The Spirit of Awamori

A history of Okinawa’s rice spirit and how to drink it.
photo via okinawatravelinfo.com

Following our recent guide to Japanese shochū, awamori from the Southern island of Okinawa was the natural next step in our coverage of Japanese spirits. In Japanese awa speaks of the foam and bubbles that surface during distillation, while mori means the swell during the process. There are other theories as to the origin of the name, but this is the most accepted term.

Let’s first travel back to the 15th century. During that time, the ocean surrounding Okiwana was under the rule of the Ryuku Kingdom, an independent monarchy that traded widely with China, Japan, and other Asian settlements. Shuri, in Okinawa, was the kingdom’s capital. Through rich trading channels, Okinawa discovered Thailand’s Lao Khao, a spirit distilled from glutinous rice. Okinawan producers adopted the Thai drink, and after adding local black koji, incorporating unique production techniques, and adapting the distillate to the Okinawan climate, awamori was born.

In its early years, awamori was consumed only by royalty and used as a product to strengthen Okinawa’s relationship with its powerful neighbors, China and Japan. It’s said that some awamori was aged for over 100 years, as quality was of the utmost importance.

photo via jtb.com.sg

Shochū Vs Awamori

One my general rules in spirits is to never draw close comparisons between different categories. Each and every spirit is unique and deserves its own moment under the spotlight. Flavours and notes can be mentioned and compared, but saying that shochū is the same as awamori or that Scotch is like Japanese whisky, is to blur what defines each spirit and the culture that surrounds it.

Due to the lack of information and misunderstood definitions, shochū and awamori are often regarded as the same. Let’s put that belief to rest.

Decades ago in Japan, awamori was labelled as shochū, which is part of the reason why people confuse the two, both in Japan and abroad. After 1983, however, a law was passed stating that awamori would no longer be labelled as shochū but as “Authentic Awamori”.

Like shochū, awamori is distilled, yet that’s about the only similarity the two spirits share. After receiving a certification from the World Trade Organisation, what defines awamori may as well be set in stone. Production, history, place, and ingredients all make the spirit unique. See for yourself.

photo via pbs.twimg.com

The Making of Awamori

The base ingredient for all Awamori is long grain indica rice imported from Thailand, which brings us back to the spirit’s origins. Black koji, the stronger and most flavour-imparting of the koji types (yellow and white), is exclusively used as the fermentation starter.

While shochū usually undergoes two fermentations, awamori is fermented only once prior to distillation. Fermentation can last up to three weeks. Each batch is then distilled once, in stills similar to Western pot stills, resulting in a final distillate of around 70% ABV. This is then watered down to the desired strength.

Aging doesn’t necessarily make all spirits better, but it is the case for awamori.

Kusu (aged) awamori can only be named so after 3 years of aging. If an age statement is noted on the bottle all the contents within must be at of the specified age. The simpler kusu designation, means that over 50% of the content was aged for 3 years or more, allowing producers to blend in younger batches.

Awamori aging usually takes place in cool underground spaces, as the extremely hot, humid Okinawan climate can negatively affect maturation. Placed in large clay pots, the spirit is left to mature and mellow out, releasing some of the unwanted acids within.

Some awamoris are aged for up to 20 years, and boast extremely high price tags on the global market. Before World War II it is said that there were awamori expressions aged for over 200 years. Sadly, these were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa.

Typically, awamori comes in between 30-60% ABV, yet, recently weaker releases of around 25% ABV are readily available across Japan, to reduce the intensity of the spirit’s flavour

Lastly, awamori is also defined by place, as it must be produced in Okinawa, under Japanese law.

via A Life Worth Eating

A Taste of Okinawa

The recommended serve for awamori is mizuwari, with water and ice.

If ever in Okinawa, odds are your order of awamori will come with a small ice bucket and a carafe of water. Historically, awamori was served in kara-kara, small clay containers with a marble in the bottom. When the container was empty the marble would make a clanking sound, alerting drinkers. This way, no one would attempt to top up another’s drink from an empty vessel, which would be considered as rude. Despite the recommended serve, awamori can be enjoyed straight, oyuwari (topped with hot water), or in cocktails.

While non-aged awamori can be quite intense and bring forth a sometimes, strong, fatty aroma, well-aged awamori is delightfully rich and complex, and one of the most flavourful spirits produced in Japan.

Aside from drinking, awamori is used in many different ways. A type of tofu is made using awamori and koji. Kōrēgusu is a hot sauce from Okinawa, made using chillies infused in awamori. Appealing to a younger generation, awamori infusions are available across the country, including coffee awamori, plum awamori, and local fruit infused-awamori.

Despite its rich history and attentive production, awamori remains one of the most underappreciated and undiscovered spirits from Japan. Japanese shochu and beer reign supreme domestically, while the world’s eyes are on the country’s booming whisky industry.

Zuisen Hakuryu, via okinawaindex.com

For the perfect entry into the spirit, try the Mizuho awamori. At only 20% ABV, the expression introduces the spirit’s traditional character with subtlety. Also for beginners, the Zuisen Hakuryu, by one of Okinawa’s largest distilleries, is a great choice and a bit more intense than the Mizuho. It also brings forth a delightful balance, rare in many unaged awamoris.

For those eager to taste kusu, try Kura awamori by the Helios distillery. Aged for three years in American oak casks, this expression is well-rounded, mellow, and pleasantly light and fruity.

Awamori has always been there, carefully maturing, growing, and evolving. We expect its global debut isn’t far off.

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