Awamori – the spirit of the islands

nam zestAwamori is the celebrated spirit originating in and unique to the Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Islands in Japanese) of Okinawa. It is made from long-grain Thai rice, which historically has been used in this region. The Ryukyu Kingdom was independent and ruled most of these islands from the 15th to the 19th century.

The name Okinawa means “rope in the open sea” which refers to this long swathe of islands between Taiwan and the four main islands of Japan. It consists of around 50 inhabited islands and more than 100 uninhabited ones. It was a tributary both of China and of Japan and a convenient portal for Japanese trade with China. When Japan officially closed its doors to all European nations except the Dutch, Nagasaki and the Ryukyu Islands became the only Japanese trading ports connected with the outside world. It has therefore had a more open nature and has developed its own culinary culture.

Okinawa-9-webShort-grain rice is generally used for sake- and shochu-making in Japan, but Okinawa uses long-grain Indica Thai rice instead. Centuries ago the islands had easier access to this rice than products from the rest of Japan. It is thought that sake was brought to Okinawa from Siam around the late 14th to 15th century. Okinawa’s distilled Awamori liquor is considered the forefather of the more widely known shochu which is popular throughout Japan. Unlike shochu, Awamori is made only from rice, where shochu can have other ingredients such as barley and sweet potato.

Awamori uses an active culture, aspergillus awamori, also known as black koji, in contrast to shochu that uses white koji. The black koji produces a large amount of citric acid that keeps Awamori free from unwanted and distracting elements. Black koji grows throughout the year in the warm climate of Okinawa. White koji generally grows only in the coldest months in mainland Japan, meaning that Awamori can be produced year-round rather than just in winter.

Awamori is unlike sake in that sake is mostly consumed young, while Awamori ages well. Traditionally a number of jars of the beverage would be kept, with the oldest being nearer the door and successively younger vintages behind. As a quantity was used from the oldest Awamori, the jar would be topped up with the next in line which would be topped up with the next youngest and so on, in the same way that balsamic vinegar and sherry are aged. In reality that meant that no jar was of a particular age, as it was always a blend of younger and older awamori.

Okinawa-2-webThere are vintage Awamori bottles that are held in the same regard as fine whisky and wine, with age giving a richer and deeper taste.  Those that are said to be aged more than 3 years are called Kusu (‘old liquor’), and are particular popular. In reality it’s called Kusu when at least 50 percent of the beverage is aged for three or more years. It is distilled once, and afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with pure water to about 25 to 30 percent, although some Awamori is found at more than 40 percent alcohol. Awamori is traditionally aged in clay pots which is thought to improve its flavour and softness.

Some Awamori has been aged for decades and there are subterranean cellars that are used for keeping bottles that are bought to celebrate the birth of a child or other important events. The temperature in these caves is a little too warm to keep wine but they are perfect for Awamori. The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice. It can also be drunk straight, on the rocks, and in cocktails. I have been told that you won’t wake up with a hangover, either.

Okinawa is an undiscovered gem, at least by non-Japanese. It has a delightful tropical climate with all the associated crops. The cuisine is a little different from the rest of Japan, with more influences from China. Awamori pairs perfectly with these dishes. These islands should be a magnet for any lover of good food and those interested in a slightly different aspect of Japanese culture. The chance to sip Awamori in its place of origin, and perhaps to see it made, would be special.

Find out more about Okinawa and Awamori here.