founder of handmade fine jewelry and accessories brand Studio Kiyan,it was a tap on the shoulder and a long hug whenever she saw me.
“Spaces like this are so critical for the young boys and girls out there to see that they’ll be accepted for who they are,” she said. “I can only imagine how many designers will be here in the next few years, and it could be because they saw us on their social media.”
Maheen Haq, the designer behind Babougie, agrees. At the multi-designer presentations event on September 11, she was one of the people asked to explain more about her brand, and she highlighted how grateful she was to the packed room of South Asians who showed up in support.
“When I was young growing up in Pakistan, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options because I couldn’t find clothes in my size,” she said. “Not many people, even today, would accept a brand that prioritizes hand-blocking printing from Pakistan so that just shows what kind of community Hetal and Shipra are trying to build.”
Meanwhile, Promiti Prosun of the brand Chaa Latte, embodies the concept of community in her clothes. Our interview was interspersed with revelations about our similarities—we’re both Bengali, we both quit our jobs during the pandemic in 2021 and pivoted careers: me to journalism and her to fashion.
“The space to be seen like this wasn’t there before,” she said. “My collection is about community actually, about feeling comfortable and accepted when you’re walking into spaces dressed in your clothing.”
It’s designer Madiha Dhanani, founder of brand Jamil by MD, who highlighted the unique element of SANYFW on their last night of shows: helping people from the diaspora embrace both sides of their identities.
“We keep our worlds so separate, American and Indian, and it’s time we start blending our backgrounds together,” she said. “That’s what makes SANYFW so important. It’s creating the room for us to showcase the way that fashion is moving forward.”
After Dhanani’s collection debuted on the runway, excited conversations were already breaking out about what next year’s SANYFW would hold and how much bigger it could be, especially given this year’s recognition by outlets like Good Morning America, NBC News, and Bloomberg.
As for me, I’ll eagerly be awaiting the chance to meet more inspirational South Asian designers and creatives next September. It’s goes beyond the designers and clothes for me, it’s about it’s about continuing to support the community that was fostered this year.
If I DM my friends a bunch of videos on any given day, one of them is almost always an Ankush Bahuguna reel. When I first stumbled upon his content, I saw him as an actor and a comedian, lifting our mood up during the lockdown one video at a time. However, his day-to-day content is more than just that — Bahuguna is changing the landscape of the beauty industry by making (and holding) space for men who aspire to be makeup artists and who have a passion for all things beauty.
Content creator, makeup enthusiast, actor: Which title do you resonate with the most? And, why?
A creator is the word I’d resonate with the most — that’s what got me here — creating comedy, creating beauty content. Even as an actor, I’m very collaborative. I tend to weave nuances around a character and make it my own. I believe, no matter what you do, your work should be unique to you and that can only happen when you build it up yourself.
How did “Wing it with Ankush” come about?
Till three years ago, I used to work for a media house that had a whole team of stylists and MUAs working on every shoot. So when the world went into lockdown, I realized I would have to don all those hats myself. I used to [regularly] shoot videos with my mother and she didn’t know anything about makeup either. So I had to try my hand at it — I would do her makeup and we’d shoot videos together. Soon I realized how much I enjoyed learning a new skill from scratch. I used to paint as a kid, so makeup just somehow made sense. It felt like even though I had a whole lot to learn, it came naturally to me. I decided I would journal these experiments [on] a ‘secret’ page called Wing it With Ankush so that I can look back at it five years from now and see what I was up to [during] lockdown. I didn’t tell anyone about it. But people eventually discovered it and there was no looking back!
One word for gender stereotypes?
One word: Ingrained. It’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it hard to just accept people the way they are.
How is (or isn’t) India evolving in terms of stereotypes?
We are definitely evolving. It’s a slow process but there’s hope. There’s a long way to go and for starters, I wish people could give non-cis people as much respect, appreciation, and credit, as they give to cis people like me, especially in the beauty space.
Must-have makeup products for men?
Makeup ‘must-haves’ are very subjective across all genders. Some people can’t do without a full face of makeup, while others could care less. I feel nothing is a must-have. [D]on’t wear makeup because you feel you need to, wear it only if it makes you feel good. My must-haves would be a color corrector, concealer, and powder.
Favorite makeup hack ever:
My favorite makeup hack is to underpaint. Apply bronzer and blush before your foundation. It’s so much more natural looking.
Let’s talk about your career in entertainment. What does comedy mean to you?
Comedy is a defense mechanism for me. It’s also self-expression, to be honest. That’s how I go about my day — finding humor in mundane things. Comedy is how I see life.
Beauty Influencer Of The Year Male (Popular Choice) — Ankush Bahuguna! Congratulations! You left your audience with these words in your Instagram post: “There’s always been too much self-doubt and too little self-worth.” How does one overcome that feeling of self-doubt?
As someone who has grown up constantly feeling inadequate, it’s difficult for me to not give in to self-doubt, literally every day. But I guess the idea is to be as kind and forgiving to yourself as you are to others. If you’ve come this far, you must’ve done something right. Right?
We can’t deny that Ankush Bahuguna is going out of his way to put a smile on our faces with his day-to-day content — reels, photos, Insta stories, and more! All while paving a new path for himself and, like we mentioned before, holding space for those who aspire to be them one day. Ankush continues to push the envelope one makeup tutorial at a time, showing the modern world that it’s time to take men in makeup seriously because they’re here to stay!
The featured image is courtesy of Dream N Hustle Media.
Ever since we can recall, the Cannes Film Festival has been a merger of movies and glamour. On one side, there are hand-picked films — ready to premiere and make their mark in the world of entertainment — and on the other, audiences and paparazzi alike are served epic moments in fashion.
The festival, aimed to preview upcoming films from all over the world, invites a wide variety of guests that span the film fraternity, of course, but more recently, has opened its doors to many digital content creators, including renowned South Asian creatives.
With a more vast guest list comes a more recent debate: Cannes is a film festival and not a fashion showcase. Kickstarting the debate this year was none other than ace Bollywood director, Nandita Das, who in an Instagram post shared:
Sometimes people seem to forget that it is a festival of films and not of clothes!
In short, Das wants Cannes’ narrative to continue to focus on films.
But of course, there’s been a paradigm shift in the guest list over the last few years; this shift has allowed talents from various industries — including lifestyle content creators, entrepreneurs, etc., who showcase their work in fashion and beauty like fine masterstrokes — to walk the carpet and represent their craft, making space for others in their industry.
Influential names like Dolly Singh, Kaushal, Diipa Buller-Khosla, and Shivani Bafna — all of whom made a raging impact on the red carpet this year — weigh in on the significance of representing South Asian artists/influencers on the red carpet, and how they feel they’ve been part of this paradigm shift at Cannes Film Festival.
I believe that each step we take at events like Cannes sends a powerful message of diversity, cultural richness, and artistic excellence. Representation matters, and the presence of South Asian creators on the red carpet at Cannes helps broaden the narrative of beauty, talent, and creativity. It allows us to showcase our unique perspectives, narratives, and contributions, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive industry. By actively participating and making our presence felt, we help create more opportunities and spaces for South Asian creators, encouraging others to share their stories with the world.
Since 2015, the first time I walked the red carpet, till this year I have always been invited by L’Oreal Paris, one of the main sponsors of the event. It has always been such an honor to be invited to the festival through the makeup brand that I have been using for almost two decades, and, before my social media career began. Personally, I feel a sense of acknowledgment from such a prestigious brand, and its head office teams that sponsor Cannes Film Festival, and value the work I have done and continue to do as a South Asian content creator within the beauty space. Makeup, hair, and beauty will always play a big role within the film industry and it’s something I have always created my content around which is why I am proud to attend.
This is a proud moment not just for me but also [for] my peers and the entire content creator ecosystem given that we have reached such new global stages and presence. Of course, as you said, such film festivals, once considered as an exclusive hub for a congregation of the finest acting talents have, in the last few years, opened their arms to more people from the entertainment industry.
This is not just a sudden phenomenon with a burst of Indian creators at the festival this year but there is increased participation from non-film and non-South Asian celebrities across various spectrums from different sides of the world. Along with the many filmmakers, actors, producers, etc I also met some amazing influencers and entrepreneurs from other sides of the world. It’s amazing to represent India and celebrate and champion the advent of the digital ecosphere on such a prominent platform.
The confluence of actors and creators signified the amalgamation of traditional cinema and new-age digital influence, highlighting the transformative power of creative expression and how festivals like Cannes have become more forthcoming and progressive in their approach.
Cannes, like any other prominent festival, boasts of a red carpet that is synonymous with fashion and glitz, and I wanted to use this opportunity to represent all the amazing Indian fashion designers on the carpet besides, of course, attending the screenings. As someone who is just not an influencer but also an actress, I thoroughly enjoyed all the red-carpet screenings and meeting like-minded film talent from around the world at the event. At some point in the future, I would like to be attending Cannes for a film I’ve featured in.
Creators are often placed into boxes of where they belong and the rooms they can be a part of. Being on the red carpet dismantles the ideology that there’s a cap on how far we, as creators and as a South Asian community, can go and what we can achieve.
The Cannes Film Festival has always been viewed as the epitome of a glamorous event — everyone who attends looks like they’re living their best lives. I used the platform to share an authentic message of what the experience felt like for me. To represent all of us who doubt our potential, experience imposter syndrome, and are nervous to find their place, yet continue to push through to achieve their dreams!
As the first Indian American influencer to walk at Cannes, I hope I can inspire young women to confidently ask, ‘Why not me?’
There’s no doubt that the Cannes Film Festival is centered around films, and continues to be a unique space for the global film fraternity to bring their art and showcase their aptitude. But, creators like Bafna, Singh, Buller-Khosla, and Kaushal — a special shoutout to Raja Kumari for being instrumental in paving the way as well — have their own set of responsibilities to fulfill upon their invitation to the prestigious event. Their will to represent their South Asian identities, celebrate their industries, and continue to hold space for their peers makes their presence at Cannes more than just clothes.
All images in the featured photo are from the influencers’ Instagram feeds.