In-Depth

The Ancient Art of Awamori

The fermented rice spirit has been a cultural tradition in Okinawa for centuries. Now, distillers want to introduce this hyper-local drink to the world.
Because of Okinawa's subtropical, humid climate, many awamori distillers age their spirits in limestone caves.
Because of Okinawa's subtropical, humid climate, many awamori distillers age their spirits in limestone caves.

The origin stories of most spirits have an interesting tale to tell, but perhaps none is more unknown than that of awamori. Unfamiliar to most Western palates, the fermented rice spirit is an essential part of Okinawa culture.

But first, a quick primer on awamori: it is only made in the southern islands of Okinawa, only fermented with black koji (a specific type of mold) through zen-koji-shikomi (all-in-one brewing), distilled only once, and aged in either earthenware jugs or stainless steel barrels, often underground. Thanks to the warm and humid climate of the islands and natural limestone caves dotting the area, year-round fermentation and aging comes naturally to distillers.

At Gold Dust bar in Naha, Kagoshima, a lineup of awamori bottles. At Gold Dust bar in Naha, Okinawa, a lineup of awamori bottles.

"Awamori is the oldest spirit in Japan," says Naomasa Komine, Executive Director of the Awamori Meister Assocation. "You are drinking 600 years of history." To understand its history and relationship to shochu, its slightly more familiar brethren, it's necessary to go back several generations, when the southernmost island of Japan was its own country.

Just 150 years ago, the Okinawa islands were an independent kingdom known as Ryukyu, until its annexation by Japan in 1879. Though small, the islands possessed great power, thanks to its geographic location between China, Thailand, Japan, and Taiwan, making it a key player during the golden age of maritime trading. It's also most likely the reason for Thailand's long-grain indica rice and spirit-making methods becoming an integral part of the islands, and why indica remains the only rice used in awamori, rather than the Japonica short-grain rice used in sake and shochu.

The Taragawa distillery in Miyako-jima island stores a majority of their awamori in this limestone cave. The Taragawa distillery in Miyako-jima island stores a majority of their awamori for aging in this limestone cave.

For centuries, awamari was a homegrown sign of prosperity, with the longest-aging spirit created especially for nobility. "It was tradition to make awamori at home and age it in a pot," explains Misako Tamanaha, president of the Mizuho distillery in Naha, Okinawa. "The older your kusu [aged awamori], the more prestigious your household was."

It's also worth nothing that the Ryukyuan people are some of the longest-living in the world (according to the anthropological concept of Blue Zones). Many of the local delicacies have an awamori connection, including drinking vinegars made by distillers, and fermented tofu, which is often served as a food pairing with the spirit. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility that awamori's fermented flavors contribute to a longer life — in any case, the spirit is a beloved part of the island's culture.

Chuko distillery is so committed to aging their awamori in earthenware pots that they make and fire their own by hand — in a facility right next door to their distillery. Chuko distillery is so committed to aging their awamori in earthenware pots that they make and fire their own by hand — in a facility right next door to their distillery.

Today, awamori remains unfamiliar to the rest of the world, even to the mainland inhabitants of Japan. Perhaps one explanation for its under-the-radar presence in the spirits world is that awamori is truly hyper-local, making its endurance through centuries of political strife and world wars even more remarkable. At one point, there were hundreds of awamori distilleries, but most were tragically lost after WWII, including aged awamori that was estimated to be more than 200 years old.

A distiller at Kin-Shuzo observes a vat of indica rice fermenting with black koji. Fermentation lasts about two weeks —afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with water to about 25 to 30 percent. A distiller at Kin-Shuzo observes a vat of indica rice fermenting with black koji. Fermentation lasts about two weeks — afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with water to about 25 to 30 percent.

Today, a mere 47 distilleries carry on the ancient tradition. But with a worldwide cocktail renaissance taking place, a renewed appreciation for regionally specific spirits, and young distillers at the helm, there's a good chance we're sitting on the edge of an awamori awakening. "The craftsmanship is similar to whiskey," says Hiromi Iuchi of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. "And we're hoping it will break out from sake, like mezcal did with tequila."

The owner of Kin-Shuzo distillery shows off his 35-year-old awamori, aging in a stainless steel tank underground. The owner of Kin-Shuzo distillery shows off his 35-year-old awamori, aging in a stainless steel tank underground.

With Tokyo's 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Okinawa is taking note. Though the islands primarily cater to mainland Japanese with their beach resorts and tropical climate, locals hope to introduce the prefecture and its cultural products to an entirely new population in a few years.

"We want to go global," says the bar director at Gold Dust in Naha, Okinawa. "We want to introduce our drink to the world, and we want to make awamori a world heritage."

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