Awamori: Okinawa's famous distilled alcoholic beverage
The French have their wine, you can’t get more American than beer and everybody knows Japan is all about the sake, right?
Well, if you’re in Okinawa and you haven’t tried the “awamori,” you haven’t truly tasted what it’s like to be here.
“To the uninitiated awamori can be off-putting as (it has) a very strong scent,” according to New York-based Kampai.US, which aims to bridge the gap between Western palates and Japanese spirits. “The smell belies the nature of the spirit itself as the underlying tastes can be earthy, floral, sweet, herbal, or some combination of these.”
This distinctly Okinawan liquor is Japan’s oldest distilled alcoholic beverage. It boasts nearly 600 years of history, having been Okinawa’s official liquor since the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879).
Today, there are 47 awamori distillers in Okinawa Prefecture that make nearly 1,000 different varieties. Annually, Okinawa produces more than 21.7 million tons of awamori (more than 12 million bottles) – and 80 percent of it is consumed right here in Okinawa, according to the Okinawa Awamori Distillery Association.
The Thai technique for distilling liquor was introduced to Okinawa in the 15th century. Since then, it has been refined to suit the subtropical climate of Okinawa. Throughout history, awamori has been praised for its superior quality and rich, robust flavor.
“On Okinawa, ‘sake’ means awamori,” said Yoshihide Matayoshi, executive managing director of Okinawa Awamori Distillery Association.
Although many Japanese tend to associate awamori with “shochu,” another Japanese distilled liquor originating in Kogashima Prefecture on Kyushu, there is a strict definition for awamori that distinguishes it, according to Matayoshi.
Awamori must be made from Thai rice (indica) and black rice mold with a one-time fermentation process. Shochu, on the other hand, can be made from any type of starch crop or mold, and is usually processed via two-time fermentation.
“Indica rice, black rice mold and one-time fermentation – without clearing these three conditions, the liquor cannot be called awamori,” Matayoshi said.
According to Matayoshi, the techniques used to make awamori were introduced by the Ryukyu Kingdom to mainland Japan via present day Kagoshima in the 17th century, leading to the later development of shochu.
“So, our awamori is how Japan’s shochu came to be,” he said.
As Okinawa’s official liquor, when a G8 Summit was held here in 2000, awamori was used for the toast at the reception. “Since the average age of national leaders gathered at the summit was 56,” Matayoshi said, “we prepared 56-year-old awamori for the toast.”
Just how many of the world leaders in attendance have since developed a penchant for the liquor is unknown. Thanks to the distillery association’s efforts, however, Americans – especially service personnel and civilians assigned to Okinawa – seem to be developing a taste for the spirit.
“We have provided foreigners with opportunities to taste awamori at duty free shops in several airports in and outside of Okinawa,” Matayoshi said. “I noticed that 90 percent of foreigners who bought awamori were Americans. Some said they were stationed on Okinawa and others said they have friends on Okinawa.”
You can buy awamori at any liquor shop for prices ranging from about 1,250 yen ($12.50) for a standard 1.8 liter bottle to up to the equivalent of $500 for 20-year-old awamori. It can be drunk in a variety of ways.
“To enjoy the rich and mellow distinct flavor of awamori, I recommend drinking it on the rocks, or dilute it with cold water,” Matayoshi said. “In an Okinawan restaurant, it is always served with a container of ice and carafe of water. Pour awamori and water into a glass at 3 to 7 ratio. This brings out the (subtle) sweet flavor of awamori, and you can enjoy its smoothness and sweet fragrance. Adding a halved “shekwasha,” or flat lemon, gives it a more refreshing taste.”
When consumed straight, it is customarily served in a small earthenware vessel called a “karakara,” from which it is poured into a small cup called a “choku.”
Though distinctly Okinawan, Matayoshi said that it would be a mistake to think awamori only pairs well with local cuisine.
“Awamori can be a good accompaniment to Japanese foods as well as Chinese, Italian or French dishes,” he said.
So the next time you’re planning to “kompai” (toast), try it like the locals. Try it with awamori for a truly Okinawan taste.
Mellowing with age
The taste and aroma of awamori are enriched through the aging process.
“The new awamori sometimes has way too strong smell and taste,” says Okinawa Awamori Distillery Association’s Yoshihide Matayoshi. “Through the aging process, the liquor develops more body and a milder flavor.”
When Awamori is aged for three years or more it is called “kusu,” or aged liquor. Traditionally, it was aged in clay pots or vases underground in constant cool temperatures.
“You can still find containers of awamori in Okinawa’s caves today,” Matayoshi says. “Before World War II, 200-year-old or even 300-year-old kusu were preserved in these caves, but they were all destroyed during the battles.”
These days, the oldest that can be found is 150-years-old awamori at Shikina Distillery in Naha City. Typically, however, most aged awamori available on market is 20 to 30 years old, according to Matayoshi.
“The difference between new awamori and some that has been aged 10 years is not only double in terms of taste and flavor,” he says, “it is three to four times better – or even more.” “Aging is indispensable for good awamori.”
There is a traditional method for maintaining and gradually maturing awamori, called shitsugi (top off) that employs three to five clay pots of differently aged awamori (typically, 1, 2, 3 and 5 years old). After drawing liquor from the oldest pot for consumption, an equal amount is added to it from the second oldest, and so on. In this way, the pot with the oldest awamori remains full.
“This is really a unique system of maturing aged liquor used in the world only for awamori and Spanish sherry,” Matayoshi says. “By maintaining it periodically with this system, we can keep maturing awamori without losing its quality for more than a century.”
According to law, however, awamori for which this method is used cannot be labeled according to age because it is not 100 percent the same age.
How to get your awamori on
Mature your own brew
You, too, can mature your own awamori to make it more rich and mild by using the “shitsugi,” or top-off method.
Unlike many other spirits, awamori continues to mature after it has been bottled. So, once you buy a bottle, it improves with age already, without any effort on your part. The process is slow, however, and exposure to air can ruin the quality.
So why not mature it instead?
According to Yoshihide Matayoshi, executive managing director of Okinawa Awamori Distillery Association, if you want to mature a good “kusu,” or aged awamori, yourself, it is important to choose strong (high alcohol content) and full-bodied specimen.
“If you already have your favorite brand of awamori, consult a distillery to choose the best awamori for aging,” He said. “They will kindly choose the best awamori for you – and offer some valuable tips.”
Preparing a good clay pot is also important. Since these containers can breathe, they expedite the aging process and the minerals in the clay will add a unique flavor. Matayoshi recommends using a standard unglazed black or dark brown 9-litter pot with thick walls and a small mouth that can be closed tightly. (They can be found in some department stores.)
He also advises buying an additional 2 bottles (3.6 liters) of the same kind of awamori to use later for topping off.
You may be pleased to learn that it is equally important check the state of your awamori by tasting it periodically throughout the year, using the shitsugi method to top it off. This is essential because if the pot is left partially empty the alcohol may evaporate and mold may begin to grow.
Also, keeping your yearly consumption within 10 percent of the pot’s contents will ensure the quality is not diluted with frequent topping off.
When you have matured your awamori for 10 years, the taste will improve vastly, and it is sure to become your pride and joy.
US takes on awamori worth trying
Editor’s note: A few years ago, New York-based Japanese spirits aficionado Stephen Lyman founded the website kampai.us to become an “English language resource for izakaya life – that beautiful blending of food, drink, and friendship that the Japanese have perfected.” While its primary focus is on “shochu” liquor, here’s some of its expert advice on awamoris worth trying from aficionados back home.
Ryukyu Ohcho Full of complex flavors, reminiscent of the Chinese spirit, Kaohliang.
This is a tasty, mellow Awamori with an unexpected finish.
Our first Awamori experience and still one of our favorites.
A subtle, low proof Awamori. An excellent introduction to the spirit.
A rich, sweet Awamori with a lot of character despite the silly bottling. Taiwan import market.
This is an excellent choice for an introduction to the style.
The making of awamori
- Indica rice from Thailand is washed and soaked in water, then draining and steamed.
- Black rice mold is sprinkled over the rice, which is kept at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 hours.
- Yeast and water are added to the mixture in a stainless steel fermentation tank, traditional earthenware pot or cask to make mash. (The different containers help create different flavors.)
- After fermentation, the mash is transferred to a still for distillation. (It’s said that awamori gets its name from the “awa,” or bubbles, during this process – the more bubbles, the higher the alcohol content.)
- The distilled mash is allowed time to mature in a stainless steel tank, wooden cask or earthenware. (Although a stainless steel tank is common, earthenware pots or wooden casks may be used to enhance flavor and mellowness.)
SNAKE IN A BOTTLE
You'll never look at 'habu-shu' the same
Awamori is often used to make “habushu” – those iconic bottles of booze that contain venomous snakes.
The “habu” is a native poisonous snake whose bite can cause nausea, vomiting, hypertension and possibly death. Appreciated since ancient times, habushu is believed to have various medicinal properties, including being a kind of “Okinawan Viagra” for men.
According to Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, habushu is usually made by mixing awamori with various herbs and honey or sugar. The venomous snake is starved for about three months, then everything is pressed out of its entrails. After washing the body well, the snake – still alive – is inserted and sealed in the bottle of prepared awamori.
To do this, you need to hold the understandably unhappy and ravenous snake by its head and insert it, tail first, into the bottle. As soon as the snake is released, you have to immediately cap the bottle. Needless to say, it can be dangerous – not only for the snake.
The dead snake is usually removed after soaking in the awamori for 6 months to several years. However, some habushu comes with the snake still inside the bottle.
Categorized as liqueur because it is sweetened, habushu is enjoyed in various ways, including like ordinary awamori.
Ways to store & serve a snort
A flask that was originally used for carrying awamori. Dachibin are usually cube shaped with a curve contoured to fit the body and a carrying string. Today, they used more as decorations and vases.
A carafe used from Ryukyu Kingdom era to today for special occasions and events such as weddings and celebrations. Some have family emblems on them.
Uninutei (ceramic container for preservation)
Long container for preserving awamori, which named after a shape of “hand of evil” as it seems like that. This was used as portable containers for awamori before they started using glass bottles.
A vessel for offering awamori to the gods on an altar. It’s named after Tonaki-jima Island because it resembles the shape of that island.
A clay jar with a small marble inside. The marble makes a distinctive “karakara” sound to let you know when the jar empties.
Mix and match
• Awamori – 15 ml
• Tonic water to taste
• Lime – 1/4
Sakura (Cherry blossoms)
• Awamori – 40 ml
• Apricot brandy – 10 ml
• Lemon juice – 10 ml
• Creme de cassis – tsp 1
• Awamori – 45 ml
• White curacao – 15 ml
• Lemon juice – 15 ml
• Syrup – 15 ml
• Sliced goya (bitter gourd) – 2 to 3 slices
• Awamori – 45 ml
• Soda – 100 ml
• Shekwasha (or lime/lemon) – ½
Squeeze shekwasha juice over uce, add awamori and soda, stir
• Mint leaves – 10
• Lemon juice – 20 ml
• Gum syrup – 2 tsp
• Awamori – 45ml
Crush mint leaves with pestle while adding gum-syrup and lemon juice. Add to ice and pour in awamori and soda, and stir twice. Garnish with a mint leaf.
Blue Sea Margarita
• Awamori – 30 ml
• Blue Curacoa – 15 ml
• Lemon or lime juice – 15 ml
Moisten edge of cocktail glass with lemon juice and sprinkle on salt. Pour awamori, blue Curacoa and ice into a shaker and shake well and serve in the cocktail glass.
Maitai Style Cocktail
• Awamori – 30 ml
• Pineapple juice – 15 ml
• Orange juice – 15 ml
• Grenadine syrup – 2 tsp
• Crushed ice
Fill a glass with crushed ice, add ingredients and garnish with fruit.
- Okinawa Awamori Distillery Association