Awamori Embodies the Spirit of Okinawa|
In days long gone by as well as now, awamori, or Okinawan liquor, has been praised for its superior quality and rich, robust flavor. Lovers of awamori included residents of Edo (Tokyo), delegations from the royal court of China and other foreigners who traveled to the Ryukyus. Sources indicate that awamori has been appreciated for countless generations.
The Name, "Awamori"
Awamori, whose origins go back to the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage known as shochu, is distilled liquor. The Japanese word for liquor is "sake," but in the Okinawan dialect the term is "saki." Then, why is the distilled liquor of Okinawa called awamori? There are several possible explanations for the origin of its name.
One explanation found in classical references is that foxtail millet ("awa" in Japanese) was once an ingredient in awamori. Another theory refers to the word “awa” or foam in Japanese. There are two explanations for how the name awamori came from the word awa. One says that it comes from the tremendous amount of foam produced during distillation. A second says that the traditional way of measuring the degree of alcohol contained in awamori was to pour the liquor into a pottery container, then to measure the height of the foam. It is possible that a combination of the word for foam (awa) and the word for mound (mori) resulted in "awamori."
The third possibility is that the Satsuma clan (Kyushu Japanese who occupied Okinawa from 1609 to 1872) might have called the liquor awamori to differentiate it from Japanese rice liquor (shochu) made in the Kyushu region.
In the early years of the 15th century, the Ryukyu Islands (present-day Okinawa) began to trade with China and Southeast Asian countries. Imports included distilled liquor from Thailand, which was known as Siam in those days. Thai distilling techniques were then introduced into the Ryukyus to produce local distilled spirits. Since then, awamori has been improved and refined to suit the subtropical climate of the Ryukyu Islands. It played an important role in trade as a valuable gift and was transported to China and Japan by tributary ships, as an unparalleled beverage. In the 19th century, Western vessels from England, France and the United States (in the person of Commodore Matthew Perry) reached the Ryukyu Islands, and awamori was used to entertain the crews. Today, 47 local distillers are devoted to making varieties of awamori. Some have been developed to provide a mild taste suitable for women and the younger generation, while stronger brews are popular with older men. In addition to conventional earthenware pots, casks are used to ferment awamori, providing a diversity of tastes to meet the demands of the times. This reflects the Okinawan attitude of having flexibility while respecting traditional values.
In 1970, Dr. Kinichiro Sakaguchi of Tokyo University, an authority in the field of zymurgy (fermentation), published an essay entitled "Be it Known that Awamori is the Best Sake" in the journal, World. In the essay, he enthusiastically praised the Okinawan climate that created awamori as well as the drink's unique manufacturing method. Dr. Sakaguchi's essay brought fame to the awamori that had been produced by local distilleries down through the ages and attracted the attention of the Japanese distillery industry.
In East and Southeast Asia, a kind of mold called koji-kin (yeast) is indispensable for making alcohol. White yeast is mainly used for shochu, produced in the Kyushu area, whereas black yeast is used exclusively for awamori.
Black yeast helps create large quantities of citric acid that protect the moromi from contamination and spoilage, making awamori ideal for the subtropical climate of Okinawa.
Traditionally, awamori is distilled by a unique method: First, koji is produced by adding black yeast to Thai rice, which is then fermented and distilled in stills. This basic method has been employed for at least 500 years. The result is 100 percent pure with no additives. After distillation, the spirit is stored for an extended time to increase mellowness, since its taste and aroma are enriched by age.
Being 100 percent natural with no additives, awamori tastes smooth and is said to cause no hangover. Awamori aged three or more years is called koshu.
There are several ways to drink awamori, the most common of which are listed below:
Straight: This is considered the best way to enjoy rich and full-flavored koshu awamori. It is customarily served in a small earthenware bottle known as a kara kara and drunk from a small cup known as an ochoko.
On the rocks: Pouring awamori over ice is an ideal way to enjoy the delicious liquor.
Diluted with water: This is the most popular way of drinking awamori. The sweet flavor unique to awamori is brought out when the drink is diluted in this fashion.
Touring: Awamori Traditions Abound in Shuri
Several Okinawan awamori distillers permit tours of their facilities enabling visitors to see how this unique Okinawan drink is made. The tours usually end with complimentary samples of the product. In most cases, reservations must be made in advance.
Sakumoto Distillery & Co., Ltd.
1-25, Torihori, Shuri, Naha City
The Sakumoto Company takes pride in its century-old family recipe for awamori.
Masao Sakumoto, chief master brewer at the distillery, designed the labels for the Summit 2000 Awamori. Sakumoto will gladly give visitors a guided tour in English at the small distillery, but a call in advance is required.
Hours: By reservation only.
Directions: When coming off the Okinawa Expressway at the Naha exit, turn right onto Route 82. Follow the signs towards Aja. Take a left at the Torihori intersection, then left again at the first traffic signal. Make an immediate right and you'll see a white building with a blue roof.
Zuisen Distillery Co., Ltd.
1-35 Shuri, Sakiyama-cho, Naha City
During the time of the Ryukyuan royal dynasty, only three areas of Okinawa were permitted to produce awamori: Sakiyama, Akata and Torihori. Zuisen and Sakumoto are both located in these areas, and they are proud of their long history. Zuisen's prized aged koshu has won many local and international awards.
Both Sakumoto and Zuisen distillers are located near Shuri Castle, which is known for its clean and abundant water supply. To learn more about either distillery and the art of brewing awamori, a tour through their facilities can be arranged.
Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Naha, turn right onto Route 82 and follow the signs towards Aja. Make a left at the Torihori intersection, then left again at the first traffic signal. Make an immediate right and continue straight. Make another right at the next small intersection. Zuisen will be located on the left side of the narrow road.
Awamori You Can Buy in the States
Sake, Japan's national drink, is already quite well known in America. Now Okinawa's unique alcoholic beverage, awamori, is becoming popular as well. Zuisen Hakuryu awamori is sold in the United States, mainly at Japanese restaurants and supermarkets as well as at liquor stores in New York and New Jersey. This awamori will be available in California and other states on the west coast in the near future.
750 ml; .25 alcohol
Approximate Price: $20
Also available at liquor stores in Okinawa.